Skip to content

Interview with Cindy Cruz, Ph.D. from The University of Arizona on LGBTQIA+ Youth of Color, Young People Experiencing Homelessness, and Resistance to Inequity

About Cindy Cruz, Ph.D.: Cindy Cruz is Associate Professor in the Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies Department in the College of Education at The University of Arizona. Dr. Cruz’s work is driven by her background as a high school English teacher and HIV counselor in Los Angeles. She applies queer feminist of color and decolonial methodologies to explore the lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ youth of color and young people experiencing homelessness. For example, Dr. Cruz’s article “LGBTQ Street Youth Talk Back: A Meditation on Resistance and Witnessing,” earned the Article of the Year award from the American Educational Research Association as well as the Antonia I. Castañeda Prize from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies.

The American Educational Research Association’s Queer Special Interest Group also awarded Dr. Cruz an Article of the Year Award for “LGBTQ Street Youth Talk Back,” as well as its prestigious Queer Studies in Education Body of Work Award in 2021. Her pedagogy has been recognized with the Golden Apple Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Social Sciences Division. Dr. Cruz is a previous member of the editorial collective behind Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies and has co-edited special issues for journals including the Association of Mexican American Educators Journal. Her work has appeared in publications such as Equity & Excellence in Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Critical Readings on Latinos and Education, as well as chapters in many collected volumes.

Prior to joining the faculty at The University of Arizona, Dr. Cruz was Associate Professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and a Provost’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University. Dr. Cruz earned her Ph.D. in Education and M.Ed. in Curriculum Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, completed a Single Subject Credential Program in English Education at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and received her B.A. in Literature from Scripps College.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your biographical, academic, and professional background? In particular, how did you become engaged in working with LGBTQIA+ youth of color and homeless LGBTQIA+ youth as a researcher, educator, and activist?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] I met queer students on my first day as a high school English teacher in Fontana, California. They would come into my classroom during lunch that first semester and ask if they could eat with me. This was 1987, mind you.

I have always been out. I was outed in high school, which was not fun. I was teaching in the same high school I used to attend, and I did not want to have lunch with all of my old teachers. I had only been gone for four years. I did not want to go back to my old high school and eat with teachers that I disliked. Instead, these students sought me out in my classroom, and lunches turned into a version of a Gay Straight Alliance or LGBTQIA+ youth group. It felt like a million kids were there every day just so they could hang out and talk freely.

Fontana is a really working-class place, but you would be surprised by how many students were out as gay, even in 1983 when I graduated from high school. There was a crew of us who were out and would hold hands in public and things to that effect. I do not want to say that we were not hassled, but we were mostly left to be in our own space. People pretty much kept the peace. As I moved into teaching, I was surprised by how young many people are when they come out. When I would substitute teach for extra money, I would be in junior high schools where six, seventh, and eighth graders would already be out and knew exactly who they were. At my age that is not what happened.

After teaching with an emergency credential in Fontana, I went to get my teacher training at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), where I met professors of color for the first time. As I was completing my credential, these professors said, “You need to go to UCLA.” I thought, “Sure, why not?” I got into a Master’s program that does not exist anymore in Curriculum Studies. That allowed me to get this really cool job with Los Angeles Unified School District working with continuation schools. They assigned me to the new LGBTQIA+ high school in LA Unified. At that time, it was called EAGLES Academy, which stood for Emphasizing Adolescent Gay and Lesbian Educational Services.

Working in a continuation school was a profound experience. Continuation schools are for students who have already dropped out from their comprehensive high school. These are students who had to work or maybe care for a family member and left high school with credit deficiencies. They can attend continuation schools where there are a small number of teachers, catch up on credits, and graduate.

Because the curriculum was really open, I was doing experiential work with my students. I wanted to know about the lives of these youth, so all my activities centered on youth stories and youth narratives. As an English Literature student, I was always asking, “Where are the stories of queer, Brown, Black, Asian, or Native students in our canon?” I had identified This Bridge Called My Back [edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa] and other women of color writings. I began to ask how we could recenter our curriculum around these texts. That inspired me to think about how I could help these young people write their own stories so that they became the center of the curriculum and we could look at their personal narratives with critical eyes.

