by Doug Keeler
At this year’s May Day (a.k.a. International Workers’ Day) I marched and rallied with New York City’s Student Bloc, and held up a sign that read “NYU Hates Poor Queers.” Now, I’d like to elaborate on what I meant by that statement, which is that NYU’s role in the student debt crisis is a compelling queer* issue. Queers fit into the student debt crisis in at least three key ways: that student debt is a queer issue more generally, that NYU’s gay-friendliness and financial-unfriendliness are interrelated, and that high tuition and student debt harm queer people more acutely.
As the collective student debt of the nation has risen to exceed $1 trillion (more than both credit card and auto loan debt), NYU has matriculated the most indebted student body among not-for-profit universities in the country. And in case you’d forgotten, New York University is, in fact, a tax-exempt not-for-profit institution, yet it has become an exemplar in what many call the “corporate university”—an institution better known for its bureaucracy and expansion than its transparency or accountability (to its faculty and students). Additionally, the exorbitant price of attending NYU has foreclosed the notion of academic meritocracy, the increasingly obsolete concept that the brightest and most hardworking students can obtain a world-class college education, regardless of socioeconomic status.
But how is this a queer issue? Given the conservative paradigm of the official gay rights movement, it’s unsurprising that student debt appears irrelevant to queer people, separate issues to be fought by separate constituencies. Much of the public debate on LGBT issues restricts itself to problems that queer people face and only queer people face. But queer people are often things other than queer, and queer people are affected (often in nuanced ways) by issues that affect or target non-queers. Therefore, we need a fundamental shift in how we define “queer issues.” We must turn toward problems that affect queer people, rather than only focus on problems that exclusively affect queer people. If we end up fighting for oppressed non-queers along the way, that’s not a liability to “the movement.” That’s just part of building a more just world. This means acknowledging that queer people might also be poor, disabled, black, brown, women, immigrant, Muslim. When Muslims are under unlawful surveillance by the NYPD, that means that queer Muslims are also under unlawful surveillance by the NYPD. That’s a queer issue.
Student debt and high tuition prices hurt queer people because many queer people happen to be students, and many queer students happen to be poor. For this reason alone, unprecedented student debt and tuition prices belong in the domain of “queer issues.” NYU hates poor queers because NYU contributes actively and substantially to a system of student debt (which resembles no other form of debt at all, but instead resembles indentured servitude) that harms students and poor people—and therefore queer students and poor queers. Though NYU is not a lender itself, it unapologetically advances the systematic indebting, impoverishment, and exclusion of students, a system so classist that I can only characterize it as downright hateful.
In fact, It should be sufficient that if an institution affects queer people at all, then we should unite against it, that queer presence necessitates queer representation. Even if an issue of injustice doesn’t involve queer people, it might be worth our consideration anyway, simply out of a shared interest in a more socially just world. In this sense, the student movement that aims to break down barriers to free education for all indeed envisions the more just society that Queer Union wants a part in.
However, NYU hates poor queers in particular, which may come as a surprise given John Sexton’s reputation as higher education’s #1 fruit fly. In fact, NYU’s routinely high rankings as an LGBT-friendly college are part of what makes NYU’s role in the student debt crisis so egregiously irresponsible. NYU represents something of a gay sanctuary relative to other colleges, a space where LGBT students can expect that they’ll be safe from queer-bashing or homophobic hazing. That safe space should not cost me $35,000 (the national average) in potentially lifelong debt.
Prerequisite to explaining how “NYU Hates Poor Queers,” perhaps a conversation on choice is in order. Choosing NYU, and how to finance it, are not choices made in a vacuum, especially for queer students. And this is arguably another way that debates over student debt are profoundly queer: their preoccupation with choice and desire feel altogether familiar to queer people. Frequently, we must reckon with both desires and choices that disobey that which is “responsible,” and refuse to be disciplined for them.
Many conservatives insist that the student debt crisis is merely a matter of individual accountability, that our desire to attend expensive universities is characteristic of our generation’s shallowness, and that our choice to finance our education through student loans is characteristic of our generation’s sense of entitlement. Even President John Sexton reduced the decision to attend NYU to that of choosing between a Mercedes and a Chevrolet. However, choosing NYU involves a far more consequential decision-making process, a far more complex weighing of desires, than choosing a car.
Even solely on a financial level, choosing NYU was a choice made under duress. Most of us grew up conditioned to believe that a college education would mean upward social mobility. In fact, in the midst of an economic crisis, getting a degree became compulsory in order to stay afloat, and getting a prestigious degree offered a competitive edge in the job market. The key difference between choosing between colleges and choosing between cars, Sexton fails to see, is that either car will get me to a job. And as our student loan debt and New York rent prices each continue to rise, the apparent financial benefits to coming to NYU advertised to us were miscalculated at best and predatory at worst. Moreover, choosing NYU entailed making a life choice, a decision influenced by far more than just financial factors.
