Out and about Campus: Personal Accounts by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered College Studentsby Kim Howard
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A young man prevails as the first student to create a gay and lesbian studies major at the University of Wisconsin. A self-described "queer woman of color" helps to form gay Chicano/a solidarity at Stanford. A basketball player battles homophobia on the Harvey Mudd women’s team. A brave man attends the University of Texas in drag. Students in North Carolina, California, Utah, and North Dakota reconcile their sexuality with their religious beliefs, often in the face of derision and interrogation.
In spite of tremendous progress over the past 20 years, including the development of LGBT clubs and queer studies curricula, many college students feel so isolated that they are afraid to speak out. In this extraordinary collection--the first of its kind--28 lesbian. gay, bisexual, and transgendered students describe not only how they survived college, but also how they fought, endured, and changed it.
Through the richness of the voices of students, this collection offers poignant and powerful glimpses into the lives of LGBT people on campus. In each story, a young person’s identity crystallizes when the search for self in the eyes of others leads to the discovery of it in his or her own heart.” --Ronni L. Sanlo, editor of Working With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender College Students
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by Ruth Wielgosz
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania
In my last semester of high school, I took an auto-mechanics-for-guys-who-want-to-mess-around-with-cars class. One day before class I was chatting with one of the guys.
"Where are you going to college?" he asked.
"Isn't that a girls' school?"
"Yes," I replied, not wanting to get into the debate over "women's college" terminology.
"What are you, some kind of lesbian?"
He would have taken any answer as a defensive denial, so I ignored the question. Later I thought of the perfect reply: "What are you, some kind of bigot?"
Some people think of Bryn Mawr as a lesbian paradise. That's not why I went there. After six years in a typical suburban public school system outside Washington, D.C., I longed to be in an environment where it was socially acceptable to be excited about learning and to support women's rights. Fondly recalling my all-girls elementary school in London, I had long ago decided to attend a women's college. Near the end of tenth grade I went to the library to research my options. My other criteria (academically rigorous, liberal arts-based, politically progressive, and not too near or far from home), narrowed my choices considerably. Fortunately, the description of Bryn Mawr in the Insider's Guide to Colleges sounded perfect, and my research ended almost as soon as it had begun.
When I arrived at Bryn Mawr in the sticky heat of August, I was shocked to discover it wasn't an intellectual, social, and political utopia. The other students displayed disconcerting similarities to society at large, even including some (gasp) Republicans, and women who had enrolled despite it being a women's college rather than because of it. Still, Bryn Mawr was a huge improvement on my high school. At last I'd found a place where my values were mainstream and I was a social success: "Oh, cool! A freshman who doesn't shave," was not a reaction I'd experienced before. Students all referred to each other as "women," never as "girls." The vast majority of them were fiercely proud to be liberals, feminists, and intelligent. Furthermore, our freshman orientation included a student-run workshop on sexual orientation issues.
Cross-registration with neighboring Haverford College and having the convenient free Blue Bus running between the campuses meant twice the selection in courses and entertainment, and the opportunity to meet men if one desired (not that I particularly wanted to); I already have a boyfriend , I thought smugly. Also, under the honor code, professors assumed students were honest--what a refreshing change! Students never discussed grades with each other, maintaining an ethos of "we're all smart women here" egalitarianism, although this sometimes deteriorated into elitism and class prejudice. Academics were tougher than in high school, but much more enjoyable, since students were actually interested in learning. I loved my sociology class above all and decided to major in it. In many ways, Bryn Mawr exceeded my expectations by introducing me to things I'd never known existed, but could never again bear to live without: E-mail, Dykes to Watch Out For (which appeared in Bryn Mawr's College News: A Feminist Newsjournal ), and bra dances. I gained the opportunity to meet people from groups that had been underrepresented in my high school, like Baha'is, pagans, Texans, South Asians, and middle-class black women.
It was probably that year that I learned the term "Big Dyke on Campus," usually abbreviated to BDOC, a take-off of on "Big Man on Campus." Both imply someone important, well-known (at their own college), socially powerful, and possibly intimidating. I also learned the standard Bryn Mawr usage of "dyke" to refer to both lesbians and bi women (analogous to "queer").
Halfway through the year many people observing me would probably have had a strong gaydar alert, my satisfaction with my boyfriend notwithstanding. After all, I did not hide my enthusiasm for 1) feminism; 2) refusing to shave for political reasons; 3) queer rights; 4) Dykes to Watch Out For ; 5) socializing mainly with women; and 6) taking my shirt off at dances. I didn't, however, and still don't, consider any of these inconsistent with heterosexuality.
Nonetheless, I was racking my brain over the question "Am I bisexual?" I knew I definitely liked guys; based on my experiences with my boyfriend, that was not in question. Sure, I had danced with a girl at prom and liked it, but that wasn't enough to go on. I didn't know if I would like sex with a woman, even though I was willing to try it. But did this constitute the basis for an identity? All those "guide to adolescence" pamphlets said you could be straight even if you had homosexual thoughts or experiences. Anyway, I didn't feel queer; I felt like the same person I'd always been. But I needed some proof before I could believe I was bi, and I was certain dykes would expect it before they would accept me. Eventually, though, near the end of the year I decided, "I definitely want to have sex with a woman. Therefore I must be bisexual." There was no need for any more "proof" than the feelings I'd always had, and those pamphlets were full of shit. I broke up with my boyfriend that summer, but it had nothing to do with coming out.
