Growing up in what he calls a conservative community of Klamath Falls, Ore., College of Public Health and Human Sciences senior Luke Kawasaki says life wasn’t easy after coming out to friends and family as a teen in middle school.
“I faced social rejection from many people in my school, town and family,” he says.
Years later, when he packed his bags and moved into the INTO OSU building right across the street from the OSU Pride Center, he was filled with relief.
“After attending their opening barbeque at the start of the year, I knew I had to be a part of the work that was happening there,” he says.
He landed a job at the Pride Center as an office assistant, where he worked to create a warm, welcoming and safe environment for the Oregon State LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. He was promoted to the leadership team as the external coordinator and later as the leadership liaison, where he engages OSU’s campus on the intersectional issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability.
“My time as leadership liaison has really helped me look at the work I do as being part of a larger anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, anti-misogynistic and anti-transphobic movement,” he says. “Looking at social work as being a part of this movement gives me hope that tangible changes can be made in the lives of queer people of color, and that I will be able to contribute to the amazing work that is being done already.”
“It was clear that I was immensely passionate about issues affecting queer and trans communities, and I knew I needed to be involved in working to change them.”
During his time at OSU, he went from a timid freshman sitting in the back of a Human Sexuality class to sitting front and center – engaging with the instructor on topics important to him.
“Sitting in Milam Auditorium listening to Kathy Greaves openly discuss topics of sexuality and sex really shook me,” he says. “I was excited that there are professors who are willing to engage in a topic so visceral and taboo as sex and sexuality. It was then that I realized this major was really right for me.”
His coursework and personal experiences confirmed his passion – and he hopes to make a lasting, positive difference in the LGBTQ community through social work.
“When I look around me at the state of LGBTQ affairs in the United States and globally, I realize there is a lot of work to be done around creating a more equitable world,” says Luke. “After taking my first Queer Studies course at OSU, it was clear that I was immensely passionate about issues affecting queer and trans communities, and I knew I needed to be involved in working to change them. I chose social work (HDFS) as my path to do that work because I see incredible possibilities in working with people, and I see that a degree in HDFS allows me to be as versatile and dynamic as I need to be in order to engage with these complex systemic issues.”
Being versatile and dynamic perfectly describe Luke – also known on stage as OSU’s local drag queen, Lucielle. Luke takes on the persona of Lucielle with more than a desire to express himself through dress that suits him best – he uses the stage as a platform to reject gender norms and make powerful political statements.
“I use drag to tell the world that gender queer and trans bodies are not something to be feared or ignored.”
“Drag is more than just getting on stage in high heels and a gorgeous dress with makeup on my face,” he says. “I use drag to tell the world that gender queer and trans bodies are not something to be feared or ignored. There is so much violence that is enacted onto trans bodies, and being able to resist that violence and bring that conversation to Oregon State University is why drag is so important to me.”
In addition to winning the drag competition at OSU in 2012 and hosting the shows since being crowned, he was also a star in OSU’s Dancing with the Stars in 2013 and hosted the Red Dress Fashion Show in collaboration with Student Health Services for World AIDS Day in 2014.
“Extracurricular activities are the perfect setting for a student to be able to transfer the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom to a tangible real-life application,” he says. “For me, getting involved with so many organizations and events on campus was a reflection of the amount of education I was receiving from my classes in HDFS and QS.”
With a passion to work with LGBTQ homeless youth, Luke has also collaborated with the Human Services Resource Center on events such as Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.
“Working to address issues of hunger and homelessness are vital to working for a more equitable future,” he says. “LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable due to cultural influences that funnel many youth into the streets. When you factor in social identities such as being a person of color, having a disability or immigrating to the U.S., then those risk factors for being food-and-housing insecure go up. I want to work in a capacity that addresses these factors in a person’s life and does not solely focus on a person’s sexual or gender identities.”
After completing an internship, Luke hopes to get a job in a resource center addressing needs of food and housing security, and later would like to earn a master’s degree in social work to become a licensed clinical social worker in order to take on his own case loads.
His advice to current and future students? “Take chances. Purposefully seek out opportunities to place yourself just outside of your comfort zone. You will never grow if you always do the things you know how to do.”