On Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, many of my friends shared articles about queerness and wrote statuses about their sexual orientations. “Hi, I’m pretty gay,” one friend wrote in her status. “I’m gay,” proclaimed another. In these posts, many of my out, queer friends added the caveat that closeted queer people didn’t need to come out if they felt uncomfortable. However, as I looked at the countless posts and statuses, I still felt awkward about posting one of my own.
National Coming Out Day is important. Providing a designated celebration for people to come out can allow people in queer communities to openly recognize their sexuality. National Coming Out Day was created in 1987 after 500,000 people participated in a March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The creation of events such as National Coming Out Day, the increase in legislation supporting gay rights and the prominence of openly LGBTQ+ celebrities have all bought queer issues to the forefront of the American social and political consciousness.
But, even though the visibility of openly queer people in the media has increased, the violence against queer people has not decreased. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, about 20 to 25 percent of gay and lesbian people experience hate crimes in their lifetimes. And this summer’s tragic shooting of 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando also proved that the bodies of queer people in America are still quite disposable.
Due to the fact that queer people often disproportionately experience violence, sometimes it feels difficult for me to be vocal about this aspect of my identity. Talking about queerness becomes especially difficult once we begin to analyze the intersections of different forms of oppression. For example, in his essay “Here be Dragons,” James Baldwin extensively discusses how his sexuality and his socioeconomic status affected his identity as a black man living in Harlem. Although he viewed his queerness as a large part of his identity, he struggled to vocalize this because it often meant that he would be excluded from spaces in black communities.
Intersectionality becomes even more complicated when we factor gender into the equation. When women of color are so commonly fetishized as sexual objects instead of viewed as human beings, any deviation from the masculine-presenting, heterosexual, cisgender norm can only play into these stereotypes, whether we want them to or not.
I’m sure that many of you are aware of this.
However, a significant feature of intersectionality that is seldom discussed at Yale is visibility. At Yale, people too often mold themselves into archetypes. Everyone has their social presentation: the athlete, the activist, the academic. Although I spend most of my time writing for the News and speaking at the Yale Political Union, some of my other close friends here decide to spend their time designing sets for productions or playing club soccer. Although I enjoy many of the clubs and extracurricular activities here, it often becomes challenging to talk about things like sexuality, gender, race and other aspects of identity politics when such groups are not explicitly centered on such topics. And — even though I identify as queer — labeling myself as such becomes an uphill battle when Yalies are expected to craft an identity for themselves very early during their college experiences. Often times, we feel constrained by our respective groups, finding it harder to grow beyond our initial social persona.
I suppose that the best answer to this quandary might be to “become more vocal about these issues” or “ to create more spaces,” although this doesn’t seem to be an adequate solution. While we should all strive for diversity, we need to recognize that it is still difficult — for a multitude of reasons — for certain individuals to “out” every single aspect of their identity. Moreover, we shouldn’t have to adhere to a static conception of our identities, even though there is so much pressure to do so.
So be that a status or just a conversation with a friend, we are all constantly in a state of becoming. Identity is fluid, and so is queerness. You don’t need to go to every Co-op party or attend every meeting at the Women’s Center to be queer at Yale. It’s okay to say, “Hey, I’m gay,” even if you’re not fully “out” or if you don’t belong to explicitly “queer” communities. And even if the only person who knows you’re queer is you, that’s okay, too. National Coming Out Day is a celebration, not an obligation. Do what feels good for you — now, next year and always.
Isis Davis-Marks is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I had been to Soul de Cuba on a date once before, but not with a stranger. After my date introduced herself as Rose, we eased into the usual small talk of colleges, classes, and life goals. Rose stopped me when I mentioned my philosophy lecture — she was also in the class! So it turns out that my second date at Soul de Cuba wasn’t with a stranger, either. Because I sit in the back row of the lecture hall, I know the procrastination habits of my classmates well. “You’re the girl who plays solitaire!” I exclaimed. She nodded shyly and proceeded to assure me that she still listens to our professor intently — not that I was judging.
