- Design by Nick Cruz, Melissa Freeland and Jake Wellins
By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published October 10, 2013
University alumni Noël Gordon and Zesheng Chen attended the same party their freshman year, but had drastically different experiences. Gordon, a former columnist for The Michigan Daily, experienced a racially charged confrontation with another partygoer, while Chen had the time of his life. Still, for both men, the party helped them realize how their racial identities couldn’t be separated from their identities as queer. Not long after, during the winter semester of 2012, Gordon and Chen founded the Coalition for Queer People of Color.
That story is how LSA seniors Alex Ngo and Ozi Uduma recounted the formation of the Coalition for Queer People of Color. Ngo and Uduma serve as two of the three current co-chairs of the Coalition, and explained how Gordon and Chen recognized the ways other student organizations weren’t always welcoming to queer students of color.
“I think generally they just found that, in the spaces where they were supposed to feel comfortable and supposed to feel the most themselves, they still felt this kind of conflict happening where they maybe had to put their sexual orientation up front first and kind of leave their racial identity to the back burner in order to fit in,” Ngo said. “The Coalition came about as a way to fill that need.”
No such thing as a single-issue struggle
When Ngo tried to be a part of Asian spaces and communities on campus, he confronted an obstacle. As a queer Asian, he wasn’t always welcome in these groups, which were unified through their racial identities but didn’t really allow Ngo to also bring his queer identity to the table. Sometimes the Asian students around him would even say homophobic remarks, leading him to consider whether he should hide his queer identity.
Uduma, a Martha Cook Diversity Peer Educator and the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, explained that spaces for people of color on campus sometimes carry a fear or uneasiness about confronting and discussing sexuality. Their third co-chair, LSA senior Ramiro Alvarez Cabriales, agreed and spoke specifically in terms of the Latin@ community on campus.
“I think the biggest scapegoat when interacting in predominantly Latin@ student of color spaces is that it is in our culture to be hyper-masculine or that it is inherently in our culture to be heteronormative,” Cabriales said. “Those spaces can be very homophobic.”
Not only do the clubs for students of particular racial or ethnic identities not always welcome queer people, but some of the predominantly white LGBTQ groups on campus also have a disconnect when it comes to race. Cabriales and Uduma both expressed their frustration with the “gay is the new black” rhetoric that some LGBTQ organizations have adopted.
“What if you’re both?” Cabriales asked.
When LGBTQ organizations try to equate racial oppression to oppression based on sexuality, they ignore and marginalize queer people of color. Cabriales and Ngo’s racial identities can’t be separated from their queerness, and yet in some spaces, they were made to feel like they should prioritize one over the other.
“Tokenizing happens a lot — fetishizing, exotification of black and brown bodies,” Cabriales said of predominantly white LGBTQ spaces. “It’s made very evident that we are different in queer spaces. It’s made very evident that either we are unwelcome or obsessed over in this weird ‘I want to hook up with a brown boy’ kind of way.”
These queer spaces on campus often reflect the agenda of the mainstream LGBTQ movement, which similarly doesn’t speak for or include queer people of color. The mainstream movement is currently very focused on marriage equality and the rights attached to marriage, and this priority doesn’t necessarily always resonate with communities of color.
“I used to be undocumented, and most of my family continues to be undocumented,” Cabriales said. “I feel like I’m wasting my time to continue to talk about marriage when there are queer people who are undocumented. Marriage isn’t even a possibility for them.”
“My parents are straight and don’t even have health insurance,” Cabriales said, emphasizing how the fight for marriage equality sometimes ignores broader social justice issues.
“I experience homosexuality in a very different way because of the way my family is structured,” Cabriales said. “I experience it in more than one language, in more than one country, and white Americans don’t get that. They don’t get that sometimes you have to come out in English, sometimes in Spanish. You have to find words for both, because no one is taught the words to come out ever because you’re presumed to be straight from birth.”
According to Cabriales, the mainstream gay agenda often entails fighting around one identity, which he doesn’t feel is the right approach. He recalled the words of Caribbean-American feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
“We are not single-issue people,” Cabriales added.
This realization of a need for a space where queer people of color wouldn’t have to prioritize one identity over another helped bring Ngo, Uduma and Cabriales to the Coalition.
