Aubrey Lay ’23 has been involved with LGBTQ+ social issues since high school, first serving as the co-president of his school’s Pride Alliance. Now, Lay is in a new leadership role as co-president of the Rainbow Coalition, a student organization dedicated to the LGBTQ+ student population which hosts various social, educational and activism events at the College of William and Mary.
Lay first became involved with Rainbow Coalition during his sophomore year.
“Before I was ever involved in anything queer on campus, I joined the bhangra team,” Lay said. “It was sophomore year with COVID and everything being so destabilized, I felt like I needed to do something. I saw the applications that were up and I thought, oh I might apply for this. I hadn’t really been to Rainbow Coalition events at all my freshman year. But then I really enjoyed trying to be able to give back a little bit.”
During his first year with Rainbow Coalition, Lay mentioned how educational events were unable to meet in person, meaning many were held in a virtual format. Though Lay is passionate about in-person events, he noticed that the virtual format allowed many people to attend events anonymously, expanding the reach for queer educational resources.
Some events Lay has helped to organize include last fall’s screening of “Budjang”, a movie that highlights transgender experiences in the Phillipines, with the filmmaker Rhadem Musawah speaking at the event, and the Over the Rainbow Gala that was held this past September.
“Now we’re able to have these kinds of events, you know, to hold space for the queer community on campus and create an environment where people can just celebrate who they are and what they do and dress how they want to dress,” Lay said. “We got to highlight student drag performers, student poets from Inside Out Theater, we had Syndicate dance. So really just highlighting student talent, highlighting the community and creating a safe space. It was really wonderful.”
Lay also emphasized other organizations that aid Rainbow Coalition in creating a community on campus, including Lambda Alliance, the Center for Student Diversity and a QTPOC (queer and trans person of color) organization that is currently in progress. He is passionate about how student voices can create spaces to advocate for student needs and community, as well as appreciative of how the CSD and administration support Rainbow Coalition, though he believes there is always room for improvement.
“Especially when it comes to trans and nonbinary students on campus advocating for their needs when it comes to adaptive housing, having the correct names on tribe cards, having their correct name used in class, there can be pushback and administration and professors are not always going to be open to that. But they’re trying, which is something, and I think it’s up to us to continue advocating for what we need out of that relationship.”
“Especially when it comes to trans and nonbinary students on campus advocating for their needs when it comes to adaptive housing, having the correct names on tribe cards, having their correct name used in class, there can be pushback and administration and professors are not always going to be open to that,” Lay said. “But they’re trying, which is something, and I think it’s up to us to continue advocating for what we need out of that relationship.”
Lay has also found many other ways to support LGBTQ+ people across the country and the world. During his sophomore year, he worked for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians in America, an organization dedicated to aiding and supporting LGBTQ+ Ukrainians living in the United States. Through this organization, he was able to conduct interviews and do research regarding the spread of disinformation within Ukraine from Russia regarding the LGBTQ+ community.
“There’s a lot of falsehoods that are being spread, a lot of false equivalencies essentially claiming that LGBTQ communities, identities, and movements are a Western fabrication, that they’re not indigenous to Ukraine,” Lay said. “And the implication or the explicit call to action being made there is that Russia is the protector of those traditional family values that the West is trying to erode in Ukraine.”
Lay mentioned, in reality, Ukrainians have been a leader in the realm of LGBTQ+ issues in Europe, making this false narrative dangerous and used as a justification for war crimes within Ukraine.
Along with this work, Lay is passionate about intersex awareness and activism, using his own medical experiences and personal story to aid him in educating others about how to support intersex people. Last week, Rainbow Coalition invited intersex activist Marissa Adams to campus, and they have also participated in a postering day of action with other intersex activists for the past two years.
“What intersex people face in this country is, essentially, forced surgeries from birth that are really just set up to perpetuate a cisgender binary and don’t necessarily have any grounding in actual health outcomes or wellbeing in many cases,” Lay said. “My felt experience of having undergone that kind of an operation when I was really, really young is really painful and it’s hard to talk about and it’s scary. But I really want to create an environment where intersex people on this campus can know that their bodies aren’t broken, that we are whole to begin with.”
Lay also emphasized the importance of intersex education within the health and medical fields. He wants to urge students and faculty to recognize that rather than believing a narrative of “fixing” intersex people, responsive and empathetic treatment is more helpful to intersex youth.
