Leaving a Legacy at UCI

The Cross Cultural Center collaborated with the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center to host a workshop titled “I am…We are: A Discussion of the Intersections Between Sexual Orientation, Gender, Race and Ethnicity” last Tuesday. UC Irvine students, faculty and community members filled up the CCC’s Dr. White Room and participated in an enlightening conversation about shaping identities and worked together on a collaborative art project.

Program coordinator Denice Velez started the conversation by posing the three central questions to guide the workshop. First, what does our own sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity mean to us? Second, how do others perceive us? Finally, what impact do our identities have on how we live our lives and how we understand the world? Velez wanted participants to understand that acknowledging these identities is important not only on an individual level, but for all of society as we continue to move forward.

In the spirit of the CCC’s continual effort to create a space where UCI community members feel comfortable to share, facilitators asked participants to establish “community agreements” before proceeding. These included, but were not limited to, “one mic, one diva,” “use I-statements” and “challenge the idea, not the person.” Although most participants have been through these workshops in the past, these community agreements were tested by the end of the two hours when conversations revealed a deep  harbored concern within the UCI community.

Once participants agreed to abide by the community agreements of the workshop, facilitators created basic working definitions for the four components of the conversation: sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity. Participants learned that “sexual orientation” differs from “gender” because the term describes the attraction an individual feels. Terms that fall under the “sexual orientation” category include straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, queer, questioning and fluid. In contrast, gender has a dual definition that includes gender identity, or the internal perception of oneself, and gender expression, or what others see and sometimes might not align with how one may see oneself. The group then worked together to define the socially constructed terms of “race” and “ethnicity.”

Workshop facilitators went on to the art component titled Express Your Own Identity. Participants used square sheets of canvas cloth and painted their own identity according to the color key created by the coordinators: blue represented race, green represented ethnicity, purple represented socioeconomic status, yellow represented ability status, and brown represented citizen status. When they finished, participants used pushpins to display their artwork on a board in the CCC.

“I realized I actually only used the colors for sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity,”  third-year English major Aoi Saionji said. He initially painted an abstract flower because he thought it looked nice, but then he analyzed his work. “I noticed that all of the green and the blue was on the outside the same way that that is out and visible for people to see and that society is going to judge you based on that no matter what. However, it is cradling what is deeper inside — your gender and sexual orientation — which people cannot discriminate against you for unless you come out.”

Following the art project, four speakers invited by the CCC and the LGBTRC shared their personal narratives in relation to the workshop’s four topics. The first speaker expressed that the main obstacle of identifying as a transgender male was visibility. The speaker said that even within trans-spaces, there seems to be a low representation of trans-men and overall a lack of recognition and understanding.

The second speaker began by acknowledging their perceived status as a white citizen from a middle class family.  Especially with Transgender Day of Remembrance last Wednesday, they expressed that they understood and felt fortunate that their perceived identity meant they were less likely to face physical violence than people of color who align their identities along the trans-spectrum. That being said, they still struggled with the two gender categories that were presented, and felt uncomfortable for many years with the dual-gender system.

The third speaker, Alana Herbert, a third-year undergraduate student, talked about the common Jezebel, or the overly sexualized, stereotype that Black woman face. This stereotype can be often seen in music videos. Herbert asked the audience to consider where this image has been used to portray Black women in the media, especially with the recently popular television show, “Scandal.” Herbert questioned the fact that actresses of color Halle Berry, Viola Davis and Mo’Nique Jackson won Oscars for portraying submissive African American female roles.

One participant commented that women of color who present themselves as strong and opinioned are often referred to by derogatory slang.

“You are asking why an angry Black woman is seen as a ‘bitch,’” Herbert responded. “But the point I want to make is that she isn’t seen as one. For females of any other race who have these qualities, yes, they are called that, but for Black women, she will be called ‘an angry Black woman.’”

The final speaker described her experience of moving to the United States from Mexico. She shared that she always took pride in her culture and heritage and that it was not until her high school counselor recommended that her mother take her back to Mexico that she began to question her identity. The counselor told her mother several offensive statistics of Latinas in high school. Despite everything, she stayed and graduated with honors. She later wondered why no one had faith in her and told her to return to her country.

She concluded her speech by asking the audience, “Why is it that I have to look at the color of my skin, or if I am a man or a woman or any other identity, in order to be able to get an education or get somewhere in this country?”

Several members expressed concern that there were structural flaws within the educational system that failed her and other students, and noted these flaws exist at the university level. Participants called for more discussion over these sensitive issues and shared their own stories. Facilitators needed to revisit the community agreements when emotions were stirred, but told students to stay after the two-hour mark to continue the discussion. Participants were left to decide the kind of legacy they want to leave when it comes to these social topics of sexual orientation, gender, race and ethnicity. Many felt conflicted and demanded that it takes more than simply raising awareness and action needs to be taken.