That is when I began to realize these young people were living in motels, squats, or were homeless themselves. They disappeared for months at a time. I did not realize you could be deported as soon as you turn 18. If you are an adolescent migrant who has come to the United States by yourself, turning 18 makes you a deportable adult. All these things blew my mind. Then, in the middle of all that were the Rodney King Uprisings and the big earthquake in Los Angeles. It shook me to see the lack of infrastructure to help all of these young people in LA.

I started doing research. I met some researchers and social workers from the LA Children’s Hospital, and was introduced to the work of Gabe Kruks, whom they named the youth shelter at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center after. The Children’s Hospital had won a grant and was beginning to organize and collaborate with Social Services in Los Angeles to provide services for young people who were HIV positive. They would provide these young people health insurance and place them in independent living or some sort of group home with other youth. They were provided with social workers and given other support that should have been there in the first place. Unfortunately, this happened only when young people tested positive.

I did this work for seven years in LA Unified until about 1998. Our grant money ran out, and I thought, “I think I’m ready to go to grad school.” I went to UCLA when Peter McLaren had just arrived there. I went and knocked on his door with all these experiences that I had. I said, “I’m ready for that Ph.D. I have all these burning questions about the young people that I have worked with over the last ten years. I want to do this research.”

[] Will you introduce us to how you conceptualize equity in your own research and practice? In particular, would you discuss the intersectional, coalitional, and intergenerational approach to pedagogy you have developed throughout your career and how it informs your understanding of educational justice?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] Working with street youth, you see the way different forms of oppression become compounded. Still, when I think about equity, I do not want to write these representations of young people as victims like they are corks floating in the sea of Los Angeles Social Services. I want to emphasize what, following María Lugones, I call their “active subjectivity.”

As a resistance researcher, I strive not to create an index of oppression where narratives become inscribed onto the bodies of young people: narratives of poverty, oppression, homophobia, and homelessness. I had to really rethink how I was representing young people so that I was not reifying these deficit narratives. Documenting resistance gives a multidimensional representation of the experiences of the young people I am engaging with. Wherever there is power, there is resistance. I aim to document that there are ways students are saying no to domination within these spaces, even through the smallest gestures.

As an ethnographer, I try to reflect on my writing and ask if I am recognizing how, for example, a young person might have stood up to the police in a hard situation with dignity or using humor, or engaged in resistance through a simple gesture like turning their back to a teacher who made a homophobic comment. This is how I have adapted María Lugones’ idea of resistance into the concept of “resistance in tight spaces.” In tight spaces, maybe oppression leaves you very little wiggle room, but there is still a complex interweaving of power. Despite institutional or structural power that might seem overwhelming, young people are also always pushing back. I can see that if I train my eye to recognize resistance.

I try to find the little threads where I can say, “Look, someone is resisting.” Others scholars may not call it resistance, but I want to call it resistance. I want to say that whenever you say no to oppression, whenever you say no to being dominated by homophobic or transphobic social service workers or the police and their proxies, you are resisting. Youth are asserting an active subjectivity to keep dignity in their lives, to maintain their composure, to survive. That is how I have been thinking about equity. Am I reinscribing oppression or narratives of deficit onto these young people, or am I moving beyond that and championing their resistance?

[] As we have mentioned, a central thread of your research is your ethnographic work with “LGBTQIA+ street youth” — for example, your award-winning piece, “LGBTQ Street Youth Talk Back: A Meditation on Resistance and Witnessing.” Could you describe the unique educational systems many homeless LGBTQIA+ youth navigate and how their experiences with these systems are shaped by dominant discourses such as “responsibility, deservedness and containment”?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] A high percentage of LGBTQIA+ young people are leaving school. I cannot imagine what those numbers look like right now with our new political landscape, which is so anti-trans and anti-LGBTQIA+. I think that young people will gravitate towards spaces where they feel even a small amount of inclusion or relief from the everyday kind of homophobia and transphobia that happens in schools.

We never talk about LGBTQIA+ issues in schools. You get one day in the curriculum to cover these issues at best, unless a teacher is out and supported by a strong administration. I doubt if they are going to be doing much of that work right now. Parent organizations like Moms for Liberty and legislation being passed across the country work to put teachers back in the closet again. It makes them afraid to discuss these issues, let alone their identities, in the classroom.

LA Unified was one of the first school districts to implement an LGBTQIA+ education and support initiative. It was called Project 10, and it was started in the early 1980s by Dr. Virginia Uribe. More specifically, the educational landscape of my own research is the continuation school. LA Unified now has multiple continuation schools, including Oasis Continuation High School in LA. Young people who have dropped out of school or are credit-deficient end up in these schools.

