Out loud: Navigating selfhood amidst compulsory heterosexuality
For me, that phrase defines more than just who I love. It impacts who I hang out with and who I trust. It determines the kinds of spaces I inhabit and how I inhabit them. It affects all of my relationships with others, regardless of how out and open I am with them. It’s who I am. But for the longest time, I refused to use that label.
For most of my life, I never thought about my sexuality. In middle school, I actually took pride in the fact that I wasn’t interested in boys and at times even considered myself superior to all the boy-crazy girls I knew. But I think I always assumed, at least on a subconscious level, that it was something I would grow out of as I emotionally matured. Of course, I never did. It wasn’t until midway through my high school career that I first realized I might be attracted to girls. This realization marked the beginning of a years-long journey that I still haven’t completely finished. Coming to terms with the fact that I like girls wasn’t the whole picture; I also had to figure out something else. Did I actually like boys too?
After that first spark, I was reluctant to identify as anything other than straight. I was “heteroflexible,” I was “open-minded,” I was “straight with one or two exceptions.” From there, as I started to understand that this newfound attraction was not limited to just a few specific individuals, I toyed with many different labels. I knew I liked girls, and as my social circles and knowledge of the world broadened I began to include nonbinary people too, but what I didn’t know was whether I liked boys.
By writing this, I am in no way intending to discount individuals who do identify as bisexual or pansexual or to imply that they are “confused” or “lying to themselves.” Every person has their own experience, and many people truly are attracted to multiple or all genders. This article is only meant to reflect my own story, and my own personal struggle to come to terms with the fact that it’s OK for me to be more exclusively gay.
But why was this realization so hard to come by? The answer lies in the way I was raised, the society I live in, the cultural messages I have absorbed my entire life and, ultimately, in a phenomenon called compulsory heterosexuality. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it essentially means that our society enforces straightness as the norm and pushes this on people as the only natural form of existence. One effect of this for me was that I convinced myself that I was attracted to boys because I assumed it had to be true and that there was no other way to be.
I remember choosing boys seemingly at random to have crushes on and convincing myself and others that my attraction to them was real. I remember insisting that I would find a boy I liked someday, that I just wasn’t ready yet or that none of the boys I knew were good enough. I remember seeing boys and wondering if they were attracted to me and deciding that if they were, then I would like them back. Finally, though, I started to realize that it didn’t have to be that way. I didn’t have to like boys back just because they liked me, I didn’t have to wait until I met a good enough guy to prove that I wasn’t attracted to him (or any man) and I didn’t have to pretend to be in love with people I didn’t know just to be normal. It was liberating.
Heteronormativity isn’t created on its own, however. It requires people to participate and uphold it, whether knowingly or unconsciously. For queer women and woman-aligned nonbinary people, some of the biggest obstacles to overcoming this heteronormativity are those put in place by straight women. I don’t believe that all straight women are homophobic or that they are even fully aware of their actions, but the point still remains that they are unknowingly complicit in the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality. From the flicker of false hope I feel whenever a straight woman refers to a friend or acquaintance as her “girlfriend” to the media’s labeling of potentially (or even confirmed) queer women as “gal pals” or “close friends,” rather than romantically involved, these types of attitudes are everywhere.
Dismantling the systems of heteronormativity is no simple task, but each and every one of you reading this can take small steps towards helping the queer people in your lives. Be aware of your hypocrisy when you encourage straight women to be intimate with their friends and yet, at the same time, voice your discomfort with queer women simply existing near you. Be aware of the language you use and how your words may resonate with others. Be aware of the implications of your actions. Be aware, be prepared to listen and be ready to learn and to do your own research sometimes. Remember that this is only the first step, but don’t let that deter you from taking it.
Out loud: Considering intersectional perspectives in efforts of activism
Two weekends ago, I traveled with five other members of BQSA to Marlboro, Massachusetts, to attend the transgender-centric First Event conference. As a young nonbinary person who is still quite early in the process of figuring out their identity, I truly believe that I needed this experience in my life.
It wasn’t just the time I got to spend bonding with some of my closest friends at Bowdoin and it wasn’t just the new friends I made in workshops and at mealtimes. There was a feeling that I can’t put into words, no matter how hard I try, a feeling that came from being surrounded by the largest number of transgender and queer people that I’ve ever seen in one place in my life. From teenagers and young kids, supported by their proud and loving parents and grandparents; to adults and seniors—alone or with their partners and friends—they filled the hotel, the lobbies, the banquet halls, the conference rooms and the narrow hallways. The energy that I felt simply from being in such a presence was indescribable.
