Defining Safe: Queer students discuss navigating social spaces created for straight, cisgender people

Cameron Cook and Chris Vazquez

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CAMERON COOK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cameron Cook. Thanks for tuning in. You’re listening to the fourth episode of “Defining Safe.” In this episode, I talked to queer students about what safety means to them.

SAYEED SANCHEZ: So when I think of safe, I think of being able to let my guard down. I think of also having all of my needs met. So that’s kind of like thinking about like, “Am I fed? Am I comfortable?”

COOK: And as a queer person on this campus do you feel safe?

SANCHEZ: No, not really. If I’m going to be real, not really.

COOK: That’s Weinberg junior Sayeed Sanchez.

SANCHEZ: I think a lot about my experiences as a queer man, as a black queer man. And I think about how like, most, if not all the space on this campus is not really made for me and much of my community. And so I think I have to be really aware of my positionality when I’m in the classroom, when I’m walking on campus.

COOK: Sanchez wears makeup and said that when people read him as a man and see him wearing makeup, they’re often confused.

SANCHEZ: Evanston is pretty conservative. Northwestern, cause we’re a college campus, is usually not an issue, but even then sometimes it’s like, spectacularized. And I just see it as a form of expressing myself and creativity, and I love to see other folks do it if that’s what they’re into as well. But I definitely when I’m wearing makeup, I feel even less safe.

COOK: Communication sophomore Rey Tang, a trans woman, said she doesn’t feel like she can speak up in class because, as she puts it, her voice doesn’t match how she looks.

REY TANG: So one time I was in class, and I finally got the courage to like, say an answer. And then my professor — I was in a dress at the time, I think I was wearing a skirt with a blousey kind of top. I also really didn’t look that male, but I guess I sounded male. So then the professor was like, well, that’s — he’s right. He’s really doing a good job there. So listen, let’s talk about what he was trying to say. It was like, wow, three times. Damn.

COOK: Tang doesn’t take misgendering personally, she said, especially because she’s early in her transition. Still, she said it stings.

TANG: It sucks. But like, it’s kind of the reality of it.

COOK: Communication junior Shane Eichstaedt has to make a choice every time they meet new people. Depending on the situation they’re in, they said, they might choose to out themself as nonbinary, or they might choose not to.

SHANE EICHSTAEDT: I always have to make a choice. I always have to assess the situation. There’s so much math going on in my head every time I step into a room, because I have to ask myself how much of me gets to be true in the time that I’m with these people.

EICHSTAEDT: I really, really understand that every time I introduce myself with they/them pronouns, I’m asking people to undo everything that they’ve ever known about gender and I understand that that’s uncomfortable. And I understand that it’s tricky and that so much of what we know revolves around this binary of male and female and how we get to express ourselves how we get to dress, how we get to speak, is so hammered into us.

COOK: The best way to react after unintentionally misgendering someone, Eichstaedt said, is to apologize and move on.

EICHSTAEDT: Even though it is so many, so much of the time — it’s just one syllable, it’s just one utterance, it’s just one grunt, but behind that for so many people, it’s the sentiment of, “Your family doesn’t love you. The world doesn’t see you. You are not welcome here.” It’s so much more than just a syllable. But there’s no need to live in that moment any longer than is necessary. Move on with the conversation. We’re big kids.

COOK: Queer students face other risks as well — especially in situations with potential for physical danger, when standing up for yourself isn’t always possible. Sanchez said he was walking home from a football game last year when he heard a group of men use a homophobic slur.

SANCHEZ: I don’t know, there was like a snickering way so it wasn’t really supposed to be like directly to me, but it was definitely loud enough that I could hear, you know, that so kind of — that bullying thing. And I had a moment where I was like, “do I want to say something?” And I kind of like one, was really tired, and two, it was like, two men were taller than me. And so I kind of was like, I don’t want to put myself in (an) even more unsafe predicament. So I kind of just like try to brush it off and walked, but it definitely like really sat with me and it was very uncomfortable because it was kind of a reminder that like this is not socially acceptable and this is not supposed to be happening or like that’s what a lot of people feel that way.

COOK: Do you have any recommendations for the administration of spaces they could set up or things they could do to make you feel more safe here?

SANCHEZ: We could really use some more resources. Yes, GSRC (Gender and Sexuality Resource Center) should be larger. And I’m sure they’ve heard that. I think the demands are like, we are always — we, students, are often expanding lots of labor to illustrate them. I think they’re like very much known.

TANG: I’d love to have more visibility. It’d be great to have like that kind of place to go.

COOK: This is Tang again.

TANG: Our Gender and Sexuality Resource Center is like two rooms. It’s mostly empty all the time and it kind of looks sad.

COOK: Eichstaedt said they want to see more gender-open housing and gender-neutral bathrooms. Right now, undergraduate students have access to gender-open housing — which means they can choose a living space regardless of their gender identity — in three buildings, but only if they live in a single without a roommate. Doubles will be available in three buildings starting next academic year. Eichstaedt also wants the University to hire more queer, trans and nonbinary faculty, and do something — anything — to help the already hired faculty treat trans and nonbinary students with more respect.

EICHSTAEDT: Why is it so hard for me to say that like, that professors should know that trans students exist? Like, professors should know that some of their students could be trans and that there should be steps in place to understand and respect that. I don’t know what kind of training that would look like, I don’t know what kind of readings people would have to do, but I know that it exists and that it’s not difficult.

COOK: Is there anything that you would want to, I guess, have straight folks know about how different your experience is from theirs?

SANCHEZ: If we’re talking about queerness, and we’re talking about sexuality and gender and the kind of — those spectrums, I would really like them to take a more honest engagement and think about, like, the ways this has been created socially, right? It’s been maintained and institutionalized.

COOK: And because of how strong those social constructs are, Eichstaedt said, they sometimes let mistakes slide.

EICHSTAEDT: I understand so much why it’s hard and then sometimes in that understanding, I let people get away with not trying. And I think that everyone is capable of trying.

COOK: And at the end of the day, Tang said, what she wants to see is straight and cisgender folks putting in the effort to make queer and trans folks feel safe, even if it means they’ll have some awkward encounters.

TANG: I think people here want to do good. And I think they want to make others feel comfortable. I think it’s really — it’s been really heartwarming. If you’re so scared of committing a faux pas, I think the biggest thing is just really like remembering that you care about the person and trying to show that you care, and that you want to learn, and I think that’s as much as you can ask from anybody.

COOK: This episode of “Defining Safe” was produced by Christopher Vazquez. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cameron Cook. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time.

Email: cameroncook@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @cameron_e_cook

Email: christophervazquez2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bychrisvazquez


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