Masking parts of my identities felt like dying from lack of oxygen. Transferring as a junior from a conservative college in Grand Rapids, I felt that I had to conceal parts of who I was to fit the status quo of my university. However, once I arrived at the University of Michigan, I felt that I could breathe again. I remember my first day of French class, when the professor went over the core curriculum and mentioned how we would be discussing LGBTQ+ topics. LGBTQ+? Is that even allowed here? Won’t they be fired? These questions might seem odd to the average U-M student, but for someone like me who came from a conservative institution, I felt that I was given a rare opportunity to start fresh and define who I wanted to become on my own timeline.
Coming from a marginalized background, I still marvel at how I even got to such a prestigious university in the first place. Being the first in my family to attend college, my brothers and sisters have always looked up to me as an image of success, even though the pressure to succeed often comes at the expense of my mental health. Growing up Latinx and Queer felt like a daily challenge, as I had to navigate the heteronormativity from my own Hispanic culture while also navigating the white-centric presence within my own Queer community. Balancing these two sides of my identity continues to be one of the biggest struggles of my life.
I joined student government with the purpose of redefining what it means to have intersectional identities.
I started off as an appointed representative in the LSA Student Government my first semester at the University and eventually made my way up as the chair of the Diversity Affairs Committee. In my time as DAC chair on LSA SG, I have seen firsthand the lack of representation of POC Queer individuals. Being one of the few out LGBTQ+ Latinos and transfer students in the government, I felt that I did not belong. It wasn’t the people that made it feel exclusive but rather the missing identities that needed to be represented. For some time, I wondered, “Was it me? Maybe I’m not meant to be here.” The severity of my imposter syndrome often felt overwhelming. This is my first semester at the University of Michigan. I don’t belong here. My parents weren’t born here. I have no knowledge of college. I’m not white. I’m not straight or straight-passing either. My parents did not go to college in the United States. What am I doing here? I started to question my entire existence, falling into an endless black hole filled with existential crisis and previous traumas. Knowing myself and what my passions were, I knew I had a mission to pursue.
As the environment turned out to be highly competitive, I felt that I was not competent enough both professionally and personally despite my previous leadership experiences. Some of the people in the government had come from magnet schools or private elite high schools that afforded them the opportunity to start early in leadership development. I never had that opportunity, especially as the son of immigrant parents and a first-generation college student. Struggling to reconcile with my past experience and constantly comparing myself to others was something I struggled with when I first came into the government, especially when elected DAC chair in the Fall of 2021.
Scared and intimidated, I couldn’t believe that I was elected as chair by the LSA Student Government assembly, especially as a new transfer student. Everyone had already been here for multiple semesters, yet I had been here for less than one. Fearful I wasn’t going to be able to live up to my potential, I was distraught by thoughts of how I was going to succeed in such a fast-paced, competitive environment.
Navigating success and integrating myself into the school as a first-gen recent transfer student in such a high leadership position as one of the few people of Color was a heavy weight put on me. Add a layer of difficulty with being Queer — which I find is one of the most central points of who I am — I was frightened I wouldn’t be able to succeed.
However, that all changed when I created the first-ever LGBTQ+ Task Force — primarily focused on People of Color, Transgender people and Women of Color — in the University‘s 205 year history. It was not an easy feat, and it certainly came with pushback and many nights spent revising the Task Force’s ultimate goals of catering to BIPOC LGBTQ+ needs on campus. I also created the first-ever LGBTQ+ liaison between Spectrum Center and LSA Student Government. Because my Queer identity intersects with my cultural identity, I also took it upon myself to create another liaison position between La Casa — the biggest Latinx student group organization on campus — and student government, ensuring that Latinx students voices are elevated amongst the highest positions of leadership positions at the University. Because Latinx students compose roughly 6% of the U-M community, I wanted to change and influence the discourse in the way that the student government discussed issues with regards to the Latinx community.
What made the creation of these projects difficult to spearhead was not the structure of the task force or the communication between these student organizations and LSA SG, but the resistance that came with it. Why do we need a LGBTQ+ Task Force if we have the Diversity Affairs Committee? Is this even necessary? How would this impact LGBTQ+ students if there are already resources available for them? They are a small portion of the campus population, why not focus on other groups? Since the LGBTQ+ population are minorities, shouldn’t we be focusing on the majority? These were some of the questions I got when trying to establish the task force. The assumption that just having a few resources somehow erases the deeper problems that LGBTQ+ students face on campus — hate crimes and social discrimination, especially for Queer BIPOC students — is dubious, to say the least. According to an article in the Michigan Daily, LGBTQ+ students are one of the groups most targeted on campus hate crimes on campus behind Black students and occupy a significant presence on campus, making up 31% of the student body, almost one-third of the entire U-M community.