Q. What do you call it when a Bryn Mawr student comes out?
A. Her sophomore year.
This joke haunted me for most of my second year at Bryn Mawr. I knew I was bi now, but I couldn't tell anyone because I still couldn't prove it to them. If I came out now, people would think I was a pathetic stereotype or trying to be trendy. It helped that I started making my first BDOC friend, Deb. She was a freshman, but she had already been out as bi for years. She often wore this totally cool jean jacket with loads of political buttons and always dressed in a sexy, sassy way. She had so much attitude that when she had visited as a prospective student, people had mistaken her for an unattainable upperclasswoman. Although she didn't realize it, Deb was a kind of queerness mentor for me.
She was involved in Bi-Space, a bisexual discussion and support group, which was started that year by a couple of Mawrters in reaction to the insensitivity of a couple of gay Haverford men who were running BGALA (Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance, a bi-college organization). The rift was my first inkling that all was not perfect harmony between gay and bi students. Later I heard about a chem major who thought dildos were patriarchal (no doubt she disapproved of sex with live penises too), and a lesbian hallmate who had a policy of not dating bi women. In general, though, the atmosphere was harmonious at Bryn Mawr, not least because more than half the out dykes were bi, so excluding us just wasn't possible. In fact, Bi-Space only existed for a year or two, as if the need for it evaporated when the BGALA heads graduated. But student turnover could easily change the atmosphere again.
Second semester, I had the amazing insight that I would increase my chances of getting together with a woman if people knew I was available. So I started coming out, gradually at first, but it was so easy that it became almost automatic. Near the end of the year I went home for the weekend to go to the 1993 March on Washington, and ended up coming out to my mother (I had forgotten she didn't know what had been going on in my mind). I took the Metro downtown and actually managed to find Deb and the Bi-Space contingent in the crowd. Marching with them and the rest of the massive crowd was exhilarating. Not only did I no longer have any doubt that I felt queer, but I also felt as if I belonged in the queer community. I never did join Bi-Space or any other queer organization, because my friendships gave me all the social support I needed.
By junior year I was pretty desperate to get laid (it had been over a year!), preferably by a woman. I finally seduced one in February. Despite my beliefs about the nature of sexual identity ("Bisexuality is all about potential, not just who you sleep with" was how Deb put it), I couldn't help feeling I had finally proved myself a dyke. At the end of the year I felt absolutely no diffidence about signing up to do one of the presentations on sexual orientation for next year's freshwomen.
It was exhilarating to return as a senior. I had gained expertise on getting the best out of campus life, and accordingly had chosen to live in a centrally located dorm with most of my friends. I had a kick-ass three-room suite and a roommate, chosen for her air of calm, who soon became a good friend.
One afternoon that spring Deb came into my room to tell me that a senior named Lee had appointed herself Big Dyke On Campus and was going around telling people. We were annoyed--nay, outraged--on both personal and theoretical grounds. Lee was an ex-friend of Deb's, and we considered her uncool behavior at the end of the friendship to be grounds for disqualification. Also, we felt a BDOC shouldn't care what people think of her; she should effortlessly elicit the description just by being herself. Blatant campaigning for the title was exactly the opposite!
I remembered how awed I'd been as a frosh by the BDOCs. No way was Lee as impressive as those tough, sexy, and scary women. (I didn't consider that perhaps my perspective had changed, not the impressiveness of upperclasswomen. Having been out for over a year, I felt I was on an equal social footing with the current BDOCs. Also, knowing what they had been like as freshmen removed a lot of their mystique. Not least, certain BDOC styles, such as Doc Martens, chains, and shaved heads, had come to seem more erotic than terrifying.)
Lee's outrageous arrogance made a juicy piece of gossip, and a couple days later I had to share it with my friend Marina while we waited in line to hear a talk by Susie Bright, a.k.a. Susie Sexpert, of On Our Backs.
"Well!" said Marina, "I wouldn't have picked Lee out as BDOC."
"Yeah, well just because she plays rugby, she thinks she's the shit."
"But that's not enough. You have to have something else about you."
"What fucking nerve she has, to tell people..."
As we bitched about Lee, trying to come up with the definitive disqualification for her, a group of dyke friends in line next to us, couldn't resist getting in on the discussion.
"Yeah, you have to have short hair."
"No way, man. Femmes can be BDOCs too!"
"What about Emilie?"
"OK, OK, you're right. But what does make someone BDOC?"
"HmmŠI don't know...I just know it when I see it."
"That's a cop-out! It's gotta be someone that everyone's hot for."
"No, someone who's really political."
"You have to be a big jock."
"It's all in the attitude."
"Well, if it's not Lee, who is it?"
"What about Blaine?"
"Oh, come on. She's obsessed with Sassy."
"Just 'cause you've got a big crush on her."
