The “Gay” Ivy? : A Queer Reputation

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// WEEKEND

Her first week at Yale, Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17 was invited to have the “boyfriend talk.” Sitting in the unfamiliar common room of her Farnam Hall suite, she listened on as her suitemates gushed over summer romances and budding crushes, spilling the details of their love lives to one another.

Now it was her turn. Feeling hesitant, Johnson-Levy mulled over her options: She could either satisfy their curiosity and speak candidly, or she could dance around what was, for her, a very sensitive topic. She opted for the latter. When pressed about her romantic history, Johnson-Levy simply replied, “Uh, I was in a relationship over the summer,” and left it at that.

She had reason to be reticent. A queer woman of color, Johnson-Levy didn’t feel ready to divulge her romantic history. Coming into college, she wanted “to do things on her own terms, on her own timeline.”

But Yale wouldn’t wait. The flurry of intimate conversations, dances and freshman traditions accompanying fall semester took Johnson-Levy by surprise, forcing her to make choices about what to share, when to share it and how to share it, with people she hadn’t known for much longer than a month.

When the Jonathan Edwards College Screw took place in October, Johnson-Levy felt the pressure to deviate from the timeline she had envisioned. When her suitemates asked her what kind of person she was looking for, she felt torn between keeping quiet and having an uncomfortable conversation. In the end, she told her suitemates that she didn’t like dances and wanted to go with someone as a friend, again skirting the subject of her queerness.

Johnson-Levy’s queerness only made it that much harder for her to tackle the perennial problem of freshman year: finding an identity and defining yourself for others, while at the same time navigating a foreign environment.

She carefully considered what impression her fashion choices might give off. If she wore a v-neck, she reasoned, people might assume she was queer, which would relieve the burden of coming out to a brand-new set of people outright.

The hardest part, however, was not the pressure to define herself right away and fit the contours of Yale tradition. It was finding others like her.

Even after Johnson-Levy came out to her suitemates, they struggled to find her a date to Freshman Screw in the spring. “Do you want us to find you a queer girl?” she recalls them asking her.

I can’t find me a queer girl,” she said in reply.

A native of Ann Arbor, MI., Johnson-Levy grew up with lesbian moms “entrenched in a very liberal community.” In her public high school class of 120, numerous students identified as genderqueer (outside of the gender binary — gender identities other than man and woman) or transgender.

But on Yale’s campus, Johnson-Levy said, she “just [didn’t] see the kind of spectrum of gender expressions that [she] used to see at home.”

The “invisibility” of queer women in particular, she said, stuck out to her. “Lesbians and bisexual queer women are much less visible on campus,” she said. “And it’s not necessarily because they aren’t out.”

Johnson-Levy isn’t alone in her assessment. Taylor Dalton ’14 linked this invisibility to student and institutional forms of recognition.

“I think Yale is accepting of a certain type of gay culture,” she said. “Gay male cisgender culture. That’s something we’re comfortable recognizing.”

The point resonated with several queer students interviewed for this article, who said the elevated visibility of cisgender gay men — and, more specifically, white cisgender gay men — comes at the expense of other LGBTQ groups at Yale. The “G” looms so large over Yale’s sexual landscape that lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer students are often overlooked.

Alex Borsa ’16, president of the LGBT Co-op at Yale, put the matter concisely: “Yale is the ‘gay ivy’ — but it’s not necessarily the ‘queer ivy.’”

***

Every Monday evening, 14 suited men assemble at Mory’s Temple Bar. For three hours, they serenade club members with the familiar harmonies of Yale’s oldest all-male a cappella group. The Whiffenpoofs have upheld this tradition for over a century, and their brand of chummy collegiate polish has become iconic worldwide.

Of the group’s 14 members, a majority are white; around half identify as gay.

The Whiffs present “a very quintessential image … of the white gay Yale man,” Anjali Balakrishna ’14 said. This matters, she explained, because they “are the most visible representation of Yale traveling around the world.”

For many students, Yale’s a cappella scene represents a stereotypical but nevertheless pervasive form of LGBTQ culture on campus. Hilary O’Connell ’14, former president of the Co-op, observed, “I just hear trope after trope about the a cappella gays.”

They (O’Connell prefers the pronouns “they,” “them” and “their”) consider the “a cappella gay” an exclusionary typecast. “When people say a cappella gays they mean men, specifically,” said O’Connell. “They don’t mean a cappella lesbians, or a cappella bisexuals, or a cappella trans people. It’s a cappella gays and they mean gay men.”

Six LGBTQ students interviewed said the disproportionate visibility of gay men — and the consequent invisibility of other queer groups — stands in the way of recognition.

O’Connell links this problem to an ingrained tendency among students to assign each other labels: “There’s a huge imperative for naming, being named, for being knowable — people are uncomfortable if you are not knowable to them.”

