Queer Life at Berkeley

BY Catherine Tong | December 16, 2022 | Student Essay Awards

Joy, Violence, and Resistance


When we were assigned the task of determining a topic and location for our ethnographic field work that centers on health, inequality, and the body, I decided to explore LGBTQ+ student life at UC Berkeley through my workplace, the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq). 

In my field work, I wanted to document my observations and feelings while finding a community amongst my colleagues and helping event attendees find community. Because I had to personally relearn what it means to be queer and what involvement looks like in college (this is a big reason why I applied to GenEq), I was interested in how other Cal students — new or continuing — have navigated and/or are continuing to navigate their queerness in college and in how they might make improvements to their surroundings and form relationships along the way.Part of me felt excited to be doing something very new: I had felt like there was not much research focused on this and the experiences of people like me. Kristen Renn, one of the few senior faculty in the country who is studying the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in higher education, states that just over two decades ago, there was little research on the development of LGBTQ+ students themselves, even if there was research “focused more on others’ attitudes toward gay and lesbian students” (MSU Today 2022). It is unsurprising but not any less disappointing that LGBTQ+ student development has been under-researched and under-studied.

Additionally, UC Berkeley itself as my field site was fascinating to me as the institution contains so many dualities. Cal has many students who are queer and succeed in meeting their needs in some ways, but are disappointed in others. According to the Fall 2021 diversity dashboard, 13% of undergraduates at Berkeley are queer (Berkeley Diversity 2021). 1% of each of the people in these categories are transgender or gender-nonconforming. UC Berkeley tries to meet the needs of this group by offering gender-inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly student housing options. In a way, these policies directly oppose structural violence towards LGBTQ+ folks by creating a set of social arrangements that affirm LGBTQ+ students rather than putting them in harm’s way. And in some new campus buildings, there are easily accessible gender-neutral bathrooms.

Yet at Mulford Hall, where ESPM C162A took place every Tuesday, there was a piece of paper taped to the door next to the women’s restroom that said “gender neutral bathroom in the basement.” The irony of this does not escape me, and when I went downstairs, I discovered it was a one-room bathroom that I’d have to wait forever for if there was anyone before me. In the context of the university and my personal identity, it was of great interest to me to study the institutional oppression and institutional support taking place at Cal. However, beyond what the school has done itself, I wanted to see how and the extent to which LGBTQ+ students are challenging these preexisting structures and advocating for themselves through finding spaces/community, improving those spaces, finding each other, etc. I wanted to see the results of student-driven efforts. 


GenEq is a campus center and part of the Centers for Educational Justice and Community Engagement (CEJCE), which falls under the Division for Equity and Inclusion. GenEq connects alumni, staff, undergraduates, and graduate students to resources, leadership and educational programs, and other opportunities related to gender, sexuality, identity, and sexual violence (Gender Equity Resource Center). Aside from our many events like QTPie (the biannual queer and trans student welcome), Ace Awareness Week (celebrating the ace community with a week of programming), and the annual RISE! Leader Awards (celebrating women leaders who are either students, faculty, staff, alumni, or local community members), GenEq also invests in the community through the paid student internship program, which I am a part of. GenEq is located in the vicinity of other CEJCE centers, like the new Chicanx Latinx Student Development Center. GenEq itself hosts many of our events using both outdoor and indoor spaces, because GenEq is not just a row of administrative desks. Instead, there is a community space for our events (indoors, outdoors, or a mix of both), drinks and snacks (for anyone who uses the space), and plenty of couches and tables for people to gather, socialize, and form relationships. 


My ethnographic research consisted of a) taking field notes at two GenEq events that I was hosting and b) interviewing my boss for one hour to understand their role(s) and experience leading up to and at GenEq. During the interview, I only took notes on my boss’s body language, which I embedded into my transcript later. During field work, I wrote all my field notes (observations and dialogues) after the event in a brain-dump. During the event, I was engaging in participant-observation, in which I am not only studying the subjects of my field work but also actively participating by trying to screen short films, lead discussions, and interact with attendees. Because I was “deep hanging out” with the attendees and studying with them, I did not have the capacity to take any notes during the GenEq events I was working. 

At these events, I practiced sensuous scholarship by paying attention to my own thoughts and feelings during the event and including those in my field notes. “Sensuous scholarship” is a term developed by Paul Stoller, a cultural anthropologist in the United States, in 1997. Sensuous scholarship includes “embodiment”: “the full presence of the ethnographer’s body in the field … [demanding] a fuller sensual awareness of the smells, tastes, sounds and textures of life among the others … that ethnographers open themselves to others and absorb their worlds” (Stoller 1997, 23). As a queer person and GenEq intern, I embody and am the attendee because my queer body is moving through and experiencing the space. I am also my own research topic’s question, because as an intern at GenEq, I am part of the change by planning and leading the events I was taking field notes at and others. I am experiencing joy and being recognized as what I identify as alongside the attendees.

