The beginning of freshman year was all about who I could be. It was about exploring parts of myself that I had been afraid wouldn’t belong in the picket-fence suburb of Edina, Minnesota. I was the girl who had never attended a party in high school but, first semester, went out every weekend. I had never been involved in Latino activities previously, but upon coming to Yale attended La Casa Cultural events almost every week. And while Old Shanelle may have kept silent, New Shanelle was Out and Proud.
I went to Sappho parties (named after the Greek poet Sappho, the namesake of Sapphic love) and told every boy who flirted with me that I was bi for the sake of “full disclosure.” I didn’t want to hide who I was anymore. All throughout high school, I had wondered. I had laughed along when my friends gushed about “girl-crushes,” the term they used to describe that one girl whom they all wanted to be. I had been pushing away that nagging little voice in my head since the middle of seventh grade, when I had first heard the term “bi.” I liked boys. I had dated boys. I was boy-crazy, but terrified at the thought that I might be girl-crazy too. How could I tell any of my friends when I wasn’t even sure? Maybe what I was feeling was just a “girl-crush?” I had never even kissed a girl, so maybe I was just overanalyzing everything in my head. If I even revealed that I was questioning, I knew that it would change everything. At my high school, nobody I knew was openly bi. There was the queer captain of the women’s rugby team and the girls who were involved with the GSA, but at the time, I had never met another girl from Edina who liked both boys and girls. Yale was a fresh slate, a chance to be true to who I was.
I wasn’t the first person to feel this way. Sarah Chinn ’89, a queer female student during the ’80s, noted that “it was a very queer-friendly place … Some people arrived and it was like ‘Thank God!’” It was a haven, isolated from the harsh realities of family life and the outside world.
Giamatti’s Bench on Old Campus, dedicated to the president of Yale from 1978 to 1986, bridges the 30-something years between Chinn’s time at Yale and my own. Hidden in the corner by Lanman-Wright Hall, its black marble is always cool to touch, isolated from the drama of parties, hookups and breakups that take place in the nearby dorm. Sliced down the middle, it gently curves to form a dissected semi-circle. Surrounding it to complete the circle, white pebbles mark the divide between the world of Frisbee and Spikeball on Old Campus and the world of high academia. When I first came to Yale’s campus this fall, the bench was just a place to sit — somewhere I could withdraw from the world and listen to music.
However, this bench is where I decided to bring my mom for our first heart-to-heart since my transformation into New Shanelle. I was so thrilled with my new life and I wanted her to share in my happiness. I can still remember how we were seated side-by-side on that bench, during Parents’ Weekend in September 2015. When I said, my heart pounding, “You know how I like boys? Well, I like girls too,” her back immediately stiffened. As she looked across Old Campus, observing the kids playing Ultimate Frisbee, I wondered if she was hoping that she had just heard me wrong, that we could just rewind a few minutes and everything could be normal again — that I could be normal again.
That next hour felt like it would never end. An hour of terrible questions. She asked how I was “going to be fit to raise kids,” how I could possibly “give them a moral compass, given what you are.” What you are — as if I were no longer fully human, as if I were no longer her daughter — the one who had made her proud with straight As all throughout high school, the one who watched Disney movies with her every night sharing a beanbag in the basement, the one who loved her more than anybody else in this world. She asked me not to tell my little sister. “I don’t want you to influence her. She’s in a very delicate place right now,” she said, as if bisexuality were some sort of virus that could be transmitted through an honest conversation. In the span of an hour, I fell from the status of the golden daughter to the skeleton in my mother’s closet.
Bartlett Giamatti ’60, the namesake of that quiet bench, once wrote, “A liberal education rests on the supposition that our humanity is enriched by the pursuit of learning for its own sake … that growth in thought, in the power to think, increases the pleasure, breadth and value of life.” I brought my mother to that bench because I was trying to teach her. I wanted to show her how much better my life was now that I had acknowledged the truth about myself.
I think there are some truths that are too painful to hear, that are too dangerous to say aloud because they have the capacity to transform your place in the world if said to the wrong people. Looking back, I’m still not sure if telling my mother was the right decision. On one hand, I’ve now technically “come out.” That should be a weight lifted off my shoulders. But on the other hand, did I really want to know where the line beyond which she was no longer willing to support me was drawn? It’s months later, and my mother still doesn’t acknowledge what happened. It’s a silent truth in our house, only felt when a queer couple kisses on the television, or when my sister talks about the gay guy at her high school. My father laughs about it as an awful weekend for my mother, while my mother shakes her head and snorts as she remembers. They think it’s just a phase for me — a reaction to the complete and total freedom college offers. They don’t understand how horrible that weekend was for me, how within the span of three days I had to face truths I didn’t know existed. But now I know that there are some truths that do not need to be told.
Giamatti’s Bench is supposedly split to show the complementary roles between the teacher and the student, but whenever I sit on the bench and look across Old Campus, I see it differently. To me, the split is because education is only ever possible if the other person is willing to listen.