This letter is in response to the recent rebranding of the Queer and Allied People’s Society. The society is now called Sexuality and Gender Advocacy.
I founded the Queer & Allied People’s Society in 2015 with Olivier Hébert and Eli Matheson. Between 2015 and 2017, Q&A was the most active student society at STU. I have also organized activist work in many other capacities, which I feel qualifies me to offer some advice.
I congratulate the new leadership on starting SAGA, and caution them against accepting any overly simplified explanation about the challenges that have faced what was once called Q&A in the past. I don’t dismiss that senior students making up the bulk of the leadership is a factor. However, there are unique challenges that have faced Q&A that go deeper than that.
First, queer and trans people face marginalization in our society that causes a lot of stress and burnout, especially among those who are called upon by the community to do activist work. Often, the members of our community who exist at the intersections of many forms of marginalization are the ones we should be listening to most but they are the ones who are the most tired from minority stress. These people are underrepresented in leadership positions, which means their voices aren’t being heard firsthand and they aren’t able to directly effect community action.
Second, there is an expectation that a student society serving queer and trans students must serve all queer and trans students, when in fact we all have unique experiences and needs. Additionally, not all queer and trans people have the chance to develop leadership skills in a healthy, supportive environment (those who are may not be the ones whose voices we should prioritize). We often forget, as well, when expecting queer and trans people to unite and work as a cohesive team, that we frankly don’t all get along. I think anyone who wants to be a leader in the queer and trans community must read Kai Cheng Thom’s article “Why Are Queer People So Mean to Each Other?” in Xtra, an online magazine, to better understand the way that complex trauma can strain queer and trans people’s interpersonal relationships on a mass scale.
Thirdly, it is difficult to network with students within our community at UNB. Qmunity exists. The 203 Centre exists. But there are geographical and institutional barriers to STU students collaborating with these groups. For example, because of the funding sources for the employees at The 203, they must be UNB students. I went digging two years ago to find funding sources that would allow STU students to apply to work there, but I never heard back on my suggestions. This means that queer and trans students from STU wanting to work with their communities on campus must volunteer, and many of us don’t have time to volunteer because we are overrepresented in poverty and chronic illness communities. Being sick and poor takes a lot of time.
Lastly, the measures by which the university or St. Thomas University Students’ Union may determine the success of a student society may not match up with what queer and trans students actually need. Yes, in our first two years we had several events and parties and coffee houses which could be seen as typically successful. But were we able to connect with students on a personal level and help them break down barriers to their education, or even their sense of community at large? Six years ago I met with Student Services to ask about accommodating trans and nonbinary students in residence, and the progress on those changes were so slow that me and some of my friends were forced out of residence two years ago when there was the ambiguous announcement that Chatham and Rigby might be closing (which has not yet happened, but was communicated to us too late). There were no other trans-inclusive housing options.
My bisexual, nonbinary existence at STU is political. And not just because of “queer and trans issues.” My bisexual, nonbinary experience is political because tuition increases every year. (Just last year, tuition increased by $372 for domestic students and $837 for international students.) My bisexual, nonbinary experience is political because Accessibility Services are understaffed. My bisexual, nonbinary experience is political because the chronic pain in my legs is getting worse and the bus service in Fredericton is so unreliable that I can’t even use the public transit I pay for. But there is so much pressure on queer and trans student societies to ignore these issues that disproportionately affect us in favour of being apolitical and uncritical of the institutions they are a part of. We even see language being depoliticized to the point of taking words like “queer” out of the public discourse in favour of ambiguous terms like “sexuality and gender” that are inclusive to a fault.
None of this is meant to discourage the current leadership from pursuing their efforts with SAGA. If you can make it successful, please do. But please do not ignore the complexity that comes with running a society like this. There are barriers you have to overcome, and some that you may not be able to deal with in your time at STU. But you cannot start to unravel the oppression of queer and trans students at STU if you accept simple explanations as to why folks struggled with this mission in the past.
Al Cusack, STU student and one of three founders of the Queer and Allied People’s Society