Queering the Co-Op

by Nicole Chavez 

June 26th, 2015 was a monumental day for many same-sex couples all across the country. Coupled with the announcement of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the U.S., millions of people across Facebook “showed their pride” by applying a rainbow filter to their Facebook profile picture. Although the overwhelming approval for the court’s decision was affirming, it was concurrently problematic. Numerous individuals – straight and LGBTQ+ alike – had come to the conclusion that this Supreme Court decision denoted the end of the gay rights movement, the achievement of full equality for LGBTQ+ individuals. However, in contention to the “Love Wins” messages posted by President Obama and other political figures, just because love won does not entail that justice was won overall as well.

This aforementioned case is just one of many examples of how the queer rights movement has transgressed with the fight for marriage equality to a vanilla fight for gay rights. In this narrowing of scope, even LGBTQ+ folk have disregarded the most afflicted populations within the queer community, trans/non-binary folks and queer people of color (QPOC). The focus on and victory for marriage equality is evidence of the supersession of the desires of a more privileged queer demographic over the basic needs of these trans/non-binary people and QPOC.

As the “Gay Ivy,” Yale presents itself as a microcosm of queer life in the U.S. To the concern of many students on campus, the queer culture at Yale has adopted many of the more complacent and privileged attitudes of the national gay rights movement.

This discrediting of the queer scene at Yale has occurred frequently throughout the last several weeks. In accordance with the Next Yale demonstrations taking over campus, forums have opened up for students to discuss the ways in which marginalized groups within the queer community at Yale (and society at large) have not been acknowledged and supported. In some way, the issue itself may have stemmed from the fact that Yale is a progressive and inclusive space where queer and straight spaces have become more integrated. Kyle Ranieri (pronouns: he/him), a Peer Liaison for the LGBTQ Resource Center and newly elected Co-Coordinator of the LGBTQ Co-Op believes that “that the queer community at Yale is spread out across campus. Obviously, it’s great that we have the option to be so open about who we are throughout Yale, but it can cause the core of the queer community and organizing to be inactive and empty.” As Ranieri notes, as queer individuals have become more accepted on Yale’s campus, the spaces that once served as key enclaves for queer students to mobilize and support one another have lost their impetus.

The LGBTQ Co-Op at Yale was created in 1981 by a student at the Divinity School. As is written in its mission statement, the organization was created to serve “a social function, working to provide safe spaces and meeting opportunities for queer and LGBT students” and “a political function, fighting to change policies and beliefs, at Yale and elsewhere, that are damaging to queer and LGBT people.” In its advent, the Co-Op was a political powerhouse, leading educational workshops on queer identity for straight and queer students on campus in addition to convincing the school to add sexual orientation to Yale’s anti-discrimination policy. However, since that time, the political efficacy and social awareness of the Co-Op has waned.

As some students have noted, the Co-Op has become a space that is dominated by parties and the celebration of queerness, but without critical thinking about what ongoing issues the queer community still has to tackle. Alina Yaman (pronouns: they/them), the newly elected Co-Coordinator of the Co-Op and a member of Trans@Yale, an affinity group for trans and non-binary students on campus, shared their views on the current atmosphere of the Co-Op: “In the past, I think the Co-Op has been a space where people would gather jointly to celebrate their queerness – Pride Month, IvyQ, film screenings. These things are important, but they’re not really my priority…. It’s difficult to spend time and energy on celebrating an identity when so much work still needs to be done to make sure those identities are something people feel like they can even take pride or joy in to begin with.”

In their comment, Yaman captures the primary issue of the Co-Op: students, even queer individuals, see queer identity as monolithic. Some queer students disregard people’s various backgrounds and experiences beyond Yale and ignore the intersectionality of identities and how they contribute to one’s “Yale Experience.” They assume that being at Yale, apparently a utopia for all LGBTQ+ people, ensures that every queer student’s experience is the same – filled with acceptance, acknowledgement, and an absence of discrimination. However, this is far from the case, especially for trans/non-binary and QPOC students.

Many trans, non-binary, and QPOC students face hurdles that often go unspoken of on campus. As revealed by the results of the Association of American Universities campus sexual climate survey, students that do not identify as cis-gender face an alarmingly higher incidence of sexual assault. Compared to the 18.1% of female and male undergrads who reported experiencing sexual assault via force or incapacitation, 28.4% of undergrads who identified as “other genders” were victims of assault. Many QPOC students at Yale confront the issue of not being out to their family and home communities, due to the fear of being disowned or estranged.

The Co-Op has not done enough to cater to the needs of these populations within the queer community at Yale. Yaman points to the Co-Op’s need to re-establish its priorities: “How can [the Co-Op] celebrate National Coming Out Day when we’re not fighting for better resources for people whom being outed to their families means being cut off completely?” Moreover, Ranieri points out how the white-washed atmosphere of the Co-Op has warded off QPOC and non-binary students: “[These students] have not always felt that the Co-Op was a safe space that is sensitive to the issues that QPOC and trans/non-binary people face every day. This notion has been reinforced by the dearth of programming by the Co-Op pertaining to these issues. Although, the previous Coordinator of the Co-Op, Rianna Johnson-Levy, has done a tremendous job in addressing this.”

Ranieri and Yaman got together with several other trans/non-binary and QPOC to run as a single board for the Co-Op elections that occurred this past Monday, December 7. In assembling this diverse group of people, Yaman shared that their main objective was to “make the Co-Op a more radical space.” They stated that “through our leadership and presence alone, we are already showing our commitment to representing and working for underrepresented identities within the queer community.” Ranieri added that in addition to being radical, the Co-Op should serve as a safe space, where QPOC and trans and non-binary students “feel comfortable, and also affirmed in their identities.”

Their ticket for the Co-Op board consisted of the following individuals: Alina Yaman and Kyle Ranieri for Co-Coordinators, Karen Marks for Secretary, Steph MacLean for Treasurer, and Eli Ceballo-Countryman, Sophie Freeman, and Ellie Pritchett for Social Chairs. According to Ranieri, “the composition of our board was strategic so that we have inherent partnership with other groups.” He points out his involvement with the Native American Cultural Center, Yaman’s association with Trans@Yale and Sappho, a queer womyn’s social group, and Eli’s position on the Black Student Alliance at Yale’s Queer Caucus, as evidence of the intersectionality present on the board. With this inherent diversity, Ranieri says that the board “hopes to forge relationships between these communities and make the Co-Op the meeting place of all these identities … through collaboration with cultural centers and queer affinity groups such as [Queer & Asian] and De Colores.”

On the night of elections this past Monday, other members of the Co-Op who planned on running for the board withdrew their tickets unexpectedly. Yaman views their withdrawal as an act of support during this “necessary and historic change for the Co-Op.” They says that the newly elected board recognizes and appreciates their investment in the Co-Op and hopes for their support in the board’s initiative to incite change within the queer community on campus. Yaman adeptly captured the role of the Co-Op in implementing reform on campus: “The Co-Op should be a driving force for change. It should be a constantly evolving organization that represents the [queer] community adequately. There is no queer experience, and that needs to be something the Co-Op is always mindful of.”

Under this new leadership, it is now guaranteed that the Co-Op will adhere to its mission statement in acting “on two fronts: first, as a Co-Op, a unified voice taking action [and] second, as a multitude of different voices … and individuals” in creating a safe and empowering space for non-binary, trans, and queer people at Yale.