Photo by Caroline Conder | Senior Psychology major Cairo Walsh sat among the flowers on Lower Mullin Town Square. Their intersectional identity as a nonbinary Black person has shaped their experiences at Pepperdine.
A finger-prick before kindergarten lunch-time, a seemingly insignificant day in the high school cafeteria or the first time visiting the school one will spend the next four years at.
Huge, life-altering moments happen every day, while the rest of the world seemingly remains unperturbed. For four Pepperdine community members, everyday moments turned into significant milestones in the development of their identities.
“Identity is complex,” Psychology Professor Steve Rouse said. “The combination of ways I navigate through the social world as being like some people and unlike others, the unique qualities I have that differentiate me from others, the network of relationships to which I belong, and — at the core — the conscious being experiencing life.”
Identity is a multifaceted concept, Rouse said, and researchers who study identity most often focus on four different components: social, personal, relational and self. Social identity includes race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability and religion.
“There’s a human tendency to categorize people,” Rouse said. “The social identity refers to the way we conceptualize people in groups — and then conceptualize ourselves in relation to those groups.”
In recent years, lawmakers have debated how to teach about race in schools and questioned the validity of some aspects of social identity. Several state legislators are considering or have already restricted how race is taught in the classroom, EdWeek reporting shows. In 2021, 33 states introduced more than 100 bills targeting transgender rights, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Rouse identifies as “a bi[sexual] man, a Christian, an educated person, and someone who is middle class.” He said his identities shape how he perceives the world and is perceived by the world, like different lenses through which he views life.
As a bisexual man, Rouse said he has struggled with the difficulty of existing as a member of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian Church.
In a speech he gave to the Stories of Hope group in September 2020, Rouse recalled his middle-school attraction to both men and women, the juxtaposed feelings of normalcy and sin he felt in tandem, and turning to the Bible and his church for answers.
There were pamphlets at his conservative fundamentalist church covering topics from alcoholism to evolution, and of course, he said, a trifold “track” covering homosexuality.
“I still remember what it looked like — a line drawing of a young man with a flirtatious expression and demon horns,” Rouse wrote in the speech. “I still remember thinking that he was kind of good-looking, and believe me when I tell you that few things will mess you up more than being attracted to the picture on a pamphlet explaining that you’re evil.”
Despite the struggles he faced in his adolescence, Rouse also acknowledged the privilege of many of his identities, like being a white, educated man, being a Christian in a primarily Christian community, and being a straight-passing man with a wife and kids.
Senior Psychology major Cairo Walsh was in high school when Walsh realized that they didn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
“I remember, just like sitting in the cafeteria one day and thinking it over,” Walsh said. “I was just like, ‘I’m not entirely sure that I feel like I’m a girl, but maybe I am, but I don’t know.’”
Walsh previously identified as a woman but now identifies as nonbinary.
“Being nonbinary has shaped my experience tremendously,” Walsh said. “Just exploring who I was and finally understanding who I was, too.”
Walsh also identifies as a Black person and defines their intersectional identity as a Black nonbinary person.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at both University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia University law schools, coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to describe the fact that many social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice. For Walsh, they experience the struggles of being a nonbinary person and a Black person.
Walsh said their identity as a Black person was brought to their attention in elementary school when they realized they looked much different from their majority white peers.
“I knew from a really young age that I was different from most of my peers, not only because I was fully aware that I looked different from other people, but because there were peers that I had who would actually point out that I was Black,” Walsh said.
Walsh grew up just outside of Yonkers, New York, where they said most of their peers were white. But coming to Pepperdine has been a completely different experience.
“It was the first time in my life that I realized there were people who were avoiding me because I was a person of color and especially because I was Black, so that really shaped a lot of my social experiences,” they said.
Walsh said while their experiences were never blatant, it was obvious that they were being looked at and treated differently by their peers, and there was a clear and overwhelming sense of being undesired and unwanted.
“Even from peers who were in leadership positions,” they said. “The way they treated others was not the same treatment that I got, and it felt like my peers of color and I had to work twice as hard to be treated with respect.”
Destin Kvidera, senior Integrated Marketing Communication major, also identifies as queer and has an intersectional identity that includes being a disabled person.
Kvidera has Type 1 diabetes and psoriatic arthritis. While her arthritis diagnosis is more recent, she was diagnosed with diabetes at 5 and stepped into her identity as a disabled person in kindergarten.
“I missed a week of school when I was diagnosed, and when I came back, I would have to prick my finger every day before lunch and then go down to the nurse’s office,” she said. “And none of my friends had to do that obviously, so I remember those moments of always feeling like ‘Why I am the only one?’”
As she got older, the feeling of being different and the maintenance of managing her diabetes took a toll on her. Kvidera said she never felt embarrassed about her disability, but she experienced a lot of burnout.