“Ultimately as students we are paying to be here, we are paying to have a good education and a place where we can learn and grow and develop. And given the cost of education in this country, if many of us are going to go into debt for that, I think it’s important that we are able to be safe while doing it.”
“Ultimately as students we are paying to be here, we are paying to have a good education and a place where we can learn and grow and develop,” Lay said. “And given the cost of education in this country, if many of us are going to go into debt for that, I think it’s important that we are able to be safe while doing it.”
Lay mentioned that the state of anti-transgender legislation within the United States alongside the forced transition of intersex youth is ironic and scary, as they perpetuate the same harms legislators are claiming are placed onto transgender youth. Lay spoke at a rally in Richmond on Oct. 26 to share how proposed policies within Virginia would harm intersex students.
Lay believes that more of a discussion about sexual variation and the lived reality of intersex people would be beneficial within a classroom setting. He also recognized that many professors within the pre-med and pre-health departments have been incredibly supportive of Rainbow Coalition’s intersex events, advocating for student turnout and sending invitations to their students.
“Intersex kids, some of whom are trans and nonbinary, many of whom are, like myself, pretty much cis, have our own unique needs that are not really being talked about when it comes to the unique psychosocial stress that comes with being born with a body that is different and stigmatized,” Lay said. “I really want to see more inclusion of intersex people within these discussions, and not just paying lip service to intersex people.”
Outside of work with Rainbow Coalition and intersex activism, Lay is co-captain of Griffin Bhangra alongside Mohith Dhillon ’23, involved with the Freeman Intern Fellowships in East Asia program and takes part in linguistics research. During his time as a Freeman Fellow, Lay interned with the Equal Asia Foundation, a Thailand-based nonprofit that promotes LGBTQ+ human rights inclusion throughout Asia.
“That was a really wonderful experience, to be in Thailand and to learn from folks who work in the community and live in the community there,” Lay said. “The fellowship program is incredible. We have a really diverse cohort and I really encourage anybody who is interested in working and living abroad and having that experience to apply.”
In reference to his involvement with Griffin Bhangra, Lay expressed that the team has given him a diverse community that celebrates joy and supports a wide array of students. Lay had never had dance experience before joining the team, but he remembers how excited the team was to help teach new members. He also emphasized how the team strives to remain faithful to the form while also introducing creative ways to recognize the diversity of their team members.
“It’s such a blessing to dance with such a wonderful team and to learn and to teach, and just to dance. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I’m just endlessly grateful for the team and the dance form.”
“It’s such a blessing to dance with such a wonderful team and to learn and to teach, and just to dance,” Lay said. “It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I’m just endlessly grateful for the team and the dance form.”
Lay’s linguistics research focuses on discourse analysis to analyze linguistic texts and tie them into social reality. Two of the projects Lay is part of involve how disabled Instagram creators use internet memes to combat harmful narratives surrounding disability as well as the structure of memes themselves. He mentioned that although society typically views internet memes as silly, they are also used for disinformation and advertising, making them an integral piece of the social world. He found this work incredibly interesting as it helped him question how to identify various kinds of disinformation and think about various policy implications.
“They’re the way people communicate their lived experience online,” Lay said. “So there’s so many different ways that memes are factoring into communities, to international relations, to just the way that we communicate and think about humor and culture today. So it was really exciting to do this project.”
After graduation, Lay hopes to work in the human rights sector, looking at ways that marginalization based on sexuality, gender and sex impact various communities. He is particularly interested in supporting LGBTQ+ rights and intersex issues. Lay believes his experience with Rainbow Coalition will help inform his experiences outside of the College.
In terms of the legacy of his work at the College, Lay hopes that students will continue to feel empowered to advocate for themselves openly and keep conversations surrounding student needs alive, especially regarding intersex students.
“It’s easy for us to forget sometimes, being in the relatively welcoming space that we are here at William and Mary, the struggles that the community has faced and continues to face,” Lay said. “The present violence that queer and trans people are facing on a legislative level throughout the country, the physical violence that so many people face, especially queer and trans women of color. Looking at the legacy of the AIDS pandemic, which is ongoing by the way, and how many others we’ve lost. And also how resilient we are, and that’s something I’m grateful for — that legacy.”