Illustration by Rose Collins

Intersectionality has always existed, but it hasn’t always been named. Today students are leading the way to a more inclusive future, one basic need at a time.

The Lionel Cantú Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Resource Center (the Cantú) was named in memory of UC Santa Cruz assistant professor of sociology Lionel Cantú. A pioneer in his field, Cantú cared about crossing borders. As a gay, Latinx scholar, Cantú was devoted to charting the crisscrossing routes of identity, nationality and sexuality. His work on migration and citizenship explored change, specifically focusing on men crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cantú’s name and legacy live on through the resource center. Intersectionality underlies the Cantú’s work and its mission. The Cantú is a space where all queer identities are celebrated — liberated from the margins and invigorated through critical dialogues. 

“As of right now, as a center our big project is working on the ‘Stonewall Speaker Series,’” said lead program and events intern Marz V. (they/them). “It’s an event to highlight QTBIPOC [Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Color] artists, speakers and storytellers to uplift their voices and remember some of the origins of trans and queer history, like the Stonewall Riots in 1969.”

Fifty years after Stonewall, activists are rekindling the riot’s revolutionary spirit, centering the queer and trans women of color who sparked the liberation movement. At UCSC, students blaze the trail toward justice. Their experience drives the Cantú and informs the center’s programming.

“My community is really important to me. Being able to work for the trans and queer community has […] allowed me to learn about the different needs that people may have,” said Erin Roldan (she/her/hers), a lead peer educator at the Cantú. “You would think people would have a lot of the same needs, but really everyone has an individual need, and you have to approach their needs in a holistic way.”

The Cantú is taking a Maslowian approach to changing lives, start at the bottom and build up. Without a foundation of basic needs, students’ pyramids will topple under the burdens of school, rent, work, socializing and staying on top of their health. 

The Cantú’s Clothing Closet program addresses one of students’ most basic needs — clothing. Students can peruse the racks for high quality, trendy items that align with their gender identity, and everything comes without a price tag.

“When you’re beginning to transition or when you’re starting to come out as queer, it can be really expensive to spend on a whole new wardrobe of clothes,” said Sarah Harker (they/them), who volunteered at the Cantú before graduating in 2017. “The clothing co-op is for these students to have access to clothes, especially if they’re economically insecure. For queer students, having a place to get some free clothes that are more in line with your gender is really important.”

A free and anonymous food pantry is another Cantú resource bolstering access to basic needs within the queer and trans community. 

The Cantú’s kitchen feels like home — there’s no need to swipe in, sign up or state your business. While the kettle’s boiling, the center’s queer library provides ample entertainment, and a plush beanbag loaded with pillows is the perfect place to sink in.

Alum Xochitlquetzal Davila (they/them), who graduated in 2010, recalls the Cantú in its earlier days. They said during their campus tenure the Cantú provided snacks and tea, but a fully stocked food pantry would have done more for basic needs.

“When a student would come in asking for basic needs resources, we did our best, but it wasn’t institutionalized help, we just volunteered,” Davila said. “The informal nature meant that not everybody was able to get help, and not everybody knew where to seek help.”

Illustration by Rose Collins

Resources specifically intended to meet the needs of those in our community who are most marginalized can be life changing, said Cantú director Travis Becker (he/they).

In 2018, the center established a student emergency fund to cover costs like rent or groceries, or to get students back on their feet after unexpected financial hardships. This resource is specifically intended for students who may find themselves cut off financially after coming out as queer or trans, Becker said.

“I think we have a lot of opportunity given our campus values, and the rich history of queer and trans folks at UC Santa Cruz, […] to really do innovative work here, when it comes to supporting LGBTQIA+ community,” Becker said. “We’re the first campus that I know of in the country to have a dedicated full time […] trans education specialist. […] We don’t just have gender-neutral housing, it’s actually trans inclusive housing. […] So I think we’re positioned to do strong, strong work within supporting queer and trans college students from this space.”

Connectedness and interdependence are among the Cantú’s core values.  Without them, a cohesive movement is impossible. Activism necessitates collaboration. As told by Lionel Cantú so many years ago, queer identity is never static. Becker emphasized that the Cantú is a space for students reckoning with identity to find their power. 

While intersectionality is a buzzword of contemporary activism, queer liberation has never been disconnected from other civil rights movements. Queer and trans communities of color have been making noise, Becker said. 

“There have been a lot of administrative changes and I know [the Cantú] is trying to be more intentional about having queer and trans activities specifically for people of color,” said 2017 graduate Stephanie Jung (they/them). “When I was a student, there were a lot of white people [at the Cantú] so I felt a little bit awkward, but the director’s really trying to change that and keep it more inclusive.”

No one gets through life alone, and that’s why the Cantú is here, Becker said. Many students, especially queer and trans students of color, feel isolated on campus, he said. It’s no secret UCSC is a predominantly white campus, and consistently overconfident about its own progressiveness. 

Sylvia and Marsha threw the first bricks — students and staff at the Cantú are tearing down the rest of the walls.

“The Cantú Queer Center should not be the only place where queer students feel welcome and seen,” alum Sarah Harker said. “They should feel like this across campus, from as precise as the Dean of Students office to as random as one of the writing centers. All these places need to be working on their sensibilities for queer and trans students because it is all our responsibilities to take care of our communities. Building a model to favor only one type of students’ needs isn’t good for a lot of people.”