A recent article published in the Daily Tar Heel painted an erroneously rosy picture of LGBTQ* students’ experience at UNC. Firstly, I’d like to point out the already-questionable title of said article: With friends, LGBT students find social scene easy to navigate. I’m surprised the DTH came to that conclusion. UNC is a more liberal institution than many, and does foster a relatively safe space for LGBTQ* students; however, there is still room for improvement in both university policy and campus culture. The following sentence in particular stood out to me when reading the piece: “X says the advice they would give incoming LGBT freshman is not very different from advice they would give anyone coming to school.” Although I admire the DTH’s good intentions behind publishing this quote from X’s interview – to help incoming students feel welcome, to claim our campus as a safe space, to assert (accurately) that LGBTQ* individuals are more similar than we are dissimilar to the rest of the population – I believe the article presents the quote in isolation, thereby misconstruing the speaker’s meaning and obscuring the context of the discussion. LGBTQ* students, though we are indeed human beings like everyone else, are destined to have a very different experience than our straight, cisgender peers, in college as in the rest of life – a growing body of research suggests this to be true. Of course, a different experience calls for different advice. What follows is my best effort at giving this advice.
To the future LGBTQ* students of UNC, I say this: come to our university, but not because you’re expecting things to be easy here, or because you want your life to be simple. Very few people have simple lives, and I think we all know that ship sailed for you when you came out of the closet. Come, but not because the dating scene here will be better than it was at your high school (though very likely it will). Instead, come because this college needs you. The queer community, here and elsewhere, needs you. Your acceptance into the oldest public university of our region and our nation has arrived at a timely moment in history: the American South stands at a crossroads, and you are poised to determine its direction. If you choose to enter the struggle for equality, know that our community’s efforts are bolstered by the momentum of a long, hard, determinedly prideful battle for civil rights. We can continue to harness the energy of this movement to propel ourselves along the path of progress. But if we allow ourselves to be mired by complacency and blind optimism, we will fail the members of our community who need us to stand up now more than ever. Our fight is not yet won – my own experiences, as well as those of many of my friends, colleagues and fellow LGBTQ* people around the nation, speak to this unfortunate truth – and we cannot forget that its outcome depends on us. What will become of our home? Will ours be a society that blends the richness of tradition with an ethos of candid, open-minded compassion? Or will it be a society built upon closets? Will we inhibit ourselves with the superficial desire to believe that humanitarian action has run its course; that everything has turned out fine? No – hope is essential, but we must temper our hope with careful criticism; ignorance is blissful only for the unignored. Many queer people are struggling; many still face violence and death. We cannot forget them in our celebration of legal marriage equality, nor can we forget that many states have yet to pass anti-discrimination laws protecting people like us.
Future LGBTQ* students of UNC, the United States needs leaders like you: thinkers and activists who are willing to point out problems and create solutions, to speak up not only for yourselves and your fellows at Carolina, but for those people throughout the nation and the world who – still – cannot. But before you speak, before you act, I invite you to do what a student should do best: learn. Inform yourselves about systems of inequality (especially those which are least visible), observe the experiences of the people around you, and once you think you’ve figured everything out, listen to your professors and prepare to reevaluate your findings. And please, don’t stop there; if you did, you’d be wasting your time. The most important thing about learning (this sort of learning, at least) is what you do with the knowledge gained. So, when you understand what must be improved and you have considered how those improvements should be made – then, it’s time to leave your heel print. Climb onto the shoulders of those who came before you and reach with all your might for a future fairer, smarter and more compassionate than our predecessors could have imagined. You’ll be here for four years, and during that time you’ll confront the challenge and privilege of making this campus, this state, and, by extent, this country, a safer space for the LGBTQ* community in all its glorious, nebulous diversity. Come with optimism, but not with naivety. Come with kindness, but not with passivity. Feel free to mess up, but never to give up, and certainly never to limit yourselves. Before, during, and after your time at UNC, the rest of the world is open to your influence – especially if you work together. I look forward to welcoming you into the fun and into the fray.
Student of Anthropology, Comparative Literature, and History