Princeton and LGBT Community

Last Thursday night, I was talking with another Princeton student whom I’d recently met. We were agreeing that we didn’t really fit into the institutional/established Princeton LGBT community (Pride Alliance, LGBT Center, and all the events and discussion groups that surround them). We were coming, I think, from quite different places personally and in terms of our relationships to labels of queer identity, but nonetheless neither of us felt like those groups are really the right social place for us. This is hardly the first time I’d had that conversation: a couple weeks ago, I had it with a person who isn’t out, and so their relationship to the institutional LGBT structure is necessarily complicated. Frequently, I have it with friends who are out, and whose relationship to queer identity is, I suspect, as overtly uncomplicated and yet internally complicated as my own. And so I sit down to dinner at a dining-hall table made up entirely of queer folks, none of whom are involved with the institutionalized community; I organize protests with networks of straight allies who don’t participate in LGBT campus life; I know far too many students who even in college, in New Jersey, in 2009 are in the closet. And I would very much like to do something to change this, to create a more cohesive community for all these people—and myself. But I’m not sure what should be done.

I’ve been learning a lot, recently, about the struggles in the ’70s to firmly establish a Gay Alliance of Princeton, and the vandalism and harsh words and hostile atmosphere met by the students who bravely did so. An oft-consulted source of mine who was at Princeton in the ’70s and ’80s has been telling me stories about what she knew of the place of GAP on campus, and I learned that there are three boxes on GAP and its successor organizations in the University Archives—it’s interesting stuff, and I’m thinking of doing some aspect of my independent work about it. But what confuses me, I think, is how we got from a small and much-fought-against organization struggling to be a place for gay students on campus in the days of gay liberation to an unquestioned LGBT Center, administration support for LGBT students, a freshman orientation program that emphasizes diversity and acceptance, and finally the first inklings of progress on gender-neutral housing—and yet still leave so many students out. The fact of closeted Princeton is a powerful reminder, I think, that we still have so far to come, farther perhaps than many other universities do. When a university finally has an LGBT Center, I shouldn’t hear its students telling me that they are afraid their friends will see them going into it.

On the other hand, what bothers me sometimes about the institutional community is that it doesn’t agitate enough. It’s not “out there” enough. I understand that an organ of the university administration such as the LGBT Center can’t do any political advocacy or anything like that; that’s totally fine. So maybe what we lack is a group that is less institutionalized, which can be an alternative to the institutionalized community while still supporting the good work that it does. Like good sociopolitical movements everywhere (she says with tongue in cheek), maybe we just need to factionalize.

I am at Princeton in part because my pre-frosh host took me to a lunchtime event at the LGBT Center and I saw that there was an LGBT Center, and I felt like there was a place for me at Princeton, when everything I’d heard about the place was to the contrary. But I want to make it possible for every student to encounter queer Princeton without going to the second floor of Frist, or enrolling in queer theory or history or politics or theater, or showing up to an event, or even having a gay friend (yes, some kids don’t, or don’t know that they do). The person I was talking to on Thursday disagreed with me about the need for everyone to come out, the need to be confrontational; this person said that was a device that worked for Harvey Milk, but that it’s no longer 1978. To which I say that, yes, it’s been a long time since students vandalized the room of the president of the Gay Alliance of Princeton, but I’m not sure that the current state of affairs is truly helping to build a university community where everyone may be at peace with and confident about themselves.

And so I was thinking about what I can do, about what it takes to come out, and about what those of us who are out can do to help and support our classmates and friends and students and neighbors and fellow Princetonians. I’m turning over the idea of an LGBT-oriented student publication, which as far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong) would be a first for Princeton. If there’s anything I can do to help it is to write and to edit and to organize the doing of it. These blog posts are imported into Facebook, where I am quite sure this particular one will cause a shitstorm from all sides—which is great and wonderful and dialogue is awesome. But if you comment on this post, I would dearly like to hear your opinion about this particular question. Would an LGBT-oriented student publication (all able-bodied contributors, LGBT or not, welcome of course) help matters? Is it worth doing? Would you contribute, or be on the staff, or otherwise help out? And, of course, what form would such a publication take; what sort of content would it include?

I applaud the good work that has been done to change Princeton, from the founding of GAP to the present. But I also want to emphasize that it still isn’t enough, and so all of us have to do our part. It is quite possible that I have been reading way too many essays published in liberation days recently, but as far as I’m concerned, until so many people are out that the need to come out is erased for everyone (and that includes trans and genderqueer and gender-nonconforming folks, by the way), we’re not finished and we can’t be complacent and we all have to do our parts, even in our tiny university community.

