Minority gays balance identities

Before coming to Yale, Andrew Dowe ’08 attended a small Catholic all-boys school in Tampa, Fla. During his four years at the institution, he covered himself with not only a tie and dress pants, but also a false identity.

Dowe, who is black, said he had expected that his arrival at a liberal college campus would be an escape from the conservative and largely Caucasian environment that made it impossible for him to come out as gay in high school.

“Back then, I felt trapped,” he said. “I would have liked to come out, but it was not exactly a welcoming place.”

At Yale, Dowe founded Students Advocating Marriage Equality, and he led the Queer Political Action Committee and GaYalies during his freshman and sophomore years. Although he has been heavily involved in the LGBTQ community since he came to the University, Dowe said his involvement in the black community has been marginal at best.

“When you arrive, you are faced with a decision of which community or in which aspect of your identity you want to invest in first and most,” he said.

Dowe described himself as one of Yale’s “double minorities” — individuals who identify both as gay and as a racial minority — cutting a path through campus.

Although his position in the two communities allows for increased self-awareness, Dowe said, it also makes him constantly feel like an outsider.

“You’re in this strange situation where you can be the only minority in a room full of white people, and also be the only minority in a room full of gay people,” he said.

Despite the well-known saying “One in four, maybe more” describing sexual orientation at Yale and the University’s reputation as the “gay Ivy,” an anonymous poll of more than 250 students conducted by the News last year revealed that approximately 12 percent of male students and less than one percent of female Yalies self-identified as gay or lesbian. Four percent described themselves as bisexual. Thirty-three percent of current students are minorities, a figure that encompasses 437 black students, 712 Asian students and 401 Hispanic students, according to the Yale Office of Institutional Research.

A relatively small number of students, including Dowe, identify themselves as members of both groups.

Maria Trumpler, director of undergraduate studies in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department and a special adviser to the administration regarding LGBTQ issues, said she thinks the ways in which “double minority” students approach their experiences at Yale can vary widely.

“For some, being used to being part of one minority group makes it easier and more comfortable [to be] part of another,” she said. “For others, it adds to the frustration and discrimination.”

Current GaYalies coordinator Juan Castillo ’08 said he tends to be more active in the gay community than in the Hispanic community, though he does not think balancing the two identities is necessarily a challenge.

“I am aware of the double minority idea, but I don’t really think about it,” he said.

Building a community

Ivan Lett ’07, the president of PRISM — a group which addresses issues affecting the intersection of the gay and minority communities — said although the organization had become a social club in past years, members have recently begun turning the weekly gatherings into opportunities for serious discussion among gay minority students.

“Everyone has an opinion on these issues and a right to express those opinions openly in a safe and confidential space,” he said. “It’s all about growing to feel comfortable with who you are.”

PRISM was founded in 1995 as a part of the LGBT Co-op in response to demand for a group that would address issues pertaining to both gay students and students of color. The regular Thursday night meetings are currently attended by about 10 core members, with a number of visitors.

Lett, who describes himself as black and bisexual, said the name of the group is meant to convey the group’s “open arms” attitude toward students from “all the colors of the rainbow” interested in discussing issues relevant to the LGBTQ or racially diverse communities.

“The two do not always go hand and hand, and they are distinct, though not mutually exclusive, ways of identifying oneself,” he said.

Some students said they tend to rely on student organizations like PRISM for support and a sense of community because the administration has not traditionally offered far-reaching administrative aid to LGBT individuals on campus.

While the University awards each of the cultural centers — including the Afro-American, Asian American and Latino Cultural Centers — approximately $15,000 in funding per year, the LGBT community is not allocated a yearly fund, Co-op coordinator Anna Wipfler ’09 said.

The Co-op’s main facility is the Queer Resource Center, which consists of an office and a small lounge space on the first floor of 305 Crown Street.

