According to his T-shirt, the junior who for the purposes of this article dubbed himself Zooey Glass is “Another future president from Yale.”
He embodies the Yale dichotomy: this university, known for rearing America’s ruling elite, is also home to perhaps the most open gay community there is.
When asked to pick a pseudonym, he loosely prioritized his own characteristics; first and most important, the double identity. He is pretty gay — on the far end of the continuum, he reflects — and black, so the character should have twice the normal battles. Second, he is self-proclaimedly “quirky.”
Glass scanned his bookshelf: sociology textbooks, mostly, and magazines (Men’s Health, Vogue, Rolling Stone). He settled on J.D. Salinger, an old standard for college archetypes.
It’s not perfect, but he picked Zooey Glass from “Franny and Zooey” for his demons and his wit. The point, he wrote later in an e-mail, is to reflect a struggle to locate himself in a deeply rooted and deeply stratified gay community.
It’s okay to be gay at Yale. Perhaps more so here than anywhere else. Perhaps more so now than ever before.
But this community, where the sexual continuum is a popular tenet, where acceptance is generally assumed and the battle for gay rights basically won, is united now by very little.
In fact, a single gay identity is more elusive than ever. For many, coming out involves aligning yourself with a specific persona, marking a place in a profoundly fragmented subculture.
The story of gay life at Yale is one best told by vignette. Each voice in this story shares, beyond a Yale acceptance letter and an attraction to people of the same gender, a need to identify itself as this or that kind of homosexual.
At the end of the day, many gay students search for the carefully crafted string of adjectives that will locate them on the campus sexual map, if for no other reason than peace of mind.
Charles Ryder ’03 picked his pseudonym from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” It is a character, he explains, who chooses Christianity over homosexuality.
Jeremy Irons played Ryder in a British miniseries in the ’90s, but in the Yale version, Ryder is a slight junior with Diesel sneakers and “avoidable homosexual tendencies.” It is unusual rhetoric for the “Gay Ivy.”
Crouched in a Yale eggshell-colored window sill, he blows Camel smoke toward the spires on Hillhouse Avenue at 5 on a Tuesday night. He emerges from the window, cradles a small brown picture frame. His high school girlfriend, a southern Barbie Doll, under a Velveeta-yellow bookstore awning in Paris.
It is an interesting story, he says, the one about the fundamentalist Christian school, whose rules he broke to date a girl. Better, he thinks, than anything he has to say about being gay at Yale.
He’s low on pith, he adds. Sixty-five percent homosexual.
At a school where numbers bear critical importance, some Yalies have quantified sexuality and filed it alongside their college board scores. Occasionally the numbers are self-imposed — what portion gay “one” is out of 10 or 100 — and sometimes they’re assigned, ratings issued to the closeted by not-disinterested observers.
Now, “one in four (maybe more)” is a “three out of 10,” an “80-20,” a “six-month project.”
Yale has not graduated to delicatessen-style homosexuality, where everyone assigns themselves a number. But gay students are profoundly aware of “what-kind-of-gay” they are.
And when asked what it means to be gay at Yale, the tendency is to produce laundry lists of clauses, a resume of extracurriculars, character traits, politics.
There are those active in acronyms (QSA, LGBT, PRISM); there is a cappella gay, women’s rugby gay and Christian gay. And there are those who find identity in what they’re not: those not in the co-op, not in the Dramat, not weekending at bars in the Village.
“I’m not like ‘so-and-so,'” they say. “I don’t go around doing ‘such-and-such.'”
Some say it is a judgmental community, perhaps more than the straight community, where people fear being labeled promiscuous, middle-brow, unkind.
But at some point in time, if not now, gay students had to fight against blatant phobia, and straight students didn’t. So the first above blank is frequently filled with the name of a prominent member of the gay community (read: a leader of an activist organization) and the second with a gay-centered activity that the unnamed thinks is now obsolete.
Miles Gideon ’02 changed her name over the summer from Maya. She is an activist down to the bib overalls and the list of meetings scheduled in her Palm Pilot.
Gideon’s speech is comfortable, rehearsed. She talks in terminology and statistics, quickly, like Ryder, but with the patient and well-exercised vernacular of a professional gay spokeswoman.
Gay life is not straight life at Yale, she says, patiently. There may not be the standard things to fight against here, but maybe once a month — and that’s it — she’ll “see two girls walking down the street, holding hands.” So there are still things to fight for.
She’s transgendered, the only one she knows of here.
And despite its umpteen subdivisions, if the gay population at Yale were to be divided along one line, it would be between the activists and everyone else.
Put another way, there are the people who wear backpack buttons and the people who don’t.
Gideon has half a dozen of them, pink triangles and multi-colored fonts that polka dot the outer flap of her messenger bag.
On the other hand, Glass, the black-Dramat-non-activist, says, “I don’t go around campus looking for people with rainbow flag pins on their bookbags and say ‘hi’ to them.”
In conversation, Gideon emphasizes the need for some kind of solidarity within the gay community. Glass, who gave himself a specific numerical range on the continuum, talks about the fear of being overly categorized.