With sensuous scholarship and participant-observation, I am in the best position to be reflexive, to continually examine, reappraise, and revise social beliefs and practices (Davenport 2000, 314). In addition to noting the feelings of the attendees, it was important that I knew of my own feelings, if I felt fulfilled or joyful at the various events I staffed, and if I felt like we students were together making change. Through “deep hanging out” and sensuous scholarship, I could truly study with people.



Recognition is very powerful and linked to queer joy in many ways, but sometimes also related to sadness and feelings of defeat. “Acts of recognition hang on shared understandings of bodies as things that bear signs of sex, ethnicity, and other forms of belonging and exclusion” (Plemmons, 2019, 19). This understanding of bodies could be how people might either use the correct pronouns or misgender a trans, non-binary, gender-queer, etc., person before having a conversation with them.

Or people might even assume they are trans when they are not. One attendee said, “Well, for me, a lot of people think I’m trans. They first notice the way I dress, then they notice my voice, which is male. But I’m not trans. I’m actually intersex. But I think just because of the way I present and sound, people don’t realize that.” Because shared understandings of the body and how it should be interpreted are the basis of recognition, society and various social arrangements shape recognition. In the US, a person with a deep voice wearing feminine clothing might be signs of sex and gender that cause them to be recognized as trans when they are perhaps intersex. Someone who is intersex might have to fight to be correctly recognized each day.

Other event attendees at the National Coming Out Day event, an event dedicated to being open with our identities and recognition, noticed how society, history, and environment all impact them being recognized during the discussion following the films. 

I said, “Okay, our first question is, how do you understand coming out? If you’ve ever navigated coming out, how has it shown up? Has it ever been one time, multiple times, continuous?” The room was silent for a moment but someone in the far diagonal of me raised their hand. We passed them the mic and they introduced themselves and their pronouns after a little prompting from us, and a shy chuckle from them. They said, “Well, I really liked the first film. I think that in a way, we queer people have to come out every single day. Especially because we live in a heteronormative society, we constantly have to be like, oh we’re queer, every single day.”

One of the GenEq interns behind us raised their hand and we passed the mic to them. “Well, one thing I just want to say is that I feel like coming out is very colonial. We have to come out every single day because coming out is a colonial construct. Like I’m from a background where before colonialism, being queer and stuff is considered normal. So you just kind of exist, there’s no need to come out. So I feel like we have to come out and come out every day here because it’s a western society and it’s a colonial construct.” 

As noted by the attendees, in a heteronormative society, especially one affected by colonial beliefs on sexuality and gender, being recognized takes effort rather than being something natural and expected. To be successfully recognized, someone might need to be interpellated as what they are not first and basically dismantle traditional understandings of signs that bodies might bear in that moment. They might have to first realize that the incorrect pronouns someone is using are actually referring to them, and only after realizing that (being interpellated) can they correct that person. Therefore, being recognized successfully is in many ways the battle of an individual, or a student-driven effort at Cal. For example, pronouns are not required in classes as names and student identification numbers are. And even at the National Coming Out Day event, where it wasn’t even required to introduce oneself if someone wanted to keep that private because they were still figuring things out, some student attendees included their pronouns in their introductions out of their own accord or with some prompting from GenEq student-interns before answering a discussion question. They were proactively putting in the work to be recognized. 

Incorrect interpellation may seem like an acceptable requirement to be recognized, but it is not a good one. Even if the desired result (successful and correct recognition) is reached, the expectation or permission of these micro-level actions contributes to the everyday violence felt by the queer community. Coming out every single day should not be normalized or a routine like it is now. Queer folx are resisting being “okay” with the current norm by expressing their dissatisfaction with coming out every day. This might be true even in friend circles or groups of queer people; folx might not want to talk about their queerness. In a study concerning LGBTQ students’ transitions into and through higher education, one student who was interviewed said, “Although I have developed friendships with other LGBT people, we don’t just talk about being LGBT. We have other interests” (Glazzard, Jindal-Snape, Stones 2020). Queerness is an aspect of someone’s identity, and like other things (being human, being a student at Cal, etc.), should not have to be announced or expounded on every single day.

By expressing dissatisfaction, queer people and the student attendees of the National Coming Out Day event are also fighting against symbolic violence, in which the dominant and oppressed party both agree with a violent social order. Queer folx are not content with constantly coming out, which might be what the dominant group expects. So even at an event celebrating their identity, they fight against colonialism and heteronormative beliefs that are forcing them to make a big deal out of what is natural and an effortlessly accepted way of being, identifying, and feeling in other cultures and societies. 

Fall 2022 Award Winner

Catherine Tong’s “Queer Life at Berkeley: Joy, Violence, and Resistance” is a powerful evaluation of UC Berkeley’s student-led queer culture, including ongoing challenges —relevant not just to Berkeley students but to queer studies more broadly — such as students feeling compelled to come out when they don’t want to. This is a selection from the essay, written for Prof. Seth Holmes’s Fall 2022 Art of Writing class, “Inequality and the Body: Health, Medicine, Society and Environment.”