Feminist Paves the Way for Trans Community
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:31
Amira Lundy-Harris '16
A black studies and SWAGS major, Lundy-Harris wrote a thesis on queer communities of color in New York.

I had never met Amira Lundy-Harris before, but upon walking into our meeting at Frost Café I immediately recognized why they were selected for a profile. Their dominating air of confidence, paired with an effortless demeanor, brought my eyes to focus on Lundy-Harris, despite the buzzing afternoon noises of the cafe. Through their leadership in the Black Students Union and Pride Alliance and their commitment to queer and black studies, Lundy-Harris has dedicated a fruitful college career to a thorough understanding of intersectionality.

Growing Up in Oakland
Lundy-Harris was born and raised in Oakland, California. Growing up in Oakland and having parents “with a feminist and Afro-centric mindset and set of values” made issues of diversity and identity a source of interest for Lundy-Harris.

With an older brother in Amherst’s class of 2009, who had received generous financial aid from the college, Lundy-Harris found Amherst to be a logical next step after their life in California.

“While Amherst is statistically a diverse place, a lot of diversity is new to the college,” Lundy-Harris said. “I feel like the administration is still trying to figure out how to do more than just include different groups of people on the college campus and to actually create a space where all sorts of people thrive, which is more of a difficult task.”

Lundy-Harris struggled with finding their place at Amherst. “I remember being really lonely and feeling like I didn’t fit in at all,” they said.

Luckily, Lundy-Harris eventually found people they connected with in feminist spaces on campus. One of their greatest role models at Amherst has been Dana Bolger ’14E, a campus activist and co-founder of Know Your IX, an organization that campaigns against sexual violence.

“By sheer luck, I met her through one of my classes freshman year. She was the first person out there organizing a dialogue on what needs to change here,” Lundy-Harris said. “It’s definitely inspired me to think and talk about these issues at length.”
Lundy-Harris began seeking out the resources and the community they needed. “It was an integral part of me becoming a black studies and SWAGS major and choosing to live in Drew House,” Lundy-Harris said. “It’s been difficult, but also ultimately positive.”

Getting into Black Studies and SWAGS
At Amherst Lundy-Harris explored their passion for black feminist theory. This interest sparked in Black Sexualities, a course they took during the spring of their first year at Amherst.

“It was an awesome course for me to take as a freshman because it mixed all sorts of media to study the material,” Lundy-Harris said. “We looked at things like R. Kelly’s ‘Trapped in the Closet’ music video and then the next day, would read some queer people of color critique. A lot of different sources coming together and in conversation is pretty amazing.”

Lundy-Harris said their continued interest in black feminist theory flourished under the guidance of Professor Aneeka Henderson, who focuses on the intersections of blackness and womanhood in the sexuality, women’s and gender studies department.

“I think I’ve taken all of her classes!” Lundy-Harris said with a smile. “She’s my adviser and my thesis adviser. She and Professor Polk have constantly looked at intersections of gender and race, so their classes have been important in my time as a scholar and individual. I’ve really developed a black feminist lens and intersectional approach to feminism.”

Lundy-Harris’s intellectual pursuits have gone hand-in-hand with their extracurricular activities. They have co-chaired Black Students Union for two years and have led the Women of Amherst group on campus, co-directing the Women of Amherst performance this year. They have also been a leader in Pride Alliance.

“These groups have been some of the most important spaces in my four years here,” Lundy-Harris said.

Lundy-Harris has also been a staff member of the Queer Resource Center for the past three years.
“I was definitely drawn to that community my freshman year, but my sophomore year was when the QRC had enough funding for student employees,” Lundy-Harris said. “I think that’s when I solidified my community there. That’s been a very big part of my time at Amherst. My co-workers are some of my closest friends here on campus.”

Transitioning and Feminist Spaces
These student groups became even more essential to Lundy-Harris when they came out as transgender their junior year at Amherst. Lundy-Harris identifies as gender queer non-binary and transmasculine.

“It involved coming out to everyone and changing pronouns and reintroducing myself the way I wanted people to address me,” Lundy-Harris explained. “Amherst has a long way to go with issues like this, but I think for the most part, it is a pretty good place to be trans.”