Rose is a Computer Science major (looking to make that a double major alongside Linguistics) and plays trumpet in the Yale Precision Marching Band, although she doesn’t do it for her love of sports. Discussing one of her classes that I’m not in, “Science Fiction,” got us chatting about our favorite books, and then onto our favorite movies and television shows; Rose got hooked on “Buffy” while at public boarding school in Illinois and cited her all-time favorite novel as “Pride and Prejudice.” After having overanalyzed Jane Austen in AP Lit, I couldn’t agree quite so whole-heartedly. (If any readers happen to be interested in my own reading habits, I recommend my personal favorite, Marcus Zusak’s “I Am the Messenger.”)
I found myself struggling to think of more questions in order to keep our conversation flowing. I learned about sleep-away math camps and how much colder Chicago is than New Haven, something I cannot begin to fathom, since I’m from California. As we enjoyed our respective delicious dinners — a meat dish for her, the eggplant milanesa for me and flan for dessert — I found myself relaxing into the conversation more. After all, blind dates are scary. Even when you kind of know the person!
I had figured that I would recognize my date (since I’m so popular), but I truly enjoyed getting to know someone whom, in other circumstances, I could have spent the semester just sitting behind without ever holding a real conversation. I don’t know if I’ll see Rose around campus much (except in lecture), but at the end of our walk back I gave her a genuine hug! I was happy to spend evening with good food and a new friend.
Contact Genevieve Simmons at email@example.com .
You would think that, having grown up in Chicago, I would either know how to walk on icy sidewalks in ballet flats or have enough judgment not to wear ballet flats on icy sidewalks. However, based on the number of times I almost slipped and fell while walking from Silliman to Soul de Cuba last Sunday, you would be wrong.
Needless to say, I was the second to enter the restaurant. At least I wasn’t wearing heels. Then I might not have made it there at all.
As I sat down at the table, Genevieve told me that she’d never done anything like this before, and I said that I hadn’t either. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this date. I had technically been on a blind date before, Freshman Screw, but then my friends and my date’s friends had served as a buffer between the two of us.
We started by asking each other the standard questions: name, year, major and so on. When she said that she was a Cognitive Science major, I mentioned a class I had taken on the cognitive science of language. We then began to discuss this semester’s courses and discovered that, in a way, we had met before, since we are both currently taking “Philosophy of Language.”
In fact, it turned out that Genevieve and I share a love of language, and we found plenty to talk about, from language to food to books. We swapped movie recommendations, discussed the oddities of the public boarding school I attended and agreed that the plot of “How To Get Away With Murder” was completely implausible. (How could a law professor constantly abandon her class to work on her own cases and always call on the same five students? The world will never know.) The differences between our home states, Illinois and California, provided a jumping-off point for a number of discussions. I was more or less accustomed to the temperature that night (around freezing), and Genevieve was not. In fact, she was shocked to hear that during last year’s winter break, Chicago had a wind chill of -40 degrees, a temperature we agreed was horrifyingly cold. In turn, I was surprised that she didn’t consider Science Hill a “real hill”, as it was significantly larger than the largest hill in my hometown: an artificial hill built for the train.
While there were occasional awkward pauses in the conversation, for the most part, we spent an enjoyable evening. The food was excellent, and the conversation was interesting, even if we did wind up talking about our difficulties with the latest philosophy paper. By dessert, we were discussing the lack of visibility of queer women at Yale and joking about her brave struggle to reach the plantains at the bottom of her flan dish. We left the restaurant happy, even though she was shivering in the cold, and I was slipping on the ice in my flats. As we parted ways — she was attending a friend’s Oscar party and I had to finish an English paper — we hugged and said we’d see each other in class.
Contact Rose Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org .
It was nearing 7pm. As is depressingly common this winter, it was bitterly cold outside. Despite the fact that (as my trusty iPhone informed me) Rubamba is roughly six minutes and 0.3 miles away from Pierson, I’d never actually been before. In flagrant violation of the unspoken conventions of Yale Standard Time, I got there a few minutes early and was greeted by a waitress and promptly shown to my seat. For a few minutes, I had the run of the restaurant -— no one was there on a Sunday night at 7 — and then Skyler, my date, arrived. Contrary to all those popular stereotypes about gay men, my fashion sense is pretty atrocious (no doubt exacerbated by my colorblindness), but Skyler was dressed sharply, with a nice tie and snazzy shirt. Don’t ask me what color they were, because I can’t tell the difference between blue and purple, and I was honestly too focused on not making a total fool of myself to fulfill my reportorial duties to the fullest.