But some acquaintance with the more common of these names is essential to understanding the concerns of the LGBTQ community. For those less familiar with terminology used by the movement, the distinction between “queer” and “gay” may seem fine, but it’s an important one to make: “queer” is at once more political and all-encompassing than “gay,” which describes only same-sex, cisgender tendencies.

Javier Cienfuegos ’15, who was one of only two openly gay males in his high school, said Yale taught him to embrace the term “queer,” even though he used to be very uncomfortable with it.

Commenting on its history, Cienfuegos said, “Queer began as a label of Otherness, and now it’s been flipped on its head.” It carries a political charge. “When people embrace the queer label,” he said, “it’s saying that they reject classification,” whether sexual, social or historical.

Naming, then, which O’Connell said is often used to pigeonhole people, also has the potential to foment political change. A term such as “genderqueer,” for instance, serves as both an identity and a way to question rigid standards, Johnson-Levy pointed out.

But students can be eager to label others based on witnessed behavior rather than verbalized self-identification.

“Sometimes people hold you to a thing that you said or a relationship you’re in, or they saw you hooking up with a person at a party,” Dalton said. “People here are very surprised that [others] can be fluid” about gender and sexuality.

Consequently, students who profess greater fluidity of sexual preference or gender receive diminished recognition, or even outright denial.

According to several students interviewed, “bi-erasure” provides a case in point. “If people see a dude making out with a dude, everyone presumes to know he’s gay,” Cienfuegos explained. “He might say he’s bi, but people will actively not believe him.”

Though that’s less true of bisexual women, according to Cienfuegos, he believes that other pernicious attitudes are at play. He noted that if people see two girls making out at a party, they might be construed as a “Katy Perry ‘I Kissed a Girl’” scenario — “that, in and of itself, is an erasure.”

The static nature of what Dalton calls “uncomplicated gayness,” which does not oscillate between or go beyond binary sexual preferences and genders, allows for an ease of formal recognition unavailable to more fluid groups like genderqueers. In other words, Yalies may know how to respond to a gay male friend who comes out to them, but for many of them it gets more complicated when it comes to understanding those who, like O’Connell, reject gender designations altogether.

This partly stems from unfamiliarity.

“I don’t think [Yalies] are uncomfortable so much as unfamiliar,” Keith Washington ’14, a black gay man, said of these less fixed designations. It may also stem in part from a difference in predictability: If someone identifies as gay, he or she will always like hims or hers, respectively. If someone is queer, genderqueer or bisexual, by contrast, that comfortable predictability dissolves.

***

The Yale LGBT Co-op facilitates activism, both directly and through 16 affiliated groups, in support of the University’s queer communities. But not all students feel at home in the politically-driven activist culture of Yale’s LGBTQ organizations.

“My freshman year, when we were talking about queer issues, conversations that were not usually had were what it’s like to grow up as a queer person of color,” Cienfuegos recalled.

Born in El Salvador, Cienfuegos moved to the States quite young, where he was brought up in a Catholic home. He came out at the beginning of high school to an open environment — his family was accepting of his identity, he said, as was his largely affluent private high school. He found himself drawn to Yale and its reputation as the “gay ivy” when choosing colleges.

But on campus, Cienfuegos struggled to find the community he craved.

“To never have my concerns and my cultural context addressed — it just made me uninterested in queer activism,” he said. “I don’t think queer activism at Yale has ever damaged me, but it’s definitely excluded me.” For Cienfuegos, this sense of exclusion stemmed from a single-issue approach to activism. The upperclassmen involved in queer activism at the time were not focused on notions of intersectionality, he said.

Intersection, as Cienfuegos defines it, means not “compartmentalizing” activism into single issues; in other words, encouraging women, queers, blacks, and other marginalized to band together rather than fighting separate fights.

“People of color, queer people, people from working-class backgrounds need to build coalitions, because building coalitions is the only way to advance conversation that is productive for all people,” he explained.

Hailing O’Connell and Patrick Verdier ’14 as exemplars of intersectionality, Cienfuegos noted that queer activists have moved in the right direction since his freshman year.

O’Connell laid an emphasis on intersectionality when asked about the nature of their activist work.

“How do you not do single-issue activism?” they asked. “You build coalitions. You listen to people who know better than you do about their experiences. You use your privilege to amplify the voices of people whose voices are often silenced, instead of talking over them.”

***

When asked to assess Yale’s performance in regard to LGBTQ issues compared to peer institutions, nearly all interviewees said Yale is neither lagging behind nor ahead of the curve.

As Yonadav Greenwood ’16 put it, “Yale is a little bit better than Princeton is, or a little bit worse than Brown is, but I think at the end of the day they’re pretty much the same.”

Besides working with each other across lines of race and gender, some queer groups on campus have turned their attention to confronting the administration with their requests.

