Campus rankings range from academics to social life, with results that run the gamut from illuminating to aggravating. But one ranking that captures UCLA’s aspirations and achievements with regard toward a significant portion of its population is the Campus Pride Index, a measure of how friendly, safe and inclusive the nation’s college campuses are to LGBTQIA+ communities. The index rates dozens of colleges on their commitment to LGBTQ-inclusive policy, programs and practice. Out of five stars, UCLA’s overall rating comes in at 4.5, with five-star ratings in LGBTQ Support & Institutional Commitment, LGBTQ Academic Life, LGBTQ Student Life and LGBTQ Counseling & Health.

Those results place UCLA near the top of all American colleges and universities, reflecting a sustained commitment by the university to be among the nation’s most welcoming institutions for students, faculty and staff of varying gender identities. UCLA has a long history in this area. It was, for instance, among the first universities to cover hormones and surgeries for transitioning transgender students under its student health insurance. The campus is also notably accessible to transgender and nonbinary students, with gender-inclusive athletic facilities and hundreds of gender-inclusive restrooms.

For Iris Yip, a senior majoring in psychology and also in education and social transformation, affirmation inherent in those actions sets a tone for campus life. Yip, who came out as a transgender woman during Winter Quarter 2021, says, “I have met an incredible diversity of experiences and identities here — it’s wonderful.” Since the start of the 2021–22 academic year, she has served as the leader of Transgender UCLA Pride (TransUP), a campus social space for trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, agender and gender-questioning students. “TransUp holds such a meaningful place in my heart,” she says.

Yip, who lives in Westwood openly with her partner, says she feels at home at UCLA, where she is free to express her identity in classes and at campus functions without fear of ostracism or ridicule.

Rights and Recognition

The subject of rights and recognition is an area of evolving awareness, as is evidenced by the “LGBTQIA+” initialism. What once was described as the gay community, and then the gay and lesbian community, has expanded in recent years to take in those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (trans), queer (or questioning), intersex and asexual (or allies). The plus sign signifies the inclusion of as many gender and sexual identities as possible.

Identifying and protecting the rights and needs of those communities is a priority not only at UCLA, but across the entire University of California system. The UC is moving forward with its Gender Lived Name Policy to ensure that all individuals are identified by their accurate gender identity and lived name — that is, the name by which they’re recognized in daily life, not the name that appears on their birth certificate — on university-issued documents and in UC’s information systems. The policy is on track to be fully implemented at all 10 UC campuses by the end of 2023.

I am allowing myself to be loud, proud and make mistakes without seeking acceptance from others. — Sav Elahian, graduate student, co-leader of the LGBTQ Student Advocacy Committee and leader of the Luskin Black Caucus

Chloe Aftel
“My rings are armor,” Elahian (she/they) says. “My favorite is my emerald gold ring my mother gave me. Emerald is my birthstone, and my mother is my best friend, so I wear this ring almost every day. My rings are a layer of protection that gives me the confidence to speak up in rooms where people like me are often silenced or ignored.”

At the state level, the California Gender Recognition Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2019, creates a third gender option for those who do not identify as women or men. The new nonbinary gender category appears on state birth certificates and is symbolized by the letter “x” or “nb” on driver’s licenses and identity cards, enabling transgender, intersex and nonbinary people to be properly recognized. In June 2019, to comply fully with California law, then-Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh launched the UCLA Gender Recognition Act Task Force. The task force is crafting a strategic approach to the systematic changes the law requires and seeking to achieve greater inclusion on campus. 

In early 2020, the university removed the “legal name” field requirement on the back of BruinCards, allowing students with a registered preferred name to display that name only. That change was the result of years of student-led, campuswide advocacy efforts. Some of those involved went on to become members of the LGBTQ Student Advocacy Committee, a group of 20 students who work closely with Andy Cofino, director of the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center. The committee is at the vanguard of queer and trans advocacy on campus, acting to amplify the voices of students and to alert administrators to areas for improvements in campus policies.