At a lot of these continuation schools, the curriculum is just basically worksheets. For example, it might be that one worksheet equals one hour of seat-work, so 80 hours of seat-work equals one class. A lot of students would do 80 worksheets in two or three weeks, and they would just knock out classes. Much of the time no teaching happened. A teacher in a continuation school is mostly responsible for keeping count of credit hours. My job with LA Unified was to help continuing education teachers create project-based curricula that were based on studying our neighborhoods and communities. This helped these teachers get away from the worksheet-based curriculum where they were not teaching anything and young people were not learning anything.

With respect to the discourses of responsibility, deservedness, and containment that I discuss in my work, I think the continuation school itself is a containment. These young people deserve more than the worksheet curriculum that they are getting, and they are treated as being exclusively responsible for their educational outcomes — either you finish a whole bunch of classes in these spaces or you do not. But there is also another level of responsibility, deservedness, and containment, related to all these narratives that fly around about homeless youth both inside and outside of school. People fear the homeless in Los Angeles. When homeless people are there on the street corner, people roll their windows up, they lock their car doors. People try to contain homeless youth or to contain themselves to protect themselves against homeless youth.

Then there are discourses of responsibility that ask, “Why are you homeless? What did you do to yourself that you’re homeless?” The other part of it is deservedness. People ask, “Why do you deserve these kinds of special services?,” even when these “special services” are a place to sleep, a place to take a shower, to get a meal, to get medical attention. My work is very specific to Los Angeles, but I think these discourses are portable and operate in other spaces. You try to contain the homeless by criminalizing them and representing them as mentally unwell and deserving of their own poverty.

These discourses are all wrapped up in how teachers and even social workers approach these young people. They connect to larger discourses of how we treat the indigent in Los Angeles and the United States. This is a somewhat recent shift. When I was little, I would sometimes come home to someone eating a meal in our backyard that my father had provided them. My mom and dad would describe these people as “down on their luck.” Then, during the 1980s, this changed. The Los Angeles Times began scapegoating homeless people for crime and the decline of the city. It was a not-so-covert action to change the narrative around homelessness to justify policy changes that allowed us to ignore or punish the homeless. These shifts come back to haunt young people when they live on the street.

[] Your research in this area emphasizes the practices of resistance enacted by LGBTQIA+ street youth. Would you describe some of the forms of resistance you have documented in your work with these communities, perhaps reflecting on the importance of the vocabularies of “resistance in tight spaces” and “infrapolitics of the street” to understanding these practices?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] Dr. Eve Tuck and Dr. K. Wayne Yang published an edited collection called Youth Resistance and Theories of Change in 2014. I loved reading about all of these examples of resistance. They interview a few resistance researchers. In my contribution, “LGBTQ Street Youth Doing Resistance in Infrapolitical Worlds,” I think through the genealogy of my account of resistance.

I go back to Dr. María Lugones’ work, and ask, “Where did her concept of resistance come from?” I also engaged with Dr. James C. Scott’s work on infrapolitics. He is a sociologist, and his work on acts of resistance and the hidden transcripts of resistance work is fascinating to me. There is also Dr. Robin D.G. Kelly’s early work on resistance. In one piece in particular, he writes about the Birmingham Bus Riders through Scott’s account of infrapolitics and the concept of the “gesture.” In Birmingham during the Civil Rights Era, whenever a Black bus rider would ring the bell for the bus to stop and let them off, racist bus drivers would drive for miles before they would stop. Robin D.G. Kelley documents how, when this began, riders would ring, and ring, and ring the bells until the racist bus driver would finally let people off. They never said anything. It was not organized. It was an emergent gesture in response to these racist acts.

This gesture of the ringing of the bell really caught my attention. In that chapter, I tried to show how Robin D.G. Kelley and James Scott informed Lugones’ thought on resistance. When I think about the youth I study, they are always ringing the bells. They are engaged in an everyday resistance against police, social workers, and case workers. Even at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, I have witnessed the transphobia of caseworkers and social workers. I have heard youth walking away from the service window saying, “They just called me a man.”

