Paola Bacchetta, a gender and women’s studies professor, remembers what it was like to be the only out lesbian of color faculty on campus when she first started teaching at UC Berkeley in 2003.
Throughout her life, Bacchetta said she stepped into a multitude of social movements relating, and not limited to, colonialism, racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric — writing about them and their commonalities, including the possibility of alliances among them.
On campus, she eventually became the director of campus’s Gender Consortium and worked with many queer graduate students of color as they focused on issues of gender and sexuality, according to Bacchetta. Alongside her colleagues, Bacchetta founded a queer reading group of students of color to provide a space for them to think about queerness in an intersectional way.
Over time, Bacchetta said she uncovered a wealth of allies on campus.
“If (students) look for them, they’ll always find places where they can feel at home on our campus,” Bacchetta said. “If they can’t, then they can create it.”
Nick Stein, a research and development engineer at UC Berkeley’s Seismological Lab, said he took to studying abroad in Japan a week after telling his friends he was gay. To his relief, his friends were supportive, according to Stein.
Later, in 2017, Stein said he was preparing to start his job in Berkeley, excited to partake in “the liberal bastion of wokeness and craziness.” Once he began, however, Stein found working in a largely heteronormative workplace to be less than comfortable. His coworkers would jokingly comment about taste in music or clothing in a way that felt intimidating, he explained.
“You think everyone would be on the same page,” Stein said. “There isn’t really a space for queer people.”
Today, according to Stein, he has adjusted to his colleagues’ banter, saying that calling them out would just be tiring. He said he has found other communities for support.
Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel, a doctoral student and program manager at the Berkeley Food Institute, describes themself as a “lesbian gay boy” as well as a curious person who will fearlessly care for people they love and those who are treated unjustly.
Fanshel said creativity runs in their family, as is evidenced by their love of printmaking and drawing. They explained, however, that they are currently putting their artistry on hold as they redirect effort toward writing for their academics.
Berkeley’s diversity is thinning as the cost of living rises, Fanshel noted. “Artistic communities and queer people tend to be very involved in nonprofit community work,” Fanshel said. “They can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Before Lawrence Cohen became a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and South and Southeast Asian studies, Cohen conducted research on colonialism in South Asia in the early 1990s, according to Cohen. There, Cohen read about the catapulting of queer theory and its postulators who would come to Berkeley and cultivate conversations surrounding the concept.
Cohen later moved to the Bay Area when its obituaries were splashed with reports of people dying from AIDS, a time when treatments had yet to be developed, Cohen added. As Cohen grappled with making sense of the global dynamics of AIDS prevention, Cohen created a campus course called Sexuality, Culture and Colonialism, evaluating the ways in which people approach questions of gender and sexuality as well as their relationships with power.
During Cohen’s high school career, Cohen said there was no talk of queerness. Cohen spent much of that time in the dark about sexual identity. Much of Cohen’s research has focused on aging, a phenomenon that has tied closely into Cohen’s own life as witnessed by the passing tides of students each year, Cohen added.
In a place such as Berkeley, people with relations to the queer community have come and gone, offering their varying experiences and thinking about queerness.
“Each generation of students pushes one to think in powerful new ways about questions of queer being, belonging and struggle,” Cohen said.