Members and volunteers of the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition share information about their initiatives and activities with other campus students. (Photo Credit: Nikolai Mather)

On an unusually warm night in February, 13 students squeezed into a small study room in the Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) for what would be the first meeting of the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition.

Many of them were friends, some were strangers, and on the condition that they came to the meeting, all had been promised free food — by me, a broke college student. The only food I had in my dorm was the one-pound bag of Swedish Fish my mother had sent me for my birthday.

And I felt everybody’s eyes on me as I dropped it in the center of the table.

Asha Coutrier, the team scribe, side-eyed me over their glasses, then said, “Okay, first order of business: Nick brought terrible snacks.” The room erupted into giggles.

This exchange set the tone for the rest of this long, challenging, and remarkable campaign. The Coalition was a small group of busy students: most of us were first-years, many with jobs or other time-consuming obligations. We were attempting to do what no one at UNCC had ever done before: establish a standalone, permanent center created by and for LGBTQ+ students. And we wanted it open by the following semester. Our task was daunting.

We were all pretty scared. But we found the strength and humor to create something out of nothing and accomplish our goals. And we met this task with more than just power: we met it with honesty, with creativity and with love.

When I say love, I don’t mean the bland, “love-trumps-hate” concessions that the opposition tends to demand from us. Our love was radical, and it was for each other. The Coalition was more than just a club: it was a family. We made each other dinner, we gave each other gifts, and when our meetings ran late into the night, we walked each other home, with our keys between our fingers and our laughter echoing into the trees. We sought to tear down transphobia, queerphobia and all other systems of oppression by building one another up.

Our critics believed that in order to achieve our goals, we needed to be more patient with those contributing to an anti-LGBTQ+ culture on campus. What they didn’t understand was that queer and transgender people had been patient with UNCC for 30 years. This university, like most institutions of higher education, is founded in white supremacy, transphobia and elitism.

Though we met many dedicated allies within the administration, we keenly felt the barrier of power dividing us from them. And we couldn’t cross that barrier by submitting to the status quo.

Because the status quo was killing us. Every day presents a new set of hazards for LGBTQ+ students. We face higher rates of harassment, sexual assault, physical assault, suicide and murder. Transgender students experience particularly brutal circumstances; misgendering, misnaming and discrimination based on birth sex are all daily realities. At UNCC, we are sometimes forced to room with individuals who share our birth sex, even if we have started medically transitioning. This results in discomfort and gender dysphoria at best and an incredibly hostile living arrangement at worst. When my former suitemate’s mother discovered another roommate and I were transgender men, she berated us for two hours straight, telling us that our “lifestyles” were not only wrong, but morally reprehensible. To be subjected to a barrage of transphobic abuse in your own damn living room is incredibly traumatic and incredibly common for transgender students.
An LGBTQ+ center wouldn’t provide an instant fix for these problems — not instantly, anyway. But we studied in the same buildings as Blake Brockington and Kate Laffitte. Their deaths reminded us of the urgency of the fight against queerphobia and transphobia. We were victims of the same systems; what happened to them could so easily happen to one of us. We couldn’t wait until the next tragedy to take action.

So we got to work. We made flyers, we held meetings, we hosted events, we contacted professors and department chairs and newspapers asking to publicize our campaign, we tabled every single day — and we got over 1,600 signatures on our petition. That small group of busy students soon blossomed into a cohort of dozens. And eventually, our calls were answered by the administration. It will take some time to launch the space — we don’t even have an official name yet! — but we hope to have it ready by the end of the semester.

The long march toward justice sometimes requires patience. But it always requires passion. The UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition had plenty of that. When we began this journey, I had so many doubts. The injustice I faced as a queer, transgender man was turning me cynical; at times, I thought our struggle was hopeless. The talented, determined, and brilliant individuals in this organization restored my faith in social justice. Our success stands testament to the power of youth organizing. And we are so excited to share it with you.