The Truth About Queer RAs

The Ruth Institute, the National Organization for Marriage’s “let’s influence the youngsters” branch, has released a video attacking a group of people who supposedly pose a growing threat to college kids: queer resident advisers (RAs). Jennifer Roback Morse, the Ruth Institute’s founder and president, speaks in the video about a “good Catholic girl” who was bullied by her gay RA for hesitating to participate in a drag party. Morse points to gay RAs as part of a conspiracy by the “other side” to influence young people. “There is no TV message that is going to do the job of countering that type of influence,” she says in the video. “Somebody’s got to be there, talking to the young people, one at a time.” She urges parents to find out if their children have gay RAs, even if they are in Christian colleges, because their kids might not even realize the impact it is having on them.

I would have loved to have a queer RA in college. Unfortunately, I felt pretty alienated from the residential life at my campus: during the two years I lived in the NYU dorms, I wasn’t aware of any queer programming or explicit support for queers on the hall. I met my queer community through working and volunteering everywhere besides my school. I was randomly assigned two lesbian roommates in a row (the first was my first girlfriend and the second became my BFF) but in terms of a structured queer support system, my experience was lacking.  I’ve since been told that NYU res life is way more queer than I gave it credit for being, but if I didn’t know about it at the time, I doubt it’s having the pervasive influence that Morse is claiming.

After watching the Ruth Institute’s video, I decided to track down some queers with RA experience to find out their feelings; I knew there had to be stories of queer advisers who supported their residents, created positive change and made safe spaces for all of the kids on their hall. As it turns out, quite a few of you have been RAs!

According to Maddie, a former Student Fellow (that’s a fancy phrase for RA) from Vassar College, there’s actually not much of a difference between queer RAs and straight ones. While she was open about being queer and made sure her students knew about queer resources, Maddie worked to make her dorm “as safe a space as possible for everyone.” Being a queer Student Fellow did uniquely position her to provide much needed support to the queer student population, though: “When bathrooms in my dorm were defaced with homophobic and sexist graffiti,” she told me, “I helped organize dorm meetings to talk about it, and then a campus-wide teach-in/panel to talk about sexism on campus.”

“Queer RAs can be especially important as people who provide direct support,” Maddie continued, “because queer communities can be pretty intimidating for someone outside the scene. An RA can guide and be a confidante without becoming your best friend.”

Liz Washington, a former RA from a mid-sized public university in Georgia, told me that it hurt to watch the video from the Ruth Institute because “the majority of programming in the residence halls is heterosexist, or ignores that multiple sexualities exist.” She stated that being an out lesbian RA helped her become confident and assertive enough to be herself, since she had to serve as a mentor and an ally for other queers in the deep south. Her LGBTQ-related programming included activities like simply showing movies that featured a cast with diverse sexual identities followed by a discussion. Her main goal, though, was to make sure that “all students felt welcome and safe in their ‘home away from home.'”

Share your experiences in the comments about dorm life with or without queer RAs, so that we can drown out people like Morse who, as Maddie put it, are using stories told third-hand against the entire population of queer RAs. Whoever shouts the loudest, right?

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Gabrielle writes facts and feelings from an old brick house in an outer borough of New York City. When she's not writing about lesbians, she's editing/writing/producing things at her day job in the beauty department of a well-known online style magazine. In her spare time, she helps organize the New York City Dyke March and makes up songs about her dog.

Gabrielle has written 96 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    I was a queer RA and I didn’t have any queer RAs, but I did have one who was very queer-friendly and was the first person I told when I came out.
    Our RAs weren’t paid, so they were less the tattle-tales and more someone you came and talked to when you were convinced your roommate wasn’t showering to spite you, but we were constantly working on being more attentive to the needs of queer students in the dorms. It didn’t help that during my four years, we had a few harassment cases where LGBT students were made to feel unsafe.
    I don’t get why there’s this pervasive myth of gay conversion. What are they saying to students to make them gay? What is the sales pitch of the queer RA?

  2. Thumb up 2

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    There is a queer RA in my building, and I am certainly glad that she is there! Like the article says, most of the programming in the dorms is very heterosexual, and having someone in a higher position who recognizes this bias is important to me. It’s having an ally in your building that is the most important part–converting straight people is not her goal.

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    One of my two queer lady RA’s resident-advised me never to hook up with a freshman before Fall Break. I then reminded her that she had done exactly that the year before. She didn’t turn me gay – but she sure did make me feel included!