But as amazing as it all was, as exhilarating and validating and inspiring, it is still important for me to keep in mind what was missing. During his keynote speech at the banquet dinner on our last night at the conference, minister Louis Mitchell, a black trans man and activist, called attention to the problem that I had begun to sense earlier in the weekend. That is, while there were certainly other groups represented at the conference, the vast majority of attendees were white and presumably relatively well-off trans women. Mitchell’s speech brought to the forefront a crucial message about the nature of privilege, one that applies not just to the trans and gender-variant community, but to many other groups of people.
Mitchell spoke to several inequalities within the trans community. He talked about “passing privilege,” and many trans individuals’ tendency to look down on others who do not conform quite as well to the appearance and gender presentation that is expected of them. He talked about race and how First Event is not the only time in which trans people of color are vastly underrepresented. He talked about class and the inherent privilege held by all of the conference’s attendees simply for being there, while so many other trans people in America and around the world are homeless, or are living in poverty, or are forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. But, most importantly, he talked about why this matters.
It is crucial for all of us to engage with the parts of our identities that give us advantages in society, regardless of whether other aspects of our identities are working against us. For example, I am gay and nonbinary, but I am also white, and because of this, my experiences will be vastly different from those of a gay nonbinary person of color, or of one who is from a working-class background. Similarly, a white cisgender woman will be disadvantaged in society compared to a white cisgender man; however—and this is something that seems to be forgotten especially often in some circles—her challenges will vary in nature and scope from those faced by a woman of color or a trans woman.
Recognizing and talking about these privileges is often uncomfortable for us, but, as Mitchell said in his keynote speech, in order to make any kind of positive difference we must make ourselves feel uncomfortable. If we can’t allow ourselves to adopt an intersectional perspective and recognize other voices are out there that are different from our own, the causes for which we advocate will never truly be able to succeed.
In today’s climate, I have no doubt that many of you who are reading this have some sort of movement that you are passionate about. Whether you are debating with peers and relatives, or calling government representatives, or attending protests or simply sharing articles on social media, there is a good chance that, as a Bowdoin student in 2017, you are currently engaging in some form of activism. While it is certainly important to involve yourself with causes that personally affect you, and to fight to end injustices that you are directly hurt by, I ask that you also keep in mind the diversity of the human experience, and the reality that others may be impacted by the same forms of oppression in different ways.
Recognize that trans women are also hurt by misogyny, instead of equating the uterus and genitals with womanhood in your feminism. Recognize that LGBT individuals also need access to information about sexual health, instead of centering your sex education and positivity around heterosexual relationships. Recognize that people of color experience their own unique forms of oppression, instead of building your movement on the interests and goals of white people. Recognize that disabled people, and immigrants, and religious minorities, and poor people and so many others, have causes that are just as worth fighting for as yours. Recognize that they may be a part of your cause too, rather than only thinking about movements that involve yourself and people like you. Use your privilege to make the world hear their voices. Use your privilege to make change.
Finding a community at 24 College
My first semester at Bowdoin was rife with new experiences. I learned how to write a college-level paper, how to best manage my time and how to live in temperatures below 40 degrees. But built into the routine I constructed for myself was another new commitment, one that occupied my Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings, introduced me to a circle of friends that I would never have found otherwise and opened up a new opportunity for me to carve out a role for myself on this campus. And it all centered around the little house at 24 College Street.
I have never before been a part of a queer community like the one at Bowdoin. In just a few months, I have been able to spend time with others who share what has become an integral aspect of my identity. I don’t know why, but I have always been drawn to other queer people and, even on a subconscious level, have found it much easier to get close to others who aren’t straight. Maybe it’s the “gaydar.” Or maybe it’s just human nature to want common ground, to seek out groups of people in which one can feel like they belong. I don’t know why my sexuality and gender identity have such a habit of influencing whom I connect with, but they do.
Lately, many people have pushed back against the liberal collegiate phenomenon of “safe spaces.” Claims that “political correctness culture” has created a generation of young adults that are fragile, easily offended and unprepared for the so-called “real world” have been touted by everyone from journalists and authors to college administrators, such as the University of Chicago’s administration in their letter to incoming freshmen this past fall.