Anyhow, Skyler sat down, and then we perused our menus. Skyler had been to Rubamba before and recommended the arepas, so I ordered a shrimp arepa. He ordered a chicken arepa. He also said that their horchatas were excellent, so I got a horchata too, because honestly, why not?
Having ordered our food, we started chatting in earnest. The conversation and food were both good -— the venue and context were welcome changes from the dining hall routine. We mostly focused on your basic Yale conversational standbys. Skyler is a junior in Morse and hails from Stamford, Connecticut, which is conveniently located quite close to Yale (although Yale’s proximity made it less attractive when he was choosing where to go to school). He’s a history major especially interested in material culture, and his classes this semester reflect that passion: he’s taking Beer in American History, The History of Food, Public Schools and Public Policy, Theory and Practice in American Education and Sondheim and American Musical Theater.
You wouldn’t think it, but beer is actually linked to a lot of labor relations issues. Skyler is interested in the relationship between different shapes of glasses and shifting patterns of economic and social organization. We take the things around us for granted, but, as Skyler explained, they’re contingent, reflecting the influence of specific historical trends and events. His education-related classes sounded fascinating, as did Sondheim and American Musical Theater. Skyler and his classmates actually got to meet Stephen Sondheim a few weeks ago, which Skyler considered a highlight of the class.
The Sondheim course, I discovered, dovetails well with Skyler’s interests. He’s extremely involved in the theater scene and acts on a regular basis. I actually saw him in “The Importance of Being Earnest” earlier this semester, and we discussed the wondrous abundance of drama (theatrical, not day-to-day) on campus.
I asked him a question that I’ve often puzzled over: What is the experience of being on stage like? Contrary to my expectations, Skyler said that acting isn’t about fully becoming a character and suppressing your self; rather, it’s all about maintaining your individuality while responding to situations on stage as if you were your character. Acting is an act (pun intended) of constant imagination, and repeated rehearsals help make the character’s responses natural to the actor. Skyler explained with eloquence why he loves acting and has acted since the age of seven, when he first performed at a summer camp. He views acting as a way of exploring the full depth and breadth of human emotion and cultivating empathy. Skyler said that he’d like to work as a theatrical producer in the future, although he’s potentially interested in law school, and we commiserated about the grad school grind hanging over our heads as juniors.
In addition to his acting and classwork, Skyler is a tour guide for the admissions office, does a fair bit with the mock trial team, and somehow finds the time to watch a very respectable amount of TV (he likes Game of Thrones, The Newsroom and Looking, among other shows). He says that he doesn’t get a lot of sleep, and I believe it! He’s a very interesting guy, and we had a pleasant evening. I’m not sure our paths would have crossed otherwise. Perhaps they’ll cross again.
Contact Scott Remer at email@example.com .
Who needs Tinder when you have the YDN?
When I entered the Blindest Date contest for the third year in a row, I was expecting to end up empty-handed as in the previous two years. I didn’t even bother checking the list of possible bachelors that you, the YDN readership, could vote on to see if I was on it. I simply thought that an iPhone app (Friendsy, anyone?) would have to remain the best last resort for finding a date in the Dirty Have.
But I was wrong!
When I got the email on Saturday announcing that I had a date the following day, I freaked out a little bit. Who would it be with? What would I wear? What would we talk about? What if I knew him already?
Then I remembered that it was a blind date, meaning that the stakes were literally as low as they could possibly be. Except that I had to publish my thoughts in the YDN. Whoops.
I met Scott at Rubamba at precisely 7:01, thinking that I was so suave for arriving a minute late. He was there already, sitting at a table marked with a “Reserved” placard despite the restaurant being almost vacant. I sat down and we immediately got to the task of getting to know each other.
In retrospect, we did a pretty good job. We spent almost an hour and a half discussing theater (my possible vocation and his avocation), politics (his possible vocation and my avocation) and culture. We talked classes and majors, interests and hobbies, siblings and life at Yale. There were few awkward moments during our dinner together.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel like I was grasping for straws. The conversation proceeded like a checklist. Once one topic was exhausted, I would ask yet another question that two acquaintances might discuss on their way to becoming friends. As a result, the “date” felt more like “a meal” with one of the myriad people that I promise to reach out to each week. We rarely laughed and never flirted.