    Besides that we had a queer Residential House Director (RHD) who I was introduced to when first touring campus at which point I wasn’t out to my parents and was desperately looking for somewhere I could be open about my sexuality. The parents thought I wanted to live in this particular dorm so badly because it was an arts-themed dorm, but really it was because the RHD had short hair and librarian glasses and was dressed up as Tonks from Harry Potter when I met her.

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    In the story it sounds like the RA was trying to do a thing that they actually teach all RAs to do; provide inclusive dorm programing.

    I was an RA at a liberal arts college
    Our pro staff from the admin down had a very large focus on including LGBTQ etc in our programing. We had training on how to use inclusive language, including how and when to ask someone what pronoun they preferred to use. We had training on how to deal with all of the homo feelings freshmen have and how to direct them to appropriate resources. Our institution offered undergraduate, gender neutral housing called the Rainbow Fort.

    Day to day as an RA you dealt with it like you deal with freshmen everywhere: Some of them are little sh*ts who make your life bad. Like the freshmen who thought it was hilarious to dress in girls clothes and adopt super femme gestures and voices because, you know HILARIOUS. Or the Student who who didn’t understand why you shouldn’t say no homo. (seriously, it was like a tic, at the end of everything, no homo)

    The best part about working at a place like this was watching students learn and grow out of being that kind of homophobic 18 year olds into mature, less homophobic 19 year olds.

    Also, I probably would not have understood the queer feelings I was having were it not for the people I was working with.

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    I was a queer RA at a Catholic college. I worked hard while I was there to encourage and contribute to a positive climate for the entire community–taking good care of all my residents and starting a GSA on campus.

    I think it’s important (particularly at a small religiously-affiliated school like mine) to have visible queers. Sometimes people come to college really sheltered, and just knowing there are students who are gay amongst them is a good thing. Queer RAs are important because they show little freshman gays (okay, and everyone) that being gay is a part of your college experience and you can be a campus leader, or an athlete, or whatever you want your identity to be and still have your queerness be a part of it too. Plus you get your own room that you can adorn with rainbow flags and posters of Ani DiFranco. Win-win!

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    The Residential Director for my dorm and I think a few other dorms was a lesbian. She lived on my floor with her partner and their cute little dog that they had to petition to get permission to have live with them. I don’t remember our programming being especially heterosexist or queer-inclusive… all I can vaguely remember is pizza and games. But she and her partner were an example of a good solid loving relationship for all, straight and queer, AND the dog! We were the best dorm ever because we had a resident pet!

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    I was an RA in a Catholic college. Our staff was intentionally diverse so that we help represent the entire student body. I think the having queer RAs helps residents feel comfortable. The staff also received training on how to deal with students who are questioning their sexuality and helped us spread awareness. Also, my school seemed to hire all the queers to be RAs…you have to love liberal catholic schools :)

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    I am currently an RA at a small Lutheran university, and so is my girlfriend! Are we in the minority on campus, in the halls, and in res life? Yes. Is the programming we do in the halls inclusive and conscious and educational? Yes. Carrying my sexuality with me (and doing so proudly) helps to make the halls and campus a safe space for anyone, queer or otherwise, to explore their sexuality. And honestly, finding queers in res life isn’t a hard thing to do, even on a campus with a small queer population.

    And these scary queer RAs are the same ones taking care of your sheltered, conservative freshman when they consume a handle of cheap vodka the first weekend of school and make a damn fool of themselves.

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    I too was a queer RA at a Catholic school. Luckily, this was a very progressive and loving Catholic school and we had a really solid “Safe Hive” program (Everything at my school was themed around Bees. Let the puns flow.) which was geared at making a safe space for LGBTQAA people, that Res Life headed up. Lots of people were a part of this community, including our chaplain and several nuns. I’m pretty sure no one ever felt threatened by this space of love & acceptance. But maybe they did and I per usual was just blissfully oblivious.

    Even though I was not out at the time, I think this mentality definitely found a home on my floor. We had a really rocking community.

    So basically what I have to say that Dr J is full of bologna.

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    My RA last year was queer. She was a solid RA and continues to be my role model. She, unbeknownst to me, recommended me to a recruiter for a non-profit job after college. And then I got the job and she is happy for me and I am happy she was my RA. And everything was fine and no one thought there was any kind of problem. Why do these people insist on making problems?

  11. Thumb up 1

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    I have been (and will be again) a queer RA for 22 little first-year students and I love it!

