Rosario Doriott ’07 and her fiancee, a 24-year-old hairdresser from Branford named Adrienne Giffen, are sitting in BAR’s Bru Room, swigging from their 25-cent beers and explaining how lesbian women find other lesbian women.
“Online,” Giffen asserts.
Doriott reaches over to cover her mouth.
“Don’t say that!” she giggles.
“What? Planetout.com — that’s where women meet other women!” Giffen says.
Doriott turns serious. She has, she admits, used planetout.com, thefacebook.com and even the 800-member LiveJournal community she set up to find other women.
“She’s right,” Doriott says. “It might sound taboo, but it’s a way, to be sure, and a lot of people do it. You talk to someone on the computer, agree to meet at a McDonald’s somewhere, bring along your best guy friend in case she turns out to be a man or otherwise creepy.”
Just one of the logistical hassles of growing up lesbian in a heterosexual world. And to a greater extent than even gay men, the numbers are not on the side of gay women, particularly at Yale: There are around 8,000 more households headed by two men than there are households run by two females, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; there are 22 women interested in women, as compared to 183 men interested in men, on thefacebook.com’s list of Yalies. If the Internet is something of a springboard over one hurdle in a lesbian’s quest to find a partner, there’s still a whole Olympic course waiting to be run.
Toward that end, Tuesday nights are Alternative Lifestyle Nights at BAR. The men literally pick up other men, in massive bear hugs from behind, wearing ear studs and tight jeans but also UConn sweatshirts and socks with sandals. The women literally have game, with the rat-tat-tat of pool balls clicking neatly together bearing witness to the prowess of the two spiky-haired girls currently playing.
And on this particular Tuesday night at BAR, Doriott and Giffen are sitting in the room where they met for the first time, trying to explain the most basic of difficulties with being a lesbian, even in this day and age.
“Okay, so look at that girl,” Doriott says, leaning in confidentially. “She’s wearing baggy jeans, a baggy shirt, lots of wrinkles, beanie over her hair. So probably safe to assume for her.”
Probably safe. If your gaydar isn’t jammed. If she’s not still closeted.
That is why a lesbian social scene — with events that draw girls who are definitely interested — is important. And this is why the possible lack thereof at Yale matters. Descriptions from sources ranged from “unattended” to “undercover,” and all agreed that it is less visible than the gay male scene.
“Not having a group for queer women can have much more severe and difficult consequences for a questioning, coming out or queer student than not having a chess team would have for someone who loves to play chess,” Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Co-op coordinator Patrick Ward ’08 said.
It’s not that gay women at Yale necessarily lack for social outlets, Doriott says. She ticks off on her fingers: Tuesdays at BAR, Thursday night dollar drafts at 168, Friday night parties at Oracle, Saturdays at Gotham and Sunday karaoke at Partners mean it’s really only Monday and Wednesday that she has no place to be. Ya!Lesbians (pronounced “yeah, lesbians!”) caters to party-hardy undergrad lesbians. A somewhat-defunct group called Queer Women tries to incorporate grad students, bisexuals and answer-seekers with a penchant for lectures and hiking.
As Gay and Lesbian Alumni board member Trina Altman ’92 said, the lesbians at Yale do tend to know where to find other lesbians.
“It’s hard to say anything about the visibility of the community because I was on the inside of the lesbian circles at Yale,” she said. “So to me, lesbians were very visible — I’d pass them on the street and know who they were.”
But to those outside that inner circle, there’s a definite underground quality to the community. The thefacebook.com group with the highest density of women interested in women is called “Where have all the queer women gone?” And as Megan Prichard ’06, president of Ya!Lesbians, puts it, “Lesbians simply just aren’t as visible.”
Everyone has their own hypotheses to proffer. And while there’s nothing particularly verifiable about any of them — “I can spout off a bunch of theories about gender and sexuality, but none of them are actually true,” Kathryn Johnson ’06 said — they probably have about as much import, just by power of consensus, as that one-in-four statistic everyone takes for gospel.
Prichard speculated that women tend to identify themselves as bisexual, rather than lesbian, whereas gay men will take on a whole host of stereotypes more easily.
“People don’t tokenify lesbians as much as gay men,” she said. “Everyone has their gay best friend, so gay culture is more visible because it’s more objectified than lesbian culture.”
And Doriott points out that it’s not as if there are as many women as there are men at straight bars, either.
“Straight bars offer Ladies’ Nights, free drinks until 11, just to get the girls out,” she said.
Altman argued that lesbians don’t stand out as much as gay men.
“It’s easier for women to fit in, even if they’ve got short hair and dress kind of dyke-y, because there are straight women out there who do that,” Altman said. “Straight men just don’t dress faggy.”
Not that some people aren’t still threatened by gay female sexuality. Doriott noticed a permanent marker scrawl on her bike during her ride from Old Campus to her psych class a few years ago, a childish sentiment along the lines of, “Say no to dykes, go suck a dick.” Altman remembered a group of guys harassing the Ya!Lesbians chalking on Old Campus, eventually peeing on their rallying chants. All of the sources for this story had heard slurs, hurled at them or at a girlfriend, from a passing pedestrian or decelerating car.
