The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors’ views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
To the broader Princeton community,
We write with concern over the merger between the LGBT Center and the Women*s Center into the new Center for gender and sexuality. We are two queer-of-color alums who attended Princeton University from 2010–2014. Dixon Li is an US-born Chinese-Diasporic Transfem and Estela Diaz is a Queer Latina. During all four years we attended Princeton, we were active participants and student leaders through the LGBT Center and, in Estela’s case, the Women*s Center as well. We write echoing many of the structural issues raised by the Fund for Reunion and the Bisexual, Transgender, Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association (FFR-BTGALA) in an earlier letter to Rochelle Calhoun and LaTanya Buck. As young alums we want to add our personal experiences with a particular emphasis on the urgent issues of intersectional identity which this new merger elides.
It is disturbing that this merger was pursued on the 50th anniversary of the Women*s Center, and in a pandemic year when the Princeton community was already fractured and when opportunities for student organizing and resistance were attenuated. Amid broader calls for particularizing the racial mattering of Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous communities and the gendered mattering of Women and Trans communities, the University is now pursuing a platform of homogenized “inclusion” rather than allocating additional resources to the particular needs of distinct University populations. Having read about the experience of current queer students during the pandemic, we wonder if celebratory rhetoric now matters more than student experience.
This merger erases the history of student activism and labor that produced the two distinct centers; the merger makes it seem as if social difference and adversity have been solved. A single center for gender and sexuality, rather than additional centers bearing distinct names and sources of funding, falsely signals that the issues we spent so much of our Princeton careers raising have been adequately addressed.
As LGBT Peer Educators, we emphasized, year after year, to underclassmen and RCAs, all the ways that Princeton, despite being “welcoming,” was still not a place that helped LGBTQ students thrive or have near-equal experiences to their cis- and straight- counterparts. That it was unpaid undergraduates who spent upwards of 30 hours a year — often exposing incredibly vulnerable personal stories — making LGBTQ issues visible to a broader campus when RCA’s and college staff are all financially compensated and trained to support student experience is telling.
The numerous panels we spoke on, our conversations with administrators, and the social events we threw tried to laboriously make the space we knew would not exist otherwise. While it may have looked like, to the superficial observer, that some of these activities were “celebrations of diversity,” these activities instead were meant to do the political work of signaling queer existence, presence, and support for students who we know, from personal experience and conversations with friends, hardly felt included on even the best days.
It took over four years of advocacy between three different iterations of the LGBT Task Force, one of which saw Dixon co-chairing, to secure gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral housing so queer undergraduates could feel safe and un-harassed going to the bathroom and sleeping at night. Estela worked year after year through the Women*s Center and the Pride Alliance to make sure programming expanded to address racialized questions of citizenship, religion, and class.
What we advocated for was an understanding that there are crucial differences within experiences of gender and sexuality and these should always be explicitly marked out, addressed, and supported. We constantly asked for more because what the University seemed to deem as enough could not even meet the needs that we, as two busy undergraduates juggling advocacy on top of intense academic workloads and social life, knew of. We are certain there was, and still is, so much more to be heard.
We therefore feel that this merger has notes of a false celebration of progress and should be noted as such. This feels to us like an austerity measure rather than any kind of additional investment on the part of the University. In fact, the last time staffing and budget gains were made for all three centers (including the Fields Center) was in the fall of 2015 after the Black Justice League protests that, in part, advocated for additional resources around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The new Center’s structure undercuts these gains rather than elevating the previous existing director positions to leadership teams that wield power across larger segments of campus life.
Women and non-men-identified people deserve specific spaces to process experiences and articulate needs, as do the various experiences that exist under the LGBTQ umbrella. Collapsing the existing separate centers into one obscures how these kinds of affinity spaces allow for a deeper and necessary sense of vulnerability in conversation and community. Women cannot always feel candid when non-women are around. Queer people still feel marginalized when heterosexuality is overpresent. Trans people struggle to find voice, expression, and safety when their validity is constantly questioned. Separate space is not divisive space, but is in fact, the most basic level of recognition that demonstrates social difference is actually seen as particular and important.
The notion that a top-down instated conglomeration does the required political and social work of student diversity centers perverts the basis of coalitional and intersectional politics, as well as the reality of our lived experiences. Historically, these kinds of projects emerge not from an assumption of a priori sameness, but come about only after different social groups can come to clarity on their differences and then locate the similar structures that produce their oppression. We all have experiences of gender and sexuality; what we do not all have are the experiential oppressions of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and racism.
The very name of this center effaces the political histories of agitation that have produced these campus spaces, neutralizing these histories with academic jargon that potentially alienates students. It further obscures the kinds of exclusions that still have yet to be remedied. By trying to forcefully create “inclusivity,” this conglomeration avoids dealing with issues that years of student activism have raised. What the new Center presents as safe space is actually a politically de-fanged amnesiac space. This space disservices students looking for precise language to describe their experiences of oppression. Worse, it obstructs the difficult and necessary process of forging forms of community across forms of social difference and explicitly naming the kinds of underrepresented, stigmatized, and silenced experiences that dominant campus culture is reluctant to acknowledge.
Perhaps our concerns come too late in a process that was highly opaque and feels predetermined from the start. But we write with the knowledge of how the institutional turnover of student activism often means histories of resistance just disappear. A Center for Gender and Sexuality makes it look like the work that we, fellow student activists, and staff members like Debbie Bazarsky, Matthew Armstead, and Andy Cofino from the LGBT center, and Amada Sandoval from the Women*s Center, did was all towards the goal of merging. This is untrue. What we advocated for was more resources to address the diverse needs of students who frequented both centers. We were connected to previous generations of student activists, and the peers that formed the support networks that the University did not provide, by the staff at these Centers who stayed for more than the four years we remained as undergraduates.
With reduced staffing and fewer directors (indeed, both director positions for the two centers have been vacant for well over a year now), who will remember and pass on institutional knowledge and histories of student organizing and activism? As a younger generation of Princetonians arrive with a much sharper sense of social justice than we remember, many of our peers having at their age, it does not seem sensible to merge rather than proliferate.
Our time at Princeton was anything but easy — our social, political, and intellectual worlds were deprioritized, given the campus and curriculum’s historical bias towards a wealthy, white, cis-male, culture. The LGBT Center and the Women*s Center are where we acquired a political education on a very a-political campus. It is also, importantly, where we were able to come into contact with other students who were concerned with the visibility of a variety of distinct experiences of social marginalization. It was there that we were able to meet University staff who cared about us as people with underrepresented experience that urgently needed to find a voice and not just students passively receiving knowledge from experts. Under the guise of ushering in a “new era”, the new Center for gender and sexuality erases these distinct experiences and leaves a sanitized and more palatable shadow in its wake.
Dixon Li ’14 (they/she) PhD Candidate of English at University of Pennsylvania, (Princeton LGBT Task Force Student Co-Chair 2012–2014, LGBT Peer Educator 2011–2014)
Estela Diaz ’14 (she), PhD Candidate of Sociology at Columbia University (Women’s Center Intern 2010-2014, Pride Alliance Co-President 2012–2013, LGBT Peer Educator 2012–2014)