While I recognize the concerns that lie at the heart of these criticisms, I personally believe that in some ways, they are missing the point. Yes, healthy debate and exposure to opposing opinions and viewpoints is crucial to the personal growth and development that a college education is designed to promote, but homophobia and transphobia aren’t opinions. Homophobia and transphobia are not harmless beliefs that just so happen to be “controversial” or “unpopular” on college campuses. Homophobia and transphobia are hate, and it’s wrong to blame queer students for refusing to cater to those who propagate this hate.
My own, albeit limited, experience has led me to believe that critics of “safe spaces” often exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly this phrase means. In order to explore its actual meaning, I will refer to our safe space for the LGBT community on Bowdoin’s campus: the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at 24 College Street. During the time I have spent in that house, for club meetings, Thursday night “quinners” (queer dinners) or simply visiting with friends and peers, I have not, in fact, been coddled or blinded to the harsh realities of the outside world. That was never the intention of the Center. Instead, I have found a group of people that I can trust, that I can relate to, and with that I feel comfortable sharing parts of myself that I would be scared to share with others. I have found people who share my passions, my interests, my dreams and hopes for myself and for the world. I have found my queer community.
This is what a safe space is meant to be. By spending time at 24 College Street, I am not cutting myself off from others or isolating myself from opposing viewpoints. I have straight friends, too, and I love that I can associate with people who have different perspectives from my own, but who still possess a fundamental respect for me and my identity. Therefore, 24 College Street functions instead as a safe place away from those who do not respect my identity.
There’s no rule that dictates that queer students must subject themselves to homophobia, transphobia and abuse. There’s no principle that states that queer students have to agree with their oppressors in order to be “well-adjusted.” We know we can’t always avoid people who hate us. But we can find places and people that will help us step away, at least for a little while. We can create communities and spaces for ourselves, and we can help each other heal, grow stronger, strategize and work towards a better world without hate. Not a world without opposing viewpoints, or a world where no one is allowed to express their opinions, but rather a world where bigotry is not shrugged off as a personal belief, where prejudice is not mislabeled as harmless ideology and where hatred is allowed to be challenged as freely as it can be expressed.
Ari Mehrberg is a member of the Class of 2020.
An open letter to MacMillan House and allies of Bowdoin
The following letter regarding the Gender Bender party was written by several members of Gender Matters, with additional input from other students. The letter was emailed to members of Mac House on Wednesday, a couple hours before they announced their decision to change the theme of the party. We, as the authors of the letter, have chosen to publish in order to bring our side of this discussion to the general public, as we feel understanding our reasoning and intentions will help guide dialogue moving forward. We look forward to being able to have productive and meaningful conversations with the members of Mac and other students more broadly in the future.
To the people of Mac House,
This is a letter written collaboratively by members of Gender Matters and other concerned students. We would like to be very clear and up front here: we are telling you that you must change the theme of the party. This is not a debate. This is us, as trans/nonbinary/genderqueer identified students telling you that this party theme makes us profoundly uncomfortable, and invalidates our very identities. To borrow a quote from your statement on Facebook, “We recognize that true allyship means listening to and acting upon the concerns of queer students on campus.” So now it’s time to listen and act.
Much of our discomfort revolves around the manner in which this party was planned. We understand that your party planners met with BQSA [Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance] about a month ago to discuss how this party might impact and be perceived by the trans community. Some members of BQSA have expressed that they voiced many concerns at this meeting, and were promised that the party would proceed after a more involved public discussion which never came to fruition, until you as a house hastily organized a discussion for tomorrow and asked for concerned students’ attendance. I know many of us will not be attending this discussion for a number of reasons; the last minute organization means that many of us already had plans at that time, and furthermore, attending such a discussion as a trans person is, plainly put, blatant tokenization. None of us wish to speak on behalf of the whole community, but even speaking to our own concerns in a public forum is a stressful and deeply personal experience.
Of course, the crux of this situation lies in why such a party would be detrimental to the trans community in the first place. None of us are professional educators, and there already exist numerous resources which would help to explain why this is an inappropriate party theme (or at least, an inappropriate “straight” party theme), but to sum it up in a few words: parties are environments where people don costumes and personas for the purpose of levity and comedy. By appropriating trans identities as a party theme, you are very clearly making a statement that these identities are costumes and not the actual lived experiences of members of our community. Gender is a social construct, yes, but mere recognition of this fact does not give license to turn it into a punchline. If this party really were, as your Facebook statement postulated, an attempt to create discussion and disrupt gender norms, we should have been involved in the planning, and we can guarantee that we would not have chosen a party as the stage for this discussion.
