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Bad*ss Indigenous Women of USGA: A Q&A

It’s easy to feel alone as a woman of color at BYU. That makes perfect sense, since 81% of the student population is white. This feeling of isolation can be compounded for Native American women, who make up less than 1% of the student body. So, you might be surprised to learn that USGA has several important Indigenous women among our past and present leadership (including our current Intersectionality Chair, Thea Manning-Neal). Two of those women are Dr. Roni Jo Draper and Carolyn Gassert. In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked them about their experiences as queer women of color at BYU. 

The Interviewees


Dr. Roni Jo Draper is a multifaceted educator, activist, and filmmaker. She began her career as a high school math teacher, working primarily with students at risk of dropping out. More recently, she has worked as a Teacher Education professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Utah Valley University (UVU). As an activist, Dr Draper volunteers as a USGA advisor and previously served as the president of the Utah American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Board of Directors. She is a member of the Yurok Tribe. 


Carolyn Gassert, a member of the Catawba Nation, works as an elementary school teacher. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from BYU, with minors in Global Women’s Studies and Family Life. Her activism began when she joined USGA leadership in 2018, and she served as USGA president from 2021 to 2023. Carolyn is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in her community, both professionally and as an activist. 

As we delved into the stories of these extraordinary women, we discovered the obstacles, accomplishments, and changing roles they embrace. Their thoughts provide insight into the complicated landscape of identity, activism, and opportunity queer women of color face today.

How did you get involved with USGA?


Dr. Draper: I was invited to USGA to make a presentation. At the time, my husband and I were serving in a young single adult ward on campus and there was a student in the ward who had just come out. He was just starting to participate at USGA and asked if I would come and talk about how to make our wards and church spaces more LGBTQ-friendly. So, my joke is that I was invited to make a presentation and then I never left. I just kept coming back. I was like, “Well, try to get rid of me now!”


Carolyn: I started at BYU in 2016 and came out to myself towards the end of my freshman year. Then I did the very classic “help, I'm gay at BYU” Google search. I don't think that's as much of a thing now because there are multiple ways to get involved, but that search was how I found USGA. And I kind of just started going and sitting in the back. I would always sneak out right before the end of the activity so no one would talk to me because I was so scared to be there. 


The next semester I got involved with leadership and I was there for like six years. At first, I thought I was the only person who'd ever done this. I thought I was the only gay person at BYU. I’m glad I researched before trying to get involved. I asked, “What exists for me?” which is the correct question, I think.


Dr. Draper: I didn't know USGA existed. I started at BYU in 2000 and I just wasn't aware. (Editor’s note: USGA was founded in 2010.) My son was a BYU student at the time I was invited to present and he was really going through a challenging time as a queer human. He graduated around 2012 and blossomed like a rose.


Carolyn: You always get that glow up.


What made you stay at USGA?


Carolyn: I stayed because there were people who understood what I was dealing with. USGA genuinely saved my life and I wanted to pay that forward for the students who came after me. That’s why I got involved with leadership, eventually became the president, and tried to make changes that would make USGA more accessible, more inclusive, more diverse, and more representative of what the queer community is actually like. For a while USGA was mostly white gay guys. The rest of us were there but not really represented well, so I wanted to do my part to make BYU better for those who came after me. That's why I stayed.


Dr. Draper: I was added to the board shortly after my presentation, and another year after that I was made an advisor. I stayed because I really wanted students to know they had a faculty ally at BYU, and I wanted to have a presence at USGA. But I also wanted students to know that they could come by my office, where I had chocolate and a comfy couch and soft pillows that people could hold and just be like “ahh.” I just wanted students to know they had someone who was on their side.


Carolyn: Your office was the best. The comfiest, coziest office on campus.


Dr. Draper: I had my books arranged in rainbow order on my shelves. 


How has being a woman of color shaped your experience within both the LGBTQ+ community and at BYU? How do you navigate the intersectionality of those identities?


Carolyn: Like I said earlier, when I started going to USGA it was kind of all about the cis gay white guys, and it was good that they had that space. But I didn't feel like I saw as many queer people of color as I knew were at BYU, especially women of color. I was like, “Where are the people like me?” 


I've also dealt with racism. I think many white queer people have never understood what oppression feels like until they come out and realize, “Oh, I'm a member of a marginalized group now.” Then they use their marginalization as validation of their identity instead of viewing it as oppression. And that can be really problematic and lead to active racism against people in the community. I’ve dealt with it from people in other groups, I've dealt with it from people in USGA, and I think it's an issue in the larger community in general, especially here in Utah. I hope the work I did for USGA made it a better space for women of color especially, as well as other people of color who are queer and trans. I really tried to expand it and make it as inclusive and diverse as I knew it could be. My experiences as a woman of color definitely informed my presidency a lot. 