Because of the urgency of these problems, the foundation of the taskforce was also meant to address intersectional identities, mainly PoC, Transgender people and women of Color who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. As a Queer person of Color myself, I’ve noticed firsthand how LGBTQ+ spaces tend to be white-centric, cisgender and predominantly male-dominated. Because of this, I felt that there needed to be a space for Queer POC and particularly Queer and Trans women of Color to have a safe space within the LGBTQ+ community to represent other marginalized groups within our own communities.
Having to navigate being a Queer PoC is one of the most challenging aspects of my own life, especially when serving in higher leadership positions. I am often expected to leave some of my identities behind, yet being Queer and multicutural are integral parts of who I am. It’s the lens through which I view the world. At times, I have had to separate parts of my identity to conform to certain marginalized groups. Being in a multicultural setting, especially in the Latinx community, I feel that I have to leave my Queer identity at the door as multicultural spaces tend to be heteronormative. Or when I’m in predominantly Queer white spaces, I feel that I am not fully allowed to be Latinx as Queer spaces are often white-centric, which has burdened my own intersectional identities.
Because these are the ways in which I view the world, it has impacted the way in which I govern and delegate within the government. When there are no students in higher leadership positions that come from similar backgrounds as you or who simply look and identify like you, it’s hard to see the changes you want to see. I could have stepped back and waited for someone to do the hard advocacy for me, but the brutal truth is that you are your only advocate. Because of this, I had to take matters into my own hands to create something out of nothing so that people like me could thrive in spaces that were not meant to thrive in.
Growing up, we Queer PoC folks are taught to know our place in society. Keep your head down and follow the rules. Be a go-getter but don’t be too ambitious. Speak your truth but don’t be too outspoken, or you’ll piss off the straight white people. Stand up for yourself — but when it comes to standing your ground on the basis of your racial and sexual identity, it’s better to not speak. Because of this, I didn’t really get close to my Queer Latinx identity until I transferred to university.
While at first glance, the culture of the University seemed to advocate for DEI issues in regards to LGBTQ+ students and POC students on campus, that could not be further from the truth. After being on campus for almost a year, I have seen firsthand the performative nature of the University and students alike when it comes to advocating for DEI issues. Specifically, when it came to Student Government, I’ve noticed many of my peers claiming to be liberal but when it came to DEI issues, there was no clear action plan to elevate marginalized voices. People assume that these already-existing resources are enough for marginalized communities to thrive at UMich, but what they don’t realize is that it does not level out the playing field for students of Color, particularly queer POC students. It’s as if when the bare minimum is done, people don’t feel the need to do more. It’s as if there is a difference between wanting and needing.
That is why I jump-started the LGBTQ+ Task Force, because despite the current resources the University had to offer, such as the Spectrum Center and other amazing opportunities such as oSTEM, I felt that, as a person of Color myself, there were barely any spaces for intersectional identities to thrive. Because of that, I felt that I needed to be in spaces that weren’t built for someone like me to take up as much space as possible so that people that come after me are able to just be.
On top of that, transferring to a different environment helped me come to terms with the way I express myself internally and externally. Being the son of immigrants, gender norms were assigned to me. Boys wear baggy clothes. Boys talk about girls. Boys don’t cry. But I was far from that. I deviated from the mainstream norms of what a boy was supposed to be. I was the boy who wore more feminine expressing clothes. I was the boy who cried if I tapped into my inner emotions. I was the boy who picked flowers for the other boys after the soccer match.
We have a saying in Spanish: “soy el dueño de mi propia vida.” The literal translation is being the boss or owner of your own life — taking initiative of who you are and who you want to be. This is advice that I’ve received from my immigrant parents, especially when it comes to facing adversity and challenges in my own life. Having been hate-crimed, assaulted and discriminated against on the basis of both my sexuality and my ethnic background, I have learned that life sometimes doesn’t go the way you plan it to, but how you choose to deal with situations and maneuver through life is what will ultimately help you get to your goals. Despite my own marginalized identities being Queer and Latinx, I am committed to uplifting the marginalized communities I identify with, and giving voice to other oppressed communities whether I am on Student Government or off.
MiC Contributor Brandon De Martínez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.