LGBTQ Narratives in Academia

An ambitious video project gives voice to a diverse array of JHU students, faculty, and staff.

JHU wall entrance on North Charles Street illuminated with rainbow colored lights.

Johns Hopkins is home today to a thriving LGBTQ community of students, faculty, and staff. 

That said, “It’s important to note that the queer community at Hopkins is not a monolith,” says Abbey Nawrocki, associate director of Gender and Sexuality Resources for the university. 

“We are brought together by shared experiences of oppression, but the unique aspects of this community are vast,” Nawrocki adds. “For example, queer people of color have a different lived experience than, say, queer people who are white. If you paint the community with a broad brush, you miss some wonderful nuances.” 

Telling Queer Stories from JHU

In an effort to elevate individual voices within the LGBTQ community at Johns Hopkins and highlight the community’s diversity, School of Nursing graduate student Jon Suen had an idea. He would seek volunteers to make a series of videos about the LGBTQ experience at Hopkins. Suen began to put the word out. Soon, more than 30 members of the LGBTQ community and allies volunteered to be videotaped, shoot footage, edit footage, and manage the project. 

The result of their efforts is the LGBTQ Narratives in Academia storytelling project. It’s a series of three videos that explore the themes of allyship, inclusion, and empowerment. The series was unveiled last summer. 

Nawrocki, who uses the pronouns they/them, says the video project is powerful because it doesn’t focus on the “hard parts of being queer.” 

“It’s about queer empowerment and queer joy,” they say, noting that the project shows not only the diversity within the queer community at Hopkins, but also highlights people telling their own stories in their own way. “Collaborative projects like this show how important it is to let queer people take up space and be visible.” 

Abbey Nawrocki

We are brought together by shared experiences of oppression, but the unique aspects of this community are vast.” 

Abbey Nawrocki (they/them), Associate director of Gender and Sexuality Resources 

“Talk to Me”

Project leader Suen says the video project was entirely volunteer-based. He first approached the marketing and communications team at the School of Nursing. That eventually led him to meet Jason Charney, a multimedia specialist with the university’s Digital Media Center, and videographer Will McBride, who graduated from the Krieger School with a major in film and media studies in 2021. Charney volunteered to be the audio mixer, and McBride the video editor. An additional 15 volunteers joined the production team. 

“The fact that we had so many different roles was intentional,” Suen says. “Equity was built in to participation to accommodate people’s different time limits, preferences, and comfort levels.” 

In all, some 30 students, faculty, and staff members ended up being interviewed to share their stories. They included Vishal Yadav, a recent Krieger School doctoral graduate (2022) and now a postdoctoral research fellow in chemistry at Penn State. 

“Being part of this project was one of the best things I participated in at Hopkins and nothing could be a better farewell gift for me,” says Yadav. 

Jon Suen

Equity was built in to [the video project’s] participation to accommodate people’s different time limits, preferences, and comfort levels.” 

Jon Suen (he/him), graduate student, School of Nursing 

Making Space for Everyone

Volunteers who were uncomfortable being filmed or conducting interviews were offered the task of video “annotator.” The annotators watched interview recordings and noted timestamps of significant moments on a form. Each video was annotated by two different people, because the interviewers also submitted time-stamped notes with their completed videos. 

As a researcher, Suen was “constantly anxious that we all have our blind spots,” so “we needed to have enough eyes on these stories to reduce pitfalls” that could occur from the production team’s subjective perceptions. 

Suen was also a sounding board for those who wanted to participate, but had personal reservations about the project. In responding to hesitant volunteers, Suen didn’t cheerlead his project or encourage people to join with welcoming overtures. Instead, he emailed a different invitation: “Talk to me.” He says the exchanges with people who never participated were as important to him as the stories of those who did. 

Suen says he has also grown somewhat cautious about referring to the singular “LGBTQ community.” “I think the hegemonic tendencies of people [can] sometimes mislead many to believe that every LGBTQ individual confronts the same issues. I’d advocate emphasizing the plurality of LGBTQ communities and coalitions.” 

Educating Viewers

The LGBTQ Narratives in Academia project involved volunteers from six university divisions and four administrative offices. All agree that the video series isn’t just by LGBTQ people for LGBTQ people. It’s also for allies who aren’t sure how to help and for others who may not be ready to come out yet. One of the stated goals of the project in the Diversity Innovation Grant application, which was funded by the Johns Hopkins Diversity Leadership Council, was to explore “intersectionality for educating viewers (allies and LGBTQ+ alike) … that recognizing this ‘internal diversity’ is crucial for equity, inclusion, and cultural humility.” 

Project leader Demere Woolway, executive director of inclusive excellence education and development in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, says the grant was an important aspect of the project used to pay the storytellers an honorarium. Woolway referred to the “unpaid identity labor that all of us have to do,” emphasizing “this was why it was so important to pay the storytellers.” 

