LGBTQ Students and the Liberation of College Campuses

Learning from the collective movements of queer and transgender students of color.
By Jennifer Brier

Rainbow flags along a student pathway on a campus in fall.

With the Supreme Court currently deliberating over civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace, it is a critical time to explore how, and to what extent, higher education institutions are reckoning with the needs of LGBTQ students. As a queer historian, I know that the best way to determine the needs of LGBTQ people—and to demand and realize solutions that meet the needs of a very diverse community— is to listen to LGBTQ people themselves. Faculty and administrators must hear what LGBTQ students are saying about their lives, particularly in this era of federal hostility, if they are to play a part in creating the conditions under which all students truly thrive.

We cannot focus solely on gender and sexuality, however. We must also look closely at the collective movements of queer and transgender students of color, who have imagined and demanded alternative futures for themselves, their peers, and our campuses. For decades, they have schooled us all by refusing to separate the needs of students of color from those of LGBTQ students. They have shown how colleges and universities can address the intersections of a range of issues related to their social mission, most notably how racism, economic inequality, and residency and citizenship status affect LGBTQ students.

For the last sixteen years, I have had the privilege of working with, teaching, and learning from a generation of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. UIC, the largest public university in Chicago, has been named one of the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country by the Advocate, the Huffington Post, and Campus Pride. UIC is also a minority-serving institution two times over, as a Hispanic-serving institution and as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander–serving institution. It is a university that contains myriad diasporas: our students come from across Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; some come from families that have been in the United States for generations, while others—who are sometimes called the 1.5 generation—came to the United States as children. Many of those in the latter group are undocumented and therefore unable to receive any governmental support for their education. Nevertheless, almost 60 percent of our students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, more than any other Research I university in the country. Disproportionately affected by various forms of interlocking inequalities, UIC undergraduates have been leaders in the fight for recognition of LGBTQ people, for justice for all immigrants, and for racial and economic justice. At UIC, as at other campuses around the country, students have pushed the university administration to create spaces and resources that address the needs of all LGBTQ students.

An LGBTQ Campus Activism Primer

Almost since its inception in the mid-1960s, UIC has been a site of LGBTQ activism. By the early 1990s, this organizing culminated in demands for campus institutions devoted to LGBTQ student life. In 1993, students petitioned UIC to create the Office of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Concerns. The name of the office was expanded in 1998 to add transgender, and in 2007 the entity was renamed the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC). Throughout its existence, the office was imagined as a place where students could come together to claim space in the university, attend programming, and get social support.

In its early years, the office was not explicitly focused on how and why race matters to LGBTQ student support at a public university, but over the course of the last decade, a more intersectional approach— one focused on racial and economic issues as they interacted with gender and sexual expression and identity—came to drive the office and its strategy. This change occurred as queer students and staff members of color made demands on the institution to recognize that the needs of the diverse LGBTQ community did not hinge only on attention to gender and sexuality. The GSC began a deep engagement with other cultural centers on campus, such as the Latino Cultural Center and the Asian American Resource Center, both of which opened after extended student struggles, and the Women’s Resource and Leadership Center, which organizes much of the antiviolence work on campus.

The process of cross-campus engagement has resulted in dozens of coalitional programs—such as the Reimagining Masculinities Initiative, which allows the campus community to explore issues of masculinity, gender, and sexuality in an antiracist framework. The GSC, which is now staffed by queer and transgender people of color, has also begun hosting regular dinners for LGBTQ students of color, offering a place for camaraderie in a potentially hostile climate. According to Davíd Perez, an undergraduate at UIC and president of Pride, the LGBTQ student organization, “There aren’t many spaces designed specifically for queer/trans people of color, there aren’t many queer spaces in general, but for this one to be specific to my identity really makes a difference to me. I feel safe enough to share my identity and my stories; it’s not like that in the ‘real world.’”

Physical space, especially on campuses that face space constraints, is critical to LGBTQ student success, but space alone is not sufficient; university policy must shift as well, as UIC students have long understood. In the early 2000s, students worked with LGBTQ faculty and staff to develop a set of policies and administrative practices that provided domestic partner benefits to people working for the University of Illinois system before same-sex marriage was legal. By 2009, another group of students, faculty, and staff demanded and won the opening of gender-neutral bathrooms across campus. Opponents charged that gender-neutral bathrooms would be a waste of money, but the students responded with powerful arguments about their rights to bodily autonomy and the bathroom policy’s impact on public health. Five years later, students won a campaign for coverage of trans-inclusive health care, including gender-affirming surgery, under Campus Care, our university-based health insurance program. Never satisfied by a policy without a plan to implement it, students held the institution accountable by creating a system through which students could be paired with a health-care advocate to help them navigate medical procedures. Over the years, the student leaders of each of these campaigns have also worked alongside other activists in local and national political arenas, most notably in the fight for marriage equality, in efforts to end the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, in battles over access to health care, and in efforts to end homophobic and transphobic violence.

I doubt that anyone familiar with contemporary LGBTQ political organizing will be surprised by this account of recent institutional changes. What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that one of the most significant victories for the campus LGBTQ community was imagined and fought for by undocumented students, many of whom also identify as queer.