Being at BYU was really hard. Sometimes in queer spaces I feel like I have to compromise my POC-ness to be heard. Being at BYU, I also had to compromise my queerness to be heard, so it felt like I couldn’t be myself at all. Especially as a white-passing person of color, I didn't super feel like I belonged at POC student groups or gatherings because I would get weird looks from people. I was like “No, I promise I'm one of you!” And I obviously didn't fit in with white students. There's something that happens when people think there's not a person of color in the room. They're more inclined to say horribly racist things about Native Americans or Black people because they think everyone's going to agree with them. I dealt with that often, and it made me realize, “Oh, this is actually not a safe environment for me. Glad that I'm being reminded of that once again.” So, all around, it sucked being at BYU as a woman of color. 


I also couldn't explore aspects of my queerness that had to do with my indigeneity. I do identify as Two Spirit, and that's something I didn't feel like I could explore while I was at BYU or even within USGA spaces–there was an incident at USGA where people were being really racist about Two Spirit individuals specifically, and that just didn't feel safe. BYU was worse overall in terms of the experiences I had, but I think it's important that we're constantly examining ourselves because I also had some of my worst experiences at USGA meetings and activities. It’s important that we work to be more anti-racist and inclusive and not dismiss people's identities just because we don't understand them. 


In honor of Women's History Month, could you reflect on the historical contribution of Native American women to social justice movements? How do you see your own advocacy work as part of that legacy?


Dr. Draper: I think if you look at who the land defenders, the water defenders, or the people who are working to restore Indigenous fire practices are, you're going to find a lot of women. The Western view of women is that they're just precious little things that need to be protected in their home, cozied in, and never allowed to get dirt under their nails. But for Indigenous women, that's just not how it's ever been. Indigenous women have always been on the land. They've been hunters. They've been in charge of forests and lands and gathering clay or basket materials, and that is treacherous work. They're up and down mountainsides, and they don't have a Cotopaxi. They've got their bundle of hazel or acorns. They're making sure the corn is being taken care of. They’re just large and in charge. They know how to lead, and the men around them know how to take their lead and be followers of these matriarchs. That idea is really present in my line of work. 


I became a teacher primarily because I wanted to work with students who are at risk of not completing high school. I felt like that was where my activism was. Still, there were so many times where I would say to my dad, “I should go back to the reservation. I should really contribute to the tribe.” And he would remind me, “You being out in the world doing good is a contribution to the tribe. That is activism all its own.” So, what I try to do comes from an Indigenous mindset as well. Wherever I am, I need to make that space better, so my activism has focused primarily in Utah County. I'm not trying to make the world better; I'm trying to make this space better. And I have to trust that there are people in other places doing their best to make their spaces better. So community-wise, locally is where I want to do my work. 


Legacy-wise, I don't know. I just want to be helpful. I want to connect people with who they need to be connected with to get things done. I think my activism looks really splattered around because I care about Indigenous rights, I care about women's rights, I care about queer rights, I care about the environment, and I care about children and education. There are very few places that care about all those things at once, but my work with the ACLU gave me a chance to say, “Oh, I can care about people in the criminal justice system. I can care about schools. I can care about women's rights, reproductive rights, and immigrant rights.” I could do all of that by being part of this one organization and that felt really good.


What does it mean to be a woman in 2024?


Dr. Draper: I feel like it really shouldn’t be as scary as it is right now. I feel like we really shouldn't have to be so frightened, but we are. The way reproductive rights are being attacked is really problematic; or think of the way that trans women are being attacked from a policy perspective of not being able to use bathrooms or participate in sports. These attacks ultimately hurt all women, not just trans women. So I think women should be very concerned about that. We continue to see challenges with the pay gap, and the economic status of women even in this country is not really secure, so I'm worried. It's not awesome. It could be better.


Carolyn: To echo what Dr Draper said, it's a scary time to be a woman. In 2023, I saw so much about it being the year of girlhood. I loved seeing women connecting on social media and seeing little trends that brought recognition and acknowledgement to women’s joy. I think that's so important, but I also feel like it is scary. It's not a fun time currently.


What about your identity as a woman is important to you? How has that identity shaped your experiences and beliefs?


