After years of organizing and advocating for queer and trans communities, Harper Rubin ‘19 has accrued an impressive amount of experience working towards institutional change. Rubin, who uses they/them pronouns, is involved in a wide range of clubs and organizations both on and off of the Bard-Annandale campus, and approaches each with seriousness and integrity. As a co-head of both Queer Student Association (QSA) and Trans Life Collective (TLC), member of the Education Policies committee, co-editor of the draft, and a tour guide (among other things), Rubin sees how changes big and small happen throughout the Bard community. Rubin, ready for tennis practice, met with me before they had to be on the court to discuss what it means to be an advocate for the trans and queer communities, what institutional reforms can bring about social change, and how privilege and responsibility play a role in activism.
Rubin began organizing on a larger scale in their senior year of high school with Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the educational environment for transgender and nonconforming youth, where they are now the program director.
“I was looking for something to do that was more national when I was graduating high school,” Rubin said. “I wanted to make a bigger difference so I sought out organizations where it looked like I could actually have an impact but it was still a national scale […] and TSER definitely had the structure for that.”
Through working with TSER, Rubin learned skills that have influenced their on-campus organizing with QSA and TLC. They said although they are a co-head of both organizations, they feel that the role differs between the two. For TLC, Rubin sees the role as someone who is responsible for understanding trans related issues on campus, both in terms of the community and institutional policies.
“I follow up with administrators; I have lots of meetings about stuff like the gender neutral locker room in the gym and stuff like that, so those kinds of little bureaucratic things that lead to policy changes,” they said.
Rubin said that with QSA, as opposed to their role in TLC, is more concerned with building community than engaging with the institution. The club has been more focused on hosting and co-hosting events that engage the whole Bard community, like Gender Blender, Spring Formal, and the sold-out Chelsea Manning talk that happened in February. These events link the trans and queer communities with the greater student population and provide a platform for trans and queer voices. By facilitating these spaces, the clubs are actively participating in the Bard community. As the national discourse continues to misrepresent and marginalize the LGBTQ+ community, having their prominent voices on campus is a way to bring trans and queer issues into the mainstream. In talking about inclusivity on campus, Rubin described the unique and nuanced space for queer students at Bard.
“We do have such a big queer population that [inclusivity] feels like it means something different,” Rubin said. “What was difficult for me coming to Bard way back when I was a freshman was that I hadn’t been used to being in a space where there were so many queer people and where we weren’t forced to seek our own sub space within the community. That doesn’t really happen here; the community is looser. There’s not this need for kind of an underground space.”
What Rubin wants to see for the queer and trans community has to do with institutional change.
“The ideal that I’m working towards is a Bard where it feels like there’s real tangible institutional support for students,” Rubin said.
When it comes to these issues, Rubin said that Bard is a supportive place if you know who you can go to or if you are in a position to know who has certain powers within the institution.
“Because I do all of this work, I can name all the administrators I personally could go to if I was in trouble and needed support, right?” Rubin said. “But it’s not as clear for students who are not in those positions who they can go to. And what that signals to me is that there’s not a sense that the institution as a whole is supportive of these things.”
Rubin outlined two major initiatives that could help support students: an emergency fund and intersession housing for free or a reduced fee.
“One of the things I’ve talked about in the past that I really do hope to work towards […] is having an emergency fund for students in general, but especially for those who have been disowned or whose families have responded poorly to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and then access to intersession housing for free or at a reduced cost for students who feel unsafe going home, who don’t have families,” Rubin said. “I’ve been disowned and I know a number of students who have–you know, I was–lucky is the wrong word, but it happened when I was fourteen so I had time to figure that situation out and regain some sense of stability before I went to college. For a lot of students they don’t really know they’re trans until they come to college, and then they go home and they come out or they’re found out, and then they’re kicked out. There needs to be a response system and that’s one of the big things that I think could signal institutional support.”
The current housing model limits accessibility to students who feel safe or are able to go home.
“Colleges weren’t necessarily designed to be homes for students year round and there’s a direct link between that model and the barriers to accessing education,” Rubin said. “If schools in general, but Bard specifically, doesn’t just want LGBTQ+ students for diversity points, if they actually want these students to actually succeed, they need to recognize this and amend the model. Without housing and funding resources and guarantees, many LGBTQ+ students will be forced to choose between dropping out and attempting to achieve financial and environmental security on their own or staying in school and returning to an abusive or violent home environment for four to five months a year.”
