Our People: Nikolai Mather

Student, Activist

Nikolai Mather has earned more than a few impressive distinctions. With a combination of persistence, talent and audacity, he’s become a college student, a leader, an activist, a pioneer — and most recently, a journalist. This fall, qnotes has had the privilege of welcoming him to the paper as a regular contributor. One of its somewhat less-new staffers now takes the opportunity to get to know Mather and discover what he’s about to bring to the team.

Were you born and raised in the Charlotte area? If not, where did you grow up, and how long have you lived in the region?

Actually, I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. My family moved out to North Carolina when I was seven, and I spent most of my childhood in Pittsboro. I moved to Charlotte about a year and a half ago for college.

As I recall, we first met when you and a friend stopped in at White Rabbit earlier this year. We struck up a conversation about your campaign to establish a queer community center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which I had the honor of reporting in a subsequent qnotes article. Were you always entirely confident that you’d succeed?

Oh my gosh, no. I’ve always had faith in the members of the [UNC Charlotte LGBTQ+] Coalition, but I wasn’t too confident in my own abilities. That was my first time leading a campaign of that size and scale. I was also on an incredibly unfamiliar turf — I had been living on campus for only a few months, and didn’t fully understand everything about the administration or campus organizing. I’m really grateful for all the encouragement and guidance I received, especially from the folks from Ignite NC and Customer 49.

You marked your own debut as a qnotes contributor in August with the similarly-themed essay ‘Patience, Love & Swedish Fish.’ Why was it important to share the journey of your organization with a wider audience?

I think that nowadays, folks get so overwhelmed by the political climate that they feel paralyzed into inaction. Yes, these systems of oppression have always been at work, but when our elected officials openly claim allegiance to white nationalist movements, it gets really easy to just hide away in your dorm room for a couple days. I wanted to share our story because I know that for a lot of people in the Coalition, it was challenging to not only step out of the closet, but step into the role of an activist. Because being an activist means fully exposing yourself to an incredibly cruel world in hopes that you can change it.

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In this instance, our stars aligned. And we helped make our campus a little better for LGBTQ+ people. We still have a long way to go, of course, but our hard work and vulnerability did pay off. So I hope that it helps folks realize that even if they are scared and hurt, they still have the power to make a difference.

Since that inaugural piece, qnotes has published at least three more articles under your byline, and you’ve quickly branched out into subject matter beyond the university sphere. How did you experience that shift?

It’s been really cool to meet other LGBTQ+ people and organizations. I love UNCC, but it’s really important to step out of the college bubble, and writing for qnotes has given me the opportunity to do that. I’ve made a lot of new friends!

For many students, this time of year is an academic as well as a seasonal landmark. What are your thoughts as you reflect on the closing fall semester? What are your hopes for the coming spring term?

I’ve been reflecting on growth. I know that I’ve grown a lot this past semester (research projects do that to you). But our campus community has also grown a lot. Me and my friends used to joke about how we probably know all the queer folks on campus, but this past semester we’ve been proven extremely wrong. It’s like every club meeting there’s a couple new faces. I hope we grow even more connected next spring — and as we plan for our next action, I hope we can make the university even more inclusive.

Was UNCC your first brush with community organizing, or did you have some experience of activism before college?

I had a little experience before college. I chaired a committee that convinced our administration to create all-gender restrooms for trans and nonbinary students. (Our principal was really supportive, but still, no small feat in Chatham County, N.C.) I was the president of one of the first and only queer-straight alliances in our county. I did a lot of volunteering with the LGBTQ Center of Durham. And I helped organize an anti-Trump rally in Chapel Hill. But again, I never really sustained a project like the Coalition.

What’s been the greatest challenge you’ve encountered over the past year?

Trusting my gut. When you’re working in social advocacy, you have to take a lot of different people, concepts and needs into account. And when there’s this immense pressure to get things totally right the first time — especially for a newbie like me — decision making is not really an easy process. There were a lot of times where I agonized over making the “right” choice. But I think I’ve done enough to feel more confident in myself and the decisions I make. (I still have to call my mom sometimes, though.)

What do you consider your greatest triumph?

Probably starting Transgender League Charlotte, which is a UNC Charlotte-based discussion group for trans, nonbinary and questioning people. During my freshman year, I could probably count the number of trans people I knew in Charlotte on my hands. But after founding this club, I really got connected with other trans folks on campus. Knowing that we have that support system is an incredible feeling.

How do you cope when your endeavor hits a rough patch? Have there been goals or projects you’ve believed in but had to let go?

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Not many people know that the campaign for the LGBTQ+ space stemmed from a different campaign for access to proper all-gender restrooms on campus. Someone suggested we advocate for an LGBTQ+ center, and while we still wanted both, we understood that we only had so much social capital to spare. If we were going to succeed, we needed to narrow our demands. We ended up choosing the center because we knew that by securing a physical space, our community could more easily organize and demand change.
I still think we could have secured our demands had we stuck with that project. It was hard to make the shift, but after discussing all the pros and cons with the Coalition and some of my mentors, I knew it was the right choice. It’s important to just keep moving through those rough patches, and take every perspective into account when making big decisions.

Who or what would you like to see receive more recognition than they currently do?

Definitely the UNCC LGBTQ Staff and Faculty Caucus. They’ve consistently held the line for queer and trans people at UNC Charlotte in so many ways. They’ve also been incredible mentors for the Coalition and other LGBTQ+ students. I had countless meetings with the Caucus members over the summer, and they provided a lot of wisdom and a lot of support. Also a lot of good book recommendations.

A student leader of a newly resurrected progressive cause might be expected to be constantly on call, attempting to drum up support from all quarters and corral countless moving pieces. Do you feel that picture fits your experience? Is there ever a struggle to disconnect and take time for yourself alone?

Oh yeah. Activism in general is such an emotional game, so it’s really hard to “clock out” and set boundaries around that part of my life. Lately I’ve been taking breaks from the news and social media. I’ll delete Instagram on the weekends, or I’ll ignore The New York Times newsletters in my inbox. I try to also consciously enjoy the things in my life that aren’t related (at least directly) to social justice. When something shitty happens in the news, I like to go to Pitchfork and read album reviews. Or I’ll make playlists for my partner and my friends. My favorite coping skill is probably just making music; lately, when I feel overwhelmed, I like teach myself a song on the banjo.

On top of school and activism, you’ve recently signed on as a regular featured qnotes contributor. What do you hope to learn or accomplish in this role? What led you to take it on?

Well, I think that the collapse of human rights and the demise of the free press are intrinsically linked. And I think that the struggles and triumphs of marginalized communities sometimes get lost in mainstream news. So I started working at qnotes because I wanted to help facilitate a means for our community to stay connected. And stay strong.

By now it’s crystal clear that you’re dedicated to queer advocacy. But what do you do in your downtime?

I don’t have a lot of downtime this semester, but when I do, I try to read. I just finished “Sula” by Toni Morrison, which was absolutely phenomenal. I also like to listen to podcasts (“More Perfect” is my favorite right now).

What might our readers be surprised to learn about you?

If I didn’t get into college, I would definitely be a cowboy. That’s not a joke. I went on a backpacking trip to Wyoming last summer, and met some real ranchers out in the Wind River Mountain Range. I’ve been dying to go back ever since.

And finally, in four words or fewer, how would you describe that perfect future you’re working for?

Radical justice. Also Cookout.

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