4 thoughts on “Princeton and LGBT Community

  1. Hey Emily,
    It’s Angelina – your gender studies lecture neighbor :) I just came across this after reading your blurb about Professor Canaday’s new book. I found this entry to be very thought provoking; I’ve really been trying to learn about the dynamics of the LGBT Center, especially because I’ll be a peer advisor in the fall. Do you think the problems you’ve brought up have more to do with Princeton’s (and society’s) perception of the center or with the Center itself and its goals and ways of doing things?

    For my freshman seminar, which compared the LGBT movement and the civil rights movement, my midterm paper was about group identity in the Pride Alliance and how the PA is able to unify its members by not having codified labels/requirements for group membership. That then turned into an academic article that I helped Professor Ghaziani research and conduct interviews. We worked a lot with the archives you mention – they’re in Mudd library and they’re absolutely fascinating. I’ll definitely send you a copy of the article when it comes out (not for a while I’d imagine) but I also thought you might be interested in getting in touch with Professor Ghaziani – we talked a lot about some of the things you mentioned and I know he, as a sociologist, is really interested in how and why things like the Pride Alliance and people’s relationships with it (and its numerous predaccessors) change.

    Just some thoughts :) – I’ve never really experienced blogging/commenting on blogs, but like I told you in class- your links and things provide ample and awesome distraction from paper writing and work haha. Hope your summer’s going well!

  2. Angelina,

    Thanks so much for writing! After a lot of angst (see this post) about whether to do the peer education thing, I decided against it, precisely because I don’t see my attitude towards queer identity and politics lining up with the LGBT Center’s. My identity is a lot more politicized and I think overcomplicated than the Center’s, which by definition has to be apolitical and straightforward. I understand why that is, and am cool with agreeing to disagree, but I wish there were more spaces on campus for people who wanted to deconstruct their identities in more analytical terms or who wanted to talk about more political issues. Does that make any sense? I’m not sure if it does. I think, though, that there’s also a sense on campus that the LGBT Center is omnipresent, but isn’t going to speak directly to Person X’s specific issue. I think only a set group of people think of going to the LGBT Center for help and resources, or the Pride Alliance for social space. I think either those people need to recruit more actively, or someone else needs to. I’d like to see the campus LGBT (and allied) community organized, but I’m honestly not sure how that should or could happen.

    Oh man, I wish I had the opportunity to take your freshman seminar! That sounds amazing, and please send me a copy of the article. I’d like to talk to Prof. Ghaziani about his experience with the archives—maybe I’ll do that when I get back to campus—because I’m interested in doing a JP on the founding of the Gay Alliance of Princeton. I’m really interested in gay and LGBT life at universities right now, as an academic focus as well as a practical one.

    Thanks again so much for commenting—this is great stuff to think about. Hope you’re enjoying your summer too!

  3. No that totally makes sense. I actually learned about how apolitical the Center is during my interview when I said I’d love to have a venue to discuss issues like gay marriage and adoption – while I understand that it makes sense for the peer educators to have a neutral role, I agree with you that there needs to be another venue for political activism. Along the same lines, I’m really disappointed I didn’t know about the Prop 8 and NOM protests on campus until after they happened (Way to go, by the way). Do you know anything about the Queer Radicals? They’re a branchoff of the PA but have a pretty different mindset (though most of the members, I hear, are the same.) I ultimately decided to become a peer advisor because in the midst of my research for that paper, I saw a need for more Allies to have a way to be actively involved and supportive. I hope I can help communicate that to prefrosh.

    Yea the seminar was really fascinating- I found it helped me a lot in our history class because I had learned a lot of the social movement theory behind it. There’s a POL class about social movements through history also…can’t recall the number and I don’t think it’s been offered in the fall- but defintely keep an eye out for it.

    Amin is great – he would definitely be able to help you with independent research or just gaining more general knowledge about all this. If you want to get in touch with him through me, he and I are friends now and I’d be more than happy to get you guys connected.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your links and posts – they, along with some great Princeton courses, have really gotten me thinking. Keep it up! :)

  4. Yeah, one thing we need to work on in the fall is doing better protest outreach to folks who might want to participate. The NOM protest was really hastily organized, and so only a few people heard about it—which was a problem, obviously.

    I have heard of the Queer Radicals (I think their main job is sponsoring the Terrace drag ball), but they don’t seem like they’re too active, and the fact that they are mostly the same people means there’s not a lot of diversity of opinion IMO.

    When I get back to campus, I would love to get in touch with Ghaziani. I’ll get back to you! Thanks much again for all your thoughts!

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