Lundy-Harris prefers “they, them, their” pronouns, though they are also comfortable with “he, him, his” pronouns.

“Sometimes, it’s about compromising — I realize that not everybody will understand the fluidity of gender and respect that,” Lundy-Harris said. “It’s definitely better than being misgendered as a ‘she.’”

Members of QRC, like director Angie Tissi-Gassoway, have been crucial in arranging large aspects of transitioning like hormones and surgery.

“She’s been instrumental in talking to health services to make sure these things are covered by the school, as well as overseeing gender neutral bathrooms, gender neutral housing and even having names that people want on their ID cards,” Lundy-Harris said. “The transitioning hasn’t been easy, but it’s been much easier because I’ve had allies like Angie really fighting for me. I’m glad I started to transition at Amherst.”

The transitioning process, when Lundy-Harris officially started taking testosterone, has been a huge piece of “me coming into myself and growing into myself in the past four years,” they said.

Lundy-Harris’ orientation as a gender queer non-binary and transmasculine individual has complicated some of the work that they have done at Amherst. For example, transitioning gives Lundy-Harris increasing male privilege. “My commitment to feminism will never waver, but I do need to negotiate how I interact with feminist spaces and recognize my masculine privilege,” they said.

Domestic Study
During their junior year, Lundy-Harris did a domestic study at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C.

“It was a time in my career at Amherst where I was feeling just a lot of anger and frustration about race in America and on this campus,” Lundy-Harris said. “It was in the midst of Black Lives Matter beginning and lots of killings of black people nationally. I felt a lot of apathy here.”

Going to Washington, D.C. in the spring was a “much needed break,” Lundy-Harris said. D.C. also has a vibrant black queer community, and Lundy-Harris found a supportive environment there.

“D.C., being a major city with a majority black population, gave me so much to do,” Lundy-Harris said. “There’s a lot of feminist work going on. There’s a lot of Black Lives Matter-related things happening. It was a place that was unapologetically black and that was really important to me. It definitely made it possible for me to come back to Amherst and enjoy the rest of my time.”

Finding a Thesis
Back at Amherst, Lundy-Harris decided to write a thesis for the SWAGS department. The thesis focused on effective kinships that trans and queer individuals find in reaction to the rejection they face from their biological families. Lundy-Harris focused on two trans liberation movements: STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and Bash Back!. Lundy-Harris looked at the way both groups of queer and trans people established family formations.

Lundy-Harris examined how non-biological family structures functioned and what was possible in those spaces. These social structures contributed to political action and advancing trans rights, they said.

The idea for their thesis originated from an assignment Lundy-Harris completed in their Black Studies 300 research course during their sophomore year. The assignment asked students to imagine a significant research project and how to make it happen.

“I focused on queer communities of color in New York,” Lundy-Harris said. “Particularly, the drag scene in New York after watching ‘Paris is Burning’ was really interesting to me. What I found fascinating was that trans people who live together in houses actually form a family — there’s a mother, there are children and etc.”

Lundy-Harris thought about this even after the class was over and used it as a starting point for their thesis. They also found inspiration while doing undergraduate research at University of California, Berkeley the summer after their junior year.
“I was doing research on the same topic of kinships and that was like the second stepping stone to getting to my thesis,” they said. “The summer helped me narrow my focus on gay men and trans women.”

Next Few Years
Lundy-Harris plans to continue their interests in queer and black studies in the next few years at the University of Maryland, College Park, where they will be pursue a doctorate in women’s studies. Their positive experiences during domestic study in the D.C. area motivated Lundy-Harris to choose the University of Maryland as their next place of intellectual pursuits.

“I think that’s going to end up hopefully leading to my work in academia,” Lundy-Harris said. “I want to continue working on and thinking about trans studies within feminist spaces. My hope is that I, in some way, have made it a bit easier for trans students to navigate being here. I hope that I will have had conversations that sort of change people’s thoughts about gender and that that stays with them. I hope that I’ve made some spaces inclusive.”