Each year, on the Saturday night of Halloweekend, a few hundred people walk into Lerner Party Space, place their clothes into plastic bags, and hand those bags to me.
Many are drunk. Some are too drunk. Many are straight. Most are cis.
But some hold neither of these identities, and those students are why GenderFuck exists. Although the event is open to everyone regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, GenderFuck was envisioned to be for queer and trans students.
We deserve this one night of joy in spite of the ever-present danger inherent to being a trans or queer person on this campus and in this country.
This is my fourth year helping to organize Columbia’s annual gender-affirming, sex-positive, underwear dance party. As a first-year I didn’t know what any of that meant. My own nonbinary gender was far from affirmed. Back then, I was naively sex-negative, and my underwear only saw the light of day when the radiator in my Sulz double made the room too hot. But there was something unbelievably beautiful about being 19, filing Sharpie-numbered bags of clothes into neat lines, and watching my classmates as they were allowed to be wholly themselves. The allowance to be stripped (literally) of the markers of gender that many trans students don to escape dysphoria on a day-to-day basis.
As a nonbinary person at Barnard and Columbia, I seldom feel as though I belong. More often than not, I have felt like an impostor at Barnard—like I had somehow been accepted due to a glitch and didn’t deserve a place at a women’s college.
Every week is a hard week to be trans with systemic violence and transmisogyny (especially toward trans women of color) as constant threats to so many in our community. But after Trump released his memo rendering trans people invisible with the intention of stripping us of the few legal and political protections we possess, these past couple weeks have felt even more jolting.
Following the memo, Barnard and Columbia both sent out emails proclaiming support for trans students, but like most campus-wide emails, they felt resoundingly hollow. Barnard’s email in particular used phrases like “supporting the gender identities of all students” and claimed the college would protect the rights of students “without regard to their gender identities.” By not using the word “trans” or “nonbinary” once in their email, Barnard yet again rendered its trans students invisible, despite claiming to support us.
It is not surprising that Barnard’s most recent show of support for trans students is surface-level at best. Last year’s GenderFuck took place in Barnard’s Event Oval. Part of the planning process for any campus event is an event review wherein representatives from Public Safety, Events Management, Student Life, and Facilities Services meet with a representative from the student group hosting the event (in this case, GendeRevolution, Columbia’s club for trans and nonbinary students). Our event review for GenderFuck involved a tedious attention to detail and lasted longer than necessary, as I was told that every decision about GenderFuck would have to be personally approved by the Barnard administration.
It hurt to know that we weren’t trusted to put on an event that had been successfully and safely done for years across the street. At a women’s college—an institution whose very core principle is gender equity—an event celebrating marginalized genders was viewed more as a safety and PR risk than a radical night of queer and trans joy. Barnard only approved the event with the promise that we would have two advisers present as well as Public Safety officers in the building, and that we would not change the bathroom signs to be gender-neutral.
I am a senior now. I am queer, nonbinary, and working really hard to be proud of who I am. This was my last GenderFuck and again, I remained behind the clothes check table with a Sharpie in hand and a firm sense of my own usefulness. I do not know if GenderFuck will always be the place of trans joy we need it to be. I don’t know if it has ever been that place. GenderFuck has always been open to the campus community, cis or trans, queer or straight, out or closeted, sure or unsure. We have always strived to create a space for students to feel good about themselves, with the specific intention of giving trans students access to this radical space.
While I don’t know what will happen for trans students at Barnard and Columbia in the years to come, I want to believe there can be more events like GenderFuck. However, I worry that the amount of time and energy students put into building the queer and trans community here is unsustainable without institutional support. I want to believe that the callous emails and institutional ambivalence will one day transform into the support we need, but I know that this is a lofty goal at best. I want to believe that one day students won’t have to feel the kind of overwhelming moral responsibility to their community that I feel. The onus should not be on students to create, sustain, and fight for space to exist as queer and trans individuals.
I want so badly for GenderFuck to exist as a point of pure joy despite every way this school and this country tell us we do not deserve joy. I want to dance with my friends. I want to laugh and hear them laugh back. I want to fill Lerner Party Space with every trans person on campus so that we can all have a chance to feel how much we are loved. I want trans joy to take up space, to be seen and heard and uncontested. These are wishes I will never stop striving to make a reality. Our joy is the only thing that this world—and this administration—cannot take from us.
The author is a senior at Barnard studying English and creative writing. When they’re not accidentally falling asleep in a Milstein green chair, Mo likes to sit quietly and cook chili with their friends.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.