    Last year I was on a staff where 5 of the 18 of us where part of the LGBTQ community and while that was high for a building, it wasn’t unheard of. I took this past quarter off to do research so I’m not sure what my staff will be like in January when I return but I’m guessing it will be quite queer or at least very queer friendly. Our housing and residential education department does a great job of choosing people who are committed to social justice and attempts to put together staffs that reflect a diverse range of identities and backgrounds.

    For me being an RA is more of a big sister role. While my programs and bulletin boards are definitely more focused on LGBTQ issues, the biggest impact I had on my residents was had by just being there for them when they needed me and allowing them to see how I lived my life. I was definitely one of the most out RAs and I hope that all residents, even those that weren’t my own, knew they could come to me for whatever. There’s a lot of power to be had in late night conversations with ice cream and cookies and being an RA gives you the excuse to do that whenever you want!

  12. Thumb up 1

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    i’ve never really known why, but my college has always had a ton of queer RAs and RDs (room directors, aka people to whom RAs report at the end of the day). it’s never really been an issue, and it helps a lot to know that the people who are in charge of dorms are queer-positive. our dean of students is also a major queer supporter (if not gay herself? i forget), so all in all, it’s a pretty accepting space!

  13. Thumb up 1

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    I have a queer RA right now! She is really cool and chill and no one really makes her sexuality a big deal, if any deal at all. (It helps that, being on a floor dedicated to Art Majors, a good chunk of us are queer ourselves.)

  14. Thumb up 2

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    I did not have a queer RA nor did I finish watching that mess of a PSA. I’m pretty sure the young people are safe. Furthermore if a college age person isn’t able to discern what they want to participate in or not then maybe college isn’t really the place for them. I don’t have a lot of faith in colleges helping their students with anything after my experience. Of course it could be that a trans individual should never have gone to a private Jesuit university hahaha.

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    This is slightly hilarious to me because I’ve found Student Housing at my school to be insanely queer. Like fabulous and glitter-bombed queer.

    I was a queer RA for 3 years, one of which I was the RA for our school’s first LGBT floor. Another year, I was RA for an all-male floor (I swear I didn’t make any of them into lesbians).

    RAs are trained to be utterly inclusive of everyone and I think that having LGBT focuses is particularly important since a lot of kids are coming from a home where they couldn’t be themselves. If you can’t support residents in that way, if you have some personal prejudice that you can’t put aside for the sake of your community, then you need to not be an RA.

    I’ve broken up drunken fights, I’ve tamed people on acid trips, comforted suicidal residents, hugged sobbing mothers, felt weirdly surreal as I poured full bottles of Jack Daniels down the sink, responded to sexual assaults, cleaned up every type of bodily fluid, stayed up all night dealing with incidents, closed down parties with cheap beer (they’ll thank me later), nursed kids with alcohol poisoning, and designed tattoos for my residents because they “wanted someone special to do it.” …but I don’t think I’ve permanently damaged anyone via my flaming queerness….

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    My college has a huge residence staff team – RAs, RHS fellows, and sponsors (like me!) who are sorta like unpaid sub-RAs responsible for a specific hallway of first years. A good chunk of us are queer, though I’m the only trans* spectrum member of RHS. I’m really glad to get to be a part of the RHS team because we have more incoming trans* students this year than we’ve ever had before. I don’t think I’m “converting” anyone with my queer, nonbinary ways, but I am trying to show all my residents that they can accomplish great things on our campus and that we want to help them feel welcomed and safe.

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    I was the only Queer RA in my building in college. I echo everyone else statements about making your floor a safe community for everyone and all of my co-workers viewed their jobs the same way. I don’t really think there was much of a difference in our approaches. Most, if not all, of us went to Allies training which is essentially an extra optional training about how to deal with any sort of discrimination (mainly focusing of the LGBT front), and made sure the safe space declaring allies placard was on our doors.

    That being said I was initially a bit uncomfortable about being out to my residents. I knew that most of them came from conservative, rural, hometowns and I just didn’t want there to be any issues. As the year worn on, most of my residents either asked if I was dating anyone, or slowly realized that I was not the only RA with a roommate but that I had a girlfriend who “cohabitated” a lot.

