Two Non-Binary College Activists On Creating Space For Themselves On Campus

Jenavieve Hatch
G Ryan (left) is a senior at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and Liza Holdaway (right) is a junior at Brigham Young University. 

Welcome to The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience? It depends where you look. 

A quick note on pronouns: The two subjects of this piece both identify as they/them. 

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For many, our college years are our formative ones, where we’re encouraged to “find ourselves.” For Liza Holdaway and G Ryan, who have gone on a journey that most of us haven’t to discover and embrace their identities, college is less about finding themselves, and more about finding a place for the people they know themselves to be. 

Holdaway, the oldest of five siblings, was raised Mormon in the Pacific Northwest, and later moved to Carlsbad, California, before starting college at Brigham Young University. Ryan was raised in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and moved to Baltimore in high school.   

Both are, in many ways, average college students who live like many average college students do ― in a realm of board game nights, awkward dates in the cafeteria, and sports and extracurriculars.

But they are both also queer, and both are gender-nonconforming activists involved in their campus LGTBQ resource centers. 

Holdaway is a math education major who wants to be a math teacher. Ryan is a varsity swimmer majoring in English and women’s studies who is trying to find and create safe spaces on campus to use the restroom ― something that, for them, has proved to be incredibly difficult. 

Both have had to build their own foundations in communities that were not created for people like them. And both have found community on their own respective campuses, regardless of how prepared their campuses were for them. 

Holdaway attends Brigham Young University, which is affiliated with the Mormon church. Located in Provo, Utah, where most of the population subscribes to the same religion, BYU does not sponsor an LGBTQ resource group. Rather, there are parts of the campus, like Understanding Same-Gender Attraction (USGA) group or the counseling center, where LGBTQ community members can find support. (Same-gender relationships are against the university’s honor code.) 

They are the co-vice president of the USGA, an off-campus BYU-affiliated club whose mission is to “strengthen families and the BYU community by providing a place for open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction and LGBTQ issues.” 

Ryan, on the other hand, is a college athlete at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor ― a campus that has been ranked in the past as one of the best universities for the LGTBQ students. Ryan is a volunteer at the university’s Spectrum Center, a critical student resource staffed by more than a dozen professionals where students can find information about gender-neutral restrooms, STI and HIV testing, gender-inclusive housing, and peer mentors. They are also a member of the Advocacy Board and volunteer as a MyVoice panelist. 

Though their upbringing, campus experience, and religious identities may be different, their resilience in the face of creating space for themselves is their greatest unifying factor ― and it’s really damn inspiring. 

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Where did you grow up? 

Liza (BYU): Originally my family lived in Spokane Valley, Washington, for about 15 years. It was a really great place for us. We did live in Utah for about two years. I moved to Carlsbad when I was in high school.

G (Ann Arbor): I grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, but spent the last three years of high school in Baltimore. Those were two very different experiences. I went from a very rural community that didn’t have a lot of diversity to Baltimore, which is a booming urban center with a ton of diversity. I started cyber-school at the same time of moving to Baltimore.

When did you realize that you were queer and non-binary? And when did you come out? 

Liza (BYU): It’s been sort of a long process. I started questioning in high school, and wasn’t really sure how I identified. It took me a couple of years to really decide how I felt. I currently identify as bisexual and non-binary. I’ve identified as bi for about two years now, maybe two years, and non-binary for maybe a year, year and a half.

I made a Facebook coming-out post in November [2016], that was very exciting. I think a lot of people kind of suspected for quite a while that I wasn’t straight, but I wasn’t officially out until last November.

It was two days after the one-year anniversary of the LDS policy change that made anyone who was married to a person of the same sex was automatically labeled as an apostate and that same-sex couples could not be baptized.

It was an emotional time here in Utah County.

G (Ann Arbor): It was definitely a process. Once I moved to Baltimore, I started interacting with a lot more queer folks in general. I had a couple of queer folks that I knew in Pennsylvania, but no one that was my age, and no one I had contact with on a regular basis.

That changed when I went to Baltimore and that was really exciting. I started to develop a very small, at first, community that grew over time. And during that time, I came out to my family as queer, as far as my sexual orientation. It wasn’t until I came to the university that I came out as genderqueer.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I was feeling until I came here and got connected to a resource center and started interacting with folks who had the education and background to communicate with me. And at that point my knowledge base just took off. I learned when I came to Michigan that “trans” was not a binary term. That was incredibly exciting for me.