“It was just kind of like, ‘I don’t want to have to deal with this,’” she said. “Honestly, I really wanted to pretend like I wasn’t sick, so I just wasn’t taking care of myself in that way.”
It wasn’t until the summer before she left for college, Kvidera said, that she felt comfortable enough with being disabled that she could educate people on it and become her own advocate.
In that same summer, Kvidera was attending a Pride month event, originally as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, when she felt the courage she needed to come out.
“I had always just kind of questioned it all my life, and then I was like ‘Destin, if you’re questioning it this much, there has to be a reason,’” she said. “At Pride with my friends, we were all talking about our sexualities, and in that moment I was just like ‘Guys, I’m bi[sexual],’ and one of my other friends actually came out too.”
Over a year later, she chose to label herself as queer.
Kvidera’s identity as a woman and her identity as disabled are closely tied. They affect each other, she said.
“Being a woman and disabled means that you are believed a lot less often,” she said. “I have to fight 10 times as hard to get people to listen to me and hear me when I tell them what I have experienced.”
D’artagnon Fulton, junior Public Relations major, said he grew up in Los Angeles and attended very diverse schools throughout his life. But when he got to Pepperdine, his identity as a Black person became very apparent to him. Fulton had already committed to Pepperdine before he had a chance to visit the campus, and said he didn’t understand Pepperdine’s lack of diversity when he made his decision.
“I think [the moment] was at Malibu Reception where I actually got to visit and I got to see, like, ‘OK, this is where I am going to be,’” Fulton said. “And I was kind of looking around and seeing, ‘Is there someone who, racially, I am going to be able to connect with?’ And there just wasn’t really a lot there.”
Fulton identifies as queer and realized early on in high school, during the transition from childhood to becoming a teen, that he was not straight. When he came to the realization, he said it was very difficult, as he had grown up being told that what he was feeling was wrong.
While Fulton grew up in a household where various cultures were celebrated, he said it was a nondenominational, “very Christian household,” where his parents taught him that heteronormativity was the only option and that sexuality was a choice.
“So I was always just going with it and thinking that it was a choice to be in the LGBT community,” he said. “I was just going to choose to be straight and have a wife and stuff like that.”
Looking for support, Fulton turned to his mother for help in processing his sexuality. While she wanted to be supportive of him, Fulton said she also felt the need to hold true to her religious beliefs.
“She gave it an approach of like, ‘How can we fix this issue?’” Fulton said. “That was definitely a moment of realizing that this is real, my sexuality. And in some ways, that was harder than processing my race because it was my own family who was not going to be able to support me through it, they did not share that experience.”
While Fulton said he chose to come to Pepperdine with the intention of growing in his faith and learning more about what it means to be Christian in the context of a greater community, he found himself identifying less and less with being Christian as he explored other aspects of his identity.
“Coming to terms with my sexuality was the first domino that knocked over the rest of the dominos,” Fulton said. “You know, ‘How can I be a different sexuality that wasn’t OK with God?’ Like, ‘Why did he create me that way if he didn’t think it was the right way?’”
Fulton now identifies as agnostic.
“I think I am going to need to see like, some objective proof that I can exist under Christianity and have my identity or my experience not be a sin, for me to fully identify as a Christian,” Fulton said.
Moments of acceptance
The moment that Walsh felt they could truly be themself is when they changed their name.
“I came to realize that I wasn’t really resonating with the person who was attached to my birth name,” Walsh said. “So that’s when I started going by Cairo, and it was kind of like, this beautiful transition into who I really was.”
Rouse, described his journey with his identity as an evolution, rather than a moment.
“It was not an instant process, and it wasn’t a single moment,” he said. “It was first becoming slightly more comfortable with myself and my identity, and then becoming slightly more comfortable acknowledging to my spouse about my identity, and then slightly more comfortable acknowledging to friends and colleagues. I can think of a lot of mini moments, but there isn’t any one particular moment that suddenly made me feel like it was OK to be who I am.”
Fulton said despite experiencing the difficulty of being a Black student at a predominantly white institution, it was Pepperdine’s LGBTQ+ club, Crossroads, that helped him truly come to terms with his sexuality.
“I felt like I was in the minority, and it was weird,” he said. “But there are people all around you that are queer and have different sexualities and that’s something that Crossroads helped me to really come to terms with. Like, there are people that share your experiences and it can be actually positive, so that was another moment.”
Identity is one of the most crucial aspects of personality, Rouse said. It acts as the core that holds together all of the personality traits and memories that a person has.
“Having a clear conceptualization of who you are is so central to navigating the social world that we find ourselves in,” he said. “It holds together how we interact with other people and our style of emotions and thinking. It is all about the uniqueness of the individual.”
Contact Marley Penagos: firstname.lastname@example.org