Scoundrel Time

Pushing Back: An Interview with College Student Grace Smith on Identity and Activism

I first met Grace Smith when she was six. I was an adult student in a renowned memoir class taught by Grace’s mother, Marion Roach. Grace was the little girl who sat at our table writing or coloring until her dad, Rex Smith, the editor of the Albany Times Union, picked her up. Marion was my first writing teacher—the kind who leaves an indelible impression. Rex was the newspaper editor I chatted with at community gatherings.

            Though I never spoke with Grace before this interview, I kept track of her life through occasional contact with my beloved teacher. Recently, I asked Marion what Grace was up to and heard a riveting description of a young political activist I suddenly wanted to meet, and perhaps, write about.

            That meeting with 21-year-old Grace Smith, via Skype, is recounted here. As Grace spoke from her dorm room at Georgetown University, I was mesmerized by the protest signs covering her walls, evidence that this social justice advocate had already fought many battles on the front lines.

-Robyn Ringler

Grace Smith is a junior at Georgetown University double majoring in government and gender studies. She serves as co-president of GUPride, she’s the executive policy chair of the LGBTQ+ Inclusivity Team in Georgetown’s student government, and she’s a trained student facilitator for Georgetown’s Sexual Assault Peer Educators. She recently interned at the Democratic National Committee under the Director for LGBT Engagement and looks forward to finding more outlets for her passion for queer activism and government-based work. When she’s not protesting outside the White House, Grace can be found making many puppy friends at D.C.’s dog parks or binge-watching Transparent.

Photo by Nate Moulton
Grace Smith protesting outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Robyn Ringler: Did any childhood experiences predispose you toward activism?

Grace Smith: Being adopted from China into a white family, whose racial experiences will always be drastically different from my own, was a defining experience in regard to my identity. I went to the Albany Academy for Girls and the Emma Willard School so it’s been all girls for about fourteen years. Which was definitely formative. It made me think more about what gender means and what it looks like.

 

How do you identify yourself?

A queer woman of color. It’s one of those lifelong questions I’ll always be asking myself. (Laughs.)

 

How did same-sex schooling affect your attitudes?

Coming to Georgetown I thought it would be this humongous shift because it’s coed for the first time. And it felt like no shift. But, toward the beginning of my first year in college, I wrote two essays in which I said same-sex schools should never exist.

 

Why?

Late in high school, people started coming out as trans and members of the gender nonconforming community (GNC). I saw a single-gender school struggling to define gender. It was not as inclusive as it should have been. I’m sure now that it’s more complicated—they have to think about funding and other issues. But, at the time, I saw the school as not defining gender as I wanted them to.

 

So, your attitudes toward same-sex schools have changed over time?

It’s been an interesting journey—I say that having loved and needed my experience with the same-sex schools. I’ve always embraced an outward style—and I still do—which probably seemed more masculine or less normative in those contexts [all-girls schools]. Coming to Georgetown and being around very masculine men has changed how I see masculinity and how I see my own masculinity. At same-sex schools, you were always bonded by this gender aspect and told you’re gonna lift each other up. Having those messages of solidarity was really helpful for me, and also made me value a certain kind of community I don’t think I would have had at a coed school.

 

How do you see masculinity, in general, and your own masculinity?

I was always surrounded by a feminine model. My masculinity came in the form of not wearing a dress, pulling my hair back, that sort of thing. In college, I don’t know if it was a product of my new environment or a masculinity I always had, but it was interesting to watch it shift. College was liberating. It gave me a real-world picture that high school didn’t. When I asked myself, what do you want to look like? to act like? it was the first time I had the freedom to act on it.

 

Were you “out” in high school?

I wasn’t out except to an immediate group of friends. I was going to start college out and not have that be an obstacle. Coming out was the starting point for connecting my activism to my own identity.

 

I’ve read that Georgetown is a leading institution in supporting gay rights, which seems odd considering its Catholic affiliation.

They’re both a leading and an oppressive institution. They’ve been lauded justifiably because they’ve done wonderful things. And I personally have loved Georgetown’s Jesuit identity. But they’re still operating in the Catholic context, and that can be limiting. The LGBTQ Resource Center is revolutionary for this kind of Catholic context, but still, that came out of a lawsuit [in the 1980s]. A lot has occurred because students have pushed. I don’t want to make Georgetown look bad. The Jesuits have given us a lot, especially with their emphasis on community and reflection. But it is hard sometimes. We recently asked for a gender and sexuality dorm, which got rejected. They are concerned that, in a Catholic context, that kind of hall couldn’t exist. But I think having push-back [by the students] has taught me the kind of fight—in a pretty safe space—I’m going to need in the future.

 

What are your top activism issues?

Gender, sexuality, and ability. I’ve worked most with the queer and deaf communities.

 

How did you become involved with the deaf community?

