How BIPOC students navigate belonging within Yale’s queer community
On the evening of Dec. 1, 2021, a group of students began to gather in the upper level of the Native American Cultural Center. A sense of comfort infused the room, despite all of the end-of-semester stress. Coats were piled in one corner, puffers stacked higher than the couches. Some students chatted idly, while others eyed the coffee table at the center of the room. On the table was an assortment of herbs and spices: rooibos, lavender, cardamom, rose petals, dried hibiscus, jasmine and witch hazel.
These students weren’t brewing occult potions, despite what the gothic atmosphere of campus might suggest — they were using the exotic spices to brew tea at the inaugural tea and wellness night for queer students of color.
“Tea is something that’s very common in a lot of POC and immigrant communities,” said LGBTQ Office peer liaison Akweley Mazarae Lartey ’23, who created this event with fellow LGBTQ Office peer liaison Alex Chen ’23 and the support of peer liaisons from other cultural centers. Lartey thought the event “could also be a space of knowledge sharing, which is exactly what happened … People just started sharing like ‘this is good for this’ or ‘we should try this.’” The chit-chat helped to fulfill Lartey and Chen’s goal — creating a space where queer people of color could feel welcome, whether they wanted to make tea, socialize or just sit and relax.
Although this goal may seem simple, it is one that has not been accomplished by other groups on campus. Groups like Queer + Asian, Indigenous and Queer, De Colores and BlackOut cater to LGBTQ+ members of specific cultural communities. In addition, some of these spaces, such as Queer + Asian and De Colores, have been inactive during the pandemic. Until this tea making event, there has not been a place — at least, not one that has been widely publicized — where queer, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) undergraduates can gather cross culturally. Chen hopes that this event may help in tackling this problem, and that it can live up to the promise of being “a recurring space for queer people of color to build community.”
Many students feel the conditions on campus that make spaces like Lartey and Chen’s tea night necessary. Riley Macon ’25 explains that “being a Black, queer female [in itself is] already alienating … a lot of times on campus I had low self esteem.” For Macon, this feeling was compounded by not having a place to share these feelings with others who might understand.
Many other queer, BIPOC students experienced this feeling as well. Chen said that one of the motivations for starting this gathering space for queer, BIPOC students was “a general feeling of discomfort in white-dominated spaces,” which is what the Office of LGBTQ Resources has felt like according to Chen, Lartey, and others.
In addition to this “general feeling” of whiteness described by Chen, some students say they have witnessed racist incidents on campus as well. Nolan Arkansas ’23, co-president of the student group Indigenous and Queer, remembers being part of a groupchat in which members of Yale’s queer community made racist remarks. “That’s another thing that I think made me feel a bit out of place or a bit just not welcomed,” Arkansas said. “It’s just seeing how within the queer community there exists so much racism and there’s just so much complacency by our white, queer peers.”
Discrimination is one reason why demand for events like tea and wellness night is so high. However, there are also more pervasive factors causing students to seek out queer, BIPOC spaces. According to a 2014 article for the Yale Daily News about the University’s reputation as the “Gay Ivy,” many students feel that “cisgender gay men — and, more specifically, white cisgender gay men” receive elevated visibility on campus. This often leads to other groups in the queer community being overshadowed and ignored.
“If you’re not white, if you’re poor, if you don’t look like a certain body type, if you don’t fit all these socially-constructed norms … your queerness can almost feel less valid.”
The elevated visibility of whiteness pervades the dating and hookup scene as well, with people with eurocentric body standards seen as more desirable. This causes BIPOC students to choose between conforming to whiteness or having their gender or sexuality invalidated. “A lot of growing up and queerness was like ‘If you’re not white, if you’re poor, if you don’t look like a certain body type, if you don’t fit all these socially-constructed norms … your queerness can almost feel less valid,” said Gabby Montuori ’24. “Things like race, sexuality, body image, social status, financial status and ableness compound each other in ways that can be really damaging for queer and gender nonconforming people of color.”
Montuori said that, often, people within the queer community talk about tackling internal biases relating to social norms, such as whiteness and thinness; for example, saying they’re open to dating people of all body types. However, “putting those things into practice and also unlearning their own biases is much harder for them,” he said.