I didn’t feel like I was the gender assigned at birth, but I didn’t feel like I was opposite of that, either. Learning that it’s a spectrum…that was a really exciting time.

How was your family’s response? 

Liza (BYU): I sent a coming-out text to them that was similar to the Facebook post, so they’d all read it all together. I think it was on a Sunday. Oh, well!

I didn’t want to talk to them right away ... they tried to call me and I didn’t answer. They said they love me, and care about me, and they want me in their life. We haven’t talked about it a whole lot since then but I do talk to them about my involvement in the USGA.

My mom came to a meeting, once, when she was in town. It was fun. I was very sick, so she came to town to help me with medical care. It was the day we were talking about families of LGTBQ people so it was kind of a perfect meeting for her to go to. I think it was helpful for her to see what my meetings are and meet some of my friends.

G (Ann Arbor): The people I interact with most are my nuclear family. My parents and my older brother. He and my sister-in-law are the first people I told. We’re very close. We had the queer conversation … and at the time I had just heard of non-binary pronouns, and I was still seeing which ones fit. It was a conversation about what things I wanted to change. I no longer want to be “Little Sister.” Now I’m “Little Sibling.” The response was overwhelming love and unconditional support.  

I had a similar conversation in-person with my parents about being non-binary and what it meant. And it was challenging to explain. It was hard for me to explain to my parents why all of this was happening now. The onset was that now I had a way to talk about it. I’d been feeling these things for a really long time but it wasn’t until I came to college that I was given the tools to explain it to other people. It took a lot more communication and educating from my part.

I’d been feeling these things for a really long time but it wasn’t until I came to college that I was given the tools to explain it to other people. G Ryan

I went through the process of getting my name legally changed, and that was something I had to talk to [them] about. They are supportive, and it’s great. I’m very, very lucky to have a family that respects and affirms my identity. They become better and better allies every day.

What made you decide to go to your university?

Liza (BYU): Both of my parents went to BYU as undergrads and my dad went back for his law degree. All or nearly all of my aunts and uncles went to BYU. My grandparents went to BYU. We came to Utah every year…it was just where our family had a lot of connections and kind of what we’d grown up [planning]. I still just was kind of barely coming out to myself when it was time to apply to colleges. I applied to BYU and BYU Idaho and that was it.

G (Ann Arbor): Coming to Michigan was heavily influenced by athletics. I needed a place that would help to support me in my particularly discipline of swimming and that I felt had a good team environment and structure. There are not that many institutions where that was the case. I had a fairly narrow list of possibilities. I came on a recruiting trip and the first day was spent on academics, and the second day was athletics. That was really encouraging to me. 

G Ryan told HuffPost that being a college athlete and a non-binary person has been "incredibly challenging." 

Are you happy with your decision to attend your university? How has it been a resource for you, and how hasn’t it? 

Liza (BYU): I’m really glad I’m here. It’s a good environment, it’s a great education. I have a lot of good friends here, but the culture here can be difficult. It’s a melting pot of Utah Mormons and California Mormons and whatever. Mormon culture in general can be harsh sometimes to people who are different.

Overall I like being here, I think I’m doing good things here and I’ve had some times with school where I’ve considered transferring programs. BYU is an interesting place. It’s a great school, but it can be hard sometimes as an LGBTQ student. The BYU counseling center is very good. They have a lot of good counselors. I’ve seen a couple of counselors that I really enjoyed, they’re a great resource.

I don’t know if this counts a resource or non-resource but BYU does not have an official LGTBQ-anything. Only one year ago they started an LGBTQ-specific group in the counseling center. Last year they started a “Faith and Sexuality” counseling group and it’s not advertised or really talked about. 

Other than that they don’t offer anything. So I’m very heavily involved in the USGA off-campus group. We’re a group of LGBTQ BYU students, our leadership is comprised of BYU students, but we invite other students. There are quite a few older people who have gay sons or grandsons, but we’re BYU-focused. And that’s kind of where I’ve found the most support.

G (Ann Arbor): That is a complicated question. I think the resource part is easier to answer. Because the people here that I’ve connected with have been incredible. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with queer folks that span disciplines … people who are employed in the greater Ann Arbor area who came to visit … there are so many mentors for me. I didn’t have a lot of that, especially queer folks, when I was younger. That’s been really helpful. The more I interact with people, the more I find this network of people.  

Some of that has started at University resources. So that’s been really great.  