Indeed, parties like the one you are planning to host do not disrupt the gender norm, but are in fact integral in enforcing it. By restricting the visibility of non-normative gender expression to a party, you are making a statement that this expression is essentially unusual. Party themes are, by nature, supposed to be extraordinary.
We understand that members of your house have their own opinions and have been considering many of these same points, but you must understand that regardless of intention, this party has made us uncomfortable and that by continuing through with this theme you are directly invalidating us and our experiences as trans and queer identified students. The way you’ve presented the party conflates gender identity and expression with dressing up in a costume, which perpetuates alienation, tokenization and erasure of trans identities.
However, having said all this, we appreciate (based on the many emails and Facebook posts exchanged on Wednesday) that you do care about these issues. We would be happy to work with you some time next semester to organize an event which would achieve the goals you claim to be striving for with this party, but we would like to be much more heavily involved in its production. Public discussion surrounding this issue is important and necessary, but a party is far from the correct venue for this discussion.
Sincerely,Paul Cheng ’17, Rose Etzel ’19, Ari Mehrberg ’20, and Jamie Weisbach ’16(Members of Gender Matters)
Transgender voices ask to be heard
At four in the afternoon on November 20, I was standing in Morrell Lounge, trying to hold back the tears that stung my eyes as several of my fellow Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA) members read out the names of the 97 transgender people who have been murdered in the past year. With each new person, each new life taken as far away as Thailand and as nearby as Waterville, Maine, I could not stamp out the fear and pain that rose in me–and the knowledge that it could just as easily be my name or the names of my friends on that list.
But fear was not the only emotion I felt as I stood and listened for that half-hour. No, as I looked around the room, at the other students and faculty attending the Transgender Day of Remembrance event, I realized that there weren’t more than 15 people there. Other trans and non-binary people, as visibly shaken as I was, were there. Cisgender queer people and allies from BQSA were, too. Maybe one or two others as well. And that was all. When I left that room, throbbing with the sheer weight of what I had just been reminded of, I knew that I was one of the few people on this campus carrying that weight.
I received plenty of excuses from people: too much homework, bad timing and, of course, my personal favorite, “It’s not about me. This isn’t my place. I don’t have to deal with being trans or non-binary or feel the pain of each loss as if it were my own. Why should I have to care?”
This apathy is not limited solely to this moment. The queer and trans community on this campus is small, but our voices are loud enough that we should be able to be heard. And yet, no one hears us. In October, when BQSA held a vigil for the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando—the largest mass shooting in American history and one where the victims were primarily queer people of color—the turnout wasn’t much higher than it was for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Again, many claimed that the timing was bad, but these excuses no longer hold weight when we take into account that just the night before, at the same time and place, the Take Back the Night event had an overwhelmingly high number of attendees. This is not to say that queer issues are more important than any others, or that Take Back the Night attendees are somehow at fault for lack of interest in the Pulse vigil, but I simply say that when it comes to the causes that queer and trans people on this campus try to promote, nobody listens.
After the election, students on this campus from all walks of life raised a plea for solidarity and an initiative to fight back against injustice. And yet, when faced with an opportunity to actually put it into practice, they didn’t. Two weeks ago, these people were pledging to stand up for their peers, but today, they stayed seated. Two weeks ago, these people were asking what they could possibly do to show their solidarity, but today, they ignored us when we provided them with an answer. Two weeks ago, these people were promising to use their privilege for good, but today, they didn’t use it for anything good at all. Two weeks ago, these people were reassuring their friends that they would always be there for them, but today, they proved to us that they weren’t.
I’m not asking for the cisgender and heterosexual people on this campus to change who they are or feel shame in their privilege or apologize for having an advantage in society that us queer and trans people do not. All I’m asking is that you come to the events that we put on: the panels, the workshops, the vigils. All I’m asking is that you refer to us with the pronouns that we have told you to use, whether or not we are there to hear them. All I am asking is that you listen to our voices, which is not hard, because we are literally screaming in order to be heard. All I am asking is that you care.
Ari Mehrberg is a member of the Class of 2020.