June 13, 2023
June is NYC Pride Month, and Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York (BMCC/CUNY) encourages the college community to take part in events at BMCC as well as citywide events including Pridefest celebrations in Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Harlem and Manhattan.
Pride Month is also a time to remind the college community of resources for LGBTQIA students, faculty and staff.
The BMCC Pride Center offers community support and resources under the umbrella of the college’s Social Justice and Equity Centers, providing services including SafeZone Training for staff and faculty who want to become better allies for the BMCC queer community.
Issues specific to LGBTQIA students are addressed as part of the college’s Race, Equity and Inclusion (REI) efforts, and while the college acknowledges NYC Pride Month in June, another BMCC Pride Month takes place in October, when more students are on campus.
These institutional efforts in support of the LGBTQIA community are made possible by faculty and staff who lead initiatives, join committees and contribute support.
One of BMCC’s most dedicated advocates for LGBTQIA students is Assistant Professor Brian Kelley, who joined the faculty of BMCC’s Academic Literacy and Linguistics department in 2015.
While quick to add that BMCC’s support for queer students at BMCC has grown over the years, he admits that when he first joined the college, queer visibility was not as high as he expected it to be, given BMCC’s proximity to the West Village of Manhattan.
Professor Kelley explains that the West Village is the sight of an historic act of resistance known as the Stonewall Uprising, that gave LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual) rights national visibility and centered it within the American civil rights movement at that time.
In June 1969, he says, as part of a long-standing pattern of police harassment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street and now a national monument.
The bar’s patrons, rather than submit to yet another brutal police raid, fought back. Supported by outraged neighborhood residents who marched alongside them, they filled the streets of the West Village; chanting, throwing bottles at the police and fueling six days of grass roots resistance that became known as the Stonewall Uprising.
BMCC, by the way, was just six years old at that time, housed in two stories of an office building in midtown Manhattan.
Now fast forward to 2015. BMCC has grown to almost 20,000 students, and moved to its Chambers Street campus in lower Manhattan. Professor Kelley has just joined the college, and meets Megan Elias, then coordinator of BMCC’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (CETLS), at a faculty orientation.
“Megan helped me to found the Queer Communities Faculty Interest Group, or FIG, which enabled me to find community when I first came to BMCC,” says Professor Kelley.
He also credits for their early support of his advocacy work, now-retired Women’s Resource Director Deborah Parker, who helped him become involved in BMCC’s Pride Month and Safe-Zone trainings, and Professor Brianne Waychoff, who provided inspiration and leadership, and passed away in July 2022.
“I met Brianne in Fall 2015, and I am forever thankful for the love and support she gave to sustain me as I worked to create more openly queer spaces at BMCC,” Professor Kelley says. “She was a dedicated activist for queer issues, including advocating to then-Interim BMCC President Karrin Wilks regarding facilities like single-sex bathrooms.”
He says that Professor Waychoff’s work with students in the Gender and Women’s Studies program — which she co-designed with Professor Amy Sodaro — “also contributed greatly to helping students feel secure and to speak out for their needs.”
He notes that progress in supporting the LGBTQIA community at BMCC has also been made by colleagues who advocated for the diverse needs of queer students on a range of committees in College Council and the BMCC Academic Senate.
Being “a six-foot-two, white, cisgender man” relates to the freedom to be “out”
“I have lived an openly queer life since July 1997,” says Professor Kelley. “I have always spoken openly, worn symbols, and never really had to think about how I perform my identity in different contexts.”
That freedom to be “out,” he says, relates to many overlapping identities: “As a six-foot-two, white, cisgender man, I am aware that I have privileges compared to other individuals.”
He also asserts that with privilege comes the responsibility to be “a defender of individuals who are more vulnerable or may not be ready to be ‘out.’ I try to use my privilege to speak out on queer issues and also work to make spaces where I hope others feel safe, secure and comfortable.”
To that end, Professor Kelley has authored courses at BMCC including “Critical Thinking: Inquiry through Queer Theories.” In addition to developing the college’s first Queer Communities Faculty Interest Group (FIG), he created the BMCC Pride Mentoring Network, and has embedded what he refers to as “queer pedagogy” in all the courses he teaches.
“By making queerness visible in my courses — not just as an addendum or in a ‘Safe Zone’ kind of way, but in the very heart of how I teach — I work to make queer students feel safe,” he says. “But queer pedagogy and making queerness visible aren’t just about making queer students feel safe. It is also about creating situations where students can wrestle with discomfort and disruption of what might be taken for granted.”
That’s the “heart of learning,” he says. “We need to experience cognitive disequilibrium to learn; we need to engage critically with possibilities and feel disrupted, discomforted or ‘shaken up.’”
It’s important to go further than just asking for pronouns
Working with BMCC Open Knowledge Librarian and Associate Professor Jean Amaral on an Open Lab project, Professor Kelley says, “I really thought hard about how to encapsulate my beliefs about what education means. I chose, as my four-word pedagogical statement, ‘Love is Our Survival,’ adapted from poet and activist Audre Lorde‘s powerful queer feminist statement, ‘The love expressed between women is particular and powerful because we have had to love in order to live; love has been our survival.’ I believe that love being our survival is truly what working in education, at any level and in any position, is all about.”
A question that all students ask, he says, regardless of the communities of which they are part, “is whether this person before me is authentic.”
In other words, he explains, “Students know if they matter to the person with whom they are speaking, and they shut down when they feel disrespected or believe that the person is disengaged.”
To ensure that doesn’t happen, he says, teachers and staff must go further than simply asking students for their pronouns and giving their own.
