Sam Lopez is a current student at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory and the leader of the Queer/Trans Collaborative.
Neil Vasudeva is GALA’s Member-at-Large.
NV: Could you start by telling me a little bit about your background and how you ended up at Rollins for your graduate degree?
SL: After graduating from Auburn with degrees in Microbiology and French, I spent several years in the workforce, including a year in Belgium as a Fulbright researcher. I decided that to further my career, I needed a Master’s degree. Rollins provides an opportunity not only to study at the intersection of my interest in infectious disease and social determinants of health, but also to network with public health professionals at all levels of the field.
NV: How has your Rollins experience been from an LGBT+ perspective?
SL: Rollins has been amazing. I went to a fairly conservative undergraduate institution, and have worked in some less than accepting environments. The general Rollins experience is not only accepting, but also celebratory of the diversity of human experiences represented at the school. While there have certainly been times where I’ve needed to “call someone out” for their words or actions, those have been the minority of my experiences.
NV: What challenges do you think LGBT+ students have faced during your time at Rollins?
SL: Two particular challenges come to mind. One is very public health related, which is the mentality that being gay is a vector for disease. It is frustrating to sit in classes where the example of a disease risk is “being gay”. The conflation of risky sexual behaviors with all sexual and gender minorities is one thing that the public health community needs to work on.
Another challenge that is faced not only at Rollins, but seemingly in large sections of the US, is people not recognizing the diversity of gender and sexual identities. As a queer Latina, I don’t appreciate when people ask a gay white man to speak for the entire LGBT+ community. Similarly, being treated as a token queer POC is problematic, as I certainly can’t speak for the experience of my classmates who are bisexual, polyromantic, etc.
NV: How has your experience been leading and being a part of the LGBT+ student organization at Rollins? What hurdles have you faced as an organization (i.e. challenging administration, regulations/rules, etc.)?
SL: Generally, my experience of leading Queer/Trans Collaborative has been great. My fellow executive board members have helped shape impactful and fun programming for the Rollins community, and we’ve been able to bring to campus panels on topics such as research in WSW (women who have sex with women) relationships, student-led research in LGBT+ topics, and more. The Rollins administration has been generally receptive to the work that QTC does. There has been an element of feeling tokenized when being approached by other organizations to ‘collaborate’. Being approached to help cost-share an event does not automatically make the event inclusive. Not all organizations have been willing to put in the time and effort to do the seemingly little things to make events truly inclusive, such as ensuring the use of proper pronouns for all speakers, pointing out research limitations, or highlighting that the LGBT+ community is more than gay and lesbian individuals.
NV: What do you believe that Rollins could do to improve the LGBT+ student experience?
SL: One way to improve the student experience overall would be to have ongoing discussions with professors, students, and faculty that gender is not binary. It is an issue that has been discussed in panels and forums, but has not spilled over into the classroom. Other issues, such as domestic violence in same sex couples, the health impacts of discrimination, and intersecting identities are occasionally brought up, but are typically in the minority. Rollins is at the forefront of public health. If we are not challenging social norms and discourse in the classroom and in our research as students, we cannot hope for better health for ourselves or our communities. I don’t think it is out of malice that these things are overlooked, but out of the momentum of the status quo. Professors learned gender as binary from teachers who had learned it that way, and they will perpetuate it for the next generation of professionals. I am hopeful that in holding a mirror up to the institution, and saying “this can be different”, the status quo can be challenged, and eventually changed.