    (the queer girls on my floor had our number right off the bat)

  18. Thumb up 6

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    At my school, I’m a Customs Person. All freshmen halls have two sophomore Customs People (among other upperclassmen helpers that live off the hall) who are there to be the first years’ friends, mentors and guides to the new, scary world of college. We don’t get paid and we go through a rigorous application process as pairs. It just so happens that my Customs Person Partner (who is also one of my best friends) and I are both lesbians and the co-heads of our college’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance. While we encourage our freshmen to come to SAGA meetings and talk about LGBT issues around them, it’s horribly insulting to hear that anyone would think that we would try and indoctrinate our freshmen.

    I showed the video to our freshmen and they were also outraged. In fact, they are currently on the Ruth Institute website and making fun of the ludicrous homophobic, sexist, and racist propaganda that’s on it. If you need a good laugh, I suggest you check it out. We also threw a Drag Ball for the entire school as a part of SAGA’s out reach week. Almost all of our freshmen were in attendance and even helped clean up afterwards, at their own insistence. Anyway, I guess you could say that I’m a proud Mamma.

    So, yeah, I suppose that we have influenced our freshmen. We’ve given them a venue to express what awesome and accepting people they already are. We’ve never pressured them and are very open and accepting to all of their ideas about queer culture. But, before all that, we are their Customs People. That’s what people like this can’t see. We don’t vomit rainbows every time we speak and are capable of having a relationship with another person without making it all about LGBT issues. Our freshmen love us as the gaywads that we are, but that’s because we are their friends and mentors first. We are more than our sexuality, and I resent someone reducing anyone’s personality to a singular trait.

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      Customs People sound a lot like sponsors at my college – we work in pairs, too. I’m pansexual and genderqueer and my co-sponsor is an anarcho-syndicalist (please don’t ask me to define that) whose favorite t-shirt has a picture of Karl Marx and the phrase “Sharing is Caring” on the front of it, so our school doesn’t seem to be too frightened by the possibility of us creating a little commune of queer socialists. Though I think it would be adorable if that actually happened.

  19. Thumb up 1

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    I was a queer RA and was the one reminding Res Life that handing out condoms didn’t mean “safe sex” was covered. I also was the RA for Black Students United and had an awesome time doing intersectional work around identities in that capacity. I say, if you don’t want your children to evolve in their beliefs, they’re going to have to stay home and commute to your local college….oh wait, scratch that. Don’t want to give the crazies any ideas for sheltering their poor kids any longer.

  20. Thumb up 4

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    i never did anything especially queer as an RA. i was out and had a hot ass girlfriend. that seemed to be enough. all my kids loved me and came to me with all their probs. it was never like i was the gay RA or only the queer kids came to talk to me. mostly i threw ice cream socials, pirate parties and told them to blow their weed smoke out the back window.

    this lady is just fucking dumb. can we collectively agree on that? her logic is below her iq level and that’s a compliment. how about the happy homo throwing the drag party might have just been a douche? maybe he was pushing the chick to say she was uncomfortable about the drag party to out her as a homophobe cuz that shit happens too, whether we as a community want to admit it or not. if that’s the case then old whack job lady here should just be annoyed that one person was a jerk to someone else.

    i’m so tired of constantly responding to fucking idiots and their insane/illogical opinions on me and my people.

    we should all write this woman letters that say:

    good luck trying to combat all of us queers invading the colleges. while your straight children sleep, we sing them gay lullabies to bring them to our dark side. merry christmas, i’m undressing you right now with my lesbian eyes.

    ps- nice piece, other gabrielle.

  21. Thumb up 1

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    I was a queer RA, but I was also at a small liberal arts college and in the Women and Trans* house. We wrote the queerest mission statement ever. So (a) a very different experience from many people and (b) I would have been the least of that perfectly that awful woman’s issues.

  22. Thumb up 0

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    The only things I remember about the queer RA on my floor sophomore year was that a) he slightly resembled Zach Efron and b) he was sleeping with at least one of his residents (and then proceeded to date said resident for a while after he graduated).

    That’s it.

    I’d like to know what this woman has been smoking.

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    Sort of a different perspective…I transferred high schools my junior year and entered a private boarding school. Quickly, I realized the prefect (our term for resident advisor) that lived in my hall was queer. I had never been around any queers before (or at least none that were open) and honestly her friendship and guidance has changed my life. Not only did I realize that I was gay as well, but I was able to go to her for the support I so desperately needed as a teenager realizing I was gay. She is also the reason I decided to apply to be a prefect! As a senior this year, I am now a queer prefect living in the same hallway. I hope I can even bestow a tenth of the wisdom she gave to me in that brief year to the women in the dorm.

  24. Pingback: Rainbows in Residence Life | Electric Silhouettes

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