Aley O’Mara on championing gender identities, diversity and inclusion

student in an outdoor setting

Freelance writer and Syracuse University English PhD candidate Ashley “Aley” O’Mara is restructuring the conservative systems of academia through their background as a queer, asexual and non-binary individual. With their work in university organizations like the Graduate Diversity and Graduate Employee Committees, O’Mara aims to redefine conventional schooling by diligently researching gender identities and their implications on perceptions of normalcy.

“Academia tends to preserve interpretations that are considered more natural. It’s more natural to assume heterosexuality than it is to to assume queerness. That gives a particular narrative about what is imaginable and what is so unimaginable that you need proof to prove it,” says O’Mara, who has fought tirelessly for LGBTQ+ representation and inclusivity on Syracuse University’s campus.

Following the 2014 Diversity and Transparency Rally organized by The General Body SU at Hendricks Chapel, the university’s Chancellor at the time established a task force on Diversity and Inclusion to revamp the institution’s outdated structure. The mandated task force not only expanded the options for preferred or chosen names on the university’s student portal, MySlice, but it also led to the formation of the Pronouns, Gender and Preferred Name Advisory Council (PGPNAC) in 2018. 

“We pretty much have free reign over making any recommendations or changes as we see fit. People want to do the work, and we have the power and resources to do that work,” says O’Mara, one among the organization’s many original co-creators and co-facilitators.

Striving to make queer individuals feel more comfortable in the college environment, the PGPNAC successfully stopped deadnaming, the non-consensual use of transgender or non-binary persons’ birth or other former name, from occuring on the university’s Handshake job-search platform.

“For a very long time, the Career Services’ Handshake kept deadnaming people by refusing to accept their preferred names stored in the MySlice system. Luckily, we investigated and successfully stopped it,” shares O’Mara, who emphasizes the importance of changing systems in order to change people. By restructuring the Handshake platform to accommodate those with preferred names, O’Mara transformed an exclusive environment into a fair space for countless individuals to scout employment opportunities.

Feeling the absence of community during the coronavirus pandemic, O’Mara decided to participate in the LaunchPad’s SummerStartup accelerator this past summer, and they were instantly connected with a network of people interested in their studies on gender and sexuality.

“They gave me advice on how to do what I love doing, while making a living off of that. I could see a game plan for the future where I would be able to make a living for myself without relying on any individual employer,” says O’Mara, who has been hired for several guest lectures on topics like ‘Asexuality and Politics’ across the country.

With the recent launch of their consulting business, Our Chosen Name, O’Mara challenges businesses and institutions to deeply self-reflect about their own structures in hopes of fostering, impactful, material changes to them. Through their expert background in gender and sexuality representation, diversity and inclusion, their focus is on dismantling systems of oppression which have perpetually marginalized communities.

“By changing systems and structures, you can change people,” says O’Mara, hoping for their company in its infancy to become an organization fostering substantial education for institutions deeply entrenched in current heteronormative structures.

When reflecting back on the start of their graduate studies, O’Mara shared how Syracuse University’s education regarding gender and sexuality was extremely lacking: “there was no research on asexuality and literary studies published, to now, where it feels like there’s a moment happening. You can feel the field beginning to shift and that’s always been my goal.”

Now, thanks to O’Mara, the university is only gaining more knowledge on these topics, and it will continue to do so under this young educator’s leadership.

Story by LaunchPad Global Fellow Christopher Appello ’21; photo supplied