I was sixteen years old when Blake Brockington died. I remember the feeling in my chest when I heard the news; I remember writing a few lyrics about it after reading the articles; I remember seeing the photos of him in that green “Legalize Trans*” t-shirt. I remember feeling this kinship to him; though I had never known of him up until that day, much of the weight he had to carry was similar to mine. Two trans men growing up in the Carolinas, struggling to make a life out of so much strife.

Blake became this concept in my head. He was someone–or something–for me to fight for. He was woven into the story of my activism: Blake Brockington, homecoming king, organizer, figure in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. Since I’ve moved to Charlotte, I learned that no matter how strong this kinship feels, I will never know Blake the person. My friends have tried to fill in the gaps. He was a music major. He had two cats. His foster mom was named Rachel. He could argue with someone about Frank Ocean day and night. No matter how hard they try, their stories and memories and love cannot replace Blake the person.

Now that I know this, I can’t help but look around and I see my friends through the lens I once had for Blake. Aimee, the figure. Folks would frame her as this sweet person who just wanted to live her life in peace. I’d remember her as the girl who took me sledding on a folding table by Craver Road; who took up space and demanded all that life could give. Asha, the figure. Folks would frame her as this kind person who fought for queer people of color. I’d remember her as this loud, rude Aries who liked Odd Future and Cookout; who always had just the right reaction gif to whatever dumb comment someone made in the group chat. Sometimes I think about me, the figure. How would the living frame me if I had taken Blake’s path? Would I be a fierce advocate with a heart of gold? Or would I be the guy who liked The Room way too much, who never shut up about his mom and played the banjo?  Then I stopped to consider: why am I thinking about my memorial in the first place?

Death is ever-present for queer and transgender people. 41% of transgender folks attempt suicide. Queer youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide as straight youth. You’d be hard-pressed to find a community that hasn’t lost a queer and/or transgender individual due to homicide. Death is present here in Charlotte, where two Black trans women were murdered in 2017, where two trans men committed suicide in 2015. It’s present in the way that Nada carries their keys between their fingers the night after a sexual assault. It’s present in the way that Joe hides pepper spray in his pockets after a man followed him home one night. It’s present in the way that we travel in packs, that we check in with each other every single day, that when one of us is looking down with fists clenched, we ask, “you okay?” even if we barely know them. Death is here, and it’s queer.

It shouldn’t be that way. It is 2018, yet there are still hundreds of folks in Charlotte who show up at school board meetings spewing vitriol about “the homosexuals.” It is 2018, yet folks still find it appropriate to refer to me as “it.” It is 2018, yet my high school pals are still dealing with their principal canceling LGBTQ+ Pride Day because it’d be “too political.” Homophobia was supposed to end with gay marriage being legalized. Transphobia was supposed to end with the repeal of HB2. But they’re both still here.

So people continue to die, and dear friends with hobbies and interests and quirks and flaws are made into these impossibly perfect martyrs. I try to be strong when it happens, but I hate it. I hate wandering through a graveyard full of dead people with dead names. Making these people into figures makes me want to pull my hair out. They were so much more than that. They are so much more than that.

I think that’s what guided me in starting the UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+ Coalition. Blake Brockington was a student here. He could have been anyone: Aimee, Asha, Nada, Joe, me—it can be anyone, and it can happen again. So what can we do to prevent it? What will we do to prevent it?

I asked these questions at the inaugural meeting of the Coalition. Here’s what we came up with:

Shelby Williams thinks a home would help. “I wandered this campus for two semesters with no space to exist without judgement or explanation. It’s been so lonely.” Isolation, even on busy college campuses, is incredibly common for queer and transgender people. We fear that those we meet won’t understand us, or that they might object to our identities. Having a space where we can sit and talk without that constant fear would work wonders for those cut off from the community. Not only that, but having a space where LGBTQ+ people can actually meet one another can help build this community. “I had no friends who were like me until last week,” says Shelby. A center would ensure that no one feels alone.

Gabriel Cartagena agrees. “To combat that isolation, and to allow our queer community to thrive, I think the least the school could do is provide us with our own space.” To some folks, an LGBTQ+ center may be nothing but a room, but to the queer clubs and groups on campus, it’s so much more than that. “There are so many queer organizations on campus that don’t have a regular meeting place.” And for those dozens of groups—whose aim can be anything from giving out scholarships to LGBTQ+ students to hosting weekly game nights—that lack of space leaves them in a very precarious situation. Growth and development almost always hinges on having a good home base, and if your “home base” is a study room you can only reserve for an hour each week, it’s incredibly difficult to take your group to the next level. So many clubs and groups have died out because there isn’t a space for them. A center would ensure that these groups would not only survive, but thrive, and improve the campus climate for LGBTQ+ people.

Aria Jadzia Rose thinks that having cohesive access to resources would help fight homophobia and transphobia. “[With a center], students can recognize themselves and start new projects.” Aria and I helped found a campaign for gender-inclusive restroom signs back in January, and it was incredibly difficult getting things off the ground without funding or support from a university office. An LGBTQ+ center would link the community with resources from all over campus, and ensure that scholarships, grants, and job openings do not go unused or unfilled. It can also provide aid—monetary, strategic, or otherwise—to community members seeking to start new projects and meet community needs. “Just having this center would mean that more opportunities are waiting for our community.”

But the one thing that united our coalition top to bottom was simple: to keep this community alive. We do this work for many people. Some of us knew Blake. Some of us knew Ash. Some of us knew Sherrell, or Derricka, or Leelah, or Matthew. But most of all, we know one another. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends get turned into political figures. We do this work because we don’t want to watch our friends die.

Homophobia and transphobia are big problems with deadly consequences. We believe that UNC Charlotte has the power to challenge them. We believe that LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff deserve safety and respect. And we believe that an LGBTQ+ center is a great start to meeting those needs. I will never get the chance to meet Blake Brockington, and tell him how much he means to me. Now is the time to meet the queer and transgender individuals of this university, and show them how much they mean to us.

Nikolai (he/they) is a junior pursuing majors in Political Science and International Studies and minors in Legal Studies and Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Studies. He is from Chatham County, North Carolina. He has also contributed to INDY Week and qnotes. When he isn't publishing hot takes, he enjoys reading, practicing the banjo, and managing the office meme board.