Last year, in Georgetown’s Alternative Breaks Program, Deafness and Ability, I saw parallels between the deaf and queer communities. I am now studying American Sign Language at Gallaudet University. Through sign, I want to find meaning, learn an important language, and make sure I’m not part of our society that marginalizes deaf people.

 

Is student activism creating change? How do you feel about America?

It’s part of the youth fallacy to feel like the country is changing in the direction you want it to—although, queer issues have definitely come up to the national level—it’s that youth perspective where you think the country is finally paying service to liberals, getting radical, and you’re going to get justice. There have been moments I’ve been proud about things we should have had in the first place—which defines so much of the queer fight right now. Pride is part of so many things I feel about America. Not being born here makes you question your relationship with the country you now live in—especially with a lot of people being insecure about adoption, that process, and what that identity holds.

 

What do you mean?

Our country stigmatizes people who are adopted. There is profound support of a biological connection. “Don’t you want to find your real parents?” I’ve been asked that a million times. There is a weird assumption that my parents are not my real parents. People overvalue biology.

 

How did you feel about a woman running for president?

It was amazing. We were at a place where we had a black president. Now we had a woman running. (Maybe, one day, we’ll get closer to having a president look like me.) Though it was disheartening to see the sexism—worse to see it on the left because you expect it from the right.

 

Tell me about working for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The highlight [as an intern under the Director of LGBT Engagement] was attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. On the first day, July 25th, I celebrated my 21st birthday by hearing Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama speak. The convention was movement at its finest, most hectic. It was running, grabbing, being so caught up, thriving in chaos.

 

How did you feel when Donald Trump was elected?

I felt shocked and silenced. You feel like you’re sitting in the dark alone, and then, you turn on the light and there are fifty people staring at you. And you’re like, oh my God, I had no idea they were here all the time.

 

Where do you get political information?

[Recent] protests, through Facebook. I am in circles where things pop into my news feed. I think I’m actually getting some of my news from my dad—like the New York Times (NYT) and some other newspapers. But we’ve hit the age of alternative facts, so I have to be careful. I get updates from a ton of sources: Politico, NYT, NBC, The Hill.

 

Your mom is an author and your dad is the editor of a prominent newspaper. In these dark times, how has your mindset connected with what your parents taught you?

My parents taught me how to be relentlessly curious and profoundly determined. They taught me the value of passion channeled into expression—how to find what I love and need and process it through narrative. I learned that words have power and thoughts have action; that who we are is deeply connected to what we do, individually and collectively. In Trump times, these lessons are particularly salient, for they are times in which expression through words is a necessary catharsis that provides peace—if only fleeting—in moments of chaos, in years of oppression.

 

Tell me about fear.

For marginalized communities, fear is not new. But it’s become so intensified—because it’s now institutionally and nationally supported in a way it’s never been before. As an adopted, Asian-American Pacific Islander, queer, nonconforming woman, I am familiar with fear. In some ways, this is nothing new. But in a lot of ways, this is brand new. Because now people who have never felt fear are feeling it too.

 

Are you experiencing more open hatred?

I’m lucky I live in D.C.—a liberal pocket in this apparently conservative country. But I’m acutely aware that my appearance upsets people. Now I feel like I’m being watched in a way I wasn’t before. The bathroom is always a terrifying place, because a lot of people don’t think I’m a woman, don’t think I conform, don’t think I belong there.

 

Has anyone confronted you?

Yes, often. My mom has only seen it happen once, but she was taken aback when someone confronted me [in a bathroom]. The biggest fear is having those spaces that should be your own ripped away from you. The people who don’t want it to be your space are more vocal and feel justified in ways they haven’t before. It’s one of the worst things, this forced removal from spaces you used to claim as your own.

 

Do you have any feeling for the future?

A lot of people feel like they haven’t done enough and that’s why we’re here. But, a big part of me thinks we’re here because we have done enough. I really hope this is that last, very intense, push back on the precipice of change. On some national level, we are engaging more with social justice and diversity issues, and this does feel like a very sudden push back to that. It makes me think they are also afraid. That we’ve gotten somewhere. Somewhere where they don’t want us to be.

 

Do young people think violence may be needed to create change?

Violence isn’t just physical. Now, we’re seeing what emotional violence looks like. The queer community has felt its effects for a long time. We need to look at violence as any kind of destruction and not see it as only physical harm. One of the scariest things in this Trump administration is the kind of emotional violence and fear he has put into so many people. He’s already committed a lot of violence. So, yes, I think it’s fair to say there will be violence because there already has been.

 

What’s next in resisting Trump?

“What do we do?” is the question for the next four years. What’s hard, even with my friends, is that a lot don’t want to go to class now. What a lot of my generation forget is that resistance can be just doing what you’ve always done. Telling Trump, you can’t change what I’m doing and what I want to do—that’s a kind of resistance. You need to escalate in some ways. But getting a good education and job fights against Trump. Any pathway that gets you where you want to be is a pathway that opposes what’s happening.