Unlike many universities, UC Berkeley has a rich queer and trans history that dates back to 1882, when noted queer poet and playwright Oscar Wilde visited the campus just 14 years after its establishment. Today, our campus is home to more queer and trans students than ever before and, as our numbers have grown, so have our needs. Despite this influx in the size of our community, however, the university has only recently begun to acknowledge and prioritize the resource most integral to queer and trans survival on campus and beyond: mentorship.
When considering how to support queer and trans folks, it’s easy to get lost in intricate, radical and elaborate plans or projects. While the university has made strides in its inclusivity, administrators often get so wrapped up in conference-room theories that they neglect the simple yet effective concept of mentorship. Gender-inclusive locker rooms and retroactive name changes are essential, but queer and trans students need more than a quick fix to the problems that plague our community. These hurdles will arise over and over again, in many more insidious forms, unless queer and trans folks receive guidance on how to avoid and, if necessary, cope with them as they navigate the world.
As I reflect on childhood from my comfortably queer adulthood, my heart breaks for the little girl I used to be and for all of the others like me. I grieve for the hours spent soul-searching instead of enjoying the bliss of being an unencumbered child. Perhaps sadder, though, is the simple fact that so many young queer and trans lives would be drastically improved by an introduction to LGBTQ+-identified role models.
Representation isn’t enough. What good is seeing your identity reflected back at you if society, media, politics and the public continually remind you of your inherent depravity? In a world that seeks to stifle deviance from oppressive norms, we need proactive mentorship to learn to accept and inhabit the parts of ourselves that society seeks to erase. Emotionally intelligent, identity-informed mentorship is the only way to mitigate the trauma, the repression and the confusion associated with being LGBTQ+-identifying.
Beyond its affirming qualities, though, mentorship has the potential to be literally life-saving. According to the Trevor Project, queer youth seriously contemplate suicide at nearly three times the rate of heterosexual youth; for trans youth, these statistics are even more grim. Isolation, rejection, harassment and internal conflict directly contribute to these disturbing figures. With queer and trans mentors guiding the way, identifying youth would be able to learn directly from the lived experiences of those who have already survived every painful obstacle that blocks the road for LGBTQ+ folks.
Mentorship isn’t just for youth, though. Not every queer and trans person has the opportunity to explore or consider their identity in their adolescence and, for some, that process of discovery can only begin once independent adulthood begins. College, for many LGBTQ+ folks, is a period of transformation and, for that reason, it is absolutely critical for UC Berkeley and other universities to provide mentorship programs for both incoming and already-enrolled LGBTQ+ students. As if navigating an oppressive society weren’t difficult enough, burgeoning queer and trans students at UC Berkeley are forced to combine that with the significant challenge of navigating this deeply inaccessible campus. While UC Berkeley does have programs such as Queer Cal Pals and the QT study buddy search, these relatively new initiatives, like most of the resources for underrepresented communities, are underfunded and underutilized.
The 2015 UC Berkeley Campus Climate Survey found that 47 percent of genderqueer/transgender and 33 percent of queer students feel intentionally excluded by their campus peers and by university faculty. For any university, these numbers are dismal. For a university as famously “progressive” as UC Berkeley, these numbers are unconscionable. They indicate a systemic failure to uplift queer and trans students beyond performative stances and shows of support. They demand remedy, and that remedy should take the form of enhanced mentorship.
A truly equitable UC is one that nurtures the development of its students — especially its most vulnerable students. Society depicts college as a time to throw young adults overboard without a life vest. This misconception is dangerous. It’s the reason queer and trans students have been drowning on this campus for years. When both queer and trans adults and adolescents struggle to stay afloat, it’s time to deploy life-saving tools and tactics. Proactive mentorship should always be the first line of defense. UC Berkeley administrators must learn to prioritize mentorship programs for queer and trans students on campus before the tidal wave of queer and trans oppression takes us under.
Teddy Lake is a junior at UC Berkeley, the founder of QT study buddy search and an ASUC senator. She is running for ASUC president.