Ngo was first introduced to the Coalition after participating in the rXs intragroup dialogue, a program that preceded the Coalition for Queer People of Color and is now run through the Coalition. Launched in fall 2011, rXs is a semester-long dialogue program for LGBTQ people of color that, like the Coalition, seeks to create a safe space for queer and trans* people of color to share their lived experiences and connect with others.
“I had just come out, so I was so focused on my sexual orientation and so focused on getting gay males to accept me,” Ngo said. When Coalition founders Gordon and Chen approached him about joining the rXs dialogue, he was “very apprehensive and even scared.”
“But going through the process really changed my whole outlook on identities and reinforced to me that I didn’t have to, and I shouldn’t have to, pick one or the other,” Ngo said. “I should be able to live my life fully, recognizing all of my identities.”
With its history of liberal activism and radical social movements, Ann Arbor and the University’s campus are often assumed to be a bubble of tolerance and acceptance. As Uduma and Ngo explained, that can be a problematic and blinding approach to how we view the campus.
“I think it paralyzes people into thinking that they have this checklist,” Ngo said. “As long as they check off ‘OK, I’m a liberal; OK, I have a diverse group of friends; OK, I treat everyone equally,’ they think they can walk around and just feel good about themselves. I think that’s actually a boundary for them to actually go deeper and delve into the biases that we all have.”
Uduma agreed, but also recognized that there are some people who come to Ann Arbor who feel the safest they’ve ever felt. “For some,” she said, “Ann Arbor is the place where they feel safest to be themselves.”
“I can attest to that,” Ngo interjected.
“But for others, a lot of us feel stifled here,” Uduma continued. “It’s a liberalism without being conscious about what’s going on and without being critical about what’s going on.”
Part of that disconnect comes from the fact that some feel the University itself has many shortcomings when it comes to answering the needs of queer students of color.
“In my experience, all the departments at the University have this message of wanting diversity,” Ngo said. “I feel like it’s a lot of lip service, saying that they’re inclusive and saying that they have a lot of diversity but having no action for how to really implement and how to really be true to their word.”
Uduma reiterated that the University has to put more action behind the dialogue on diversity.
“There’s such a focus on numbers and increasing the numbers for diversity, but there’s nothing about sustaining the students that you already have,” she said. “What happens when you have this increase, and you don’t know what to do with these students? They’re still going to face the same problems that you’re not willing to change structurally or implement more programs beyond just talking about it.”
“It has way more to do than just programming,” Ngo added. “If the staff in your department is all white, why aren’t you talking about that? Are you trying to recruit more people of color and more queer people of color to really serve the students? Are these students even a priority in the first place? So I think just structurally, those are issues I’ve seen on campus. You can say that you want diversity, but where is the dedication? Where is the actual action?”
One of the most visible resources and spaces for multi-cultural students on campus is the Trotter Multicultural Center, which originally opened in 1971 as a black student cultural center, but was expanded to become an inclusive student multicultural center in 1981. The Trotter House, while providing useful programs and resources to students of color, has its downfalls.
“It’s falling apart,” Uduma said. “That place is not sustainable.”
The Trotter House also doesn’t necessarily provide a safe space for queer students of color, as the building is located near fraternity houses. Fraternities, as Ngo explained, are not always safe spaces for queer people.
When asked about where the Coalition sees a need for reform at the University level, Ngo echoed Cabriales’s belief in a plurality of issues.
“There’s not necessarily a queer-person-of-color issue,” Ngo said. “All issues are queer issues. Because we have to get healthcare, too; we have to be in these classes; we might have to go to SAPAC; we also have to go to UHS. We need to make sure these departments realize that queer students are on this campus, and they need to tailor their services for us, and people of color, and the intersection of both.”
Creating safe spaces
The Coalition for Queer People of Color focuses its activism not on particular issues but rather on creating a community and safe space for people to be themselves and love themselves. This year’s theme for the Coalition is “Radical Love.” Ngo said the Coalition’s core has been grappling with a critical question this year: “What’s the point of expending all of this energy on the University or sources that don’t care about us, on trying to convince people to care about us when they don’t and they never will?”