Chloe Aftel
Andy Cofino (he/him/his), director of the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center

Having begun the pursuit of her master’s in public policy in October 2020, Sav Elahian, co-leader of the LGBTQ Student Advocacy Committee, has only experienced the university during a pandemic. However, she used that time as an opportunity to explore her gender in solitude. “I am currently working to decolonize my gender as a Black person by examining the limits of Western [conceptions of] gender and understanding femininity and masculinity within the context of my ancestors,” she says.

Experiencing anti-Blackness and homophobia has only strengthened her resolve and sense of self. “Now,” Elahian says, “I am allowing myself to be loud, proud and make mistakes without seeking acceptance from others.”

The National Conversation

It’s long been argued that some elements of identity — including race and gender — are social constructs. But just because an idea begins with a social construct rather than a biological fact does not mean society treats it casually or that norms are easily changed.

For example, more than 1 in 100 babies are born intersex, with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the boxes of “female” or “male.” But that fact has not been recognized by social conceptions of gender, which forces parents to choose a sex for those babies and often subject them to surgeries consistent with that choice, one of many examples of violence inflicted on LGBTQIA+ people.

Cofino traces society’s rigid binary gender categories to American settler colonialism and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous communities in North America and around the world, he says, understood and continue to understand the gender diversity of humanity, specifically in their recognition of what are known as “Two-Spirit” individuals, who are understood to contain the spirit of both the masculine and feminine. People who are Two-Spirit often play important roles in their tribes as healers, shamans and ceremonial leaders.

Although there are many Two-Spirit people today, the concept of the Two-Spirit identity was nearly eradicated as a result of the genocide and forced removal of Native American nations. In place of those societies’ understanding of third and even fourth genders, colonists imported the strict “man/woman” and “masculine/feminine” binary hierarchies. The assault became an attack on the Native Americans’ ideas, resulting in a lost sophistication in gender identity in contemporary American society.

“We’re approaching a time in which we’re seeing LGBTQIA+ people, and especially trans and nonbinary people, represented in a really big way.” — Andy Cofino, director of the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center

At UCLA, intersex, queer and trans people are a large and growing constituency. LGBTQIA+ people currently make up about 11% of the campus population, a figure based in part on information voluntarily disclosed on admissions applications by students who were enrolled in Fall 2021, says Cofino. That number is absolutely underreported, he says, because many students are not out on their admissions applications for a variety of reasons: They’re not out, they’re questioning, they’re filling out their application with unsupportive family members or are worried they won’t be supported if they’re out. Newer national statistics, in which 17% of college students identify as a part of the LGBTQ community, are therefore likely to be much more accurate.

Nationally, laws are responding to changing demographics — many in support of queer and trans rights, others just the opposite. In 20 states and in Washington, D.C., individuals can change their driver’s licenses and birth certificates in recognition of a third gender: nonbinary. Meanwhile, state legislatures introduced more than 100 bills in 2021 aimed at restricting transgender athletes’ participation in sports and the access of transgender people to restrooms, education and health care. This year, that number may double, according to the LGBTQ civil rights group Human Rights Campaign. Roughly 280 proposals that target LGBTQIA+ communities are circulating in statehouses nationwide.

Acceptance and Backlash

“With greater visibility comes greater backlash,” Cofino says. “When you think about who that impacts — if you look at the statistics of who is being murdered because of transphobic violence — it’s mostly transgender women of color.” Last year was the deadliest year of anti-trans homicides on record in the U.S. Since 2013, when Human Rights Campaign began tracking fatal violence against trans and gender nonconforming people, at least 84% of those murdered were people of color, and 85% were trans women.

But just as AIDS once served to galvanize and unify the gay community, so, too, has the rise in violence worked to bring trans people and their allies together. In 2020, the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., served as the stage of the largest gathering of people to specifically support Black trans lives.

Chloe Aftel
In his poetry, Jaime Estepa (he/him), program coordinator of the LGBTQ Campus Resource Center, strives to present a model of what queer “Filipinxness” can look like. He says, “I’ve been largely influenced by Asian American and/or queer Asian American spoken word artists, such as Alex Dang, Paul Tran, Sarah Kay, Phil Kaye, Joe Limer and Sherwin Ginez.” Working at the center, he says, “I am constantly learning that our presentation or expression does not indicate identity.”

“As somebody who's been involved in this movement for more than 15 years, I remember some of the trans rights marches in New York City in the early 2000s, when you could not get more than 20 people together,” Cofino says. “In 2020, we had hundreds of thousands of people in the streets marching for Black trans lives.”

Cofino believes there’s a correlation between media representation and acceptance: “Strong representation of trans people absolutely accelerates the support for trans people across the country.”

He names FX’s drama Pose, co-created by UCLA alum Steven Canals M.F.A. ’15, and Orange Is the New Black as popular series where trans producers, writers and performers — such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox — have excelled. “I believe we're finally approaching a time in which we're seeing LGBTQIA+ people, and especially trans and more nonbinary people, represented in a really big way,” Cofino says.

LGBTQIA+ History at UCLA

UCLA has a long and deep history of LGBTQIA+ advocacy and research. Around 1950, Elmer Belt, a UCLA urologist, performed some of the first gender-affirming surgeries in the U.S. In 1954, UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker began publicly presenting her research, widely considered to be the foundation of the 1973 removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Faculty in the psychiatry department established the first gender identity clinic in the nation in 1962. And in 1988, the university approved both a gay fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, and a lesbian sorority, Lambda Delta Lambda, the first of its kind.

Students, staff and faculty members have launched campus initiatives to create change at UCLA. Cofino mentions Rae Lee Siporin, longtime director of admissions, who held the first meeting of the LGBT Faculty and Staff Network in her home in 1989. Albert Aubin Ed.D. ’71, a  UCLA staff member for 40 years, worked with the Staff Assembly to establish domestic partner benefits for employees throughout the University of California system.

Curt Shepard, a doctoral student who joined the UCLA staff, helped found the LGBTQ Center by submitting the proposal for the “Lesbian and Gay Community Resource Center” in 1991. In 1994, the proposal was approved and the LGB Student Resource Center opened in 1995. In 2020, the center celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Chloe Aftel
Gallegos, a political science and labor studies double major, clutches her stuffed animal Appa, a birthday gift from her partner that helped her through the transition to college. “At the center,” she says, “I have learned how changing small parts of our lives — such as sharing pronouns and changing how we use language (Latine v. Latino) — can help others.”

Meanwhile, the Williams Institute in UCLA School of Law produces research that Cofino calls “amazing.” Former President Barack Obama cited the institute’s rigorous research in an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The work of the institute’s scholars has also been instrumental in overturning California’s same-sex marriage ban, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military, ending anti-sodomy laws and changing the U.S. Census to treat LGBTQ people and their spouses as married couples.

Evolving to Serve

National data indicates that people are coming out as queer and trans at increasingly young ages, a trend that frames UCLA’s obligations to prospective students, Cofino says. He points out that with younger people coming out, old and/or large institutions — which are notoriously slow to change — will, in some cases, not be ready for those students when they arrive on campus. “When you have a nonbinary student who has been out since they were 7 and they come to the university and can’t share their pronouns,” Cofino says, “you're going to have a problem.”

In the meantime, the growing number of students who represent emerging identities, such as asexual and aromantic, are wildly underserved on college campuses, Cofino says. “Our Ace & Aro Space — our discussion space for asexual and aromantic students — is the only asexual and aromantic-specific resource that the university has right now,” Cofino says. “We have students who say, ‘I came to UCLA because this space existed and because none of the other schools that I looked at had an asexual and aromantic discussion space.’”

Under Cofino’s direction, UCLA’s LGBTQ Center — staffed by Liz Lopez, Jaime Estepa and Minnie Esquivel Gopar ’12 — has sought to include members of underserved intersex, asexual and aromantic communities. Institutions must evolve quickly in order to properly support these students.

Ultimately, it’s the students who know best what they need. “One of the most powerful things that we can do is create [financially] compensated opportunities for students to express their voices and make change,” Cofino says. “They’re the ones who are going to know how to guide us forward.”

Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.