That kind of misgendering and dead naming is a constant humiliation that exists alongside the refusal of services for trans youth. I have seen guards literally pick up a trans person who was having a mental breakdown and drag her out of the Gay and Lesbian Center in a way that exposed her body. There is widespread surveillance and discipline in all of these social service working spaces in Los Angeles. My next research project is to look at that kind of surveillance and how young people get around it.

The practice of looking at the genealogy of Lugones’ thinking about resistance in this chapter was very valuable for me, and other scholars may find it valuable as well. It has been a really fruitful way for me to think through intersectional violence, building coalitions, intergenerational tensions, and collaboration with young people.

[] You are co-editor of the recent special issue of the Association of Mexican American Educators Journal entitled Grounding Emerging Scholarship on Queer/Trans* Chicana/o/x and Latina/o/x Pedagogies. Would you provide us with some background on this special issue and highlight some of the new and underexplored possibilities it maps for education research grounded in the dialogue between Chicana/o/x, Latin/o/x, and queer and trans* scholarship?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] That is an invited special issue. Dr. Lucila Ek and Dr. Patricia Sánchez were editors of the journal at the time and asked me if I wanted to do a special issue on queer Latinx pedagogies. I asked Dr. José M. Aguilar-Hernández to co-edit the issue with me. We put out a call for new work thinking about queer, Jotería, Chicano/a/x, and Latinx pedagogies. We wanted it kind of broad, but we were specific in the call in asking for new theoretical lenses. That is what we have been looking for. We are always looking for something new.

I tapped one of my students from UC Santa Cruz, Andrea Vasquez, who was using Black feminist geographies, to talk about her work. I thought that was so exciting — I loved what she was doing. I asked Dr. Omi S. Salas-SantaCruz, to add something because they were drawing on work by Gloria Anzaldúa, but they were also looking at Dr. María Lugones’ writings and decolonial feminisms in a much different way than other trans scholars were attempting. Another interesting contribution came from Dr. Antonio Duran, who was looking at higher education and deservedness, particularly with respect to Latinx, queer deservedness, and what the university does when it receives Hispanic Serving Institution status.

This issue is also a response to the failure of so much of queer theory to talk about the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people of color. It is interesting to see how some scholars will even spell the term queer differently — for instance, “cuir”– to queer non-Western people’s experiences that scholars would describe, in Western terms, as LGBTQIA+. I wanted to ask why, instead of only relying on queer theory that does not emphasize race, people do not look to U.S. feminists of color [discussed more in the next question], most of whom were queer, and who were writing this intersectional, political analysis that provided all kinds of tools to think about the experiences of being queer and a person of color and class more deeply. Are we imposing Western ideas of gender and sexuality onto communities where there might be other ways of representing who they are and how they move in the many worlds of their experiences?

U.S. feminists of color were questioning the siloing of discussions of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., that we too often practice in the social sciences. Maybe our methods invisibilize women and queer and trans youth of color, as in the use of categorical knowledge and big, “generalizable” data when we examine inequities in healthcare and elsewhere. The call for the special issue was seeking new ways to think about these problems of categorical knowledge and how queer and trans individuals of color might complicate this problem.

Another rewarding part of the special issue was working one-on-one with these new professors and scholars on their writing. We were asking them to think about writing a little bit differently, to open up their voice, and to get away from the restrictions of their academic voice. We wanted them to begin their work with narratives about themselves or their work in the field. We also saw it as a mentoring opportunity for these younger professors.

[] You have frequently returned to the importance of Cherríe Moraga and Gloría Anzaldúa’s edited collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color to your research, writing, and pedagogy. I was wondering if you might reflect on how you view this text’s significance to understanding the possibility and necessity of an intersectional coalitional approach to educational justice in our present political moment, defined as it is by increasing visible and articulated hostility toward LGBTQIA+ students, students of color, and immigrants enacted on and through our educational systems?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] I have never let go of the vision of Bridge: a vision of a world without oppression, where women of color were central in advancing an intersectional analysis that could help us understand our interdependence with one another.

The first poem is “Bridge Poem” by Donna Kate Rushin. She writes, “I’ve had enough / I’m sick of seeing and touching / Both sides of things / Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody // Nobody / Can talk to anybody / Without me / Right?” She is so tired of being the only woman of color or the only Native woman in these spaces. She says, “Forget it / Stretch or drown / Evolve or die.” It sounds a bit harsh, but I have carried this thought with me. If we are unable to move our thinking forward, then how are we going to build the coalitions that are necessary for our own survival?

