For many college students, the undergraduate years are a chance to gain some freedom from their parents, not to share notes and find seats together in lecture hall.
But that’s just what sophomore Elio Kennedy-Yoon and his mom, graduate student Katherine Kennedy ’88, have been doing twice a week in “Queer Nation,” a Harvard Kennedy School class that explores the lives of LGBTQ individuals from World War II to the present.
“It’s been interesting to take a class with my mom. But it’s also been interesting to take that class with my mom,” said Elio, who identifies as genderqueer, sitting across from his mom, Katherine, in a quiet room at Adams House.
The class was a result of a happy confluence of circumstances in a period in both their lives when each was preparing for a next big step. For Elio it was College, a traditional rite of passage, and a bit more.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Elio, assigned female at birth, said he knew he was interested romantically in girls by middle school when he fell in love with his best friend.
“And then I figured out that I wasn’t cis[gender] in junior year, probably,” he added.
Between a packed extracurricular schedule dancing 20 hours a week, college applications, and just life as a teenager, he was able to participate in a Planned Parenthood program known as teen council where he was able to first start experimenting with using different pronouns and a different name.
“It felt really good. And then I was really looking forward to coming to College and being known as Elio and not who I was before,” he said.
When it came time to tell the family, he said they tried not to make it a big deal.
“Although I am the same person that I was, I think it was strange to think of me as becoming a different person. Even though the only thing that I’m really changing is my name and my pronouns,” Elio said.
Katherine says despite some difficulty with the pronouns it wasn’t hard supporting his decision.
“You want your kid to be happy, and to be happy about who they are,” she said.
Besides, she was nearing a crossroads of her own. She was facing an empty nest — Elio being the youngest of four — and she was in her last term on a local school committee. In addition, she and her husband were talking about moving from Utah to somewhere closer to Virginia, where her husband’s mother lives.
She started thinking about a new career in academics or public policy. A friend of hers from her undergrad days told her they were going to return to school, planting the idea. So she and Elio’s dad, John, made the move to Somerville ahead of the academic year, and now she’s on track to finish a master’s in public administration this spring at the Kennedy School — and another son, David, will also graduate this month from the College.
As for the decision to take the class together, Katherine and Elio say the subject matter wasn’t the biggest factor when considering how to approach the experience. “Queer Nation” was one of many contenders — as were some classes that David could take as well.
“I made a list of about I’d say 12 courses where we wanted to take that we can all get credit for and that I thought might be interesting to all three of us,” Katherine said.
Katherine says David, a music concentrator, was ultimately too busy working on his senior thesis and finishing premed classes ahead of graduation.
Still, both Katherine and Elio found their shared class extremely rewarding.
“We both have a real engagement and connection to the topic, so really it was really the perfect class,” Katherine said.
Elio and his mom said being his peer in class has added a new intellectual element to their relationship, and they’ve been able to learn through each other’s lived experiences.
“One thing that I noticed right away is that you really took a back seat more and were willing to really listen to my experiences as a student, and to fellow students who are equals, and also maybe hold my opinion with more weight, because I’m a queer person attending the class, and my opinions would obviously be different from yours,” he said to her.
Whether either will take another course like this is still up in the air. Elio said he is focused on studying science at the moment — biology, or maybe neuroscience. He also sings in the Din and Tonics, Harvard’s jazz a cappella group.
“The good thing about Harvard is that I feel like your gender identity doesn’t have to be all of who you are … my identity does not need to be defined by queerness. And your identity does not need to be defined by cis-ness or straightness, or whatever,” he said.
He and Katherine have a close relationship — meeting for the occasional meal and catching up over the phone. Elio said he wasn’t put off by his mom’s decision to follow him across the country, especially when she brings him lunch.
“This is his College experience,” she said. “And I’m just still really grateful that he’s been so gracious about it. People say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — but most people don’t even get this kind of opportunity once in their lifetime. I mean, this is just a really amazing experience.”
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