It may not be possible to completely destroy the pressure to conform to ideal body standards on campus. However, recent events suggest that change, or at least increased discussion about the place that BIPOC individuals occupy within Yale’s queer community, is on the horizon. The closure of Voke last spring was one such event.
Voke was a queer spoken word group based in the Office of LGBTQ Resources. A March 10, 2021 open letter explained that the group had chosen to shut down due to “the overwhelming whiteness and lack of BIPOC in Voke and in Voke’s leadership in particular.” It went on to apologize for “the ways Voke [had] failed [its] BIPOC members’’ and for creating “a culture of normative whiteness & uncomfortable silence around issues of race.”
Sasha Carney ’23, a board member of Voke at the time of its closure, explained that in addition to a “nebulous sense that [the lack of diversity] was something that had been lingering around the edges of Voke for such a long time,” there were also some specific incidents that lead to the closing. For instance, when the conversation around Voke’s whiteness began, Voke’s only non-white board member explained to others that “they often felt kind of tokenized or overwhelmed being one of very few queer people of color involved in Voke.”
This lack of diversity was also felt by Voke attendees, such as Arkansas, who remembers attending one event pre-pandemic. “It was just a lot of non-BIPOC people there,” they said. “I think I was probably the only person of color in that event … So I just felt not super uncomfortable, but just a little bit out of place.”
Carney believes that this problem isn’t recent, but rather something that goes back to the group’s founding. The group was founded on the “idea of ‘Oh, there’s not a space for queer spoken word and there’s not a space for nonaudition spoken word,’” they said. “The premise of ‘Oh, we need spoken word for queer people’ kind of just automatically becomes ‘Oh, we need spoken word for white, queer people’ because it’s not like [other spoken word groups] aren’t already incredibly queer, it’s just that they don’t center whiteness.”
The Problem with Institutional Support
It is often difficult for BIPOC, queer students to receive institutional support due to their intersectional identities, which raises the question: Who should be responsible for providing support? Asian students, for example, know that the Asian American Cultural Center is able to provide culture-based support. White, queer students know to access identity-based support at the Office of LGBTQ Resources. However, when a student holds multiple cultural, gender and sexual identities — backgrounds that are often deeply entangled — this question becomes much more difficult to answer.
Some students feel that the answer is in Yale’s cultural centers. Arkansas, for example, feels most comfortable at the NACC. “There’s a lot of queer Natives, there’s a lot of women that I trust … I’ve felt generally pretty comfortable in my identity at the NACC,” they said.
This is a sentiment echoed by many other BIPOC, queer students, especially those who come from hometowns with large BIPOC communities. “I’m from Miami,” Mela Johnson ’25 said. “I’m very used to being surrounded by other Latino people constantly, and it’s really weird being at school here and not having that all the time. So, going to La Casa is very important to me, just culturally … It feels a little bit more like home.”
This sense of community has been important, with Chen noting that places like the AACC have been more effective at creating this communal atmosphere due to how established they are on campus.
For others, though, the cultural centers haven’t provided the comfort they seek. Lartey, who visited the Afro-American Cultural Center often in his first year, remembers that “there were not very many openly Black, genderqueer folks. And, especially, there were not a lot of dark-skinned, Black, genderqueer folks. In particular, there was [him] and this one other person, who very often carried the burden of being the ‘token queers.’” This tokenization caused him to feel “rejected by ‘organized’ Black spaces that were run through the House or through student groups.” However, Lartey also noted that queer inclusivity at the Afro-American Cultural Center seems to have improved since.
So, Lartey instead turned to the Office of LGBTQ Resources, where he found that “there was more of a raw understanding of being marginalized in those spaces [and] a lot more inclusivity about talking about differences.” He said that he felt like he could talk about his immigrant family, disability and other intersections of identity with people at the LGBTQ office.
Some students who come from more conservative countries or conservative areas of the U.S. have also been able to find solace in Yale’s queer community, whether that just be in the general student body or organized spaces like the Office of LGBTQ Resources.
That is the case for Nawal Naz Tareque ’25. However, part of this is due to the support their peer liaison, Lartey, has provided. “I lucked out, in the sense that my [peer liaison] is a person of color,” said Nawal Naz. “A lot of what I feel … that experience of racial discrimination and discrimination as a gender minority … that intersection is something that I get to address, and I get to discuss that with Akweley.”
Still others prefer the cultural centers over the Office of LGBTQ Resources.
