A 12-year-old child listens intently to their cousin and aunt talk during a family vacation in Disneyland. They are hearing words they have never heard before. “Transgender.” “A woman transitioning into a man.”
It’s the story of a transgender man, Brandon Teena, who was brutally raped and murdered in 1993.
“This was my first example of someone transitioning, I was fascinated by that possibility. It seemed like a dream,” Flyn Alexander, Queer Penguins and Allies (QPA) adviser said, recalling the moment so many years ago. “I was hung up on the transness of it, I wanted that and I didn’t realize it.”
Alexander leads the club with the knowledge that the fear of violence is tied to the queer experience.
“If the only narrative you’re getting is violent, that makes it very hard for us to come out,” he said. “It makes it very hard to feel safer in the world.”
Watching the movies about Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard definitely kept him from coming out for a longer time, he said.
“The violence of it was almost like a warning,” he said. “If you do this, you’re gonna die.”
This is why clubs and support groups like the QPA are very important to queer students as they navigate a difficult road.
“There have been nine attacks on queer youth in the Portland area in the past two years,” Micheil Maccutcheon, who serves as president of the board that organizes the annual Saturday in the Park Pride in Vancouver, said.
More hate groups are walking around the streets of Portland with rude and cruel messages on signs, he said. Maccutcheon echoed Alexander’s sentiments that queer youth need a place to feel safe and accepted.
“When you’re with other people in a minority group, you don’t have to put on a face and can just be yourself,” he said. “Being with people who have similar backgrounds and face a similar plight is so relaxing, so amazing, so simple.”
Alexander takes on a lot in his vision for QPA. He seeks to lead students by example in living a life that is not filled with fear.
“I try to infuse positivity into the queer experience, it isn’t just about the bad stuff,” he said. “Young people need to know that there are actual, tangible, successful adults, being queer, living their full lives.”
An open invitation is also extended to allies.
“I know as a white person sometimes I feel like I need an invitation from people of color to come into spaces where I have significant privilege,” Alexander said. “Allies are welcome and encouraged to attend meetings or just stop in and have a cup of tea with whoever is there.”
Another important ongoing lesson is to tackle the issues of racism while being a person who identifies as queer.
“This is a community that tends to be heavily white and pretty myopic when it comes to racism,” he said. “We see ourselves as victims in our own oppression. That doesn’t exempt us from our white privilege.”
He recognizes that Vancouver is a predominantly white area and wants to make sure that queer students of color know the QPA club is a safe space for them.
“Acknowledging all these things isn’t to say that we’re bad because that’s what it is,” Alexander said. “How do we combat that reality?”
Also part of being the adviser, Alexander oversees the planning of events both on and off campus.
Events like Pride Day and the Transgender Day of Remembrance are planned by QPA leadership. Alexander says that there is some freedom in making the events their own. Some years have had drag shows, talent shows, speakers, workshops and luncheons.
QPA Club President Channelle Sugarstar’s goal echoes Alexander’s vision.
“It’s called Queer Penguins and Allies. It doesn’t mean you have to be a queer person,” she said. “It does mean that if you’re not queer, to be a person who is an ally, who is going to stand up for you.”
She said they welcome people who are willing to educate themselves and to ask questions about how to be a good ally.
Life has not been easy for Sugarstar. Since she was young, she said she did not feel as if she fit in to the white, heterosexual, Christian male mold. She came out after she learned that it did not matter what people thought and has been more accepting of herself.
She joined the club after she sat in the Diversity Center and experienced the welcoming atmosphere.
“I really want to be a part of this community because look at all these people who aren’t competing with each other,” she said. “Who aren’t putting each other down, joking with each other in negative, harmful, hateful tones and talk.”
She said saw people building each other up, no one acting as if they are better than anyone else and no one is less than, either.
Sugarstar says the community is important for several reasons. They support each other, plan events together, appreciate each other’s company and generally enjoy their time together.
She is studying psychology, physical fitness and working towards her Addictions and Mental Health AA. She is considering the Bachelor’s program as well.
After struggling with and overcoming alcohol addiction, Sugarstar wants the chance to help other people.