by Sabiha Younus
One of the essays I wrote for my admission application to UT Austin was about LGBTQ+ inclusion in my home country, Bangladesh—the restrictive laws, the cultural stigma, and the communities that thrive quietly despite this. Moving to Austin, a city cited often for its visible LGBTQ+ population, I sought to immerse myself in a community where individuals are allowed to be extravagant about their identities—where you might be Muslim, queer, and a person of color, and still not be a novelty.
During open houses as a newly admitted student at UT, I remember seeing sophomores, juniors and seniors in positions of leadership. Work-study undergraduates gave campus tours to prospective freshmen and reassured anxious parents, many of whom were about to part with their children for the first time. Despite being not much older than the sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds that were embarking on a new milestone, the undergraduate students had a self-assured maturity about them, a confidence that only comes with age and experience. As an international student, I was dazzled; as a young woman from a conservative small town, I had grown up being told that quiet studiousness was my greatest virtue. I was used to being discouraged from participating in extracurricular activities—It was certainly not a young woman’s job to be in positions of authority, and the privilege of visibility was offered only to a certain few. In retrospect, I can see that the awe I felt during these events was distinct from what many American students around me felt. I had tentatively stepped out of the snow globe I had been trapped in my whole life.
It was that version of me that I kept in mind as I welcomed freshmen into the Gender and Sexuality Centre for orientation open house sessions in summer 2022, as a senior and an undergraduate intern myself. As I rearranged student organization flyers and cheerful rainbow stickers on the countertops every Tuesday, I tried to look at the room with fresh eyes. I thought about the strangeness of the passage of time, and how it had brought me into the shoes of the unattainable upperclassmen I had once looked up to.
A small group of students (around 5 to 15 in number, depending on the day) would show up for the thirty-minute Women’s Center open house each Tuesday afternoon; a separate group of a similar size would show up again for the nearly identical thirty-minute LGBTQ+ Center open house that would take place right afterwards. (While there were not many immediately noticeable differences between the Women’s Center and LGBTQ+ Center turnouts, the one exception was the flock of thirty freshman that showed up for the LGBTQ+ open house on the final in-person orientation day.) We began each session by encouraging attendees to make and decorate their own name tags and introduce themselves briefly. We would then provide them with a rundown of the GSC’s various resources, affiliates, events and amenities, encourage them to fill out an online interest form, hand out paper surveys, and allow the session to disperse into organic conversation.
A space with relaxed staff has a specific welcoming ambience that I believe students instantly pick up on; the chairs were arranged in a circle instead of the default classroom format, and students were handed fliers and invited to pick up stickers as they walked in. We casually talked about our favorite dinosaurs, and complimented hand-drawn doodles on converse shoes. In many cultures, including my own, little luxuries like stickers, colorful shoes, and questions like “What’s your favorite animal?” are widely regarded as unprofessional and juvenile. There are certain joys that are assigned exclusively to children, and certain kinds of small talk that are frowned upon when you are speaking to an authority figure. And perhaps this is where healing begins—a revisitation of childhood, without having to hide parts of yourself. For many of these students, it is their first time being surrounded by like-minded people, or truly feeling like they are part of the LGBTQ+ community in a physical space.
Being handed a piece of paper to handwrite their feelings at the end of that experience may be something they need—just as much as the GSC needs the survey results for our data. Near the end of summer and after our final (overwhelming) session, I was assigned ten stacks of scribbled-in forms, neatly clipped together. I was in charge of compiling the data into a digital spreadsheet in the most efficient way possible. I went through the responses one page at a time, poring over the handwritten answers. Despite the widely varying demographics the students volunteered about themselves, one element remained constant throughout the whole process: On every form, the safety the students felt in the space radiated off their writing. Nearly every single attendee said they were glad to be here (often with exclamatory marks or smiley faces, and sometimes with more details about why). Some chose to share additional fun facts about themselves, or mention why a space like the GSC is so important to them: how they are closeted, or out to their families but experiencing complex dynamics. They are stunned to find not only a safe space with a sizeable number of allies, but also that they are not alone as queer or trans people on campus.