No one could agree on any obviously superior contenders or the necessary characteristics. But everyone seemed to share the assumption that there could be only one BDOC. Someone had the idea of holding an election. Someone else said, "If nobody springs to mind automatically, then there just isn't any BDOC this year. By definition!" Several people agreed. But others thought an election would be a lot of fun, so we persisted. I volunteered to write an article for the College News to solicit nominations, and Maria, one of the staff members for the paper, said she would see that it ran.
Developing the list of BDOC qualifications wasn't easy. My roommate Madeline helped me, and our training in sociology (mine) and anthropology (hers) enabled us to distill all our friends', acquaintances', and hallmates' vague and contradictory ideas into definitive statements. The next issue of the College News contained this article:
Who Will Be the Next BDOC?
by Ruth Wielgosz and Madeline Bergstrom, with the advice of many others
Put your fears to rest--a BDOC selection process has been set into motion. In case you were wondering, BDOC stands for Big Dyke on Campus. She is a lesbian or bisexual woman who possesses that je ne sais quoi of having reached the ultimate in dykiness, a state that is hard to define, but easy to recognize. In making your nominations, please take into consideration some or all of the following characteristics, which we feel are important qualifications:
1. Has lots of attitude, very self-confident.
2. Terrifying yet fascinating.
3. Everyone knows she's a dyke.
5. Unattainable, or nearly so.
6. Many people have crushes on her, and many more feel too unworthy.
7. Visually impressive, especially in regard to hair.
8. Inscrutably cool, always in control of the situation.
9. Everyone knows who she is, has heard of her or recognizes her, and most have an opinion about her.
10. Nice enough for it to break your heart that she's too cool for you.
Please submit nominations to Ruth, C-1050, and we'll make up a ballot for the election. Make sure you get the permission of your nominee, willingness to take on the responsibility is essential.
What we felt, but couldn't quite express as a general rule, was that a BDOC doesn't have to be well-liked or even likeable, but she has to be respected. Lee could not be the BDOC because we despised her (justifiably or not).
Soon, however, I realized I'd made a big mistake. I should have offered to contact the nominees myself to ask them to run because no one had the guts to tell her nominee she was nominating her--probably because everyone wanted to nominate their crushes. They would tell me "I'd love to nominate so-and-so, but I could never tell her!" I guess I didn't have the guts either, because I wrote the following article for the next issue of the College News :
Alas, BDOC Hopefuls
by Ruth Wielgosz
Well, I hate to disappoint everyone, but there weren't enough nominations to hold the BDOC election. I did not foresee the problem that many people were too intimidated by the women they wanted to nominate to dare ask their permission. Under these circumstances it would be unfair to allow less intimidating candidates to run for the position. Apologies to all three of you who were nominated. You definitely had winning potential, even if you aren't very scary. I can't reveal any names, but among those too scary to be asked were a well-known member of the administration, a professor, someone who already claims to be BDOC, and the lesbian poster child of the College News .
In addition, some people raised the concern that this might become a mere popularity contest, with everyone voting for her friend. Although I think our integrity is greater than that, it is undeniable that unconscious biases might have affected voting. Another valid point which has been raised is that the very need to have an election proves that there is no BDOC, for, by definition, her identity should be obvious to all. I prefer to think of the situation as one of too many choices, rather that too few....
In any case, until this year I was not aware that there could only be one BDOC. This is a needless limitation to impose on ourselves: the more BDOCs, the better. Was Norma less of a BDOC before Emilie graduated? I don't think so! So go for it, everyone: you can be a BDOC too, if you want to. Personally, I think it would be too much effort; I need to concentrate on finding dates for this weekend.
The "well-known member of the administration" was the college President, about whom, predictably, rumors persisted that she was a closet case on the basis of flimsy evidence. The professor was definitely not a closet case: She and her partner lived on campus, and her partner was the queer student advisor. The woman who wanted to nominate her but wouldn't tell her was a married staff member who seemed to be flirting with the idea of coming out. "Someone who already claims to be BDOC" was Lee; she did have some admirers. The last failed nomination, the "poster child," was Maria, the College News staffer who had been at the original discussion in Thomas Great Hall. She had referred to herself by that title in print a few issues before.
I secretly hoped some people thought I was a BDOC, but realistically I was too low-key and craved social acceptance too much. Also, it made me nervous to think of strangers knowing who I was and having opinions about me, whereas a true BDOC wouldn't care. I guess some women have that je ne sais quoi and others don't. I'm pretty much over it now. Being intimidating is no longer one of my goals, at least not most of the time.
What People are saying about this
Through the richness of the voices of students, this collection offers poignant and powerful glimpses into the lives of LGBT people on campus. In each story, a young person's identity crystallizes when the search for self in the eyes of others leads to the discovery of it in his or her own heart.
One after another, these stories break down barriers and stereotypes to provide support, visibility, and education. A 'must' read for every college freshman, gay, straight, or in-between.
Meet the Author
Kim Howard is a freelance editor completing her M.Ed. in higher education administration at the University of Vermont. Annie Stevens, Ph.D., is the director of residential life at the University of Vermont.
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