After pressure mounted by RAGE (Resource Alliance for Gender Equity), the University altered its student health-care policy last April to allow for “medically necessary sex-reassignment surgery.”

Recently, the Yale College Council announced that it is considering a proposal to alter the policy of exclusively same-sex sophomore year housing. Although no decision has been reached, several students interviewed heralded this motion as a step in the right direction for LGBTQ life at Yale.

For O’Connell, the university’s role in facilitating such change represents “a critical dialogue.”

“That dialogue sometimes looks like shouting from one end to another,” they said, but it matters all the same.

But several queer students interviewed believe that there are other institutional biases against some subsets of the LGBTQ community at Yale, and particularly against transgender students. Transgender students, Johnson-Levy reasoned, may not be coming to Yale because they find the institution unwelcoming. Along with four other students interviewed, she cites the lack of gender-neutral housing freshman and sophomore year as a deterrent for prospective transgender and genderqueer applicants.

“I talked to a [genderqueer] friend this weekend who said, ‘I’m definitely not applying to Yale because there’s no gender-neutral freshman housing,’” Johnson-Levy recounted.

Several students interviewed said it’s hard to fall down solely on the side of or against the University because its track record is mixed, and Yale’s agenda varies widely across the administrative topography.

***

While Borsa considers the Co-op a community open to all who want to join, he said it isn’t for everyone.

“Some people choose not to affiliate with the Co-op at all, which is totally cool,” he said. “I think there’s a perceived conflict of interests between those who choose to be involved with organized or political queer life on campus and those who don’t.”

For some students, the conflict of interests is more than perceived — it’s lived out.

Mason Shefa ’15, who calls himself a “fervent Christian,” said it has been difficult integrating himself into Yale’s LGBTQ community. While he felt a need to be a part of the community in order to meet people, Shefa found that the campus’s LGBTQ groups do not plan events catered to his needs.

“[LGBTQ] groups don’t really put on events that are focused on people like me — for instance, a group of gay Christians who don’t like going to parties,” Shefa said. “I feel like I might not be the only one — they aren’t planning enough events that are not focused on extremely political debates or wild parties.”

Former Co-op president Marija Kamceva ’15 said the Co-op has been attempting to solve this problem by offering alternatives. Recently, the organization has been hosting more dinners and movie nights, she said, acknowledging that “not everyone is comfortable being in huge dark rooms full of people.

While Balakrishna has felt a desire to become more involved with LGBTQ groups on campus, she said that at first she was afraid of alienating her friends with explicit political or activist involvement.

“I’d heard the way my friends perceived kids who were activists,” she said. “I think the way that my friends had perceived those other students made me not want to align myself with that because I didn’t want to alienate my friends.”

When she finally did come around to the idea as a junior, she said she felt the time had passed for her to join.

“Sometimes it can be hard to penetrate a small community that relies on friendship and relationships, that has been brought together by adversity and is therefore close-knit,” Johnson-Levy said in response — and especially if you don’t do so right away.

But if Johnson-Levy’s experience is any indicator, the pressures that students feel to plug themselves into a community as soon as they arrive at Yale — to map the contours of their identity prematurely — are unfounded and unfair.

Johnson-Levy attended last weekend’s IvyQ conference at Princeton. The friendships she made there have helped her to navigate Yale, she said. Although she knows that Yale “wasn’t built” for someone like her — a queer woman of color — she said she won’t let that inform how she feels about herself or her time here.

“I’ve come back from that experience reminded that not fitting into certain expectations here doesn’t make me wrong or inadequate,” she said.

***

At Dalton’s all-girls Catholic high school in Rhode Island, no one was openly gay. She developed her conceptions of queerness on the basis of what she gleaned from “a startling number of young adult fiction novels,” which she read under the covers as a middle-schooler.

“In retrospect,” Dalton said, “The girl who was letting me borrow them from her was trying to tell me something by saying, ‘Look, I like this book about teenage lesbians!’”

While she recalled the memory with a laugh, the incident was also a reminder of the vocabulary that she then lacked. Growing up in New England, her family’s attitudes towards queerness were mixed. She didn’t come out until she arrived at college.

Finding a queer community at Yale, she said, “completely blew that wide open.” She discovered a spectrum of queerness, which allowed her to dissolve some of the clichés that she used to associate with LGBTQ culture. Balakrishna agreed that the exposure to a new language helped her grapple with her identity.

Dalton is grateful for the vocabulary that she has learned.

As an incoming freshman, she thought that the women’s rugby team was the hub of queer life for women. Leaving, she has found a firmly ensconced place in Yale’s queer community, and feels comfortable correcting others’ conceptions of her.

“When I was younger I was definitely trying to explore that gender and sexuality were more fluid,” she said. “But I didn’t even have the language to talk about it until I met some people here.”

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