Undocuqueers and the RISE Act

Chicago has long been home to diverse immigrant and migrant communities as well as politically powerful immigrant rights activists who have been central figures in social movements that demand transformations in the federal immigration system. At UIC young leaders have articulated and organized around the struggles of undocumented students, including threats of deportation and family separation and the difficulties of financing a college education without access to loans and scholarships. In 2010, a group of undocumented UIC students and alums, many of whom identified as LGBTQ, formed an organization called the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). IYJL sought to effect social and political change by encouraging undocumented students to come out of the shadows and take a public stand on immigration reform as it affected them and their families. As political scientist Amalia Pallares argues in her 2014 book Family Activism, IYJL members amassed support for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act even as they criticized the neoliberal underpinnings of an act that sought relief only for the “innocent” and “exceptional” children of immigrants who were “brought” to the United States by their parents. When the DREAM Act failed to pass in the Senate in late 2010, IYJL members expanded their rallying cry: they were now coming out of the shadows as undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. Explicitly repurposing one of the central tactics of gay liberation in the 1970s—coming out proudly and without apology—to counter the Obama administration’s deportation regime, they insisted that liberation, as opposed to equality, was possible only if people resisted normative immigration policies. This meant refusing, at every turn, to call anyone “illegal.” They also asserted their autonomy by replacing the claim that “they were brought here by” their parents with the claim that “they came with” their parents to the United States. Many of the LGBTQ activists in IYJL and in allied organizations across the country shifted their language yet again to identify as “undocuqueer,” further highlighting the need to connect sexuality and gender with race and immigration status. As we find ourselves in increasingly precarious times, this moniker should serve as a clarion call to higher education institutions that LGBTQ and undocumented students have intersecting identities that require a wide range of supports.

 After Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, the Obama administration issued an executive order to create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that offers young people who came to the United States with their parents some relief from deportation. Instead of being labeled as undocumented or even as Dreamers—the apolitical name some politicians and media outlets have applied to students—young people are now “DACAmented.” They have applied for and received DACA protections and are allowed legally to work. They are not, however, able to access any federal resources—health care, food stamps, and, most important for college students, financial aid. DACA’s legality is currently under review by the Supreme Court, and the decision on it will likely appear alongside the one focused on LGBTQ civil rights.

Beginning in 2013, students, faculty, and staff across Illinois began a campaign to secure an alternative process that undocumented students could use to obtain various forms of nonfederal financial aid. With representation from public and private institutions, including all three of the University of Illinois’s campuses, Loyola University of Chicago, and other Illinois colleges and universities, they drafted and redrafted a proposed bill, lobbied legislators, and traveled to the state capital to voice their demands for financial support for undocumented students. But the early iteration of the bill, which focused exclusively on undocumented students, languished, unable to get out of committee. Hoping to move forward, organizers sought additional sponsors and, in the process, came to recognize the need to build coalitions with other marginalized communities and students, in particular African American and transgender students.

Students organized across identity categories and in coalition with one another. In the process, they connected issues of immigration status with the social and institutional exclusion of transgender students by focusing on the dreaded Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Undocumented students and transgender students are the two groups prevented from filling out the form that is the locus of federal recognition of the economic needs of college students and their families. Undocumented students cannot access any federal aid, and transgender students must check a box identifying their gender as assigned at birth. If it is male, they must register for the Selective Service to complete the form. This requirement directly harms transgender and gender-nonbinary students, in part because the Trump administration has banned transgender people from serving in the military, but also, and more important, because it requires them to identify as something they are not. The FAFSA form, meant to increase access to college for people across the economic spectrum, in reality serves to exclude certain people, preventing their access to college. FAFSA’s exclusions made visible both the need for coalitions across genders, races, and nations of origin and the often-overlapping identity categories among low-income, undocumented, and transgender students. The strategy worked and the bill moved out of committee, securing thirty-five of fifty votes from the Illinois Senate.

The bill that ultimately passed, the Retention of Illinois Students and Equity (RISE) Act, took effect on January 1, 2020. In the coming years, it will have a direct impact on thousands of students across the state. The act establishes Illinois residency (as opposed to US citizenship or permanent residency) as the basis for eligibility for state-based financial aid and benefits. It also directly mentions transgender students, whom the federal government would disqualify “for failure to register for selective service.” A new state aid form has been created that allows undocumented students, transgender students, and students who are both to access state aid through the Illinois Monetary Award Program. This grant program “tops off” tuition costs not covered by the federal Pell Grant program. It also allows students to continue to access aid even if they have not reached junior status after seventy-five credits, a rule that in the past disproportionately hurt black students and other students of color who had taken remedial courses after matriculating. While the new form cannot be used to apply for Pell Grants, it does allow students to apply for various forms of state aid, scholarships, and tuition waivers. In combining both definitions into state law, the RISE Act makes Illinois more LGBTQ-friendly by making it a state where undocumented and transgender students can come out of the shadows and unapologetically make their needs known.

This legislative achievement happened because a group of undocumented students, many of whom were coming into their sense of who they were as gendered and sexual beings, articulated their vision for justice at UIC more than a decade ago. That is why when we talk about LGBTQ students on campuses today, we must understand that they are profoundly diverse and have complex needs based on their socioeconomic status, their race, their immigration status, their gender expression or identity, and their sexuality. LGBTQ people have been part of every social movement of the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first— whether the movement for black lives, the reproductive justice movement, the Chicano/a movement, or the movement to end AIDS. As we look to the future, we must recognize their role in animating and accelerating change on college campuses. They will lead us in imagining a truly capacious vision for the social mission of higher education.

Jennifer Brier is professor of gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a 2019–20 Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project. Her email address is [email protected].