Featuring six speakers, TEDxBinghamtonUniversity: Odyssey is centered around “breaking barriers and trailblazing forward toward a new future.” Riya Bolander, a senior double-majoring in psychology and music, is a current peer-mentor lead at the Q Center and a soprano section leader at a local church. They have chosen to speak about a societal concept known as amatonormativity, and why it is important to spread awareness of its existence among the community. Their interview responses have been edited for clarity.

Q: What is amatonormativity, and what are the negative impacts that this societal assumption has on people?

A: “For me, as an [asexual spectrum] person, [amatonormativity] led to a lot of feeling isolated and feeling like there was something wrong with me as I was growing up, and I wasn’t experiencing the same things [as others]. There’s one standard path in life and it’s like, you go to school and then you get married and have kids so not being able to see myself on that path was really scary, because what else do you do? Contemplating that ended up being rewarding in the end, but [amatonormativity] also affects everyone else who isn’t acespec.

There’s a paragraph in my speech — so when you’re single, basically you’re devalued in society because you’re not in a romantic relationship. And it’s constantly like you’re pressured to make that one of your biggest goals. And then in relationships, I’ve had a number of friends who date people they aren’t actually really into or they aren’t really happy with because they think dating anyone is better than being single because of the way that society devalues single people.

It also causes relationship anxiety in even healthy relationships. First of all, it tells you that you’re not enough as an individual, but it also kind of makes people think that their partner should be able to fulfill all of their social needs and also know what they want without telling them. It also devalues other kinds of relationships. So it can negatively affect friendships and relationships with yourself.

The other thing that it does, that I don’t actually have time to mentioned this in my talk, but [amatonormativity] — especially in American society because we’re very individualistic — but the way that it set up is such that it’s expected that we rely on our partner for most of our social needs, like they’re the person that we turn to. But if you’ve ever heard the idiom ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ you’re supposed to have the village throughout your entire life. So amatonormativity [takes] away that. It tells you that your partner is like your main [person] — your partner can be your main person but you should have access to a lot of other people also.”

Q: How and why did you choose to speak on this topic?

A: “I think I came up with the idea for this TED talk in 2020. That was when, I mean, I’d spent like my whole life being confused about the fact that I wasn’t into anyone, and then in 2020 I finally connected with the acespec identities, and I was like ‘oh, this explains a lot.’ And then with that I started to get involved in online acespec communities. I like a very brief stint as a content creator on TikTok, which was funny. And that’s where I came across amatonormativity and I’m like, this makes so much sense. This explains all of the issues and struggles that I felt as I was growing up, so I was like, I think more people need to hear about this as a concept.

Also, because with the aromantic and asexual identities, a lot of people just don’t know what those are. So part of this talk is definitely spreading awareness of amatonormativity and hopefully preventing other people from having the same negative experiences that I have, but also just to spread awareness of acespec identities because it’s kind of hard — the fact that nobody even recognizes your experiences as an actual thing can feel very invalidating.”

Q: Please describe what it is like being a peer-mentor lead at the Q Center, and how does the Q Center positively help the student community at BU?

A: “I love the Q Center very much. They’re super cool. So as a peer mentor lead basically my role is to help run the mentorship program with my fellow mentor lead, Tom Holland [a senior majoring in history]. And basically, we hire peer mentors. They apply and they talked about why they’re passionate about helping younger students. And then we have a QR code-internship thing. So younger students can fill out the QR code and be like, ‘hey, this is what I’m looking for.’ Then we pair up mentors and mentees based on their interests and majors and what they’re looking for. And then they meet independently — we tell them at least once a month — and then also hold mixers so that the other mentees can meet other mentees and mentors can meet other mentors. I think it’s really cool. We’ve had some really nice successes. Some of our mentors and mentees are really good friends now. Which I think is really, really sweet, and I think the Q Center is a really good place.

We work with a lot of student organizations to support their missions. For example, this Friday, March 29, the Rainbow Pride Union will be having a Second Chance Prom, and the Q Center made that possible with providing funding and helping to work with the students so that they knew how to organize that kind of event. [The Q Center] also provides a lot of educational resources. We have events all the time — I think in April there’s gonna be a Q&A session about asexuality and aromanticism, which I’m very excited for.

The other thing the Q Center does is provide a safe space on campus. It’s a really lovely space, we just adjusted it. So instead of having the harsh overhead lighting, we use lamps for most of the lighting. There’s usually music playing and it’s chill. And we also have a gender bender closet. So basically that’s like a free clothing closet. And anyone can go in and take whatever clothes, that’s really cool.”

Q: How has music and singing impacted your life?

A: “Music and singing is huge. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I think probably one of my first ever dream jobs was to be a singer. And it’s been really wonderful that I’ve been able to pursue that passion throughout my life. I think the biggest thing for me that music and singing does is it’s a really wonderful form of emotional regulation. So singing on my own or and singing in a choir with the whole community. Really, it’s just a special experience and it really grounds me. I’m not exactly sure the science behind it — I’m gonna take a couple of years off and then hopefully get a Ph.D. — and I am interested in [music] because it has significant calming effects.

I have historically had pretty bad anxiety. So singing has helped with that a lot. I used to a have really, really bad phobia of needles — so I would cry when I got a shot. And one of the first things that I did that actually helped avoid that intense fear was if I sang something small where they were giving me the shot, then it was distracting and also calm[ed] me down. I just also really love the community in music. I feel like this might partially be me, but I’m a double-major in music and psychology. And I have found it significantly easier to connect with my fellow musicians. I do have friends in the psychology major, but I don’t know there’s something about music that is a big bond builder.”

Q: What do you hope students will take away from your TEDx Talk?

A: “I think the biggest thing that I want them to take away is simply being aware of amatonormativity as a concept. I want them to know that it’s okay if they aren’t able to find someone and that they can be fulfilled and happy without it. And I want people to be more accepting and aware of acespec identities. Those are the big things.”