Dr. Draper: I so much love being a woman. All my life I've been underestimated, and nobody has really expected much of me, and I love showing ‘em. I was a woman in STEM that was majoring in math and minoring in physics, and nobody expected anything of me there. I would try to get in study groups and men wouldn't even let me participate with them. Until in one of my physics classes, the professor said four people (it was a class of 100 people) got A’s. Then he named us and had us come down and pick up our tests. I was pregnant at the time and was a-waddling down there. Then one of the guys who didn't let me be in his study group was like, “How did you do that?” And I said, “I'm thinking for two, sucker, you can't compete!” After that, people started inviting me to be in study groups. But at first, they just saw I was one of two women in that class, and I couldn't put the desk down because my belly was in the way. So they underestimated me all the time. 


I like watching people's faces when I prove I can do whatever I want to do. It might be psychosis. I was just thinking about that the other day because somebody at BYU once told me that I was angry. I'm like, “Yeah!” My anger is like a nice little fire that fuels me to do good. You don't want to know me without my anger. I don't want to know me without my anger. 


Carolyn: I feel like I have a different relationship with my womanness as a masc-presenting woman. I went and saw the Barbie movie with my friends, who are feminine. And I felt like I had a different experience because I don't really fit that idea of what being a woman is. There was a while where I went through a little gender crisis because I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don't know if I’m a woman because I don't fit what a woman should be.” And then I was like, “No, I'll define what a woman should be for myself. I'm a badass woman and y'all can't have me doubting that.”


Dr. Draper: You know, I have told people that I think if I had understood what nonbinary was when I was in high school that for sure I would have identified as nonbinary. I was often misgendered as a boy, and it kind of made me get a little thrill, like, they don't know. I have a friend who's nonbinary who said, “You can still identify as nonbinary,” and I’m like, that ship has sailed. But I like being in this body and I feel like that challenges what people think a woman is because of my short hair and sometimes dressing in a way that's a little bit more androgynous. I like “messing it up” as a woman and being in my full womanness. 


Carolyn: As a woman, I feel most comfortable presenting androgynously. And that's something that we should be validating. There is this thing that happens (and I'm guilty of it too) where people are like, “Oh my gosh, you're like me! I think you're this!”  and prescribe labels on somebody. That can happen to masc-presenting women. People say, “You're probably just nonbinary” or “maybe you're not totally cis” and, like, maybe! But that's not always the case. And for me personally identifying as Two Spirit as well, there is a gender piece in there, but I don't think that means that I'm not a cis woman. It's a different understanding of gender. 


For me, my gender as a woman is so tied to being someone who loves women. For some women back in the day, their gender identity was butch. That was how they identified with their gender, not just sexuality. So that's kind of how it is for me, but in a Two Spirit way. I am a woman, but I wouldn't have the same womanness if I didn't adore women the way I do.


Dr. Draper: I also like mucking with gender roles, and we do that in our marriage. My husband is in charge of the kitchen. And the other day I got a package that had “assembly required,” and I was so excited to get the wrenches out. I sat here on the couch just like [construction noises] and I was really into it. Gender is so complicated.


Carolyn: It is very complicated, and with it being a tough time to be a woman, I sometimes want to distance myself from my womanhood. It's scary to embrace that. When I first came out with my gender, I was like, “I'm a butch/masc lesbian.” And I felt like I had to behave a certain way. I got into skateboarding, I started learning how to play the guitar, and I was wearing baseball caps backwards. Gender roles are so dumb because they just don't let people be themselves. I'm glad I'm in a better place now where I can just be my kind of effeminate little self while dressing like a dude and loving women.


What does being Two Spirit mean to you and how does that play into your gender identity? 


Carolyn: I kind of already hit on it, but my sexuality as a lesbian so strongly informs my gender that I feel like Two Spirit is a really good term to describe how I feel. I’ve done the gender questioning. I identified as not cis for a little bit and was using she/they pronouns. Then I was like, “No, I don't think this is right. I think I am just a woman, but I'm not a woman the way people think I should be a woman.” Two Spirit helps me because it isn't strictly gender or strictly sexuality. It can mean so many different things to so many different people, and it can be both or just one or everything included. So that is a good term for me because being Two Spirit informs my gender in a way that just saying “I'm a lesbian woman” doesn't capture. 


What are the most significant obstacles you’ve faced as a queer woman of color advocating for LGBTQ+ rights within a challenging environment, and how have you worked to overcome them?