Whiteness is felt, by some, as an unspoken rule in queer spaces. Johnson’s experience has been that these spaces “default to whiteness as the expectation … it feels less culture blind, and more like they’re just approaching it without considering anybody outside of their own realm of experience … because the organizers are usually white.”
That expectation of whiteness can lead many to feel excluded for a variety of reasons. Montuori explains that his “racial and ethnic backgrounds fully inform how [he] operates as a queer individual” and “how [he’s] perceived as a queer individual” and how people assess him, “as far as gender and sexuality is concerned.”
Arkansas’ Cherokee background has influenced them in similar ways. They explained that “in the Cherokee language, there are over 24 pronouns, but none of them are gendered pronouns … There’s no real way to say ‘him’ or ‘her.’” This “explicitly nonbinary way of speaking” is the reason why they identify with all pronouns in English.
Cultural backgrounds also impact how many students experience queerness due to the multifaceted discrimination that their intersectional identity is subject to. Ale Campillo, the organizer of a Trans/Non-binary BIPOC panel for Transgender Awareness Week 2020 — an annual, national event which the Office hosts on-campus programming for — elaborated in an article for The Yale Herald that “Black trans women and Indigenous trans folks, trans folks of color in general, are at the forefront of a lot of the violence and a lot of the problems that are happening within that community, because we are the most vulnerable.”
These factors, as well as the lack of discussion surrounding them in the majority-white Office of LGBTQ Resources, can lead many students to feel as if queer spaces at Yale are geared towards those who aren’t affected by such matters, thereby upholding an expectation of whiteness. “I think about how my status as someone who is brown, as someone who is poor, as someone who — as far as Yale, the institution, goes — maybe does not belong here … I see that feeling of not belonging at Yale very much transposed onto my experience iterating within the queer community,” said Montuori.
One anonymous queer, BIPOC student believes that this problem has worsened recently with the passing of Andrew Dowe, assistant director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources, last January. “The Office kind of fell apart,” said the student. “[Dowe] was a Black man from the Caribbean, who was then replaced by a white person from the U.S. South. The Office has a lot more white faces, I mean it’s always been white, but has a lot more white faces, which feels very alienating for queer students of color.”
Comfort from that alienation is something students are likely to seek out, as evidenced by the success of past programming. Johnson remembers that for the tea and wellness night, she “went out of [her] way to go to that … [She] was like ‘I’m gonna rearrange my evening cause I want to be there.’’’ Johnson’s experience suggests that if the Office creates places where people feel comfortable, students will naturally be inclined to populate those spaces and thereby feel more comfortable in the Office as a whole.
In the meantime, until more of that type of programming exists, students are relying on groups such as BlackOut, Indigenous and Queer and student-organized programming such as the tea and wellness night. However, Chen thinks this student-led programming isn’t a permanent solution.
“In 1997, Yale alum Larry Kramer ’57… offered Yale a multi-million dollar gift to create either an endowed chair in gay and lesbian studies or a student center for gay students … Yale said no to his millions.”
“I think that quite a lot of the existing efforts to help queer people of color feel more welcome on campus are more reliant on individual, student effort and are not yet institutionalized. For example, the tea and wellness night was literally just because Akweley Mazarae and I decided ‘yeah, let’s do it!’… Like, that’s not a sustainable solution. In two or so years, when we’re both gone, there’s no guarantee that this will continue,” said Chen.
In many ways, the lack of university-led spaces is a result of Yale’s past inadequacies in supporting both the BIPOC and queer communities. For example, the Middle Eastern and North African Cultural Center was not established until 2021. According to a 2009 article in the News, “by 2006, Yale was the only Ivy League institution without a dedicated staff member for LGBT student issues.” This lack of institutional support extended to academics as well. That same article explains how “In 1997, Yale alum Larry Kramer ’57… offered Yale a multi-million dollar gift to create either an endowed chair in gay and lesbian studies or a student center for gay students … Yale said no to his millions.” More recently, in 2019, thirteen faculty members in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Department went on strike, “citing lack of university support.”
The problems facing both of these communities individually have compounded upon each other to produce the issues that queer, BIPOC students currently face. These problems aren’t new, it’s just the intersection they are occurring at that’s new, or at least newly visible.