But not all non-activists are necessary pacifists.
At his equally accepting performing arts high school, Glass was too busy dealing with his more obvious minority status to face being gay, he says.
“I was fighting black male stigmas back then,” he says now. “I was like, ‘when I throw gay into it, I can’t imagine what I would do.’ My attitude back then was, ‘f— it, people aren’t going to marginalize me.'”
It is for this reason, Gideon argues, that activism is still important on campus, that there needs to be some larger gay identity, if just to maintain an atmosphere supportive of every kind-of-gay and every state-of-out.
“It’s still not 100 percent okay to be gay here,” she says. “You can’t just overlook that.”
Nick Carraway ’04 settled on his pseudonym for no real reason beyond that, especially at Yale, Gatsby seems conveniently applicable. He fits the character to him: an observer, but not an outsider, someone who speaks with literary clarity about what he sees happening between people.
He is not in the activist camp and he doesn’t wear buttons.
“To say, ‘I am an ally’ and to wear it around makes it seem that there’s one enlightened group and one in the dark,” he says. “It’s more transient than that, more liquid.”
And he quietly rejects implicit camaraderie within the gay community.
“There are 25-30 gay men who when I see them on the street, I feel like I should smile, like I know them, but I don’t. There’s this tacit understanding of each other, but I find myself wanting to fight the impulse to say hello,'” he says.
He says his friends are mostly female, mostly straight, and it begs a predictable question about gay-straight interaction on campus.
In popular culture, on television and in particular on the Yale campus, homosexuality is in vogue, and the trendy gay male — the “Will Truman” — has b
ecome a cultural paradigm.
So in addition to the straight students who support gay activism, from those who decorate their backs with “Ally” buttons to those who don’t stare at gay couples holding hands, there are now the “Faghags.” Many say they find the title offensive. Some say it is an example of an external method of pigeonholing members of the gay community.
Carraway says the gay man-straight woman friendship is easily explainable as a matter of safety, not just as a source of advice on clothes and boys.
“In a sense,” he says, “gay people are the most non-threatening men. They are some of the most self-aware and perceptive people on this campus and in the world because we’ve spent so much time getting through our problems on our own.”
The similarities between gay and straight college students are fairly clear, he says.
“[Being gay] informs every aspect of my life,” he says. “It is as much a part of my life as sex is a part of every 20-year-old’s life. I get all dreamy about boys as much as [my female friends] do.”
The big difference, he says, is that gay people must declare themselves as such — straight people don’t.
Big Money D was a pimp for Halloween last year, and that’s where the name comes from, she explains in blue type in a parenthesis-filled e-mail.
She has a habit of qualifying things. BMD ’03 says she is an international student (with a fairly conservative family), a member of the rugby team (of which not every member is gay), and an Alto 2 in an a cappella group, (which is actually not too girly and hetero-centric for her tastes).
She also has a habit of hushing her voice every time she says the word “lesbian” at a corner table in a busy coffee shop.
She says she came out at Yale her sophomore year when she fell madly in love, “and it happened to be with a woman.” She later came out to her parents and sister. It wasn’t too traumatic, she says.
But to declare oneself “out” is not as simple as it once was. Now, it frequently has caveats.
To begin with, there is partially out, those who are openly gay at Yale or to some people at Yale but not at home or to their parents.
That was BMD for awhile.
Then there are the various phenomena that people mention in describing what happens when closeted freshman meet a thriving gay culture.
Carraway talks about people being pulled out of the closet; Glass admits he may have attempted it once or twice — a “six month project” or two. Gideon and Carraway both discuss “gay mentorship” by which a student comes out by latching on to a specific member of the gay community, by emulating them.
BMD talks about “U-Haul dykes,” lesbians who, she says, are so commitment-oriented that they “want to move in after one date.”
There are also the ones who have not been swayed by the openness, by the co-op or by the trendiness of gay life at Yale. Ryder, for one, says he will never fully come out.
“I would never identify myself as gay,” he says, dropping the end of his sentence under a short breath. “I would never be comfortable in a gay life. Ever.”
So until he graduates, before he becomes a true Christian, he says, he identifies himself in percentages. After that, he will likely be celibate.
For a much more substantial part of the gay community, though, graduation from Yale will bring a new gay community, and a new reality about life as a homosexual.
At The Game, a 30-year-old Yale alumna sitting behind Glass tapped his shoulder and suggested enthusiastically (this was early on in The Game) that Yale would “kick Harvard’s nasty queer asses.”
Glass stared back, said nothing.
“It was so surreal for a moment,” he says. “I was totally incapable of handling the situation because Yale doesn’t prepare you for that at all.”
Yale’s is a cloistered gay community. Ultimately, the effort put toward finely wrought identities within it is in vain. The bright college years are limited to four, and this community — accepting but not perfect — runs the risk of graduating students without defense mechanisms other college students might develop.
“On a daily basis nobody’s lambasting the queer students here,” Glass said. “But they are in the real world.”
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