For the sake of analogy, consider the decision to come out to an employer, particularly in a place unprotected by employment non-discrimination policy. In purely financial terms, it’s a horrible choice, a massive risk to my livelihood without any potential payoff—and many conservatives would still frame it as irrelevant, inappropriate, or simply not worth such risks. Of course, coming out to an employer is often a matter of confronting a heterosexist work environment, of establishing relationships of trust, of permitting oneself to speak about one’s life and obligations outside of work. Regardless of the reasons, the decision to come out to an employer occurs not in a budgetary vacuum, but in confluence with a range of factors both pragmatic and sentimental. And if I get fired for coming out to an employer, that is not a just punitive consequence of my decision, but a fundamental problem with an infrastructure that does not provide adequate legal remedies for queers in the workplace.
Similarly, the choice to come to NYU answers not a purely financial question (i.e. How risky is this investment?), but instead emerges from a range of considerations, including whether I can be safely, openly, and authentically queer. And that I’m shackled with an exorbitant amount of unforgivable debt because of that choice demonstrates fundamental problems with higher education and lending practices, rather than a mere consequence of my own decision. There is nothing gay-friendly about indebting us, and reducing our desire for a safe college to a poor financial decision. In this way, the gay-friendliness and financial-unfriendliness of NYU are entirely related; the former ought to be contingent upon the latter. Frankly, it’s hypocritical for NYU’s administration to take pride in the gay-friendliness of our school, when that friendliness is conditioned upon the wealth of our families, or our willingness to enter post-graduate indenture.
When we do locate queers within unjust structures, we might provide a more substantial intervention by identifying the ways these problems affect queer people in unique ways and to unique degrees. For example, LGBT youth are homeless at disproportionately higher rates, and often face uniquely homophobic/transphobic encounters with shelters and police. Even though homelessness affects a wide range of non-queer people, we nonetheless have a significant stake in working toward transformative solutions on behalf of homeless people.
Perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish here between the two directions in which NYU hates poor queers: indenture and inaccessibility. While NYU’s high tuition has put its own students underwater in debt, it has put up a massive barrier to would-be students who cannot afford to take out these loans in the first place. In the most direct sense, NYU hates poor queers because NYU is financially inaccessible to poor queers. In either direction, though, queer people are hit harder than our straight counterparts.
Transphobia and homophobia frequently produce volatile households and unsupportive families. For this reason, queer people are less likely to receive support, financial or otherwise, from our biological families. Indeed, many of us pursue college in order to escape abusive/intolerant households and live independently. And while queer youth homelessness is an issue I consider related but do not wish to co-opt here, the proportion at which queer youth wind up homeless illustrates this prevalence of homes hostile to queers. Even if NYU’s aid officers assist queer students with the FAFSA in the absence of parent signatures, NYU’s high tuition demands that students take out additional private or federal PLUS loans, either of which are unobtainable without a cosigner. For many poor queers, such barriers foreclose the possibility of NYU in the first place. For those of us that do make it here, or who come out while in college, our own unsupportive households may continue to sharpen the difficulty of dealing with the high price of an NYU education. Families might financially cut off their queer kids, forcing queer students to take out bigger loans, work full-time, or drop out of NYU entirely, leaving us with a great sum of debt with zero payoff. And whether we graduate or not, when deferment periods end, queer students have an especially hard time making payments with money from entry-level jobs and without the financial support of our families.
In addition to the hostility queer people are more likely to encounter at home, queer students and post-grads are more likely to encounter hostility in the workplace, especially the visibly/non-passing queer. Most of us expect our degrees to at least bring us decent-paying jobs with which we can begin to pay off our debt. However, trans* and gender non-conforming folks, along with people of color, have more difficulty obtaining and maintaining secure employment, with or without NYU degrees. Myths about gay wealth aside, all LGBT folks tend to face higher rates of firing, lower rates of hiring, and significant wage disparities from straight employees. Sure, NYU’s not at fault for workplace discrimination, but these conditions exacerbate the struggle of paying off student loan debt for queer people. This debt drains our financial resources, compels us to take jobs with less workplace protections, and—more insidiously—discourages queer student activism with the threat of losing crucial job opportunities.
NYU hates poor queers, because NYU’s role in the student debt crisis affects queer students distinctively and acutely. Both the student debt crisis nationwide and the student debt crisis at NYU are queer issues, pressing issues that belong high up on the agenda of queer student activism. What should we do about it? Some may suggest that we push for an NYU scholarship fund for queer students, work with financial aid officers to raise their awareness about unsupportive families, or petition the Wasserman Center to provide more programs that connect LGBT students to employers. However, each of these approaches does nothing to address the roots of the problem facing poor queers and queer students: high tuition prices, predatory lending practices, and administrative unaccountability for either. More fundamentally, these approaches steer clear of a broader vision of social justice: free education for all.
* Throughout this piece, I use “queer” primarily as shorthand for all non-straight and non-cisgender identities, and people who claim those identities (e.g. Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual). Of course, “queer” has additional, more imaginative and non-identitarian usages that might also apply in certain points of this essay, often by accident.