I certainly don’t blame Scott for the dullness of our dinner. He is perfectly nice and intelligent. He was well-dressed and seemed present and engaged. Perhaps we just have different energies; I am almost obnoxiously boisterous whereas he is a bit more taciturn. In any case, I didn’t feel the “spark” that I had hoped for.
I am not sure how to define “chemistry,” but I am confident that I will recognize it when I feel it. Until then, I guess I just have to keep swiping left!
Feeling lonely? Lovelorn? Dreading Valentine’s Day? Never fear — WKND has devised the perfect solution to Yalies’ amorous woes. We’ve selected a handful of lucky bachelors and bachelorettes from a large and qualified pool of applicants for this week’s queer edition. They’ve summarized their: major; minor; superpower; future autobiography title; and ideal mate for you. Now you, dear reader, get to vote for your favorite contestant to determine who gets paired up for a V-Day blind date. Simply visit the WKND section of the YDN’s website, click on this article, scroll down and vote in the polls for your favorite bachelors and bachelorettes by midnight next Wednesday.
Major: Ethics, Politics, and Economics (imaginary minor: East Asian Studies / Chinese)
Superpower: I can spell basically any word you can think of.
Future Autobiography Title: To Affect the Quality of the Day
A description of your ideal mate: My ideal mate would be smart and thoughtful, with a genuine love of learning and sense of curiosity about the world. He would enjoy philosophizing till the wee hours of the morning, and he’d be an idealist, not a cynic — he would be capable of appreciating ambiguity, but he would also have deeply held beliefs and principles. He’d be a political radical who believes in the possibility of progress and making the world a more humane place, and he’d be compassionate and kind towards others. He would enjoy art, literature, theater, music and gourmandizing, and he would be adventuresome and willing to try out new activities and pastimes. He’d also have a good sense of humor and would be able to get me to lighten up when I’m too serious. Good looks certainly wouldn’t hurt, but I’m most interested in someone with a true personality.
Minor: Comparative Children’s Literature
I can draw a map of the U.S. freehand.
How did I get here?
Mr. Darcy’s wit with Mr. Bingley’s sincerity.
Superpower: To never need sleep!
Future autobiography title: Put(ting it) Together: My Story
My ideal mate is someone who has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, enjoys doing and talking about a lot of different things, cares about the world around him, and appreciates the occasional Yiddishism.
Undecided (still a freshman yo); Imaginary Minor: also Undecided (I am literally clueless)
The power to seduce anyone at any time.
“What I Learned from Grindr — and Other Life Lessons”
Sweet and charming, great sense of humor (self-deprecating is a plus), able to hold a fun, “all over the place” conversation, around 5’8”, blue eyes, proficient at twerking. Defined forearms are also a big plus.
Major: Djiboutian Studies
Minor: Being #flawless
Superpower: Faking my readings for section
Future autobiography title: #YOLO
Ideal Mate: Human with a pulse, between 18 and 22, under 5’11.” Funny, like Iliza Shlesinger, but as a gay male.
Bonus quote: If I don’t understand this intro econ class, how am I supposed to know how many shoes I can buy in one semester?
Major: History; Imaginary Minor: Political Science
Superpower: You know, I’ve always wanted the power to turn my enemies into potatoes; if I were a super (or rather a supper) hero, I’d call myself “Spud” Bud.
Autobiography: Not This Guy Again: The Life and Times of Me
Ideal Mate: Someone swell, kind, and supportive. All else is on a per-case basis.
Major: Sociology, with a minor in ugly selfies
Superpower: Using beanies to cover up bad hair days
Future autobiography title: (hair flip emoji)
Ideal mate: Nice hair, kind eyes, and a burning hatred for capitalism
Major: Music (with a minor in Unemployment Studies)
Superpower: Waterbending. This has been confirmed by three independent buzzfeed quizzes.
Future autobiography title: Blizzard Baes: The Musical
Ideal mate: I’m interested in someone who makes me laugh. Someone athletic but who is secretly artsy in their spare time. Someone strong outside and gentle inside. Someone who likes to go on outdoor adventures. I tend to think blond and muscular, but that’s totally not a requirement. I’m a tea person, but I don’t discriminate.