With the exposure to so many fliers and information, many attendees condensed affiliate student organizations, resources, and discussion groups into one category. (“Resources,” they wrote in their survey answers, or “orgs”.) But a significant percentage of students carefully wrote out names of organizations that they had memorized—a group that targeted their specific intersecting identities of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
When asked what they were interested in joining, many students mentioned our weekly conversation group, “Feminist Friday”. In those answers I saw my own teenage self reflected: Plagued by peers at school who thought I was brainwashed by “woke” culture, “feminist” was an identity that I held close as both an anchor and a target on my back. As a young adult at UT, I was finally able to surround myself with like-minded peers who do not regard my allyship as excessive.
A majority of students said they would change nothing about the open house, but among the ones who did say they want something changed, a majority asked for more mingling time. (On the last day of the LGBTQ+ open house, some asked for more seating space; It amused me to imagine their dismay as they pictured us trying to fit two batches of thirty-five people in the little common space behind the Ana Sisnett Library every week in summer.) One student mentioned they felt put on the spot when asked to share their pronouns, and asked for an option to pass in the future. A few responses mentioned that they would appreciate a visual presentation, which would help with focus and information retention—and be more accommodating towards students with ADHD and APD, among other things. It was poignant to see the number of responses to questions simply saying “I don’t remember,” citing their ADHD, or that that they zoned out. A student voluntarily shared that they were on the autism spectrum in the demographics section. Not all learning environments ensure that an individual’s uncertainty, mistakes, or disabilities will not be cited against their worth as students. The GSC open houses, if nothing else, succeed in offering a space that allows students to come as they are, make the space their own, and expect their environment to accommodate their needs.
While libraries are widely regarded as one of the few places in the United States that do not expect you to spend money to use their amenities, they also don’t ask you to be immediately productive in some way or form. As a summer intern, I bumped into several people who, like me, had ended up in Austin instead of home—whether that is another city, a different state, or a foreign country. A summer research student from Colombia walked in and asked me which section would have information about biology. We ended up chatting for a quarter of an hour on the intersection between STEM and the humanities, and how conversations about the LGBTQ+ community can be brought to STEM spaces. We parted after exchanging the names of all the bookstores and libraries in Austin, and walked away with new additions to our individual Austin bucket lists.
Volunteering in libraries is a fate that I’ve seen too many quiet, book-loving South Asian young people meet for it to simply be a coincidence. We grow up hungry for books, but limited titles are published, imported and circulated in our home countries. Meeting our favorite young adult authors at an event or signing is something we don’t have the luxury to dream about. Stepping into a US public library, then, feels like an unlikely dream come true. One of the most accessible sources of knowledge about gender and sexuality for Bangladeshi youth is simply books: English young adult fiction from the late 2010s onward, reprinted locally and distributed in stores that sell textbooks and Bengali novels; books that would have been banned if it were not for the simple fact that they are in English, and not the native language, Bengali. Policymakers usually have more urgent commitments—reading children’s fiction in a language they mostly limit to using for official purposes (and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster) is not on their priority list. And so, through this simple loophole, we survive, and commune around literature hidden in plain sight.
Finding myself a few years down the line quietly alphabetizing books in the Ana Sisnett Library’s trusty, decades-old Dewey “dot” system, I can only brush my fingers over the rainbows on the titles and marvel at my luck. As a little girl, I did not know a library for young feminists could exist in real life; as a little girl, I did not know that “feminist” would only become a small part of my multi-faceted identity, when allowed to flourish in a university that has spaces for people like me; in a city that thrives with a huge community of people I belong with in more ways than one. In those moments, my doubts vanish: I know why I left my home on the other side of the planet. I hope the freshman I helped welcome to their next four years of life will say the same.
Sabiha Younus (she/her) is a Physics and Astronomy major at the University of Texas at Austin with a minor in English and a certificate in Creative Writing. She helps run the undergraduate student organization Gender Minorities in Physics, and is a member of the Student Advisory Council for the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics by the American Physical Society. She is additionally involved in coordinating Litmosphere, a Bangladesh-wide literary organization and book club.