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Seeing With A New Spectrum: A Conversation about UCLA’s Vital LGBTQ Space

Seeing With a New Spectrum

by Dylan Chouinard and Kim Lau

“There are three kinds of gays. Party gays like to have fun and get drunk. Political gays are activist-y and fight for rights and stuff. Normal gays fall in the middle.”

If that reads like a joke or an absurd, almost offensive oversimplification, consider how often you’ve heard this phenomenon, summed up so effectively here by third-year Sociology student Billy Prasatcharoen, being both mocked and lamented by many in our community. Conventional gay wisdom – in many circles on this campus, anyway – goes like this: there are those who go to WeHo or Long Beach every Thursday (and Friday and Saturday), looking fierce and pounding shots. There are those who canvas for EQ-CA and march for transgender rights and pride themselves on their activism and consciousness. And then there are those who don’t fall into either camp. The “normal gays,” as Billy put it. A bit mysterious, a bit aloof, and perhaps, some might say, a bit apathetic, these folks are often the ones that don’t conform to either “stereotypical gay” mold.

Here at UCLA, there’s a distinct perception, especially among freshmen and other newcomers, that only two of the “three kinds of gays” regularly attend Spectrum, the general meeting for Queer Alliance. As QA’s all-inclusive space, and one of the first interactions many students have with the organization, it’s one of the central places for queers to find a safe space, build awareness, and get involved with the rest of QA. “Mostly just party gays and activist gays go. Normal gays don’t go because they’re not huge in the party scene or the activist scene,” says Prasatcharoen. These “normal” gays, he argues, are less interested in politics than in establishing themselves and socializing with the UCLA community more broadly. Third-year English and Psychology student Lee Jasperse clarifies, “The ‘normal’ part is kind of misleading. Basically it refers to those who place other involvements over QA, and who don’t feel the need to engage with their queer identity in a campus community-focused way.”

Queer Alliance, one of the first and most important stops for any new queer- or LGBT-identified individual looking to get involved with queer issues on campus, has been an important part of our community since 1969- it was founded just after the Stonewall riots. The group plays a vital role in both the queer social scene and advancing queer political interests here at UCLA. With events like National Coming Out Week and an annual Drag Fashion Show, to the weekly Spectrum meetings and the groups like Blaque and Pan-Asian Queers that focus on issues unique to minority queer communities, Queer Alliance and its leadership do a great deal for the queer community on campus. QA goes a long way toward fulfilling its goal, as posted on the QA website, of being “a bridge between all people who are dealing with issues of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

Sounds great, right? So why don’t the “normal gays” go to Spectrum meetings? “While QA has an incredible and comparatively large number of members, so many of the campus’ queer identified students have never participated in an LGBTQIA-related event or club, or even utilized the fantastic resources available to them,” concludes Jasperse. There has to be a reason why so many in the campus LGBTQ community shy away from Spectrum meetings, leaving only a solid base of committed members to steer the conversation.

Indeed, perhaps that’s at least part of the problem. First-year Biochemistry student Matthew Galang says, “Once you get acquainted with other people in the community, there’s not much incentive to come, and I feel like when our attendance is low, our ideas get stagnant, because the same people tend to share similar ideas.” He and others say they have noticed that discussion is often steered by regulars who understand the group dynamic, rather than incorporating the group as a whole, or new, often-silent members.

In addition, some say Spectrum’s commitment to education and consciousness-raising is sometimes taken too far. At a Spectrum meeting early in the quarter, the use of words and phrases deemed offensive by the leaders, like “you guys” and  other gender- and sexuality-related terms, was addressed quickly and extensively – often with the effect of silencing people for the rest of the meeting, for fear of being corrected again. Several members, including first-year Michael Elliott, have said they’re turned off by what they see as “hypersensitive” reactions to the use of certain language in the meeting space.

On the other hand, others see important benefits in dealing aggressively with potentially loaded language. Galang notes, “I definitely see where the hypersensitive thing comes from–I myself had similar thoughts on that for a long time. But being exposed to so many people, [you learn that] sometimes it’s those little things that make all the difference” in facilitating positive, productive interactions. Although they may carry negative consequences for those less versed in the speech valued in a space like Spectrum, Galang says, such discussions build an awareness that is in itself a key part of the queer consciousness that Spectrum and QA are built around. “Even if you identify as gay or lesbian, you’re not necessarily queer. Being queer comes with the responsibility of understanding other people’s struggles.”

And, indeed, this sense of being “queer,” more about awareness, compassion, activism, and a deep level of respect than merely about sexual identity, is a key part of the Spectrum philosophy. But the queer identity is a loaded one politically, growing as it has out of a desire to empower and effect change in the community through defiance of traditionally oppressive norms of behavior and expression.

Perhaps it’s this queer mentality that doesn’t quite jive with the “normal” gays. Maybe it’s this decidedly political identity associated with the Spectrum space, and with QA more generally, that has turned people away. Indeed, since the passing of Proposition 8, attendance in QA spaces like Spectrum has been on the decline, perhaps suggesting that many in the campus LGBTQ community have grown tired of politics. According to QA board member Briana Mendoza, “We had heightened momentum when Prop 8 was going on, and then when it passed most people, I feel, kind of gave up on California.” Some think that QA’s mission as not only “a bridge between all people” in the LGBTQ community and their allies, but also a vocal and progressive political force, has left little room for those less enamored with activism.