Major: Chemistry, probably. Imaginary minor: EDM (electronic dance music for those of you who aren’t hip with today’s youth)
Superpower: I’m memorable enough that people know who I am, but not memorable enough that I’m ever suspicious 😉
Autobiography: Oh God, What’s Going On: The Story of Some Guy, or Something
My ideal match: someone who can surprise me. Someone feminist. Someone was voted “Most likely to secretly be a Russian Spy” in High School.
Major: Chemistry & Economics, minoring in global food appreciation
Superpower: My cuddles. I’ve been told that I “just fit so perfectly”
Future autobiography title: “I Dared to Dream”
My ideal mate will somehow learn to love all sides of me: the sassy, the derpy, the nerdy, the idealistic, the logical, the ambitious, the adventurous (in all different ways… was that subtle enough?) and the loving.
Major: English major with a minor in hypotheticals
Some of my superpowers include shape-shifting gradually with diet and exercise, fine motor skills and invisibility to bartenders.
Future autobiography title: Playbuzz said, “The Diary of a Traveling Renegade: the Tale of You” — YOU
My ideal mate has a long silken coat, fine pointed teeth and a working familiarity with all four episodes of 30 Rock. She loves games and fun-spirited horseplay and would have no use for a Brita filter. She wouldn’t even know what it was. Her one big indulgence is Q-tips. She’s a southpaw. She rides a bicycle, or she could if she wanted to. She’s sensitive but hard to crack, and funny, like a walnut.
Major: Psychology, minoring in Sleep Inertia Studies.
Superpower: The ability to control time. This is the only way I’d be able to get a decent amount of sleep AND make it to my 10:30 chem class on time.
Future autobiography title: Dreams of My Father. Wait, fuck.
Ideal mate: Beautiful eyes, taller than I am (5’2 ¾”. Fractions are important) if a dude, solid facial structure, funny, charming, sarcastic and sassy, witty, enjoys/appreciates/tolerates puns of all qualities, a top-notch cuddler with a great butt.
Double major in computer science and linguistics
Superpower: The ability to find two girls who are clearly in love with each other in any given TV show. Also basic hacking skills.
Future autobiography title: “Programming Languages are like Real Languages, Only Better”
Ideal mate: Someone sweet who appreciates nerdy pop culture references.
Major: Thug Life: Volume 1
Minor: Street Fame
Superpower: My REAL superpower is being able to make people desire me by dilating my pupils when thinking of chocolate cake
Future autobiography title: I Still Don’t Know How To Cite; Sorry In Advance
My ideal mate would have their sex parts intact, be musical, and be lactose-intolerant (aka vegan), but the cheesiest there is.
It’s not acted out for the sake of spectacle. It’s not a whimsical, gender-bending fuck-you to “the system”: Nor is it my way of saying, “I’m not afraid of what you think.” Because I am afraid of what you think. This matters to me. This femininity.
It matters because I’m not playing dress-up. To dress up means to pretend. But I am learning how not to pretend. It’s not fun for me, it’s terrifying; so if you laugh, it’s not a carnival sideshow you are laughing at; nor is it a straight actor considered “brave” for playing a queer role; nor a gay boy who put on high heels once for a party and thinks he’s earned the right to make drag jokes.
It is me: unadorned. My wild and tender heart beating as I am uncovered by make-up. At last I can reveal myself, and with a little flair. Because we can all use a little flair, after all (I pray for a little flair for you, too. A little glamor. Let’s pretend: We’re all wearing diamonds, and going to a grand party.)
One night this summer, I put on lipstick for the first time, and eyeliner; my turquoise ring, and my silk robe, covered in blooming peonies. I pulled a cigarette from the pack and held it in my hand, like Audrey Hepburn — always I had thought she was beautiful, but I did not know it was because inside me there was a woman just as beautiful waiting to be born. For a while, I simply sat. But soon, unable to help myself, I went to the mirror, and was bewitched by the woman I saw. She looked so natural.
I’m not here to tell you to refer to me as “they” or “he” or “she.” For now, I am paying attention to the flowers, not what pronoun you use. Because I have seen how they rise up in spring. And I know they are not gentle. In every flower is the violence of one who trusted her own beauty.
