Find yourself, help others: LGBT Student Services director Emily Branvold

LGBT program director Emily Branvold meets with a student. Students in need can reach out for support. Photo by Christian Fullmer.

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Emily Branvold, the program director of LGBT Student Services at UVU, started in the position on January 1, 2020 and has already hit the ground running, picking up the programs which their predecessor established before leaving the position in October 2020.

The mission of LGBT Student Services is to serve “students who are seeking LGBTQIA*-related services, support, and opportunities for personal growth, safety, and a sense of belonging. We put student needs at the center of our mission and provide resources to the UVU community seeking greater understanding of the LGBTQIA* community.”

The program director of LGBT Student Services currently heads eight programs directly serving LGBTQ students. This is in addition to policy development and systems advocacy at various levels of UVU administration. Most of their time is spent training faculty and staff, providing one-to-one advising and support to students and participating in task forces and committees.

A Polynesian tom-boy

Growing up, Branvold loved playing sports and was ambitious about physical activities like skateboarding, fishing, and camping.

“Being a tom-boy, I felt safe in athletic communities,”said Branvold. “I was super into things where I felt comfortable in my masculine identity.”

“Being a Polynesian kid in a classroom full of mostly Caucasion counterparts, I learned that I can be really funny and I could get away with just finding humor,”said Branvold. “Where I think sometimes it would’ve been easy to feel very marginalized and oppressed, which I did. I had to find a way to make it where so I could survive childhood and high school.”

Branvold was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon church, and by the time they reached adolescence they knew they were at least not straight.

“The question of me even wanting to be alive was a conversation that came up with my family a lot,” said Branvold. “That’s how I tumbled out of the closet to my parents briefly, only to go right back in.”

After surviving adolescence and moving along into young adulthood, Branvold’s identity shifted from bisexual to lesbian and they dated women secretly. However, in light of their strong family values, holding that secret was an uncomfortable conflicting variable that wouldn’t be resolved for years to come.

Headed for Hawaii

Branvold followed their passion by working in social services, starting out at a residential facility for kids in foster care and finally ending up working in an after school program which primarily served kids of migrant families.

“With me being adopted, I was in foster care for two weeks and my foster mom wrote me this super great letter so I was very cognizant that foster parents matter,” said Branvold. “I started when I was 19 working in that environment.”

After working for four years at the lower rung of nonprofit and government jobs, they began to search for a way to make a career of serving marginalized and diverse populations. That’s when Branvold discovered the profession of social work and set sail for Hawaii.

“BYU-Hawaii was a place where for the first time as a Polynesian I found a space meant for me,” said Branvold.

Having been adopted by Caucasian parents and spending so much time in spaces where they were the only Polynesian or person of color, Branvold had big hopes that it would be a place that was built “by polys, for polys.”

“But [when] I got there it was a lot of Caucasian, blonde, blue-eyed kids that surrounded me at orientation and in my classes.”said Branvold. “I thought ‘This is weird, I’m at a place meant for Polynesians, but I’m hearing a lot of microaggressive conversation regarding Polynesians by these kids from the mainland.’”

“This is God’s work.”

After a year at BYU-Hawaii, Branvold decided to go on a mission for the LDS church, and they were assigned to the Colorado Springs mission. During the first six months, Banvold had no major conflicts with the prescribed mission standards.

However, that changed after an unlikely connection with a World War II survivor from East Berlin turned into a treasured intergenerational friendship. While she was not interested in becoming a member of the LDS faith, she needed the assistance and companionship which the missionaries visits offered. Eventually, this became a point of conflict between Branvold and the elders to whom they reported their ‘key indicators of conversion,’which are used to guide the use of missionaries’ time.

“I have a softness in my soul for the elderly,” said Branvold. “While this woman wasn’t very willing to be Mormon, she was very in need of care and visiting assistance.”

Branvold and their companion did “a little bit of everything” for the lonesome elderly woman turned friend. Some days she would want them to go to the grocery store with her, and there were other days where they would just read from the Bible together.

“I had to tell the elders on my mission that ‘This is God’s work,’” Branvold said. “That was a diverging point where I decided that I don’t want to be successful if that’s not what counted as success.”

The experience also served as a key lesson in their professional development, especially on how to avoid burn-out in social work. They felt drained after their first couple years in social services and while their desire to serve others was not diminished, they did not find their work to be very fulfilling. They have since learned that the crux of this was to approach their work “with a true intent to help people, rather than help them do XYZ,”said Branvold.

“As I was wrapping up towards the end of my term of service, I had a lot of conflicting variables in my life,”said Branvold. “I didn’t feel like I could finish that mission with the ethical integrity of ‘Yes, I believe all these things and I accept everything.’”

So with two months left, they began their journey out of their LDS mission. Ultimately, being a member of the church didn’t work out for Branvold either, but they remain close with their family and other loved ones in the faith. They credit their upbringing in the LDS Church with fostering the values that led them to a career in social work in the first place.

“The drive home from the airport as my parents picked me up from my LDS mission was one of the strongest moments of allyship I’ve ever experienced,”said Branvold, “which I don’t think my parents realized they were even doing.”

Discovering identity

After their mission, Branvold came to UVU to finish their education. During their time at Utah Valley University, Branvold started volunteering with LGBTQ organizations, including Encircle: LGBTQ Family & Youth Resource Center Help Center in Provo. As they were volunteering, their brother inadvertently outed them publicly on social media. Although they had not planned to come out that day, Branvold seized the opportunity anyway.

“It was on a Sunday and I posted on Instagram that unusually Sundays are hard for me to observe, being a queer person, but that this Sunday I was not going to feel shame about it,”said Branvold. “It’s a surreal thing.”

Branvold, who now identifies as queer and exploring a non-binary identity, says that volunteering with LGBT organizations exposed them to ideas that allowed them to further understand their LGBTQ identities.

Intersections of culture

While being Polynesian is also a big part of Branvold’s identity now, that wasn’t always the case.

“I tried to assimilate for a super long time with Caucasian spaces,”said Branvold. “For me, identity is like a coat, and a coat that didn’t fit too well was me trying to be LDS and trying to be super caucasian and conservative …A coat that fits really well is what I am, which is queer and polynesian.”

Another big part of their identity is their deep interest in the intersections of culture and modern identity.

“Like the idea that a thousand years ago there was a third gender widely accepted in Polynesia until colonization and widespread conversion Christianity changed that,” said Branvold. “I’m trying to reclaim that in my own life and promote others to do so as well.”

Alongside their partner, who is Tahitian, the two have stepped away from formal LGBTQ groups, which they have found to be lacking in sufficiently “thoughtful inclusion of people who look like us.” Instead they are using their energy to find and build emerging informal groups which center on their own identities as people of color.

Branvold notes that even amongst new developing groups for queer people of color, there have been fewer women present, although they have felt encouraged to see more women of color emerging since late last year.

As for why Branvold chose UVU, they said that after four years getting both a Bachelor and a Master of Social Work degree here, it just feels like home.

“UVU holds a lot of special memories for me in the past four years,”says Branvold. “I realized that this is where people see me, not as just a former LDS person, and not just as a queer person, but for who I am holistically.”

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