Everyone has a story. While human experiences are accompanied with feelings of sadness, hopefulness, motivation, or worthlessness are universal, these cycles of feelings are not always visible. I think it is safe to say that you cannot know everything that makes a person tick just by looking at them. This is especially true as a student at Mount Holyoke College. Our campus is so diverse. While it is human nature to make assumptions about others, I know that I have constantly been shocked when my preconceived notions have been proven incorrect. Everyone is so multi-faceted, and that is probably my favorite aspect of being a student here. Being surrounded by so many interesting people constantly amazes and motivates me.
If you are reading this, then I want to ask you to start to picture your story. What has happened in your past that makes you dedicated, talented, and amazing? Similarly, what has scarred you to the point of constant insecurity? If you could make one thing obvious about yourself for anyone that meets you for the first time, what would it be? Picture this: You’re about to stand in the front of a classroom of Mount Holyoke students; do you think they would know everything about you based on how you look? Can you visualize this? I want you to really imagine yourself waiting at the front of this classroom – maybe you’re nervous, or maybe you’re excited. In a few minutes, everyone is going to offer their assumptions and thoughts about the person you are, solely based on what they see in front of them. Do you think the pages and chapters of your story would transcend your physical appearance?
As a biracial, bisexual, and therefore queer woman of color, I’ve found myself feeling the anxiety associated with the above scenario almost every single day on this campus. Before transferring here last fall, I considered a multitude of things about my identity that might set me apart on this campus. My race, religion, age, and economic status were all points of concern;
...but I never worried that I would feel ostracized because of my sexuality here.
In my experience to date, the only thing that has caused me to feel like I don’t fully belong on this campus, however, is my sexuality. I have such strong, positive feelings about this community, and this is exactly why I wanted to write this article. When the alumna who interviewed me as part of the application process told me “Mount Holyoke isn’t perfect, but I love it,” I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. Now, I think I have an idea. There are aspects of campus life that can be drastically improved, but only if we take initiative as a community and decide to be vulnerable enough to have some tough conversations in the process.
So, let’s talk about what it means to be queer on this campus.
I want you to picture standing in front of that classroom again. Do you think that one of the obvious aspects of your appearance is your sexuality? On this campus, it seems like that assumption is made about people on a daily basis. The results of that assumption happen in the form of cliques, hook ups, party culture, and relationships. There is a hierarchy behind queer culture here, and the people on top are white, androgynous, and/or masculine presenting. It is unfair to make assumptions about sexuality based on the way one feels safest physically participating in gender performance.
One example is the preferred queer aesthetic on campus. In this case, that aesthetic is being a more masculine-presenting or alternative individual under the LGBTQ umbrella. Short hair, tattoos, piercings, and masculine clothing are all valid aspects of a queer identity, but they are not the only valid queer identity. How many times have you heard the phrase “Mount Holyoke is a bubble”? It’s true, and in many ways we are studying and living in an alternate space. These choices in appearance can literally be a matter of life or death for individuals that have to leave Mount Holyoke and return to their version of the real world, which for some is a community of color.
But living here does not negate the existence of the “real world” – and basing the validity of an individual’s queerness upon adhering to the social norms set by a queer hierarchy is a form of oppression.
I have heard certain people on this campus say things along the lines of “I can’t help what I’m attracted to” and this is where a need for awareness of other cultures and a dose of intersectionality becomes necessary medicine.
If you feel that you can’t help who you are attracted to, then that’s fair, but what is motivating that attraction?
Are you using a masculine-centered identity as a prerequisite for validating the queerness with your peers?
The ability to maintain a masculine-presenting, white, short haired appearance is a form of privilege. By dismissing those who cannot meet the standard, so to speak, there is an underlying tone of prejudice and willful ignorance in that decision. It creates a divide, and this divide is alienating to say the least. As a queer person of color on this campus, it can be terrifying to look around and see a group of people that physically blend together perpetuating the identity erasure and isolation of those of us who err more to the side of “straight passing”. This divide is also hurtful, elitist, and exclusionary.
It is important to recognize that while sexuality is similar to race in the sense that it is not a choice, the ways we present our sexuality is a combination of self-expression and societal norms. In comparison to the “real world”, Mount Holyoke is a safe space. For that reason, I can understand the motivation some members of the queer community here must feel to finally have their outer appearance align with how they feel internally. This level of freedom is important, and the purpose of this article is not to attack those who are embracing their evolving individuality. I do not want to shame people for having friends with common interest and values.
Instead, my hope is that reading this will spark a dialogue with your friends, as well as with your peers – especially those who openly identify as QPOC.
We must note that white privilege is not limited to old, rich men with careers, traditional families, and extremely conservative values.
Benefiting from this privilege does not make you a bad person. That being said, it is important to understand that a gradients of privilege do exist in marginalized groups. A white person inherently takes up space, and the decision to use their elevated status to make room for minorities – especially in shared safe spaces – is so crucial to being an ally. The first step is to listen. Communication is the only way to knock down barriers, but taking up space also means that frequently, the ball is in your court. You have to make the decision to be receptive to intersectionality.
I know that other QPOC, especially those who authentically gravitate towards inherent femininity, have shared my experience of feeling invalidated and isolated during their time as students here. In recent experiences, I have found there is a disconnect between talking about validating all queer identities and actually doing this. In a recent queer org meeting on campus, I felt that even then, marginalized identities in a shared space were silenced. In response to my personal frustration and inability to articulate my feelings in that moment, I wrote this poem after the meeting. Consider that queerness cannot be forced into a box. It can be presented in many different ways.
September 22nd, 2015
I want to ask what the real problem is
If Mount Holyoke is supposed to be the land of ambition and what-ifs...
What if we dare to be amazing, intelligent, empowered, compassionate?
To live up to this historically all women's college legacy, I want you to ask yourself
"What do I have to give?"
I want to know why it took less time here than the 10 years I've battled an eating disorder to be able to look in the mirror and be able to say:
I really, truly hate myself.
Because I'm not someone else, because
I'm not thin, and I haven't chopped off all my hair or adorned myself with beautiful tattoos and piercings and because I'm biracial,
not white ---
Not masculine presenting,
So I must be
I must be straight.
Because I don't fit the mold, I must be full of self-hate.
I want you to ask yourself why
This once a seminary, institution founded for
White women born to grow into wives
After graduation, and carry on their lives...
If the elitism due to a lack of feminism is
Gone and if
Mount Holyoke forever shall be
Then, as a feminine, queer, bisexual person of color...
What the fuck is happening to me?
And I know there are others out there who see the damage caused by leaving our hometowns of oppression only to come to a new space and have to face this regression
This forced silence and political identity policing ---
This historically all women's college that somehow still has me dreaming of a day
When someone will say
Even though you aren't white. Even though you are girly. Even though you flirt with men. Even though you may feel invisible because what you really want is to date a woman but you live in a world where cutting off all your hair and changing who you are carries more weight because between cultural appropriation and identities of color, looking "queer" might keep (best case) you from getting hired and (worst case) might get you killed ---
Your sexuality is valid. It's real, and
I see you.
So for my feminine presenting, identity questioning, currently transforming, no longer in mourning because you aren't a straight girl, but
You don't feel wanted in this world.
I hear you.
I feel you.
This is for you.
You have permission to be whoever you are including glitter and curls and dresses and marks from the people who bruised you because they can’t seem to understand your version of the truth...
Your Queer identity is valid, and
I see you.