In high school, I was taught that sex is a reproductive act. That pleasure exists, like a peacock’s feathers, to aid in reproduction. But what if a peacock’s feathers were simply an act of meaningless beauty? For I cannot bear children. But oh, my feathers are lovely.
So when I walk outside with lipstick on, I won’t have a point to make. Already at the age of six, I was imagining that I was a Chinese princess. The only difference now is that you can imagine with me. (One day, maybe, we can all wake up inside my vision? And the visions of all those who know that inside them is a man, or a woman, or neither at all.) Because I dare to believe: there is nothing in this earth but our visions. When you close your eyes, isn’t it true that the flowers disappear? But if you keep your eyes closed, and imagine them, there they are again. (Though a little bit different—they have become more intimate. A private garden that none can enter unless you let them. Every flower in a garden becomes an orchid when I close my eyes. And with a certain pain, isn’t it true that I could help you see the orchids, too?) But do not be so naive as to think that we are accomplishing only an illusion. It’s only that reality takes a little flair to make properly. And then: open your eyes. Life is lush.
If only I could learn to know that I am loved. That is the greatest courage, isn’t it? To know without having to ask. But I am not courageous. I am a weak and frightened child and it is only in my visions that I can find my beauty. The world is heartless and beautiful and I cannot escape it. The escape is worse than to go on living. But someday the flowers will eat through my whole body and all that will be left of me is a garden. So inside the world I must create visions. And visions are a reality that cannot be denied and perhaps that is where I can find my courage — to believe in my visions until the end? But not all of them are complete, and so I share them with you. I invite you into them. I cannot keep my gardens to myself any longer: if you want lilies, I will plant lilies. If you want azaleas, I will plant azaleas. Together we must make visions for the world’s sake. Love is a grand and terrible tapestry and a vision too large for my small body to carry alone.
Later in the summer, I told the boy I was seeing that I had put on lipstick. I was so afraid that he would leave me. It’s not inconceivable. On Grindr alone you will find “masc4masc” or “real men only” or “not into fems” on many profiles. Femininity, to put it gently, is not de rigueur in the gay community. But this boy, this sweet, funny boy, wrote back to me: “As long as you don’t wear high heels because then you will be taller than me.” So some days I will walk out with lipstick on, and eyeliner, and a bow in my hair, and other days I will not. To realize with my whole body the vision it has been my duty to inherit. To become intimate with the world. This, at least, is my hope. I don’t know if I have the courage: I am afraid of walking into a seminar and breaking down in tears. I am afraid that my friends will find this eccentric, rather than brave, and that the boys I may love and who may love me will find it tolerable rather than desirable. I am afraid that my beauty will be lost in the spectacle of the act. I want to know: Can I entrust myself to the world? Myself: my most delicate vision.
Yet I must, because I love the world so much I do not need a meaning in order to live. To live is enough.(But only if I can live among the flowers. I wonder: are the flowers and I a “we”? Because I am no longer I and the flowers are no longer the flowers but I do not know what I am or what they are. I only know that it has not existed before. Maybe our name is simply: “the-flowers-and-I.” But even that I do not understand because I have never been anything other than a human. To be a “we” is something else — and maybe it is divine? Is “the-flowers-and-I” that which I have called god and all along I have been waiting for myself? Ah, I do not know. I do not know. “We” barely exists and has a meaning too delicate for me to understand. I even searched in the dictionary and found nothing. It must be that before today, “we” did not exist. Secretly we are the creators of a fragile kingdom. We proclaim us, and thereby inaugurate a new reality: The flowers inside my body and becoming even more extravagant. This reality which cannot be understood is called living. Living does not exist from what makes sense. Living exists from saying “yes” when no one asked a question.)
Last spring I wrote: “I exist beyond language.” But there was a time, too, when flowers had no names. And then we caressed them with words. Let our vision be a caress.
* * *
That night, when I put on lipstick for the first time, I recalled something Clarice Lispector wrote: “The beautiful orchid is exquisite and unpleasant. It isn’t spontaneous. It needs a glass dome. But it is a magnificent woman and that can’t be denied. I was lying when I said it was unpleasant. I adore orchids. They’re born artificial, they’re born art.”
And if a mask is my true face? So be it: I, too, am a magnificent woman.
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.”