On Monday evening in Sprague Hall, Hilton Als — a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine — presented the opening remarks for the Windham-Campbell Festival, an annual literary event hosted by the University to celebrate writing from across the globe. It was his remarks — focusing on the expression of the pain and trauma of inhabiting marginalized bodies in America — that left the deepest impression.
In his speech, Als identified misogyny underlying the gay culture most prominent in New York in the late 20th century, which emphasized a white, masculine aesthetic often at the expense of feminine-presenting or colored individuals. Especially here at Yale, many of my friends discuss how this demographic still dominates the queer culture on campus.
Als’s prompt for the speech was to answer the question “Why I write?” His answers might have seemed indirect at first listen, but they emphatically addressed the moments throughout his life in which he felt that his body wasn’t worth loving, and thus, why he chose to put pen to paper.
This is something I recognized in my own life. Like many people, I’ve had issues with my body. My height was troublesome to me as a teen in Miami, where I towered over most of the boys in my high school. But that was never the biggest issue for me.
The first time I remember really hating my body was around the age of five, when a young boy in my class pointed out that I had very noticeable hair on my arms like “the mammals” we were learning about in my first-grade class.
I went home and wept and insisted that my mother help me bleach the hair on my arms because it was disgusting.
Als spoke to a crowd of mostly white benefactors of the prized and elite academic faculty at one of the most privileged academic institutions in the world. He spoke of what it was like to feel undesirable to an audience composed of people who likely did not face the struggles he had overcome. Given the glorification that Western culture gives to white-bodied individuals, the majority of the audience had never experienced the marginalization expressed by Als.
My friend Emily and I looked at each other when President Peter Salovey stepped on stage immediately after Als’ remarks to present the winners of the festival prizes. We couldn’t help but find a sense of amusement at Salovey’s obvious discomfort after hearing Als say “cock” nearly half a dozen times. I am glad that perhaps, even for a moment, he felt slightly out of place.
Yesterday during a conversation with a professor about life at Yale and feeling like there are too few faculty and administrators I can culturally relate to, I mentioned the isolation of having to justify my own experiences — often fearing the listener would make assumptions based on my identity.
This “explanation” about who I am is a burden that I often face in my daily conversations. This is a burden rarely directly addressed on a campus where whiteness dominates many fields, especially the humanities — the very discipline the Windham-Campbell Prizes celebrates. We at Yale often try to express universal struggles through our words and performance, but the most common lens here is not universal.
Because of the default to the white narrative, I did not understand growing up that the world was bigger than the very small one I inhabited. There are tons of women in this world with hairy arms, just as there are many people with thick eyebrows, curved bellies and any other feature that doesn’t fit into traditional Western beauty standards. Nobody around me could understand my pain, and I didn’t know how to express it back then.
Hilton Als spoke emphatically about bodies: about the queer body and the white queer body and the colored body and the colored queer body and the colored woman’s body. He spoke of children who grow up and believe that they are ugly. They inhabit this world with the shameful misconception that they are undesirable or unworthy of love.
Als validated our pain.
One of the most healing moments of my life was the day I watched an episode of The Mindy Project, a sitcom about an Indian American OB-GYN working and living in Manhattan. In this episode, Mindy shaves her arms before a date. She waddles around her apartment in a towel with razor in hand and shaving cream lathered all over her arms. I paused the screen and cried on my bottom bunk in L-Dub.
I wish the seats in Sprague Hall only sat queer bodies and colored bodies and mixed bodies. I wish Als had spoken to us — all of us mixed and colored and ashamed — and only us. I wish the white people had stepped out of the room.
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns run every Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .