Photo from naspa.org
By Rylie Bernard
“I was, like, ‘Mom, I have to tell you something,’ and I put my little rainbow ring on the table under my hand. And then I lifted up my hand, and she was, like, ‘What is this, you like colors?’”
Chris Tanaka, the LGTBQ* services coordinator at Stony Brook University, is no stranger to the array of sometimes funny, sometimes sad, nuances of life under the queer umbrella. Her high school in Miller Place lacked any sort of Gay-Straight Alliance or similar club. Despite that, as a high school student, Tanaka got involved, instead, on the Stony Brook campus.
She first went to a Feminist Majority Leader Alliance meeting. One of the speakers that night was from a university club for LGBT students — that’s lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender. She joined that club and has been involved in LGBTQ — the Q was later added, and stands for queer or questioning — affairs at Stony Brook University ever since, including her career as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
Tanaka, 31, is a champion for LGBTQ students at Stony Brook. The outside of her office door is draped in a large rainbow flag surrounded by a smattering of rainbow, sexuality-supportive and Safe Space stickers and pins.
Stony Brook University has 25,272 students this academic year. With that many people, some inevitably slip through the cracks in the school’s support systems. Because LGBTQ students make up a small portion of a much larger population, they tend to have even less assistance in navigating the typical challenges and trials of college.
John Martin, a graduate assistant for LGBTQ* Services, works closely with Tanaka. Martin is excited with the work LGBTQ* Services does, and especially what Tanaka brings to the table.
“Chris is awesome,” Martin said. “We definitely are on the same page as far as how and what to prioritize, how to do this work, and that is really affirming and awesome.”
Tanaka’s personal philosophy goes beyond the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
“There’s the platinum rule,” she said. “Basically, don’t treat others how you want to be treated, treat others the way they want to be treated.”
That’s not to say students on campus treat others poorly, just that many people are unsure or unaware of how to address people and topics in the queer community. “I would like people to go beyond ‘I don’t care what you are,’” she said, her eyes lighting up. “I’d like to go beyond that and have people care about who people are and make room for people.”
One of Tanaka’s projects is Safe Space, a program that offers workshops to educate students on what to say, how to interact and how to be an ally to LGBTQ students without being disrespectful. Tanaka has been working with the program since its inception at Stony Brook, writing the curriculum and making sure it continues to efficiently serve the needs of the campus, which sometimes means updating it. Tanaka also deals directly with students and student concerns.
In her private life, Tanaka lives in Lake Grove with her wife, Colleen, and two children, ages 3 and 17 months. She married her wife in 2009. They got married right after gay marriage was legalized in New York, on the very first day people could actually begin getting married. Tanaka remains close with her family, especially her mom. On that day with the rainbow ring, Tanaka’s mom showed her support and acceptance.
“My Mom was cool with it,” she said, “if my Mom is cool with it, nothing else matters.”
As a staff assistant, Tanaka said, she spent much of the day behind a desk answering phones, and because she had time, she “just started working on some of the curriculum stuff.”
“I knew what would work, what wouldn’t work, what kind of language would really make people upset,” she said. “I want other people to make sure that they’re treating LGBTQ folks the way that they want to be treated.”
The university would be, literally, less of a safe space without the program. Every resident assistant on campus receives Safe Space training. Assessments show that people leave the training with more information and a higher willingness to ask about pronouns — a particular concern for transgender people and those who call themselves “gender queer,” meaning someone who does not fall into conventional gender distinctions — and to intervene when people say biased or uninformed things, Tanaka said.
“Overall, people have more info about services and resources, and in general about LGBTQ communities and experiences, and are more willing to do something with that information to help create a more inclusive and affirming environment,” she said.
Tanaka said she would like others to “stop seeing people as one thing.”
“Just because somebody is LGTBQ doesn’t mean they don’t have a race, or a religion, or they don’t have families or different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Tanaka added. “I want people to be seen as whole, and not as tropes.”
Tanaka spoke most enthusiastically about the human element, the students themselves. One of her cherished memories of working with LGBTQ* Services was witnessing the first-ever Lavender Graduation at Stony Brook University in 2014.
“The first time I ever heard of this thing called Lavender Graduation, I was probably a junior or senior [in college],” she said. Other schools besides Stony Brook already had lavender graduations to “celebrate LGBT students who made it despite everything stacked up against them.”
As Tanaka grew into the role of coordinator, she met with people from those schools and reaffirmed her belief that Lavender Graduation was something that should come to Stony Brook.
“There’s a lot that goes on with identity development in college, and when some of those identities are not the majority, there’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “It takes a lot for people to get through, and when they do, they should be damn proud. And so as Stony Brook, we wanted to say we’re damn proud of you too.”
However, the opinion of the student body was unknown, and the students had to be interested in order for Lavender Graduation to come. So the university sent out a Student Life survey to assess what they thought, and a large number responded quickly with “a resounding ‘yes!’” Tanaka said.
“So we did it,” she said. “We made it happen.”
Stony Brook’s Lavender Graduation takes place in the Student Activities Center Gallery, a few days before the university’s own commencement. At this ceremony, the graduates name and thank their Stony Brook mentors and receive rainbow stoles to wear at the commencement ceremony in the Kenneth P. Lavalle Stadium.
For Tanaka, seeing the stoles at the main ceremony embodies the whole point of what she does. “That is what we’re here for: We’re here to help people find their awesome, graduate, and continue their awesome beyond Stony Brook,” she said.
It is easy to see that Tanaka is passionate about the students themselves, as individual humans, rather than as a faceless, abstract concept. “What makes me happy and excited and proud is knowing that students can come back from summer or winter break, and they’re, like, ‘Ugh, I’m so happy to be back here,’” she said. “That makes me really happy. And that’s why I do what I do, because I want people to feel like they have a place where they can just go ‘Ahh.’ And that’s it.”
During breaks, she said, some LGBTQ students go home to families, or elsewhere, and encounter people who might not be understanding or who say things that upset them. Tanaka’s reward for the hard work she does is when they return to school and say, “‘Now I’m back here, with my family that I’ve chosen.’ And that’s really something special.”