Defining one’s identity — including the myriad of experiences, cultures and passions that are woven within — is often far from a straightforward path. For Em Huang, who is a queer, trans and nonbinary East and Southeast Asian American, all of these elements hold deep meaning and are key to understanding who they are. “We all have and hold multiple truths and experiences that are unique, and it’s important to acknowledge that,” Em shared in a recent UC Berkeley profile.

In their current role as director of LGBTQ+ advancement and equity in UC Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource Center, Em brings this understanding to all the aspects of their job, from in-person interactions with students to staff case management to developing policies and practices that shape the Berkeley campus experience. “My identity gives me a personal connection to my work. I draw from my own experiences — not necessarily what has happened in my life, but how I have felt. This helps me to think about and consider the vast identities and experiences within the queer and trans communities,” Em says. “At times I have needed others to understand the nuances within my identity. In going through the process of communicating them and being heard, I’ve learned how to provide that experience to others.” 

One of the roles that has been most meaningful to Em has been serving as director of Berkeley’s UNITY Theme Program — a residential program for primarily first-year students that combines learning about contemporary LGBTQ+ issues with opportunities for identity exploration, advocacy, leadership and connection to the greater LGBTQ+ community at Cal. Em restructured the program, introducing signature events and creating opportunities for students to incorporate their own experiences. “It’s been really rewarding to see these students come in and, over the course of the year, to grow into their identities as queer leaders,” they say.

Em believes that their identities infuse the role with a sense of authenticity and connection. “I hear from my students that it’s really meaningful for them to see me doing the work that I do and showing up in the ways that I show up — without censoring myself; without trying to fit into the mold of what a ‘professional’ should be. My simply existing in the spaces that I exist provides a possibility to students and helps them envision their own paths. I encourage my students to let people in — to have compassion and care for every experience; to allow people to talk about personal parts of their identity, like gender and sexuality, without following a particular formula. Everyone should be able to communicate about who they are in a way that allows them, the teller, to feel understood on their own terms.”

After a year filled with hate crimes and anti-trans legislation, Em says that for those who identify as LGBTQ+ and BIPOC, finding and connecting with community is key. “My community has been an ongoing source of strength and has allowed me to navigate challenges in my life. We all want to focus our energy on advocacy, but we can’t keep going unless we find ways to sustain ourselves. And that includes finding and connecting with others in our community, both for support and to celebrate the joy that exists. So often, we are so inundated with trauma from everything that is going on in the world, that we lose sight of the things that make our identities remarkable and wonderful. We need to see and celebrate what it means to be queer and trans, to be people of color — and everything that holds.”

Meet Em

Name: Em Huang

Title: Director of LGBTQ+ Advancement and Equity

Department/Unit: Gender Equity Resource Center

Location: UC Berkeley

When did you start working for UC? 2017

In five-ish words or less, what do you do for UC? Advocate for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students, faculty and staff

Why do you love working for UC? The opportunities we have to be leaders in policies and practices that impact queer and trans folks and communities — both our stated commitments and demonstrated work that we do.  

What's something people don't know about you? I coach volleyball at Berkeley High School. It lets me get out of “work mode” to do something that I really love, and it’s also an opportunity for mentorship. Sports were a huge deal for me as a kid, and I love to still be part of them.

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? Audre Lorde — she is an example of someone who was really able to connect the personal and political without losing authenticity. She was so skilled at writing about connections around love and how people relate to each other, as well as institutional and systemic topics. Her work is really meaningful to me.

What's the best career advice you've ever received? You can’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.