The Coalition answered by taking an inward look and deciding to channel its energy into fostering a community where queer people of color can feel safe, affirmed and empowered. It accomplishes this through events like Coalition T(ea), a weekly event hosted by the Coalition that allows queer people of color to talk about their personal lives as well as current events and news on campus and beyond.
“We’re trying to focus our energy on really loving ourselves, each other, on creating a space where we can be us and not apologize for it,” Ngo said. “And from there, people will have a stronger foundation to go out and radically love ourselves in front of other people.”
“We’ve given that space to people to say you are special; you are good enough; you are beautiful enough,” Uduma said. “You get to define who you are in this space, and I think that’s radical in and of itself. Because we allow people to be who they are in a world that tells them they can’t be who they are.”
Ngo quoted feminist person of color Kim Katrin Crosby, who changed his life at the Coalition’s conference “Color of Change” last year, saying: “Our most radical work is to love ourselves.” To Ngo, creating spaces for people to love themselves and not be sorry for who they are is what the Coalition is all about. It might not look like what people generally think of as activism, but creating community and safe spaces can change people’s lives and how they view themselves.
“In that one moment, I can be who I am around people who aren’t going to judge me, who are going to understand,” Uduma said of the Coalition community. “Then, I can go back into the world a little bit stronger and feel a little better about myself. And feel like I can sustain myself for as long as I need to until I come back to this space with these people and get more of that.”
Cabriales described one of the first events the Coalition organized. Called Family Barbeque, the logistics of the event were simple: a gathering of peers for a meal and conversation. However, the event was only open to queer people of color. Family Barbeque immediately created a buzz, some of it in opposition from white or straight-identifying people who were excluded from the event. But the other reaction was one of intense revelation: Many attendees had never been in a room surrounded entirely by queer people of color. Creating a community like that, Cabriales said, was something that simply had never happened for most of the queer students of color who attended.
“We create, deconstruct, reimagine community constantly,” Cabriales said.
Empowering the community
The structure of the Coalition reflects its commitment to a sense of community. The organization is non-hierarchical, and even though there are designated chair and core positions, that’s just for organizational reasons. The Coalition’s core doesn’t have a designated leader or leaders making executive decisions: Everyone participates in the process together.
The Coalition also gives agency to its general members who might not sit on the executive board but still have the power to plan and organize events around their interests. At the Coalition’s general meetings, all members spend up to two hours together, discussing what they’d like to focus on that month. If someone comes forward with an idea for an event they’d like to plan, the Coalition gives that person the opportunity to plan and spearhead the event themselves.
“We’re really about making sure that when we say we’re a community, we actually have action behind it,” Uduma said. “So this is a chance for people to get involved with what they’re passionate about.”
Ngo, for example, organized a Coalition event that addressed domestic violence and intimate partner violence last year even though he didn’t hold an official position at that time. Though he wasn’t a part of the core and had little experience, the Coalition gave him the agency to lead the event and make it his own.
“I still felt like a part of the community anyways and felt empowered to plan this event,” Ngo said.
That emphasis on community and engagement is what drew Engineering freshman Sebastian Rios to the Coalition. He attended the organization’s first mass meeting this year and was blown away by how many people of different identities he met.
“I really think it’s important for an organization to have an active role,” Rios said, “to bring some sort of support to minorities and to subgroups in the community.”
Rios also attended one of the Coalition T(ea)s, which he described as an ongoing dialogue, where people can discuss and analyze the societal implications, attitudes and misconceptions about relevant topics. The Coalition invites queer people of color, straight people of color, queer white people and straight white people to participate in these dialogues.
The Coalition T(ea) conversations are another way the Coalition constructs new spaces for people to share their experiences and connect with others, ultimately building on that foundation of racial love and radical self-love. Most of the teas are held at public spaces like the Espresso Royale on State Street, but the Coalition also makes sure to host some teas in private, undisclosed places for people who may prefer anonymity when discussing their identities.
“I think that just because we are talking about things that no one else is talking about, that breeds a sense of intimidation or fear,” Ngo said. “But all we are doing is reclaiming spaces and our own experiences and saying we need spaces to talk about these issues. And if that’s radical, then so be it.”