Brennon Ham and the Q Center enhance a brave, affirming, liberatory, celebratory environment at the UW

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The University of Washington Q Center and director Brennon Ham wholeheartedly celebrate Pride and the progress of the LGBTQIA+ community this and every month. But that doesn’t mean that Brennon (who uses they/any pronouns) is content with the status quo.

“When we become stagnant and stop evaluating whether behaviors or policies or words are harmful, then we are complicit in the harm that they produce,” they say. “We need to continue to evaluate, to reflect and to transform into something better.”

That’s the spirit in which Brennon leads the Q Center, which facilitates and enhances a brave, affirming, liberatory and celebratory environment for students, faculty, staff and alumni of all sexual and gender orientations, identities and expressions.

It’s also a pretty good description of how they have always approached life.

A life of service and sport

Brennon is queer, bigender, mixed-Latinx, formerly homeless and a survivor of violence. Originally from Maryland and a big and blended family, they grew up playing baseball and swimming competitively — and now coach swimming at Garfield High School and Lakeridge Swim Club.

In concert, these intersecting identities and experiences have shaped Brennon’s academic pursuits and professional work.

After graduating from Case Western Reserve University, they served in a variety of education, coaching and advocacy roles with several Seattle-based organizations: Camp Ten Trees (a volunteer opportunity that introduced them to Seattle), Lifelong AIDS Alliance, Queer Youth Space, the Northwest Network of LGBTQ+ Survivors of Abuse, Seattle Public Schools, and A Way Home Washington.

While supporting LGBTQ+ related health education efforts at Seattle Public Schools, Brennon completed the Diversity & Inclusion certificate program at Cornell University and later earned a master’s degree in Education Policy & Management from Harvard University.

Converting experience to efficacy

A number of key experiences along the way — both good and bad — have informed Brennon’s approach to coaching and advocacy.

Some are recent. For instance, their long campaign to get the Greater Seattle Summer Swim League to adopt transgender and non-binary affirming policy taught volumes about how to reassure doubters and connect disparate parties.

Others go farther back.

Brennon’s ten years of competitive swimming encountered starkly different forms of coaching, including one they describe as unkind at best and abusive at worst. Helping kids discover the joy of movement through water while giving swim lessons at the aquatics center they supervised in high school affirmed a more positive model. “I learned that I loved to work with people to help them find love for something,” they say.

Another formative insight came in that same era from the ambitious community elders enrolled in Brennon’s water aerobics class. “The toughest thing I’ve ever taught,” they laugh. “These elders would say, ‘You think we’re old and can’t handle it. But you’re not pushing us hard enough.’

“It was foundational.”

The experience has made Brennon prone to ask and listen to what people want and need, partner rather than prescribe. “That’s a lesson that I’ve carried with me through all the work I’ve done,” they say. “And especially at the UW.”

Q Center

The Q Center that Brennon now leads, on the third floor of the HUB, has been around for over 20 years, the product of labor and care and love and activism of so many students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members. “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” Brennon says, “which is pretty special.”

The small but mighty Q Center team, including deputy director Val Schweigert, assistant director Miami Dupree and program manager Joie Waxler, provides a wide range of services to LGBTQIA+ students and the larger UW community. This begins with counseling and advising. A Queer Mentorship and Peer Program pairs new students with more senior students or alumni to provide key supportive relationships.

The Q Center hosts a Gender Discussion Group, a brave space for students to discuss their experiences of gender, a Sexplanations workshop series that addresses gaps in knowledge about sex and sexuality, and ColorMode, a space that centers queer, trans, bi, nonbinary and gender non-conforming BIPOC experiences.

Its Menstruation Station provides free and sustainably sourced hygiene products to any students who bleed. Its EnGender program provides free gender-affirming care items, such as chest binders, packers and gaffs, that allow students exploring their gender to feel more at home in their bodies, safer on campus and more focused on learning.

The LGBTQ+ Policy & Legislation series informs the community about the effects of local and national legislation. The Marsha P. Johnson Memorial Library (currently under construction) contains more than 1,500 titles. It also offers a catalog of online resources and a comprehensive guide to Queer Courses and Certificates at the UW.

And the Q Center’s annual Lavender Graduation celebrates its community in grand style once they have completed their UW journey.

Shifting the focus

Beyond the Q Center’s longstanding efforts to make students feel more comfortable, confident and resilient at the UW, Brennon is working to shift the focus to making the UW a more inclusive environment in which to learn. That means partnering with and supporting the larger campus community.

“It’s about leveraging our existing resources and analyzing the efficacy of programs that we run,” Brennon says. “How can we better operationalize them and work with units across the university to reduce barriers for queer and trans students? And how can we help improve the quality of service and care provided by other units around the university through collaboration and training?”