Though these initiatives will require a great amount of work and resources, there are smaller policy issues that affect the trans and queer communities that can be amended. Many of these issues, especially those that affect trans students, show how institutional changes have the potential to affect social and cultural change. Many of the issues that affect trans students concern their quality of life. By making institutional policies more aware of what it means to be trans in America today, Bard can give its trans students the resources they need to live the life they want to live.
“There’s actually, especially with trans issues, there’s a place where these things [institutional and social change] kind of meet,” Rubin said. “I’m thinking about professors misgendering students, for example; [that] would be the concrete place where they intersect. At certain schools it’s policy that […] you have to use the proper pronouns for transgender students. There are places where it’s a policy that that has to happen; here it’s not. And I’m not saying that problems would be solved if it was, I actually think it’s a cultural thing primarily; I don’t know if we can change stuff like that through policies like that but it is a place of intersection because that in theory enables microaggressions to happen or to happen without recourse.”
Another example Rubin gave was the lack of policy regarding student athletes who want to wear a different uniform than their team because they feel uncomfortable doing so.
“When I started tennis, I was only able really to get another uniform because I was comfortable taking the risk to ask my captains to talk to my coach about it,” Rubin said. “But there’s no language in place about that. So that would be a simple shift [in] language; there’s not really a resource allocation that has to happen.”
But changing policy language can only do so much.
“It’s hard because you can put all of those policies in place and put all those resources in place and that doesn’t mean that there won’t still be people with their individual biases,” Rubin said. “But there should be clear communication that like, this is what you do if you’re not getting what you need. And if you don’t get what you need from the people who are supposed to be that kind of chain of command, these are the people you go to otherwise. And of course that relies on somebody in that chain of command not having those biases and recognizing that there’s a problem there.”
For now, Rubin continues to learn the ins and outs of Bard as an institution so they can be as effective as possible in their work. After three years of organizing under their belt, they want to help other students trying to navigate the system. Rubin seems to always try to be aware of their role and how best to fill it given whatever contextual privilege and knowledge they have. For instance, before shifting the conversation from TLC and QSA to the role of activism in their life, Rubin made sure to point out dynamics within the queer community that are not talked about enough.
“The only other thing is, it would be wrong for me to have an interview about the queer community at Bard without talking about how white it is and the racial dynamics there,” Rubin said. “Even though there’s no institutional memory that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t shaped our spaces, right? Things have happened in the past that have led to this being the dynamic, and those things need to change. And they won’t change just from one person in charge doing something, because it’s not very centralized, not everyone’s involved in institutional queer stuff on campus, right, people don’t come to QSA very often but that doesn’t mean that the people who don’t show up aren’t responsible for injustices in our own community and people need to think about that very seriously.”
Even at an institution with a large queer population like Bard, queer students of color are often underrepresented and marginalized. On a national scale, trans and queer people of color are more vulnerable when it comes to discrimination, harassment, and violence. This inequity within trans and queer communities is also exacerbated by socioeconomic status, which makes the financial and housing resources Rubin proposes all the more necessary.
For Rubin, activism operates on two levels in their life. The first is the activism that is part of their everyday life.
“There’s no question that it’s going to be part of my everyday life because I’m always having to educate people as a trans person,” Rubin said. “Here less so, but in the rest of the world if I’m in a space where I can educate someone or where my status as a trans person is going to be relevant, I have to be educating people.”
The second is the activism that goes into TSER, the draft, TLC and QSA. Rubin said they feel a certain obligation to do the latter work because of their lived experiences and their privilege.
“I know that I’ve had the chance to process a lot of the discrimination and stuff that I’ve experienced; and I also know that I’m not in a place where–like I can handle getting misgendered regularly and I can handle having these conversations where people are going to say stuff. And I say I can handle it not to suggest that people who can’t are weak or something, but just that their survival might be in a more precarious place than mine is, so I recognize that my survival is not in the short term, like in terms of getting through the day and also in terms of what I’m experiencing from the rest of the world in terms of violence, is very different than what some of my peers are. Because I’m trans masc and I’m white. And so I feel obligated to do what I can to change things for other people because I am in a position where I’m just more able to do so in some ways; or at least I’m more able to deal with the day to day, bureaucratic, whatever and yeah, I’m willing to put up with that. I have a high tolerance for bull shit.”
But in the end, activism is not a choice.
“I feel that–I don’t like to use this word because I can never define it but–my liberation is tied to it,” Rubin said. “So there’s no choice. If I want to live in the world that I want to live in, there’s no choice.”