It’s difficult to pinpoint ways in which the University has failed me, and I don’t know how to classify things as individuals vs. institutional issues. Overall, I definitely have gotten yelled out of bathrooms and not known what to do about it or who to talk to. Not knowing where it’s safe to hold hands with my girlfriend or kiss my girlfriend. Is it OK on campus? Is it OK downtown?

And then there’s the athletic component that’s incredibly challenging as a trans non-binary swimmer. Swimming is a terrible sport sometimes. You run around half naked for five hours a day. That’s life.

A lot of it has been me educating folks, whether it’s teammates or coaches or administrators, about what are the things that can make it easier, even if it’s not solutions. And that has been a process and continues to be a process. It’s a lot of reinforcement and reminding and having to be the primary communicator and advocate for myself. I’m trying to outsource a little bit of that. There are days where I don’t have the capacity to educate.

Can you tell me how you sought out your campus LGTBQ resource center? 

Liza (BYU): So I actually knew about USGA way back in high school. I remember my freshman or sophomore year in high school, I had a really good friend who was gay. He was like, “Liza. I’m gay, and you’re Mormon.” And I was like “…yeah?” And he asked if we were allowed to be friends. And I didn’t know. So I went home and I Googled [it] … At some point I found a page for the USGA at BYU. So I came into BYU already knowing it existed and started going right away as a freshman, and joined the leadership team a couple months later.

G (Ann Arbor): I didn’t know about the Spectrum Center until a month or month and a half into my first year. Once I discovered it, it was a huge relief. I was talking to different folks about where I could go to the bathroom. I was getting a lot of negative feedback about going to the bathroom, and I didn’t know what my options. One of the parts of my first year of swimming was a bunch of extra meetings, and one of them was a sexual assault prevention meeting. It was all first-year students, but they broke us up by sport, and Spectrum Center was mentioned in that meeting.

After that talk I went up to the facilitators and that person gave me the contact for Will Sherry, who’s the director of the Spectrum Center … and we sat down and talked for an hour, hour and a half, like a week later. It was my first contact with anyone in Spectrum Center, and it was the catalyst for many, many more interactions. It was the first time someone asked me about my pronouns, what my pronouns were, and asked me if my legal name was the name that I wished to be called or if I preferred to be someone else. It was the start of broadening everything else.

 

How did you end up with a leadership position in the group?

Liza (BYU): There was an application … the [professor advisers] appoint the president and the vice presidents. There are some guidelines … when I started out as a freshman I was on the Faith and Service Committee.  We planned activities and meetings whether kids were LDS or some other religion or nonreligious. I was in charge of the outreach committee for about two years. I did a lot of organization doing things with other groups outside of USGA. There are two other big LDS-LGTBQ groups. We do things with them sometimes, or attend conferences.

I also was in charge with stuff related to Provo Pride, or classroom panels.

About six months ago I was the secretary and as of two months ago I became one of the new VPs. 

Reflecting on how friendly the BYU campus is toward queer and genderqueer students, Liza Holdaway told HuffPost, "it’s been really cool to see over the past three years that I’ve been at BYU how the atmosphere ... has changed over time."

G (Ann Arbor): All of the things that I benefitted from were the inspiration for getting involved and being what I hope to be is a resource for other people who were in positions that I was in.

I started volunteering shortly after that [first meeting].

At this point, I do a number of different things that are associated with Spectrum Center. One of them is a mentorship program. In my first year I was a mentee, and then I trained to be a mentor.

Another thing is “My Voice Panels” … to talk about ourselves. I’ve done a lot of talks that were specifically about mental health and mental health problems [on campus]. I really enjoy doing those.

The last thing is the Advocacy Board. That’s a place where students can come in and be connected to a number of different people working at Spectrum and try to propose change at a policy level. This past year’s ongoing project is to get more gender-inclusive restrooms in athletic facilities. We started the year off with none, and now we have two gender-inclusive restrooms.

What kind of questions do you get when you volunteer for panels? Are professors and classmates supportive? 

Liza (BYU): They’re really great. We have quite a few professors we have really good relationships with and we visit a lot of like sociology or psychology of gender studies. A bioethics class. We’ve had some business classes, even. But yeah, it’s been a very good experience. Being in charge, I attended quite a few [panels], it’s been really cool to see over the past three years that I’ve been at BYU how the atmosphere of the panels has changed over time. I was on a panel my freshman year and it was interesting…there were some students who were angry. Saying it was a sin, and not allowed, and “You need to repent.” Over time, students have just been getting better and better. We haven’t had incidents like that for the last two years now. 

It’s interesting watching the questions change. The attitude of the students has kind of changed. I was on a panel a few days ago and nearly all the questions were “What can we do to help? How can I be a better ally?”