“We need to ask ourselves questions like: ‘How long do we speak with students?’ ‘How much do we make them feel heard?’ ‘How authentically do we care about them and their growth and needs?’ ‘Are we helping students feel that their experiences and realities are valued and respected?’”
Supporting vulnerable students builds retention
BMCC does a great job of supporting vulnerable students through programs such as the Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC), which provides assistance with critical immediate such as food insecurity and homelessness, as well as the Counseling Center and others, says Professor Kelley.
At the same time, he says, students who need support the most may either not know how to seek it or may experience emotional or physical barriers that prevent them from seeking help.
“Many of our queer students carry significant traumas in their lives from their intersectional realities,” he says. “Many have no permanent homes; students who choose not to ‘pass,’ or who are unable to ‘pass,’ may have difficulty finding employment. There are students with pressing medical concerns — students who are queer veterans may be dealing with PTSD; queer students who rely upon sex work may have a variety of needs.”
To prevent students from developing a sense of defeatism, “They need to not only know that there are networks of support but also strong allies rooting for them,” he says. “We have to make our students understand we are truly here for them and that they are safe, respected and valued in their time at BMCC.”
He adds that because LGBTQIA+ students aren’t fully visible, “we don’t always know what their pressing issues or concerns are and how it is that these concerns affect questions like retention.”
To address these gaps, he says, Professor Kelley and his colleague Associate Professor of Health Education Yuliya Shneyderman “are currently working with the CUNY-wide LGBTQIA+ Consortium to secure City Council funds to build projects to support LGBTQIA+ students, but these are microgrants.”
Students are aware of the political landscape — and protect themselves accordingly
Trauma from intersectional realities is often experienced by LGBTQIA students from countries where it is dangerous and even illegal to be gay.
Likewise, there are regions of the United States that are more dangerous for gays than other parts of the country — and this impacts students’ performance in college, as well as their ability to take part in travel opportunities connected to the college experience.
“I think many of our students are very much conscious of the political landscapes they face in the world as well as throughout the United States,” says Professor Kelley.
He points out that more than 400 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States since the start of 2023 — a new record, according to American Civil Liberties Union data, and twice the number of such bills introduced in 2022.
Here’s another example: Just as a number of states followed Florida’s bill that opponents labeled ‘Don’t Say Gay‘ — which restricts in-school discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity — several states joined Tennessee in proposing bills that would ban drag performances.
“One of the key aspects of being queer is that our survival depends upon us knowing where there are dangers,” says Professor Kelley, “whether it’s studying abroad as someone who is HIV+ and knowing which countries will and will not allow you in — or knowing in which countries you actually may be arrested.”
One of the great things about New York City, he says, is the large number of lawyers who will, pro bono, help refugees who are LGBTQIA+ identified, seek asylum.
At the same time, he says, “One of my bigger worries, of course, are students who, like Dreamers, are politically stuck in a legal place of limbo and from whom any range of protections may be removed by courts or changing political landscapes.”
Looking back on his own college experience, and looking ahead for BMCC
Brian Kelley grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women’s Studies, as well as a Master of Arts degree in Reading Specialist, Literacy Studies at New Jersey City University. His Ph.D. in Language and Literacy is from Fordham University.
While Professor Kelley credits his white and CIS-male identities for enabling his choice to be “out” as a self-described queer or pansexual person, he admits to having experienced some challenges along the way.
“I came out before starting college, and some of my family members had difficulties accepting my identity, but it never impacted my studies,” he says. “I was a first-generation college student from a working-class family. Before going to college, I knew I had to pay my own way because of my family’s financial realities. This afforded me the opportunity to choose my own classes, including those in LGBT studies, and to minor in Women’s Studies. Not many of my peers whose education was funded by parents had this privilege.”
Ideally, he wants BMCC students to benefit from the kinds of opportunities he had, as a young queer man.
Looking ahead with his advocacy at BMCC for LGBTQIA students, faculty and staff, he says he would like to see the Pride Center, which is now part of the Social Justice Center, to be “fully funded and staffed.”
In addition, he says, “We have opportunities now to network with community organizations that support LGBTQIA+ teens and adults, and we can work on more grants to provide such populations scholarships and financial assistance to attend college.”
Professor Kelley says LGBTQIA advocates can also choose to organize and mobilize around issues, “or make change by the work we do and the lives that we touch.”
“We must take into account what can be learned from Suffragists and Civil Rights activists, among others,” he says. “We must accept that making change is difficult, laborious and draining. We may be met repeatedly by challenges and defeats, and get discouraged.”
Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, he says the main thing to remember “is to find families in whom we find the joy of love, camaraderie and support, giving us the energy to endure. We live not just for ourselves, but for the hope that we help others survive and make things better for those we leave behind.”
Learn more about resources provided by the Office of Student Affairs at BMCC including LGBTQIA services, the BMCC Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) and the BMCC Counseling Center. Learn more about the BMCC Women’s and Gender Studies program, in the Social Sciences, Human Services and Criminal Justice department.
Supporting the LGBTQIA student community at BMCC helps build retention and relates to several goals within the college’s Strategic Plan, including Strategic Goal 4: Improve completion and transfer rates through integrated support services.
June is NYC Pride Month, and BMCC invites the college community to attend events at BMCC as well as citywide events including Pridefest celebrations in Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Harlem and Manhattan
The BMCC Pride Center offers community support and resources under the umbrella of the college’s Social Justice and Equity Centers, providing services including SafeZone Training for staff and faculty who want to become better allies for the BMCC queer community
Professor Brian Kelley founded the Queer Communities Faculty Interest Group, or FIG, at BMCC, as well as including queer content in his courses