William Nguyen ’08, a LGBT board member and member of the Vietnamese Students Association, said the lack of a large functional facility has led the Co-op to use the Women’s Center and classrooms in Harkness Hall in addition to the QRC for meetings and other events.

“The spaces we use are more fragmented,” he said. “We don’t need a gay cultural center per se, but it would be nice.”

Nguyen said half of the LGBT board is comprised of students from racial minorities.

Dating at Yale

Characterizing the gay romantic relationship has been a long-standing topic of interest and contention within the community.

One day after Valentine’s Day, an ideological conflict surfaced among the 13 members of the LGBT community who attended a PRISM meeting entitled, “Dating at Yale: Hook-ups, marriages and the in-between.” While discussing the dating scene on campus, a disagreement arose on the topic of interracial dating.

Some students at the discussion said they were offended to discover that their peers had been dating outside of their ethnic groups, with a few going as far as to express opposition to gay minorities dating white students because doing so constituted “selling out” to the white gay culture, PRISM members said.

“A somewhat common trend is that whites only date whites, and even some minorities only date whites, seemingly as a result of this,” Lett said.

Nguyen said the students who criticized interracial dating are not necessarily racists, but rather individuals trying to challenge the media’s representation of gays as primarily white. He said this misconception is seen everywhere from popular television shows “Will & Grace” and “Queer as Folk” to gay-interest magazines such as “Genre,” “Out” and “The Advocate.”

“Some people view dating a white guy as buying into the ‘white, muscular, gay man’ stereotype,” he said. “But it really just comes down to a personal preference, and it is just the same situation in the heterosexual community.”

While racial divisions within the gay community are illuminated in the dating scene, they also become apparent in national political issues.

Eight years ago, Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was violently attacked and killed in an alleged homophobic act. An outpouring of both sympathy and anger followed Shepard’s death, and President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 called on Congress to ensure that all future crimes committed because of someone’s sexual orientation would be considered hate crimes, though the measure was later defeated.

Ya!Lesbians co-coordinator Rosario Doriott ’07 said the Shepard incident is still a matter of discussion in the LGBT community because many believe Shepard’s death would not have generated as much public interest had he not been white.

She said some minority gay students use their dissatisfaction with the public bias toward gay white males as a justification to scorn close interaction with the gay white community.

“But they’re examining the issue too deeply,” said Doriott, who also said her fiancee is white. “We need to learn to look beyond the skin.”

Trumpler said the general public awareness and understanding of the gay and lesbian communities has traditionally been skewed in the direction of white gay males.

“I also think there is a perception that mainstream [LGBT] groups tend to focus on issues of interest to upper class whites,” she said.

Searching for an identity

Given a choice, Curtis Garcia ’08 would describe himself first and foremost as a student who has conducted research on education policy and played the clarinet for the Yale Precision Marching Band.

A former leader of PRISM, Garcia — who is half Spanish-American and half Native American — said he did not feel pressured to associate himself with the gay or cultural communities until he arrived at Yale.

“It may sound strange, but I don’t identify strongly with either group,” he said.

Garcia said although he respects individuals in the LGBT community who openly and frequently express their sexuality, he prefers not to let one facet of his personality overshadow others.

“My first friends were in LGBT, but it is just a small part of me,” he said.

Other students said many double minorities use their time at Yale for self-exploration because the challenges that individuals face multiply once they leave the relatively safe haven of college.

Nguyen said despite a lack of strong administrative support for the LGBT community, the University provides a safe environment to express homosexuality.

“Yale really is a bubble,” he said. “Things just seem more muted here.”

Doriott said ethnically diverse LGBT individuals who have left the Yale safety net are reluctant to speak openly about their sexuality because divulging too much will cause problems relating to workplace discrimination.

“But you should never have to choose which part of yourself to hide,” she said.

Garcia said he is not embarrassed to be a member of both groups, though he sometimes wishes he did not have to categorize himself or let others categorize him.

“I’m still trying to figure out what all these labels mean,” he said.

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