G (Ann Arbor): So far my experiences have all been really positive, which I’m really grateful for, and also acknowledge that that’s not always the case. It’s a lot of “How did your interactions with family and friends change?” or “How did your therapist navigate queer and gender queer identity?” or “What team do you swim for?” and “What suit do you wear?”

Are your parents aware of your involvement in campus activism? Do they support you? 

Liza (BYU): We don’t talk about it a whole lot. They do know I’m in leadership but I don’t think they realize how much I do.

I talk to my therapist about it … [she reminds me] how much I’m always doing. I’m busy all the time … It’s a busy thing. But I doubt my family really understands how much I’m doing and how big of a deal it is for me. It’s not just chess club after school. This is a real thing for me.

G (Ann Arbor): They are aware, and they do support it. A lot of the times they get me venting. And my family is a little bit spread out. My parents are in Pennsylvania and my brother and sister-in-law are in Arizona. But as far as being supportive, at swim competitions, they have been, and they’ve done some very visible things.

When I got my name legally changed right before national championships, my father attended and he brought a sign saying, “THEY’RE JUST G!” That was really sweet and really affirming and a very visible sign of support.

What was the 2016 election like for you? Did it change your experience on campus? 

Liza (BYU):  It’s been interesting. I was really sick right when I had come out, and when my mom was in town. I was with my friend, she had taken me to the ER, because I was really sick. So we were sitting together in the waiting room, and on the TV they were showing the election results. It was just so surreal. I had a fuzzy head and I was very sick. It just did not feel real.

Just watching the numbers go more and more in his favor … it was wild.

Following that, there were quite a few things, and posts going around, a lot of Facebook wars. That was kind of interesting ... but overall it still feels kind of ... I just kind of distance myself from it. I hurt and I’m sad when all of these horrible things are happening but part of me has to keep it in a distance to be able to live my everyday life.

On campus, there are definitely hurtful things said all the time, and more fear. Sometimes it just feels a little more dangerous, and worrisome. A lot of us are afraid of what’s going to happen next. A few months ago we were talking about housing issues, especially for trans people on the BYU campus. Housing can be a really tricky thing for them. BYU housing is all very micro-managed and you have to live in specifically approved housing and with the honor code there’s no co-ed housing at all. It can be really hard for trans students, and some of my really good friends are in awkward situations.

A few years ago there was a bill passed in Utah that was a non-discrimination bill for housing for LGTBQ people, but BYU, as a private, religious university, is exempt from that.  

A lot of people really do want to help and want to learn more [in the housing department] but don’t know how to do that without compromising their integrity of their religion. RAs do have a couple of days of training dedicated to talking about LGTBQ students.

A couple of my old roommates called on me for breaking the Honor Code ... luckily the RA was sane and didn’t see any problems!

The gist of it was that I had a friend who was very suicidal and needed to stay over on my couch for the night, so I told my roommates and they said no, but I told them I’m on suicide watch. It was ridiculous. Me and my friend were not into. We were not going to have sex on our couch on campus at our BYU dorm. It was ridiculous.

G (Ann Arbor): It’s certainly had an impact and continues to have daily impacts on my life. Some of what it has led to is forming really strong connections with people here. The morning after the election I had to get up and go to practice at 6 a.m. I was a mess. I had class, and two practices that day, and I stumbled through. And then I started getting more and more connected ― to folks, queer and trans folks in particular on campus, because I wanted to be able to connect with people who understand how terrified I was. That’s what I did for most of the rest of 2016. There’s a particular group that’s just for trans and non-binary folks to talk. I depended on that. 

And then 2017 came around. There were a lot of people who were very angry and very scared on campus. And reaching out to be a supportive ally.

And then a couple of people in the queer community started organizing a network of queer folks that can articulate the problems and the needs that students at the University of Michigan have ... to make it as inclusive as possible. That was also incredibly influential and has been. It’s amazing to see people come together and start forming this network of queer folks that has the explicit intent of doing radical things.

Overall, do you feel safe on your campus?

Liza (BYU): Overall, yes. Because I keep myself safe. I’m out, but I’m not talking about it all the time. I’m not doing anything super edgy. I have a shirt that says “Pride” on it but I don’t usually wear it to class. I’m not super open about myself. If people ask, I talk about it. But I kind of keep myself protected. I’m myself with USGA and with friends, but not necessarily on campus.