Dr. Draper: One of the challenges for women's rights, for Indigenous rights, for rights for people of color, and for queer rights is that I have this sense–and this is not even rational–that other people around me are like, “Pick a lane! You can't care about all the things!” But I truly do care about all the things, because all of them affect my actual body. So one challenge is sort of “picking” that, but it’s also understanding that sometimes when I'm in queer spaces I'm going to face racism. It's less often that I'm in Indigenous spaces facing homophobia, and I think that’s because the Indigenous spaces I hang out in kind of just don't care. It’s like, “We have enough problems, we can't take up homophobia right now. We just gotta make sure we have salmon.” I think that's the challenge of feeling like all the things that are happening are happening at my body and I've got to defend or say something about it. But at the same time, I think folks can see caring about everything as odd.


You've talked about some of the challenges you faced as USGA president. What other unique challenges and opportunities did you encounter as president and how did you address the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals from diverse backgrounds?


Carolyn: There were a lot of challenges. I think things I did were immediately marked as aggressive whereas if a man had done them people would have been like, “Gasp, he's such an activist.” I was told I was creating divides in the community for calling people out on their racism. I wasn't having it, and people didn't seem to like that. There are groups within the community that have their spaces, and there aren't spaces predominantly for queer people of color. There aren't spaces predominantly for non-men who are queer. There aren't spaces that are as safe as they can be for trans people. My whole goal was to make things better and more safe for all those people. And I think I was successful if you look at who comes to USGA now. 


How do you integrate your perspective as a Native American woman into your teaching?


Dr. Draper: As an Indigenous person, I embrace and am very comfortable with a lot more subjectivity than folks who are raised with purely Western ideologies. I'm very comfortable with many right answers or many possible answers. I grew up hearing something from my grandma and then something from my dad that didn't seem like they went together, and it was my job to figure out how they were both telling me the truth. I find the idea of seeking the truth odd in Mormonism. Like what “the truth” are you talking about? There's so much more subjectivity. There's an appreciation in Indigenous cultures that you're walking around with your perspective, and you don't know the perspective of other people. When you hear the perspective of other people you have to acknowledge that they're telling you the truth even if it doesn't fit with your experience. 


That has been part of my growing up and I try to foster that in the classroom. My students are going to share their experiences and I'm not in position to say they’re wrong or they’re off base. My approach is to understand what they're talking about and validate that. So I think I'm also more prone to do collaborative work, to care about building community, and to be in conversation. 


Often students will say, “This is a great class, but you didn't teach us.” I'm like, “Did you learn something?” “Yeah, I did.” “Okay, well I orchestrated it all.” I decided what we were reading, what we were viewing, I posed the questions, I sat in your group and kept asking you questions. But I don't stand up there with a PowerPoint and work off notes and I don't give tests in what people see as classical ways. I think that's coming from my Indigenous perspective as an educator. And some of my students, while they could enjoy the class, didn't think I was really teaching because my pedagogy is much more about dialogue and storytelling and those sorts of things.


Carolyn: I think it's a very Indigenous mindset to view activism and do activism in that way. I think part of why I made waves was because I wasn't centering myself when I was president. People didn't even know who I was because I was like, “This is not about me, this is about the community.” 


Dr. Draper: And I think a classroom space–and I know this is really controversial–I think the classroom space is an activist space. Every teacher is an activist. They're doing something political in that space. Their curriculum is political. The questions they decide to pose. How they address their students. That's all political. And I seek to create a space that challenges students and that gets them questioning what they think and to keep pushing them. Because I don't want to create my students to be me. One of me is enough. We don't need more of me. I want my students to be the best thems that they can be. So if I've got thirty students in the classroom, that’s like thirty different humans I want to emerge. I don't want everybody to have one mindset or one way of practicing or one way of being. 


And again, for students who've experienced Western education, that’s really troublesome because they’re like, “Well, just tell me the right answer for the test.” I'm like, “That’s not what I’m about. There are no tests. I just need you to explore your own inner thoughts.” And it’s like “No no no no no, I don’t want to explore my inner thoughts. I'm not interested in that. I just want to write down what you want me to write down.” So that has informed my pedagogy, but it also informs my film work. I don't want to create a film that is didactic. I want to create a film that invites the viewer into a conversation. That’s much more difficult to do with a film, but I want to take the viewer for a ride so they  think, “How do I become a better person because I just saw this film?” 


What advice do you have for other LGBTQ+ women of color who are seeking representation within the community and academic institutions?