To illustrate this shift in focus, Brennon cites the evolution of the Q Center’s respected former Safe Zone Training program, which equipped and designated select people in positions of power or authority as a “safe” person to seek out with concerns, signified by a rainbow sticker.

Brennon viewed Safe Zone Training as a “useful band-aid.” But it didn’t address the root of the problem.

“Instead of creating points of refuge from toxic homophobia or transphobia that students might experience, we should be working to make the entire environment non-toxic,” they say. “And the way that we do that is through training and education.”

So, the Q Center now turns requests for Safe Zone trainings into larger conversations on how they can support an entire unit or department.

Years of progress

Brennon, who has known aspects of their identity since they were three, grew up with little guidance and few allies to help navigate the uneasy path of a queer, nonbinary young athlete. They were bullied at school, belittled by some of their coaches and faced a complicated home life, too.

“When I was young, there were limited options,” they recall. “I could either do this thing that made me feel healthy and good and allowed me to make a few friends despite the bullying. Or I could just stay at home or at school and feel miserable.”

Fortunately, college offered Brennon the chance to step away from the harms they experienced in high school and embrace more of their identity and find more community.

Moving to Seattle, with its vibrant queer community, strong support structure and rich history, was even better.

It still is for many seeking those same qualities. “More and more students are choosing the UW because of the Q Center or because they believe Seattle to be a haven for queer and trans people,” Brennon says.

Fortunately, they find fewer and fewer queer and trans students coming to the Q Center fleeing difficult or dangerous situations — though there are certainly still some in that predicament. Many, however, come for the community and camaraderie.

That’s progress. And the rise of the Q Center runs in parallel to the equally remarkable progress of the LGBTQIA+ community in the larger landscape of policy and perception here in Seattle.

The work is far from finished

But progress presents a kind of trap. It’s easy to become complacent.

Brennon’s way of thinking is guided by queer theory, which “starts with the belief that the status quo, if it results in disparate outcomes, is inherently violent or harmful. Policies are never actually liberatory until everyone’s needs are met.”

They know that this is not something we’re going to see in our lifetimes or the next. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to accelerate our evolution toward belonging and liberation. And to fight the rising forces that would reverse the progress that has been made.

In Brennon’s world, that means ensuring that queer and trans students are equipped and resilient to handle whatever life throws at them. And working hard, with the amazing Q Center staff, to make the environment around them as conducive to their learning and growing and thriving as possible.

“When students feel unsafe in a classroom, it prevents them from being able to focus on learning,” they say. “If we see this happening and do nothing, then we are complicit in the theft of their education.

This sentiment extends to all our intersecting identities, be they gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, (dis)ability, neurodivergence or any other.

“All we ask of people and units around the University of Washington is to understand how impactful they can be to students, in one way or the other.”

Reasons for optimism

Brennon finds the Q Center to be a happy, hopeful place. A chance to help queer and trans students “see what’s possible, dream of a better life and create new and meaningful relationships or chosen families.”

It is those very students and their brilliant Q Center team — their intelligence, their creativity, their resilience, their spirit — that fill Brennon with optimism.

That’s why they don’t get hung up in the minutia of the long-term campaign for equity and inclusion. Over the years, they have received countless requests for a list of queer and trans-related terminology. “Our stance at the Q Center is that it’s not actually helpful to queer and trans people to know the terms,” they say. “What’s really important is understanding how we should be engaging with each other rather than knowing what this term or that flag means. They are all going to evolve and change anyway. Because young people are smarter than we are. And young people are transforming the landscape and language of queerness.

Not so young as they used to be, Brennon is applying every experience to forge a world that is more accepting, equitable and inclusive of everyone. In that endeavor, they are in great company.

“I would love to leave the world better than I found it,” Brennon says. “And I think that most queer and trans people feel the same way. This was tough for me. I don’t want it to be so tough for the next generation of kids.”


Learn more

For more information and inspiration, Brennon recommends reading the works of James Baldwin, and finds deep resonance with the great American writer’s notion that “the children are always ours, every single one of them.”

Beyond Baldwin? “If you want to make things better,” they add, “read Black, queer women and credit Black, queer women.”

They recommend you begin with Audre Lorde, adrienne marie brown and bell hooks.

Here are a few of Brennon’s top picks:

Books (non-fiction)

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between by Joseph Osmundson

Books (fiction)

The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers
Blessings by Chukwuebuka Ibeh
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Hero by Perry Moore
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Podcasts

Becoming the People Podcast with Prentis Hemphill
Safe Space with Emma and Hester
Latinas From the Block to the Boardroom with Theresa E Gonzales
Making Gay History with Eric Marcus