BERKELEY — The first thing you might notice about Mari Rosas is the hair. It’s a stunning turquoise blue (this month). But that’s far from the main reason this student stands out at UC Berkeley.
At a historic reception that Chancellor Robert Birgeneau held recently at University House for campus movers and shakers in the LGBT community, Rosas was among the few chosen to stand up and address him.
Wearing a white shirt and black bowtie for the occasion, Rosas spoke confidently in praising the chancellor as an unwavering ally — for making a video contribution to the It Gets Better Project for LGBT youth; for supporting the creation of a safe space for queer students (Rosas’ preferred wording) in the new Eshleman Hall; for backing the expansion of LGBT health services.
“As a genderqueer person myself, I see myself as part of the larger trans umbrella” that includes all definitions of sexual and gender difference, Rosas told the gathering, hundreds strong at a first-of-its-kind event in the chancellor’s stately campus home. More praise poured out for the chancellor’s efforts to make trans students, including athletes, feel more included on campus. Birgeneau beamed.
Rosas spoke as a co-chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on LGBT affairs. But the short tribute also brought in students of color and the California DREAM Act, which allows qualifying undocumented students to apply for financial aid. As a social and political activist, Rosas is a champion of differentness and difference, of bringing everyone along.
“Queer students here hold multifaceted identities and belong to multiple communities,” Rosas said, adding “many of whose lives are impacted by decisions such as these.”
Rosas knows, with multiple identities and communities that inform this activist’s ascent as a leader of efforts to help make the campus a place where all of them can feel at home.
Among those identities is Chicana-Latina; Rosas grew up in a middle-class family in Laredo, Texas, south of San Antonio, the first generation to be U.S.-born. The family moved to the San Diego area when Rosas was in high school, and California proved liberating: “It’s been a place for coming to terms with a lot of my identities.”
Landing at Berkeley brought the new college student in touch with more of them, a rolling succession. “I got in touch with my queerness,” coming out in the first year, Rosas says. “This past January, I came out as genderqueer, too,” Rosas adds, explaining the term a little later.
Filmmaker is another of Rosa’s selves, producing videos for the campus’s Multicultural Community Center and creating four short feature films, the most recent showing in San Francisco in the August showcase of Periwinkle Cinema, a film group that Rosas has now joined. Filmmaking allows Rosas to bring these identities together in narrative, under the film name Mari Miau.
Another identity is as a student, a senior with a double major in anthropology and gender studies. Rosas also lives in Lothlorien, the vegetarian student co-op — but vegetarian is not among the identities: “I just like the food.”
Being genderqueer is something that “most people don’t understand at first,” Rosas says, going on to explain with equanimity: “I identify not as a woman, not as a man, but as something outside of that.” Rosas doesn’t talk about this with everyone, but tried to keep the jargon out when the subject comes up.
The term “genderqueer,” Rosas says, like the term “trans,” is a broad umbrella that covers many differences. Genderqueer relates specifically to gender, not sexuality, and a conversation with Rosas is an education in other-gender anthropology: bi-gender, a-gender, two-spirit, the latter from Native American culture. “For myself, I describe it as a femme boi. I’m genderqueer. I’m neither of them. My pronouns are ‘they.’ “ (More definitions of related terms can be found on the campus Gender Equity Resource Center website.)
One reason Rosas doesn’t always talk about it is also one of the reasons for being involved in activism around LGBT issues: There are still too many people who, out of ignorance or something else, say things that sting or are impolite.
“People are not as sensitive as they could be,” Rosas says. “It’s in snide comments.” Trans women, for example, are called by the wrong pronoun, or by the names they went by before transitioning from male. “It’s the worst thing people can do,” Rosas says. “Sometimes people don’t understand the gravity of it.”
Sometimes “people you barely know ask about your genitals, or about how you have sex,” the student says. If asked a question like that, Rosas responds that it’s none of their business.
Instead of same-sex marriage, Rosas thinks LGBT priorities in general should be working to create more opportunities for undocumented students, and getting more attention paid to the recent murders of trans women, including one in Oakland.
On campus, Rosas would like to see the LGBT community have more active allies — “more than just like ‘oh yeah, I’m OK with queer stuff.’ ”
Film is where Rosas gets to express these identities creatively, and film school is next up after Berkeley. For now, in-between midterms, Rosas is busy exploring boundaries by writing a new film — a “surreal love story between a person and a balloon.”
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