Solutions on the Horizon
According to Samuel Byrd, newly-appointed director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources, culturally-inclusive programming is high on their list of priorities. One of the first steps will be expanding “collaborations and partnerships locally and nationally to help support [the Office’s] work,” said Byrd. “This includes collaboration and partnership with other cultural and community centers and organizations that specialize in supporting/engaging queer and trans people of color.”
Due to their own lack of experience in the Yale community, Byrd will also begin by “setting up a process by which [they] will be able to hear from the experiences of students, faculty, and staff across the university—with queer and trans people of color central to that listening.” This listening will contribute to “the Office’s collective visioning process: Who do we want to be together? What do we want to do together?” As of right now, many of the Office’s future plans, in this realm, seem to be abstract. However, this lack of definition could also mean an opportunity for the Office’s future programming to be truly shaped by the students it serves.
Ultimately, though, the heterogeneity of queer people makes building this community much more difficult. “I think, just culturally, we are such a heterogenous community … If you look at queer folks of different socioeconomic backgrounds and genders and sexualities and races, ethnicities, nationalities it’s just — it’s a lot,” said Oscar Lopez ’22.
As to how that community building has progressed in recent years, people have varying opinions. Chen notes that the problem has been something he’s noticed since arriving at Yale. Unfortunately, “it doesn’t seem like there’s been quite a lot of progress. Although, [he doesn’t] know whether that’s because of the nature of the problem … cultural shift takes a lot of time,” said Chen.
Lartey, on the other hand, feels like “the queer of color community, queer community at Yale — things have improved a lot since [his] first year. There’s a lot more connectedness, and [he sees] that especially with first years and sophomores.” He added that “there will always be, unfortunately, people who don’t feel like they fit in or takes a longer time, but [he feels] like it’s less of a common narrative.”
Whether or not the situation is improving, students have been able to find community in other, unorganized ways in the meantime.
“I wouldn’t say I’m involved in Yale’s queer community,” said Montuori. “But do I have queer friends? Yes. Do I have people who are queer who I really love? Yes. Would I say I’m involved in Yale’s queer community? No.” Lartey echoes this sentiment, saying that he relies on his individual and group relationships to reaffirm his queerness.
Calista Krass ’25, a white student, also doesn’t feel the need to seek out organized, queer community. ”Yes, I’m not that involved in the ‘community,’ but I don’t really feel like I’m missing out,” said Krass. Instead, she relies on her friends, nearly all of whom are queer.
“Do I have queer friends? Yes. Do I have people who are queer who I really love? Yes. Would I say I’m involved in Yale’s queer community? No.”
Krass also notes that she doesn’t “really care about [organized] events” because “they feel so forced, so [her] social anxiety jumps ahead.” She finds such spaces uncomfortable because she’s “used to [her] own friend group. So [she feels] like it would be weird for [her] to go to an event that is specifically like ‘Oh, this is a queer event.’”
“[The event] is not about the people,” she said. “It’s about the fact that we are all going there because of this one thing.”
Krass’ choice to avoid organized spaces is based on her social preferences. However, for many BIPOC students, this choice is made based on both social preferences and on how they feel their culture or background is treated in queer spaces. While Krass raises a valid critique of the way queer spaces are organized, her critiques might also be inherent to the very concept of a queer space. Meanwhile, cultural-inclusivity — or the lack thereof — is a treatable issue that only affects a subset of the queer population. This issue is an obstacle to students having equal access to queer spaces and consequently being able to feel equally comfortable in their queerness on campus.
Perhaps the benefits of Yale’s queer community are best described by former Samuel Knight professor of history and American studies George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89 in an article for the Yale Alumni Magazine, as he recounts what one first year wrote in his class: “Whereas the majority of students at my high school regarded gays and lesbians as outsiders, people fundamentally unlike themselves, Yale undergraduates seem to regard gays and lesbians as perfectly normal.”
While this understanding of queerness may seem rudimentary today, the basic idea still resonates. The ability to feel normal, to feel accepted, to be your whole self — that’s what Yale’s queer community can offer when it’s functioning at its best.
Perhaps, one day, Yale can live up to this ideal. For now, however, it falls unfortunately short for many queer, BIPOC students.
“I want Yale to be my place. I want to feel like that is my second home, and in order to do that it needs to be more than just a place where I can be successful academically and find a career path,” said Macon. “I need to find my family there, I need to find a place where I feel comfortable, a place where I feel safe.”