One of the essays I come back to again and again is “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective. That essay comes out of what was happening in Boston in 1978 and 1979, when Black women were being murdered with impunity. This was their response to police impunity. We needed to think differently about these narratives that were coming from the police and the government that framed these women as disposable. These were your mothers, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, and daughters. There is an urgency to theorize about our own lives because otherwise we are imposed upon by the representations of our lives that hegemony gives us.

Those in power will say, “Well, these women were prostitutes, they were sex workers, they were drug abusers.” This recalls the rhetoric of containment, deservedness, and responsibility we discussed with respect to street youth. The hegemony will also tell you that they were alcoholics, they were single mothers. They wore their dresses too short, they liked sex too much. It is a matter of “Evolve or Die.” Hegemony’s racist and homophobic narratives have serious implications for women of color and trans and queer homeless youth. We must learn how to write these stories about our experiences and hone these tools, techniques, and practices ourselves, because if we do not learn to write about our experiences as survivors, resistors, and lively beings, then someone else will write our stories for us, and we will not like the way others have chosen to portray us.

In my teaching, I use Bridge to help young people think about their own experiences and practices. When I was teaching high school in Los Angeles, AIDS was rampant among young men of color aged 14-23. Students would come in with that little purple lesion on their face or neck, and I would take them to the children’s hospital. I saw this often enough that it made me rethink pedagogy in these queer and trans student classrooms. I wanted the young people in my classrooms to love themselves so that they would put a condom on when they were with somebody. It is like with COVID-19. You wear a mask to protect yourself and other people. I wanted them to understand how interdependent we were with one another.

Bridge helped me understand their stories. Everything in my classrooms went back to storytelling: tell me a story about your life, about your body, about a scar. Those were always the prompts that began so much of my high school teaching work, and they have remained foundational questions for me throughout my research. Bridge helped me think about a theory in the flesh. Theory in the flesh, as I understand it, is an analysis of the body in pain, and, from what I heard and saw, perhaps no one was in more pain than undocumented street youth. When I think about This Bridge Called My Back, I think about the urgent nature of theorizing about ourselves and our experiences so that we can survive and thrive. That has been the nature of this work for a long time.

[] Based on your research and experiences, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity in their own work?

[Dr. Cindy Cruz] When you meet young people while doing youth research, you have to believe them. I remember being at a conference, and I told the story of a young person who witnessed something very violent. Two people in the audience asked me how I triangulated my findings: how did I confirm that what the young person told me was true? I never did this kind of fact-checking.

Of course, I would ground my work in existing research on people’s experiences living on the streets of Los Angeles. In this case, I actually had stumbled onto evidence of the story that this young person had told me on a remembrance page for trans lives taken by violence throughout the world. But this is not my typical practice. We need to listen to the stories young people tell us and trust them. Why would they lie? They do not want anything from me. We have almost nothing to give them. I would compensate them with gift certificates for Target and In and Out Burger.

Further, you have to trust your own writing, but you always have to be attentive to how you are representing these young people. If you are going to talk about oppression, you need to talk about resistance at the same time. It has to go hand-in-hand. That is the equity part. Otherwise, we go back to reinscribing these deficit-based narratives of oppression back onto the bodies of young people. Always balance the stories of oppression with the stories of resistance. If that means you have to stare at that story for weeks to figure out what a young person is really telling you, then you do that. Something is always there. You have to train your eye to find resistance in all these tight spaces where people resist through the smallest of gestures.

We also need to learn to be good mentors. Many people have negative experiences in graduate school. Sometimes I see that as a form of hazing for graduate students and think, “Why does it have to be like this?” Graduate school should supply you with an empowering, reflective experience engaging with a question that is just burning inside you. Sometimes it feels like faculty are perpetuating the trauma they experienced as graduate students. I had a very supportive committee that made graduate school a profound and positive experience for me, but you can learn to be a good mentor no matter what happened to you in graduate school.

It is important to remember we are passing down the practices of the professoriate, too. I am fortunate to have students now at Arizona, UC Santa Cruz, CU Boulder, the University of Utah, and many other spaces. I love working with them in all capacities.

Thank you, Dr. Cruz, for sharing your insight on queer feminisms of color, LGBTQIA+ youth of color experiencing homelessness, and youth resistance!