Abel Liu’s legacy shows the power of trans visibility

It wasn’t until 2021 that America’s first openly transgender student body president took office at the University of Virginia. But the road to the presidency of Abel Liu, 22, was paved with bigotry.

Liu was a third-year student when he ran for AVU’s highest office, having previously served on student council since his freshman year. His platform aimed to usher in a new era of student government, one that focused on “equity, empowerment, and renewal,” Liu said to shortly after his election. Ultimately, however, Liu’s opponent was not campaigning against his platform.

“I didn’t expect my gender identity to become an issue in the campaign,” Liu said. “It finally happened.”

By the start of the election cycle, Liu had gained a broad base of support from the AVU student body. So, in an effort to appeal to the conservative side of the school, Liu’s opponent turned to transphobia.

“He started a sort of transphobic misinformation campaign,” Liu said. His opponent sent mass emails to the student body that not only misinterpreted Liu, but also misrepresented his platform and portrayed him as radically contrary to UVA traditions.

“What was interesting was that as more and more evidence of what he was doing came out, I was able to make the campaign a moral referendum,” Liu said. “And I phrased it that way for the students. I said, you know, ‘This is a referendum on what kind of school we want to become. Do we want to become a school that endorses transphobic smear campaigns? »

UVA students responded with a resounding “NO”, voting overwhelmingly for Liu in the election. He won the presidency in a landslide victory with 81.2% of the vote.

“When we won with such a wide margin of victory and such a high turnout, I truly understood that it meant that the AVU had chosen an inclusive and fair path,” Liu said. “They rejected transphobia and a number of other hateful ideologies by electing me as they did.”

With his election, Liu became both the first Chinese-American UVA student body president and America’s first openly trans student body president.

“It was personally meaningful to me as a trans man, but I am also aware of the significance and value it will likely have for other trans or non-binary student government candidates in the future,” he said. Liu said.

With his election, Liu became both the first Chinese-American UVA student body president and America’s first openly trans student body president.

“The other thing that I find really amazing is that the first university to elect an openly trans president is in the South,” he continued. “And this is in a school that has had a very troubled history with all marginalized identities, including queer identities, for decades.”

Now a recent graduate of AVU and his term as president over, Liu reflects on his legacy. While he’s honored to have made history, his presidency was never about being ‘the first anything,’ as he said on the podcast. “Inside UVA.”

“I think it’s less triumphant and a bit more exhausting than people imagine,” Liu said, referring to the extra norms and standards he’s had to set as trans in previously gender-dominated environments. cis people.

“But there were times during my tenure, I think, queer communities or the Asian American community needed a voice,” he continued. One such moment came after the Asian-American attacks in Atlanta, which took place early in his tenure. “I think it was really meaningful to have an Asian student body president at that time to be able to speak. And the trans and queer students actually stopped me quite often and let me know that I made me feel more welcome at the UVA.

“That’s where it counts,” Liu said. “That’s where it was significant. It didn’t affect my schedule. It affected the way I interact with people.

As for Liu’s future, he will likely continue down the path of higher education.

“I have a wish list of graduate degrees that I might be interested in pursuing,” he said. “I know I’m interested in a master’s degree in urban planning. And I’m also interested in a law degree, maybe a business degree, and maybe a social theory degree. Well, we’ll find out and I’ll let you know.

Wherever he ends up, Liu’s impact on UVA and the future of trans representation in American education is undeniable. And even as the politics of this country seem to be regressing towards conservatism, Liu is confident that Americans will stand up for what is right.

“There is hope in pursuing coalitions and solidarity and actively working across identities to protect voices and marginalized people, especially trans people,” he said. “I believe there is an appetite for this fight both within our generation and in the United States as a whole, but what is really needed is solidarity across all lines and identities for s make sure that happens.”

INTO’s 20 Under 20 series celebrates Gen Z changemakers who are rising up and fighting for a better world. Read the full series here.

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