Institutional Queer Space

I am in the midst of a dilemma. It’s not a large dilemma, but it’s one where I honestly don’t know which side I’m leaning toward. It’s about whether to apply to be an LGBT peer educator at school next year.

When I first got the email from the LGBT list soliciting applications, and when I saw the posters around campus that were similarly soliciting, I immediately dismissed the idea from a personal standpoint. It’s not like I think having LGBT peer educators is a bad idea, or that they don’t serve a purpose by providing a resource for students, especially freshmen, who have questions—it’s that I couldn’t see myself in that role. As a self-described radical in my sexuality as well as in my politics, I’ve often found myself at odds with the mainstream of sexuality movements, and wasn’t sure how I would reconcile that with the curriculum that the peer education training would teach (not that, to be fair, I’m fully aware of what that curriculum is). I’m also, to be frank, reasonably conflicted about my own sexuality—I wasn’t sure it would be intellectually honest of me to be on a panel wherein I implicitly suggest comfort with my identity when that doesn’t entirely exist. I rationalized this decision: I think basically everyone I know is aware that I’ve got a one-track mind about sexuality issues, and that I know a lot about queer theory and queer politics for someone whose knowledge is all informal, and that I’m totally happy to talk about anything regarding sex. I figured that I make myself as accessible as any peer educator where LGBT issues are concerned.

But then, this morning, I read this article in the Prince:

Though many University students spend Saturday nights out on the Street in search of their next hook ups, Peter — a gay undergraduate — has found a safer and more discreet meeting place. Peter, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, said that during his time at Princeton, he has hooked up with “about three guys” he met through posting personal ads on Craigslist.

On a campus that Peter said is “less accepting of gay life” than Harvard or Yale, some gay Princeton students like Peter turn to online venues like Craigslist in search of sexual partners. Posts on the site dating back one month showed 176 results matching the search criteria “Princeton,” “18-30” and “men-seeking-men.” Thirty of these results included the word “student,” and many others made reference to the campus or the University in some other fashion. A similar search on the site for Harvard students yielded just nine posts, while one for Yale students generated 22 responses.

The article goes on to say that, among other things, Peter was kicked out of two eating clubs for dancing and making out with other guys (which certainly wouldn’t generate a response if the contact was heterosexual), and that there are tons of closet cases here doing the same thing, posting ads that say things like ““Be a PU undergrad and discreet.” And I mean, I know that most of the gay people at Princeton are in the closet, but what is this, 1965? Institutionally speaking, the framework is such that it is very possible to be out at Princeton in a way that it might not be somewhere where there aren’t, for example, LGBT peer educators. Yet people aren’t, and I think the gay community here, though it exists, is seen as very distinct from the undergraduate student body as a whole: frequenting certain eating clubs, establishing certain social circles, clearly delineating which spaces (clubs, teams, religious groups, etc.) are safe, and which are not.

This is a huge problem, in my opinion. Space should not be so divided and it’s in the best interests of everyone, LGBT or not, to foster an environment where all LGBT people feel able to come out. Reading this article was genuinely troubling to me—and then I realized that if I wanted to do something about this situation, there was a totally obvious course of action: apply to be a peer educator. I remember my experience freshman week at the LGBT peer educators’ study break as underwhelming and not very informative, but maybe that’s because the first people I met here, even before I matriculated, were through the framework of the institutionalized LGBT community. Maybe being a peer educator could make a difference to some confused and closeted freshman who’s looking for that community, or who wants to be able to come out to her friends, or who wants to meet people with whom she can build LGBT community outside of the institutional framework. I mean, it’s certainly the easiest and most straightforward thing I could do to help more people come out at this very, very closeted campus.

But that still hasn’t resolved the situation. I don’t know what to do, and I’m really quite troubled about it. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Institutional Queer Space

  1. First, actively participating in community-building, of whatever type, is great. If you have the time and inclination to commit to such at thing, go for it!

    Regarding whether it’s “honest” to be a peer educator when you still feel less than perfectly settled yourself: precious few ever have a sense that we’ve come to a meaningful resolution/understanding about our identity. Part of being a peer, even a “model peer,” is not that you have reached some great understanding about yourself, but rather actually modeling conflict, wonderment, and struggle for others. So few of us have ever had modeled for us how to discover ourselves, how to make mistakes and keep going, how to hurt and be afraid and manage to stay sane. This, for me, is what it is to be a peer educator. Not to educate about what you know (though you will, I hope) but to educate through your own life how it is to struggle with definitions and choices, to show that “it’s okay.”

    I saw two young men holding hands in Rocky dining the other day and it was hard for me: I come from a very open and out kind of place (particularly relative to Pton), so I didn’t find it to be anything other than what it was (how many times a day to I see or hear affection between two people?). But to have been deprived for almost two years of genuine affection of that kind (the first gay couple I’ve *ever* seen on campus!), I wanted to thank them for being out. Of course, I couldn’t.

    I give this as an example of how such a small gesture can be meaningful and important. They expanded my world of peership. As members of Rocky (and Princeton), the place in which I reside, they added to the constellation of people I can count as my community. If you feel like you have it in you, many people will certainly benefit from your being a peer. I have no doubt about that.

  2. Thank you. :)

    I think I know the couple you’re talking about, and I have to say that their bravery continues to impress and delight me.

  3. Hey Emily,

    I stumbled onto your blog through Equal Writes. As someone who was quite confused about sex and sexuality at Princeton (I graduated in ’08) and not even sure whether I could even claim the label the LGBT represented, I think it’s important to have educators who say, “I don’t know either. And that’s okay. This is still a safe space for you.”

    Whether you have the time to do it is another issue altogether.

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