Abel Liu’s Legacy Shows The Power of Trans Visibility

It was only in 2021 that America’s first openly transgender student body president took office at the University of Virginia. But the road to the presidency for 22-year-old Abel Liu was paved with bigotry.

Liu was a third-year student when he ran for UVA’s highest office, having already served on the student council since his freshman year. His platform was focused on ushering in a new era of student government, one focused on “equity, empowerment, and renewal,” Liu told INTO shortly after his election. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t his platform that Liu’s opponent campaigned against.

“I never expected my gender identity to become an issue in the campaign,” Liu said. “It eventually did.”

Early in the election cycle, Liu had gained a broad base of support from UVA’s student body. So, in an effort to appeal to the conservative side of the school, Liu’s opponent turned to transphobia.

“He began kind of a transphobic misinformation campaign,” Liu said. His opponent sent out mass emails to the student body that not only misgendered Liu, but misrepresented his platform and portrayed him as radically against the traditions of UVA.

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“What was interesting was that as more and more evidence of what he was doing came out, I was able to make the campaign a moral referendum,” Liu explained. “And I framed it that way for students. I said, you know, ‘This is a referendum on the type of school that we want to become. Do we want to become a school that endorses transphobic smear campaigns?’”

UVA students responded with a resounding “NO,” overwhelmingly voting for Liu in the election. He won the presidency in a landslide victory with 81.2% of the vote.

“When we won with such a wide margin of victory and such a strong turnout, I really only took it to mean that UVA chose an inclusive and equitable way forward,” Liu said. “They rejected transphobia and a number of other hateful ideologies by electing me in the way that they did.”

With his election, Liu became both UVA’s first Chinese American student body president and America’s first openly trans student body president.

“That was personally meaningful for me as a trans man, but I’m also aware of the meaning and value it probably will have to other trans or non-binary student government hopefuls in the future,” Liu said. 

With his election, Liu became both UVA’s first Chinese American student body president and America’s first openly trans student body president.

“The other thing that I think is really incredible is that the first university to elect an openly trans president is in the South,” he continued. “And it’s at a school that has had a very troubled history with all marginalized identities, including queer identities, for decades.”

Now a recent UVA graduate with his term as president complete, Liu’s been reflecting on his legacy. Though he’s honored to have made history, his presidency was never about being “the first anything,” as he put it on the podcast “Inside UVA.”

“I think it’s less triumphant and a little bit more exhausting than people might imagine,” Liu said, referencing the extra norms and standards he had to set being trans in environments previously dominated by cis people.

“But there are moments over the course of my term, I think, queer communities or the Asian American community needed a voice,” he continued. One of those moments was after the anti-Asian American attacks in Atlanta, which took place early in his term. “I think it was really meaningful to have an Asian student body president in that moment to be able to speak. And trans and queer students actually stopped me quite often and let me know that I’ve made them feel more welcome at UVA.”

“That’s where it matters,” Liu said. “That’s where it’s been meaningful. It hasn’t affected my agenda. It’s affected the way I interact with people.”

As far as what’s next for Liu, he’ll likely be continuing on the path of higher education.

“I have a wish list of graduate degrees that I might be interested in pursuing,” he said. “I know that I’m interested in a master’s of urban planning. And I am also interested in a law degree, maybe a business degree, and maybe some degree in social theory. Well, we’ll figure it out, and I’ll keep you posted.”

Wherever he ends up, Liu’s impact on UVA and on the future of trans representation in American education is undeniable. And even as this country’s politics seem to be regressing to conservatism, Liu has faith that Americans will stand up for what’s right.

“There is hope in pursuing coalitions and solidarity and working actively across identities to protect marginalized voices and people, especially trans people,” he said. “I do believe that there is an appetite to take on this fight both within our generation and within the U.S. as a whole, but what’s required is really solidarity across all lines and identities to make sure that that happens.”

INTO’s 20 Under 20 series celebrates Gen Z changemakers who are standing up and fighting for a better world. Read the full series here.

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