Woolway says the storytellers who were filmed didn’t just talk about sexual orientation. “They talked about many facets of themselves, and every one of them has a different way of being or a different way of experiencing some of the [LGBTQ] terms.” 

Lighting the Way

Frank Meng ’24 wants “to be the torch that lights up the darkness, I want to be seen.” Meng says he volunteered to be a video storyteller because “I want to advocate and provide safe space for those who are in the same shoes as me, being Asian immigrants and queer, or just being gay in an Asian household, where it’s especially hard.” 

Thành Đoàn ’25 shares a similar sentiment about his goal as a storyteller. “I want to reach out to future generations of students at Hopkins, especially those international students who might come from countries that are not most conducive to expressing their authenticity,” he says. “Part of why this project matters to me is that it is a step toward the right direction of thinking about inclusivity and diversity.” 

What Next?

Nawrocki is quick to note that work still needs to be done to support members of the LGBTQ community at Hopkins and to raise awareness about the diversity that exists in that space. They are currently housing all of the video footage in the offices of Gender and Sexuality Resources and say it can be used in various ways. 

“I would like to see the videos continue to be used to promote community, conversation, and education at Hopkins,” they say. “I love the idea of having videos that can speak to staff and faculty who need to know about supporting LGBTQ students. Those messages are always so much stronger coming from the students themselves.” 

Kevin Frick, a professor at JHU’s Carey Business School, volunteered as an interviewer and annotator for the project. He recalls an anecdote from a student, who said, “The entire culture [at Hopkins] is heteronormative.” The student gave “the example of any time someone mentions an upcoming wedding in class, faculty will ask a question assuming a heterosexual relationship.” Hearing this, Frick says he became “invested in getting to know the students better and gaining a better appreciation for the challenges they face.” 

Thành Đoàn ’25

I want to reach out to future generations of students at Hopkins, especially those international students who might come from countries that are not most conducive to expressing their authenticity.” 

Thành Đoàn ’25 (he/him), Krieger School of Arts and Sciences 

Groundwork for Deeper Support

Sage Magness-Hill, academic advisor at JHU’s Center for Student Success and a storyteller in the videos, agrees that JHU faculty and leadership can use the videos in several ways. 

“This is like the beginning,” says Magness- Hill. “It kind of covered the surface. [Hopkins leadership] could use the footage to take a deeper dive into what specifically Hopkins can do to support students and what students see as far as resources, support, and representation. I think about things in artistic terms, and there are as many ways to be LGBTQ as there are colors in existence. For example, because I had a kid, people assumed I was straight. Literally just [my] breathing and existing is an education for some people.”

Sage Magness-Hill

Sage Magness-Hill (they/them),
Academic advisor, JHU Center for
Student Success

At the July viewing party, Suen thanked all of those who participated in the ambitious project. 

“It was only through all of you that I was able to direct the frustrations I was feeling into collective action,” he said. “Each of your individual voices hold power and we can choose to use it for promoting queer joy, empowerment, allyship, and inclusive settings. That is the lesson I’m taking from this experience.” 

In Their Own Words

The following are excerpts from the video project. 

I am grateful for being queer and Black and all of my other identities because there is an experience of otherness that, while not always pleasant, provides me with a path to empathy that may not have been available to me if I had only experienced a life of privilege.” 

Tonia Poteat ’12 (PhD) (she/her) Bloomberg School of Public Health 

One of the main concepts I teach with is an intersectional approach, where the experience of an able-bodied white trans man like myself is a very different experience than a Black trans man or a non-binary Asian student. And it’s important to be conscious of all those different privileges and vulnerabilities and perspectives that all the different people bring.” 

Will Beckham Cole ’13, PhD, (he/they), Bloomberg School of Public Health 

In situations when you’re introducing yourself to a group of people, if the professor or whoever doesn’t say to include pronouns in your intro, just add them in, because that normalizes it. That makes it easier because then now, everybody has to say it, and so trans people don’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m asking for something special.’ You’re just doing what everyone else is doing.” 

Eirnin Mahoney ’24 (they/them), Krieger School of Arts and Sciences 

Because of how open I am about my identities, it tends to provide spaces where people feel like they can say certain things, even if they’ve never said them before. You can tell when people are still in a space of coming out, and I’m so happy to provide that space for them.” 

Tj Beaucage (they/them) Academic advisor and success coach, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences 

Last semester, my English professor was an openly gay man and he’s proud. He had been married for 29 years. A huge part of the reason why I declared an English major is he really set that role model to become an amazing professor while being an openly gay man. It’s hard. I do think Hopkins has that environment, but we just need more of that.” 

Frank Meng ’24 (he/him) Krieger School of Arts and Sciences 

Watch the Series

Personal narratives from Johns Hopkins students, staff, and faculty that exploring themes of allyship, empowerment, and inclusivity as they relate to being LGBTQ+ within academia.