And some people just aren’t threatened enough.
“Lesbianism is … very, very eroticized,” Prichard said. “I literally have never been to a straight party with my girlfriend where some really drunk guy hasn’t been on his knees begging to have a threesome.”
Charting Yale on the Atlas of All-American Lesbianism
Still, Yale’s culture puts the University in something of a special nexus with regards to the LGBT community. On some origamied map of America, contoured according to lesbian-friendliness, Yale would qualify as a little lower in altitude than Prichard’s hometown of L.A.: “During the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, for 12 days, all of Hollywood is just gay,” she said. “Coming back, I found Yale very restrictive, although, in retrospect, that’s probably just the difference between West Hollywood and the East Coast.”
But nowhere near as low as Indianapolis, where Doriott hails from. After the KKK marches and “don’t ask, don’t tell” politics of Indiana, Doriott was ecstatic to see a rainbow flag at the freshman bazaar and to go to Ya!Lesbian meetings, even ones that had fewer than a dozen people.
“If a guy asks me out here, I can say, ‘I’m kind of gay,’ and he’ll say, ‘Hey, OK, that’s cool,'” she said, BAR’s blue lights strobing behind her. “‘We have something in common — we both like women. High five!’ When I go back home, it’s like I have to put a mask back on, and I’m afraid that I will end up somewhere after I graduate where that mask has to go on permanently.”
Less clear, though, is how Yale’s lesbian environment compares to that of other universities.
On the one hand, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said there are plenty of resources for gay students, both male and female, on campus, such as the peer counseling group Safety Net, the University Health Services liaison for the LGBT community and, most importantly, student groups.
On the other, Ward pointed to the campus’ lack of trained counselors. Queer Peers, the only resource for questioning students, employs a staff of trained student volunteers, who are, as of this writing, exclusively male. Prichard said the impending expiration of the Larry Kramer Initiative — a source of funding for queer studies programs and queer resources on campus that is expected to run out this year — and the fact that the Co-op receives substantially less funding than ethnic houses means that the organization has to do “some creative fundraising and accounting” to make ends meet. Ward said the Co-op receives $600 a semester from the UOFC, like any other student organization, and that there is no individual designated within Yale’s administration for LGBT student issues.
Princeton University, by contrast, has an LGBT Center with an operating budget between $25,000 and $50,000 in any given year, excluding salaries, two full-time staffers, a graduate intern and six undergrad workers, Assistant Director Matt Carcella said. Princeton students can report homophobia online, browse a renovated queer resource library or find a list of gender-free bathrooms on campus.
Perpetual Want for Improvement
If nothing else, however, Yale is somewhere over the rainbow from the “real world” of protesting civil unions, having to “come out” constantly and finding dental insurance for a same-sex partner.
Doriott said she hasn’t had much personal experience with the real world per se, but she speculated that she’s going to have to make some adjustments. Already, she is irritated when her friends introduce her to straight crowds as “our favorite lesbian,” and she’s worried that in the real world, she will be defined by her sexuality to an even greater degree.
“I just want to be like, ‘I do a couple of things other than make love to women,'” Doriott said. “That is not all there is to me.”
As Johnson said, “I went bowling with my husband” tells someone you like bowling; “I went bowling with my girlfriend” is a whole different ballgame.
She said she thinks, though, that leaving Yale will be a toning-down process that all Yalies, straight or gay, promiscuous or celibate, will have to adjust to.
“Let’s face it, college is just in general more sexual than the real world,” Johnson said. “We’re all going to have a rude awakening when we get there.”
Tonight, however, is Alternative Tuesday at BAR, and the pool balls are clicking, the blue strobe light is flashing, and the 25-cent beers keeping on coming. BAR has held alternative nights for 17 years now. Tim Hamretty — the promoter with a penchant for tugging on the two ear studs in his left ear — has been in charge for seven of those, and he said these nights have always been popular. The customers find BAR through fliers and E-mails, on the centerfolds of magazines like “Finer Things” and in Internet chat rooms.
Probably 20 percent straight, people who just like the good company, Hamretty says; probably 40 percent newcomers every week, too. And those newcomers? Probably mostly female, Hamretty figures. The 90-10 male-to-female ratio that marked Hamretty’s first few years with BAR has given way to a 60-40-and-ever-equalizing one in recent years.
“Everybody here loves each other,” he said. “Boys and girls and everyone in between come here to find one another.”
But finding someone at BAR — even finding the one at BAR — is only the beginning, as Doriott and Giffen will tell you. Doriott said she still has many unanswered questions. Will Doriott’s parents, who have yet to be told about the engagement, make an appearance? What if Doriott gets in to Columbia Law School — does the couple move to New York, where their relationship can’t be legally recognized?
“Every time I meet someone new, they are going to look at my ring and go, ‘Oh, what’s his name?'” Doriott said. “And I’m going to have to be like, ‘Her name is Adrienne.’ I don’t think it ever gets any easier.”