Red Tremmel is a historian and a Professor of Practice at Tulane University in the department of Gender and Sexuality studies. His research has revolved spaces of play and pleasure as sites of social struggle and the role of these spaces and the exploration of desire on queer culture, rights, and politics. As the first transgender college faculty in the New Orleans area, Tremmel founded the Office for Gender and Sexual Diversity at Tulane, which has helped spark a significant shift in queer student life at the university. Information from this article was taken from an Interview administered on March 17, 2019 in Tremmel’s office in Tulane University’s Newcomb Hall.
Immediately upon meeting Red Tremmel, I understood why so many students gravitate toward him as a mentor. His demeanor is at once welcoming and restrained, and his interested engagement left me with the impression that he was as eager as I was for our conversation.
We sat in Red’s office around a small conference table, and the stacks of books, journal articles, and papers made it clear that this, first and foremost, was a space to get things done. But what struck me most was a profound humility, which became discernable as soon as he began to describe the origins of the Office for Gender and Sexual Diversity. For Tremmel, it begins and ends with the students:
And so, students would talk to me about this and, informally, were seeking out mentorship, and my colleagues, also, in gender and sexuality studies, were experiencing this too. And so, in addition to our typical job as a professor, we were also engaging in this other type of support for students who wanted to do leadership, who wanted to change policies and practices at the University… I started to think about, what would it mean to stay at Tulane, to teach and also to create some of these mechanisms to make life better for queer students…”
Red’s accounting of his own actions frames them as an almost Newtonian reaction to student need, inevitable and irresistible. He doesn’t speak of the office or the changes that have come for queer student life on campus because of it as anything he catalyzed. Instead, he paints a picture of a spontaneous drive that arises naturally and organically from queer students first and foremost.
I found Tremmel’s near-dismissal of his individual role in this process incredibly compelling, in no small part due to the degree to which I drew, personally, inspiration from his actions. I grew up bisexual and gender fluid in small town Tennessee (at a religious, all-boys school no less), and I’ve always seen those queer people who enter a space, make no apologies, and immediately begin fighting for recognition as heroic. Queer leaders have the ability to make the rest of us feel safer and stronger in the knowledge that we don’t stand alone, but Red Tremmel didn’t frame himself as a queer leader. In fact, while he had a great deal of praise to offer the queer students he credits with catalyzing change, he didn’t even frame this behavior as leadership or activism. Instead, he argued that for individuals outside of the privileged social group, every space is a political one by nature, and that this kind of activism is often simply part of life as a queer person, whether we want it or not:
And this was a very… typical thought I would have in my life, because institutions were never built to accept people who are gender nonconforming or queer into them, so wherever I’ve been, I’ve found myself having to do the thing I went there to… grad school, and then also, while I was in grad school, needing to work to make sure I had a bathroom I could go to… and so, I feel like I’ve always been surrounded by people who are having to, do the main thing… I’m a historian by training, but then also do side work.
It occurred to me then that this issue cuts to the heart of queer life in the year 2019. Even as the nation and the world at large are finally seeing transformative progress beginning to take shape, perhaps the greatest challenge to LGBTQ+ rights doesn’t originate from the conservative opposition. Instead, it is a certain complacency arising from our sense that the fight for queer rights may be “done” in some sense, or at least is confined to the niche issues that are the domain of those we perceive as political leaders or advocates, those that go “above and beyond” the requirements of queer life.
However, queer people know well that there isn’t a moment in modern life where they simply participate in society and do not have to think about their identity or how their treatment will be affected. The battle for visibility and inclusion is a daily one, fought in uncountable small actions in the lives of queer people everywhere, and when we extoll the individual actions of our heroes that win the battles, I fear we lose track of the true issue at hand. Overt discrimination, violence, and hate have left their scars on the LGBTQ+ community, but I truly believe that opposition can never sustain the suppression of queer people in the United States.
The strength of will and height of human dignity queer people have in the face of hate and evil has an incredible way of inspiring our collective will for change. It is this mundane, insidious inequality that is the most pressing threat to progress, and maintaining the gains that have been made will require the recognition of where we truly are and the struggle that still lies ahead. Tremmel spoke to this much more poignantly than I ever could when I asked him about his hopes for queer student life moving forward:
So, I think an office like the Office of Gender and Sexual Diversity, that those staff members should be guided by the needs of the students, but that work shouldn’t fall on students. That they get to go to school, and spend as much time as their peers-their heterosexual, cisgender, white peers- to zone out and watch Netflix, instead of running a meeting about, how are we going to convince someone to give us a bathroom…
These words have continued to stick with me as I consider what true equality looks like and what it means to live, each and every day, as a queer person.