Grabski channels trans journey into affirmation of differences

BOWLING GREEN, O.—“I walk through the world and I get privileges. I’m still trying to come to terms with that,” said fourth-year student Luke Grabski, a visual communication technology major from Painesville with a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

Grabski, however, is not the typical privileged white male. He is a trans male who is still getting used to the feeling that “I’m invisible now. I can walk down the street holding hands with my girlfriend and no one looks at me.”

While he still has some anxiety about living as a trans person, he said, that feeling of invisibility, of passing for just another man, is a new sensation for someone who has been through an intense journey of self-discovery in a relatively short time — although to Grabski, “It’s been a long four years.”

Even as he becomes less outwardly noticeable as he settles into his male identity, Grabski continues to stand out as a leader. No matter how difficult or unclear his own path was, he has always been determined to help others struggling with their own gender and sexuality issues — and he has found a multitude of ways to do that.

They have included serving as president of Vision, the umbrella LGBTQ organization on campus, for two years and now as its undergraduate adviser. He is also a Student Leadership Assistant (SLA) in BGSU’s Center for Leadership, the founder of DREAM (Developing Relationships and Encouraging Advancement through Mentorship) Program, and a YP4 (Young People For) fellow, part of the People for the American Way organization that promotes progressive values.

When he and his mother were exploring BGSU as he was enrolling here, his mother pointed out Vision as something he might want to check out. He remembers instantly deciding “‘I want to be president of Vision one day.’ I just didn’t think it would be during my sophomore year.”

But that was how it turned out. As a freshman he immediately got involved and was elected vice-president. “I was determined and very passionate. I learned so much. I really began to see the importance of intersectionality — of race, class, genders, and abilities. No one is just one thing, and all our experiences are unique and all deserve to be recognized and respected.”

When the elected Vision president was unable to serve, Grabski suddenly found himself stepping into that role. Among his many activities, he worked to strengthen the various identity groups under the Vision umbrella: HUE, Trans Awareness Group (which he leads), Understanding Middle Sexualities, and Interfaith Queers. “All the groups are now doing well,” he reported. “We’re building leadership within the identities, and the leaders also now serve on the Vision executive board, which reinforces the connections between the groups.”

As strong as he was in his advocacy for LGBTQ issues, he had not yet come out as trans. Coming out as gay is one thing, he said, but identifying as trans is much harder. “My mother had known when I was in high school that I identified as gay, but trans was a lot harder for her to grasp,” he said. “We think of people as binary: men/women. But gender can be so much more fluid.”

As a student and at Vision, “I had a lot of opportunities, but I was struggling because I didn’t feel comfortable with myself,” he said. “That summer I participated in LeaderShape and people kept telling me, ‘Oh, you’re so authentic.’ They seemed to appreciate me for what they perceived as authenticity. It was an eye-opening moment when I realized that what people really respect is that authenticity. I was not being authentic, but having that group around me made me realize I could be.”

He first came out as trans only to his close friends, then to his co-workers in his job in the Office of the Division of Student Affairs, where he worked that summer as a graphic artist Web designer, and still works.

“I wasn’t very proud of myself before,” he said, “but now I’m proud about being out as trans.” He has also learned that “being a white man does come with privileges,” and he is using those to help educate people about a variety of differences. “It’s a lot less threatening to white men to hear it from me,” he has found.

“Luke has an internal sense of social justice,” said Tobias Spears, the assistant director for access, diversity and inclusion programs who has oversight of the campus LGBT Resource Center. “He’s always had an inner sense of accountability to a larger community.

“He’s become a hub of the LGBT community. And he’s just brave. A lot of violence happens against trans people, but Luke is really brave. He also doesn’t need a lot of handholding. He’s able to get things started, like the Trans Awareness Group. Coming out as trans without a network can make you feel isolated and lonely. It’s so helpful to have a place where you can finally be who you are.”

Spears described Grabski in his role as undergraduate adviser to Vision as “just magical. He has this ability to speak from a student perspective but he also sees things that undergraduates often don’t see. He brings a bigger picture and an alternative perspective and encourages students to think about the implications of their decisions.”

Grabski uses his personal experience when conducting workshops and iSTAND Advocacy Training for the Center for Leadership and Office of Multicultural Affairs. “As part of the Not in Our Town initiative we try to break the cycle of oppression and eliminate the ‘bystander effect,’” he said. “We use skits and do training to help people practice their advocacy skills.”

Working with the Office of Multicultural Affairs has helped him “break out of the LGBTQ-only leadership and work in a non-queer-specific space,” Grabski said. And he has found a strong mentor for himself there in Spears. Arriving at BGSU the same year, “we learned the ropes together,” Grabski said.

The skills he’s learned as a Student Leadership Assistant have translated into other important roles for him. A workshop he attended at an annual Midwest Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Ally College Conference on creating your own LGBTQ mentoring group on campus inspired him to think about doing just that.

“I did a lot of research over the summer into what other schools are doing and thought about what I would like to do, and I came up with the DREAM Program, he said. “While everything I’ve done has been very collaborative, this is something I can say I came up with on my own.”

Now in its first year, the DREAM Program already has 28 members. An undergraduate group for the present, it is based on peer mentoring and growing together and becoming part of the greater community. Mentors must be at least sophomores and have had a minimum one year of involvement in some type of organization. The mentor/mentee pairs commit to going to at least two non-LGBTQ events or group meetings per semester.

“As an SLA I was able to train mentors in the DREAM Program,” Grabski said. “It was really nice to know that people were interested in being part of it. Now that we’ve had a successful trial run, I’d like to see more people get involved.”

All these experiences have pointed Grabski toward graduate school to major in student affairs. “College changes students’ lives,” he said. “I’d like to help change lives the way my life has been changed.

“The SLA position has allowed me to see that, while I value social justice and equality, that’s something I can pursue in my spare time. I’m really interested in leadership development of young people and in preparing them to be social change agents. Through working with faculty and students and especially Tobias, I now want to be the director of an LGBT resource center.”