A few weeks ago, I ventured into a space I would normally avoid: a fraternity apartment party.
Notoriously hyper- and hetero- sexualized, this bedrock of the college party scene is a place in which, as a queer woman, I generally feel uncomfortable.
But hey, lesbians like to drink and dance too — and sometimes a frat party is the best place to do that.
It was a great time. But after spending a few songs dancing with a guy, I decided to head outside to catch my breath and find my friends.
He followed me next door, clearly expecting that our connection on the dance floor would lead to something more sexual. It was funny at first.
But after repeated — and increasingly overt — attempts to let him know that he didn’t have the slightest chance, I had to have my friends step in to get him out of our apartment.
This is one of the few instances in which, “I don’t care that you’re a lesbian” is definitely the wrong response. Not surprisingly, the fact that we were both into women did not the perfect couple make.
The blatantly sexist ideologies and insistence on heterosexuality exemplified here give just a little, if benign, taste of how tricky it is to navigate college social spaces as a queer woman. It totally sucks, but what’s a girl to do?
Even if I decide not to go to another frat party, nearly every aspect of daily life is organized by sexuality in similar ways. This is something that as a queer woman, I learn to deal with.
But doing so is made much easier if those around me, no matter their sexuality, are also cognizant of the fact that our lives are organized by power and institutions, and that this has left the voices of women and queer folks of every gender marginalized. All of this is to say, being a queer woman profoundly affects the way I experience the world. And this isn’t always an easy thing to handle — especially on this campus.
When I came to UR as a first year, I was nervous and insecure in all of the ways that most first years are. On top of this, however, I was also trying to figure out my sexuality. I sort of knew in high school that I was a lesbian, but I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. Scared and isolated, I was hoping against hope that the rumors were true. Universities are liberal, inclusive, queer bastions, right?
Turns out at UR, that wasn’t the case.
This isn’t to say there weren’t spaces and opportunities for me: I joined the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity or SASD (then still a fledgling organization), I researched LGBTQ issues in my classes and WILL became my inclusive haven.
But at the end of the day, the queer community at this university is small, and I had a hard time finding the support that made me comfortable enough to begin working through the personal mess. I slid along pretending (even to myself) that I was totally fine and happy, when really I was still the struggling, lonely girl I was in high school.
It wasn’t until the spring of my sophomore year that I finally found a queer space for myself.
Always a nerd, I should have known that this would be in the classroom. I took two classes entirely focused on queer identities and politics – amongst the only of their kind being offered at the time.
This was what I had wanted all along: a space where it was not only safe to be queer, but where it was being celebrated and explored by both my peers and professors. Since that time, I’ve had shining moments of success, happiness and self-acceptance.
I absolutely love being queer.
So I wish I could say that the queer path at UR for me is now smooth sailing. But there remain periods of time when it feels as if the wind is blowing against me and when I would just rather not have to face this campus. Even in the absence of overt hostility, there is still an overwhelming sense that UR was not designed for me.
Anything that the institution can do to make UR a welcoming place for queer folks should be championed. Now in the beginning of my senior year, both I and UR as an institution have undoubtedly made huge strides.
I consider myself fortunate to have found extraordinary friends, staff and faculty mentors on this campus who have unfailingly supported me even through some of my roughest moments. Without these folks I wouldn’t have had the courage, finally, to come out to my family over the summer – a step I once thought impossible.
In addition to these personal relationships, I’m heartened by the institutional changes I’ve seen in such a short time: the inclusion of gender identity into the non-discrimination clause, the flourishing of SASD, a few more queer focused classes, opening WILL* to trans* and gender non-conforming individuals, the addition of a staff position within Common Ground specifically dedicated to serving LGBTQ students, as well as the creation of the LGBTQ lounge and the Q Community, even the choice of “The Laramie Project” for the One Book, One Richmond program this year. These are the types of visible changes that are going to make it easier for future queer students to thrive at UR, hopefully from the moment they first arrive.
But the work is just beginning. Any suggestion that such efforts silence or indoctrinate non-queer people is not only insulting to the struggles of historically marginalized groups, but also aids in justifications for continued discrimination against and institutionalized oppression of queer identified people.
This isn’t a moral debate. Queer people exist — both at UR and in the larger world. It’s past time to create spaces and provide opportunities for students that recognize, welcome and celebrate this fact.