As the organization pushes to reassert itself, the leadership is simultaneously struggling to find a balance between political and social goals important to various communities at UCLA. “We have two kinds of people. How do we make the political more social and the social more political? Everyone’s at different places in their identity and what it means to be queer, queer of color, trans. And how do we teach people to be an ally? Not only for straight people, but for queer people to be allies to queers of color and trans people,” says Mendoza.

Such goals are central to Spectrum’s mission, and they’re clearly important in a community plagued by ignorance and racism that goes largely unaddressed. But if people don’t go to meetings, if the “normal” gays don’t see Spectrum as an important part of their campus lives, the question arises as to how these aims can be accomplished. Of course, no group is for everyone, and Spectrum can’t be expected to cater to the needs of everyone at UCLA who identifies as LGBTQ, a community with a wide range of political awareness and inclinations. But the quickly-growing population of LGBT and queer-identified people at UCLA, who, for all their differences, have certain fundamental hardships, traumas, and consciousness in common, some would say, suggests a need for a space that is truly tolerant and welcoming to all.

Not everyone would choose to be an activist, just as not everyone would choose to dance on the tables at Truck Stop. But a space that could bring all the many “different kinds of gays” into the fold could create a focus on the similarities that unite the community, rather than the differences that seem to divide. Such a space could go a long way towards expanding and deepening the conversations we have with each other as lesbian and gay and queer and trans individuals, conversations we must have if we are to understand each other. As second-year Communication Studies student Patrick Malkoun says, “If I knew once a week the entire UCLA queer community would come together to get something done, I would feel a greater pride in our community.”

Struggling Against Apathy

by Marcus McRae, Queer Alliance Director

The diversity of Spectrum – encompassing those who have just come out to those who have been out for years, 1st years to graduate students, different races and genders – make for a space which is pulled in many different directions.  To give some perspective on the difficulty this creates, I pose a question to the reader: if you had to plan meetings relevant to all LGBTQ people at UCLA, what would you discuss?

You may be able to come up with some meeting topics that will interest everyone, but chances are, it is just a matter of time before someone voices that Trans issues are not relevant to them or asks why racism is being talked about in an LGBTQ org meeting.

Spectrum can be difficult to run. Still, the Queer Alliance board has a deep sense of accountability to the LGBTQ community on campus, and has a number of measures in place to try to have everyone’s voice represented in Spectrum.   First, to avoid having meetings dominated by what one person deems important, we have a rotating meeting facilitation.  To highlight the joint ownership of the space, facilitation is also open to general members.  Also, the first hour of the Queer Alliance board meetings are open for comments and constructive criticism.

If Spectrum is just not the space for someone, the Queer Alliance has several other access points – these range from discussion groups to community service with high school GSAs, from board meetings to planning meetings for large events, like Drag Fashion Show – a minimum of 13 hours of activity per week. It is deeply concerning to us if even one person comes to a meeting and feels that we are not addressing their needs or providing a safe space; I genuinely hope that anyone who sees issues with our spaces will use these or other methods to address problems to the board, so we can improve our work.

There are two main issues why I think it’s difficult to mobilize LGBTQ people, both on and off-campus.  First, is a lack of solidarity.  Our community has a strong need for allyship, not only from heterosexuals, but also across the LGBTQ identities for one another.  On this note, I don’t think that QA is ‘hypersensitive’; gender inclusive language is absolutely necessary to create a safe space for Trans and gender non-conforming folk who come.  Allyship for other identities is also necessary.  It is a common critique of QA that we are not a “gay” org, but seem more interested in every other identity other than gay identity.  But how many of us have not uttered the words “I’m more than just gay”?

The Queer Alliance ideology, inspired by Queer theory and 3rd wave feminism, dissects what being ‘more than gay’ means: we believe that it involves developing a consciousness of intersectionality -how all our identities fit together, and of thinking critically about all of the systems of oppression that marginalize us as Queer people, not just homophobia, but also sexism, patriarchy, racism, cisgenderism and classism, not just those we’ve experienced personally, but those experienced by all LGBTQ people.  Having this solidarity is crucial to our unity because we are not a community based on shared bloodline, customs or language.

The second issue we face is that the LGBTQ community as a whole has for too long allowed others to define our political issues for us – when we lost Proposition 8, it was as if we lost all willpower to rally around other community issues which continue to exist, at least on campus.  The “party gay”, “normal gay”, “activist gay” labels, may be somewhat realistic, but are also a way we limit our own political agency.  To be an activist does not have to mean that we spend every day trying to repeal Prop 8, it also means that we fix the things that we see are broken for LGBTQ people in our own experiences, and create safe spaces where they do not exist.  One of the high school GSAs that our community service component works with, for instance, is the same school that one of the current leaders attended and saw a need for more support of LGBTQ students.  QA has also successfully fought for Trans-inclusive healthcare at UCLA.

As the director of the Queer Alliance, I thank OutWrite and those interviewed for starting this very important conversation.  Why Spectrum membership is not larger and broader is a question that the Queer Alliance board has long wrestled with, and we feel that addressing the root causes for this are important, not only for the Spectrum space itself, but because the dynamics which affect the space are a microcosm of the nature of unity and organizing in the broader LGBTQ community outside of UCLA.

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