By Jonah Grinkewitz

As a self-described “queer, Puerto Rican writer from the Bronx,” Gabby Rivera wasn’t sure what to expect when she was invited to speak in Norfolk.

But when she stepped onstage at Old Dominion University’s Webb Center on March 22, she was overwhelmed at the more than 150 students, faculty, staff and community members who came to hear her talk about “Radical Creativity and Queer Latinx Joy.”

“I was like, ‘If there are four people, I’ll feel good,’ but there are so many of you here!” she exclaimed.

Rivera appeared as part of the 2023 Distinguished Speaker Series organized by ODU’s Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, the College of Arts and Letters, the Gay Cultural Studies program and the Women and Gender Equity Center.

“This evening’s event is one of many initiatives at ODU to enhance our diversity statement and work toward our goals of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Tammi Dice, dean of the Darden College.

Remarking about the size of the crowd, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Austin Agho said many universities have diversity statements. But what is more important is how institutions live out those promises.

“Saying it doesn’t mean that you do it. The fact that we have so many of our community come together, that is a clear indication of our university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and creating space for all of us to have a sense of belonging,” he said.

Creating space for others, especially people of color in the LGBTQ community, is central to Rivera’s work.

Before becoming the first Latina artist to write for Marvel Comics, she grew up in a strongly religious family and community where she didn’t feel she could be her true self.

“For a very long time, I tried to ‘pray it away,’” she told the audience.

At the same time, family was incredibly important to her, and she looked up to her mother and two grandmothers.

“It almost killed me to be queer, because all I wanted to do was be like the people who were loving me,” she said. “I wanted to have a family and exist in the world, and I just felt like there was no space for me.”

Growing up in the 1980s, she also saw a generation devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which deeply affected her impression of what it meant to be gay.

But then she went to college and met other queer people – including adults living out their lives – and saw joy and happiness.

“And I thought to myself, ‘What if there were a book or movie, not only where the queer kid loved themself already, but was also able to experience joy and live to the end?’”

So, in 2016, she wrote the graphic novel “Juliet Takes a Breath,” a “scrappy book about an unapologetically queer, chunky, gorgeous, brown, Latina babe who is on a mission to discover herself.”

“I put all of these things down on paper because I literally didn’t have it and I knew it was possible,” Rivera said.

That book led to Marvel Comics discovering her and deciding she was the author they wanted to give an authentic voice to America Chavez, a queer, Latina superhero they had already created.

“Let it be known that when you’re living your truth, beautiful opportunities can also come your way,” she told the crowd.

After her talk, Rivera took questions from the audience.

Helena Edge, a student studying fiction in ODU’s MFA program, asked for advice on confidently talking about your work.

While acknowledging that, being from the Bronx, she never struggled with being shy, Rivera said there is room for all types of artists.

“But sometimes you’ve gotta tell yourself, ‘I’m so good,’” she said with a laugh. “You’re allowed to think, ‘This book I wrote is so good, and I want to share it with everybody.’”

Edge, who is focused on normalizing queer narratives and including a wide range of characters of color in popular versions of genre fiction, especially young adult novels, said Rivera’s words gave her confidence.

“Hearing Gabby talk with such confidence about her work inspired me,” Edge said. “She's one of those people who can make any room feel like a safe space. That's how I felt at the event, like I'm not alone, and that there will always be a community out there ready to support new artists.”