Dr. Draper: What you have to know is that the space was never built for you. You being in the space already disrupts the space because you aren't supposed to be there. It's like if a giraffe suddenly shows up in my backyard. It's not right. So that's going to be the case. If we wait until the space is ready for us, it's never going to be ready for us. We just have to bust in there and say, “I'm making it right for me.” I'm accustomed to people saying, “Well, this is how we do things here.” And I'm accustomed to saying, “Huh. This is how I'm doing things here. I'm doing it different.” I definitely didn't have that confidence when I was young because I was just like, “Oh, let me be in your space.” But now I'm like, “It's a privilege for you for me to be in your space that wasn't built for me. You're lucky I showed up and that I continue to be here.” And that's taken a long time to get into my head. It's not built for you, but you don't have to show up and do the shenanigans either. You can do what you know is right and let the shenanigan people work around you.


Carolyn: If you're a woman of color trying to be involved in activism, there's gonna be some feathers ruffled. There's gonna be some enemies made, and who cares? Just find your people, because there will be people who have done the work to examine their biases and be better humans. You just have to find those people and really realize that it wasn't made for you. And there's gonna be people who make that clear every day. 


Dr. Draper: Academia is rough that way too because you have to learn the language of academia. But if you're wanting to make changes that are going to serve your community, you still have to speak the language of your community also. So you end up being sort of multilingual in a way that your white peers don't have to. They can just know the one thing. So that makes it tough if you're in a publishing situation where “I have to publish in these journals to get credit from my white peers, but I need to publish in other journals to get to my actual audience, but my white peers don't see those journals as valuable. So now I end up publishing in both places while my white peers are just publishing in one place, and they don't see me doing twice as much work to get the same recognition.” But I also understand that's the game I'm in. That's where we are.


Carolyn: You just have to keep showing up. Be true to yourself. Be true to the things that you know are correct. I don't think I know any women of color getting involved in activism to get recognition. That feels like a very white mindset. But that doesn't ignore the fact that the lack of recognition can be very frustrating. Sometimes I go through these little moments where I'm like, “Did anything I do at USGA even matter to anyone?” And then I attend USGA and I'm like, “Yeah, it did, because look at who's here.” There are more people of color than when I first went, there are more women, there are more other not-men. A lack of recognition does not mean the work you have done isn’t valid or that it hasn't changed things for the better. It’s hard to be in a world that centers white activists, since they typically have the most privilege and the most ability to have a platform. But you just have to keep doing it because the work that women of color do is so important. 


Dr. Draper: Well, it makes much more sense to take an intersectional path if you're living in the intersection. I think that folks don't do that not because they're trying to be malicious but mostly because it never crosses their mind. I remember speaking to a former USGA president in my role as advisor and saying something about how work needs to be done to get more people of color and more women here, and he said, “Well, they just don't want to come.” And I said, “We're not blaming them. This is an us problem. We have to ask the question, ‘What are we doing that's not welcoming, that doesn't invite?’” And he was great. He just said, “Ah, you’re always forcing me to reimagine.” I’m like, “Yeah, that's what I do.”


Do either of you have any final thoughts you'd like to share?


Carolyn: I just love being a woman who loves women. It's so fun. Women are so great; I just love them. I really did love the year of girlhood thing. I think it's so cute. That idea of women sharing their experiences with each other and being there for each other and enjoying girly things–I hope that helps us continue to break down those gender roles and have better conversations and really start to understand each other better. Women are awesome, and I think if women banded together, we could get everything done instead of fighting with each other. So I would like to see more of that idea of shared girlhood and shared experience, and more celebration of those things that make us women. And that's not always going to be something that centers the experiences of white women, and I think that's really important. I would like to see more media that encompasses and centers and amplifies the experiences of women of color. I think that that would maybe help some white women to not be so defensive when people say, “Hey, that thing you said was kind of racist.”


Dr. Draper: It's tough because white women do experience oppression. Nobody wants to take that away. Nobody wants to pretend that that's not real. We just need to widen the sisterhood enough to include all the ladies.


I think we are living in a time where it is increasingly more possible to be your whole self. Children are coming out much younger. I think that is an aspect where society is sort of getting a grip on itself. And even the activism of showing up as your whole self as an accountant or as a first-grade teacher matters too. We think that you can only be an activist if you chain yourself to the bulldozer right before it tries to dig up a pipeline under a large body of water. That's not the only way to do it. We can all be activists in our little spheres. I think of my own sons, who are not doing activist work per se. They're just doing things like being a statistician and then asking the question enough so people are like, “Oh, if we don't do this right then he's going to ask this question.” That matters in those little spaces. There's a little activist in all of us who's trying to get out.



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