Author, journalist and activist Helen Zia joined Gonzaga University on Sept. 28 for a talk that reflected on her past experiences in order to shed light on modern social justice issues.

Zia has been involved in movements surrounding racism, sexism and LGBTQ plus rights since she was a college student.

She graduated from Princeton University as a member of its first graduating class with women. Initially enrolling in medical school, she eventually left to pursue journalism, and has written numerous articles and books on human rights topics and events.

Matthew Barcus, program manager for LGBTQ plus education and support, led the first portion of the talk by asking Zia a set of questions.

At the end, he opened the conversation up to questions from the audience. The talk covered subjects of activism, media literacy, the rise in Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes, past injustices against Asian Americans and intersectionality.

Zia recalled her time as a college student and how little diversity there was on campus.

She found other students who felt similarly, and they occupied the library overnight in protest of the lack of resources for students of color and the discrimination they faced. 

Afterwards, they released a list of demands: to end racism on campus and to implement a center for students of color. While they could not end all racism, the school fulfilled their request for a diversity center. 

“When you accomplish some change, you grow stronger and see the people you are with grow stronger too,” Zia said. “You can be assured that making a difference now will affect the people that come after you.”

Zia had many other stories she shared, but one that was particularly sobering for the audience to hear exposed the extreme homophobia in communities of color.

She was involved in a collective of African Americans and Asian Americans that once sat her down to interrogate her about her sexuality. At the time, being involved in women’s rights automatically meant you were a lesbian, and since Zia was a member of these groups, they assumed she must be one.

“They said to me ‘If you are a lesbian, we would want nothing to do with you because there are no homosexuals in the Asian American community and you would ruin the work of the movement,’” Zia said.

Cornered, Zia said no in order to save face with the group. Even though she was confused about her sexuality, Zia repressed this part of her identity.

“Helen talked about the idea that LGBTQ plus spaces and places were for white people, and that it was a white identity,” Barcus said. “And I think that is something that still goes on within the community. So I make sure I'm bringing robust voices that are not just male, white, cisgender centered queer voices, but that I'm bringing that whole wide spectrum of LGBTQ plus and ally voices.” 

Through the variety of topics that were discussed, Zia kept circling back to her central theme of unity and coming together despite our differences. This theme particularly resonated with first-year student Paige Haworth, who attended the talk.

“What stood out to me was when she talked about how she felt like she didn’t fit into any community and that made her emphasize unity and being welcoming to everyone and making sure that we're all in this fight together,” Haworth said.

As someone who was heavily involved in activism at the same age as many Zags, Zia closed the talk by stating her optimism for all the things the students would go on to accomplish.

Marissa Conter is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @marissaconter.