G (Ann Arbor): Sometimes. Sometimes not. And a lot of that is influenced by my own perception ... there are a lot of times when people say things and I feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Either they’re talking in binaries or being misogynistic or sexist and it’s difficult for me to know, as a masculine-presenting person, how can I speak up as someone socialized differently than how I present, while being safe doing so? A lot of time gendered spaces are fine, but there’s always that feeling of, “What’s going to happen?” which is why I really enjoy gender-inclusive bathrooms!

Do you find yourself having to put up with a lot of microaggressions?

Liza (BYU): All the time. People use a lot of gay jokes, or use gay as a slur. It’s just not OK. It’s not the most hurtful thing someone can do but it’s still not OK.

We do have a lot of religion classes we take as part of our graduation requirements and I’ve been in a religion class before, talking about one of the parables in the Bible where there are three men. One was given five talents, one was given three, one was given one. Some double their money, one buries it in the ground. And all about making the most of what you have, whether you’re given five or given three.

The professor started talking about doing the best with what you’re given. He said, “Maybe some of us are born in the Church, or maybe you’re born into a wealthy family,” and then he said, “Or maybe you’re born into a ‘third-world’ country, or born same-sex attracted.’”

I just wanted to scream. How dare you make that judgment that your little rich white Mormon family is better than anyone else? How dare you say that I’ve been given less? What do you know? It was very hurtful for me. It was a big class, 250-student lecture hall. It really hurt for him to make that judgment that because I wasn’t straight that I was given less, and inherently wasn’t worth as much.

G (Ann Arbor): Yes. Absolutely. Pronouns are ... I’m still surprised when people get them right. Trying to encourage people to say things other than “ladies and gentleman,” and shift language away from these binaries that exclude me and other folks. And it can be exhausting to try and do that as much of the time is necessary. And it’s a lot about trying to think about the power dynamics. A lot of it stems from ignorance and not maliciousness.

What’s your social life like?

Liza (BYU): I do so much. I’m really busy. I’m social, I love hanging out with friends all the time. The people I’ve met through USGA are my closest friends. There’s always something going on on campus or in Provo in general. I feel bad for my roommates sometimes ... the only time I’m ever home is when I’m sleeping or grabbing food.

G (Ann Arbor): It has changed significantly in the past four months. I started dating my girlfriend about four months ago, and instead of my primary interactions being with athletes its grad students and queer folks. I actually have something resembling a social life, instead of hibernation!

I also now live in a space that hosts queer board game night. It does not always involve people actually playing board games, but does sometimes involve some very intense games of Settlers of Catan.

I’m part of an ASL group that meets once a week that is a learning community, and then there’s swimming.

Do you date? How has that experience been for you? 

Liza (BYU): Not really. I’ve gone on a handful of dates at BYU. Good old-fashioned awkward Mormon dates!

It’s a strange place. I’ve gone on an awkward date with a guy on campus at one of the on-campus restaurants. On another one we saw a BYU-run play. But not really, it’s just kind of a weird place. At church and in classes they just stress “GET MARRIED” and it’s very weird to me. But yeah, as part of the honor code there’s no dating between people of the same sex.

I don’t really meet a lot of straight guys that I’m into. Mormons straight boys just aren’t my thing. So yeah, we’ll see. I just hang out with friends.

G (Ann Arbor): The experience has been FUNNY. [My girlfriend and I] had been working together for advocacy board, and she just finished her first year at the graduate school of social work, but we were friends and collaborators and colleagues for much longer than we’ve been dating, and didn’t really start dating by going on a date, but fell into a relationship and then decided to define things as time went on.

How do you feel about the future? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

Liza (BYU): Hopefully graduated! I do want to graduate and get my degree. In five years hopefully I’m teaching math at a high school somewhere. I always pictured myself on the West Coast. Maybe Oregon, Washington, or northern California. I don’t know, I just want to feel happy and satisfied with my life and not be held back or not doing things that I want to do. I want to be able to feel comfortable and happy with my life and what I’m doing.

G (Ann Arbor): I don’t know exactly; I really am excited to take a break from academia. I’m going to graduate with two majors and a varsity athlete in four years, and that’s a lot. I’m hoping to get top surgery sometime spring or summer of 2018. That’ll be a big life change and I’m excited about it. But I’d like to stay involved in athletics. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever been involved in…there are a lot of things in it that don’t work for me. There are a lot of things I disagree with. And I’d like to change as many of those things as possible.

I’d like to stay around Michigan and stay at this university, and take the knowledge I’ve gained as an athlete here in four years and make it better for other LGTBQ students.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.