Billy Curtis waved at cheering crowds of onlookers as he sat atop the backseat of a convertible leading hundreds of students and alumni marching in the San Francisco Pride, or SF Pride, parade Sunday.
Curtis, who is the director of UC Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource Center, or GenEq, was selected by the SF Pride board of directors as a community grand marshal of this year’s parade. Curtis has been a persistent advocate for transforming culture and thought processes about gender and sexuality on campus and in the local community.
“He is an extraordinary human and an extraordinary colleague,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “He comes to work positive and hell-bent on making a difference at UC Berkeley and for the students he serves.”
Curtis stated that being named a grand marshal was “a very important honor” to him, citing the visibility that the title provided for the work the campus has done for gender and sexuality awareness.
Curtis began his work at UC Berkeley nearly 20 years ago as the coordinator of LGBT resources. Since then, Curtis has been an advocate for trans inclusion as well as LGBTQ+ issues. He was an early supporter of gender-inclusive restrooms on campus, which was later adopted as a UC-wide policy.
He has also emphasized the importance of addressing and preventing sexual violence regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
“As a broader community, we need to tackle sexual-related violence,” Curtis said. “We need to acknowledge and have a national outcry about this violence that affects Black, Brown and trans bodies.”
GenEq has marched in the SF Pride parade for many years, going back to the days when it was known as the Women’s Center, according to Christine Ambrosio, director of Women’s Resources at GenEq.
For the last two years, the Cal Alumni Association, or CAA, has marched alongside GenEq in the parade, said Mitchell Handler, CAA’s coordinator of engagement and events. Handler also volunteered with Curtis at the annual Lavender Graduation ceremony for LGBTQ+ students and allies at UC Berkeley.
“I could tell the students were extremely grateful of the community that Billy helped foster during their time on campus,” Handler said in an email.
Curtis grew up in the Bahamas, later moving to the U.S. to go to school at the University of Massachusetts, or UMass, Amherst. In the Bahamas, Curtis said he faced violence and discrimination because of his sexuality. According to Curtis, the climate on college campuses in the U.S. was not much better at the time, but at UMass Amherst he felt more comfortable about coming out as a gay man.
The Northampton area of Massachusetts had a well-established lesbian community and UMass Amherst was one of the first universities to have a gay and lesbian center, according to Curtis. Many of the people who Curtis looked up to during that time were lesbian activists and he credits them with providing a feminist foundation for what would later become his career.
Today, Curtis said he feels that his experience as an immigrant is what shapes many of his concerns as a queer, Afro-Caribbean activist.
“(Through) the heightened xenophobia of the Bush years and beyond, including Obama, my immigrant identity is very heightened as a non-American even though I am a naturalized citizen,” Curtis said.
In his work at GenEq, Curtis said he has relied on folks of other genders to help him be graceful with the male privilege that he brings to the space. He said for him, sometimes it is not only about working toward the liberation of other genders, but it is also about consciously questioning his own assumptions, thought patterns and actions.
Issues of privilege are some of the key barriers to progressive organizing, said Curtis, and those who carry that privilege need to do the interpersonal work of remaining mindful and humble.
At the parade, students and alumni gave glowing reports about the difference that GenEq has made in their lives.
“I had just come out right before I went to college and the center was a place where I felt safe, where I was really supported in being who I am,” said Isabel Johnson, who recently graduated with a degree in environmental science. “I just do not have that at home.”
GenEq collaborates with campus offices and organizations such as the Multicultural Student Development office, the Tang Center, UC Berkeley’s Gender and Women’s Studies department and the PATH to Care Center to provide services and events for the women’s community, LGBTQ+ community and people who have been impacted by sexual violence.
Curtis hopes to reach out to alumni and encourage them to engage with the work that GenEq is doing on campus.
“When I think about the legacy of queer and LGBT alumni, they need to know that the university is making progress,” Curtis said. “I think that is what this grand marshal is about — letting people know about the work we are doing here and inviting them to help and advise.”