Hello and welcome to another edition of Autostraddle’s College Lesbianage: a glimpse of college life through the wide eyes of six freshly fallen snowflake first-year queers. This month’s update will be given individually! Today we’ve got Bryn Mawr’s Kelsey with some thoughts on “queer privilege.”
feature image via The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center
Some people at Bryn Mawr seem to believe that straight people here are marginalized. I’ve heard students, both straight and queer, express sentiments along the lines of, “It’s easier to be gay at Bryn Mawr,” and even some members of the college staff have implicitly expressed this same view. In my experience, there seems to be an often unspoken understanding that, while queer people are oppressed in the rest of the world, it just doesn’t work that way at Bryn Mawr. Here, somehow, queer people are the privileged ones.
When I was in junior high, I spent a lot of my time in a social group that was composed entirely of Asian American students… and me. I never felt like I fit in. I was constantly aware of my whiteness, aware of how I felt othered every day, wasn’t as much a part of the group as I wanted to be. But, as I got older and engaged in discussions about race, I realized that, although my experience of exclusion was real and valid, it didn’t mean that my white privilege ceased to exist in the space where I was a minority. No matter how ostracized I felt during junior high, I only had to walk down the hall or step into a classroom to find white-dominated spaces, spaces where I constantly observed white students stereotyping and excluding non-white students because of their race. I may have spent a lot of time in the one group in my junior high where my race was in the minority, but that didn’t mean that my white privilege no longer existed there – in fact, it was more relevant than ever. Once I got to high school and came out as queer, I found myself constantly seeking queer-dominated spaces, spaces where I felt safe and accepted discussing my sexuality. Only one such space existed in my high school – the Gay Straight Alliance – and it was there that I found a home during my senior year, a space where gay wasn’t taboo. I obviously do not know the experiences of my Asian American peers, but now I think that their social group in junior high, the one I tried to be a part of, may have done the same for them as the Gay Straight Alliance did for me. It gave them a place to be themselves, to explore their identities mostly apart from members of the dominant groups. I may have felt excluded by my Asian American peers, and I’m sure that my straight friends may have felt excluded by me and my queer friends.
Ideally this wouldn’t happen, but we do not live in an ideal society. We live in a society that privileges some groups over others and, in this flawed context, subordinated groups banding together is not just okay or understandable – it’s good. It creates a space for community, for empowerment and for people to work to change the world that hurts them. And if this means that there are some spaces that are not as open to members of privileged groups, that’s okay with me, because those people have the rest of the world to find a home for themselves.
So what does all of this mean for Bryn Mawr, a college where all of the students, regardless of identity groups, need to come together for learning and community? First, to anyone who believes that straight people are marginalized at Bryn Mawr, I suggest that there are many spaces on campus where heterosexuality remains dominant. Bryn Mawr is a very accepting community, but there are many times when I hesitate to mention my queerness or make a gay joke for fear of what the straight people around me will say. Just like in junior high, where I spent enough time in the one space where my race was in the minority, I believe that there are many places on campus where straight sexuality is the norm.
But what about the other spaces? I cannot deny that there are spaces at Bryn Mawr where queerness is dominant, where heterosexual students may feel marginalized because of their sexuality. This is a real occurrence, and I do not mean to suggest that it’s not painful – I vividly recall how much junior high school hurt sometimes and I wish that no one had to go through that experience. But the reality is that people who belong to subordinated identity groups experience exclusion every day of their live. For some queer students, Bryn Mawr may be the first place where they’ve ever been able to be open about their sexuality. And so I hope that straight students who feel left out in the queer-dominated spaces at Bryn Mawr realize the importance of these spaces and respect that sometimes there have to be spaces that aren’t as open to the majority for the minority to have a home.
It’s also important to realize that some straight people experiencing exclusion in queer-dominated spaces doesn’t mean that straight people no longer have privilege, even at Bryn Mawr. We live in a world where queer people are systematically denied rights and opportunities – many queer people can’t get married, are kicked out of their homes, are bullied in school and are even murdered because of their sexuality. As much as it may feel like a bubble sometimes, Bryn Mawr is a part of this social context, and that means that everything that happens here is affected by our larger society. Queer people can’t escape discrimination just by going to school here.
Audre Lorde once said, “Without community, there is no liberation…but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” We should all be able to create community and liberation at Bryn Mawr, regardless of our identities. But in that process, we can never forget that our differences are made real by the society we live in and that sometimes we have to embrace separation in the hope of one day coming together.