It’s that time of year again when the staircases are rainbowed up, the walk from my dorm to Frist smells like lilacs, and supposedly, hidden somewhere in the nooks of Princeton campus, are over 1,000 gay alumni ready to party.
Correction one: some of them might not be ready to party. Many are here to do other things—attend lectures, eat crudité, retire early. I would hate to imply that all gay people are fun, or even remotely more festive than the norm. Correction two: I’m sure all the alumni do not identify as gay. A whole slew of things, I imagine. It is possible that between them, there are one thousand separate identifications. Identity is not a passport; there’s no reason for everyone to carry the same card. Some people might identify as two things. I’ve heard it said that you no longer even need to identify as anything at all (that would sure frustrate Grindr, though).
Wherever they are, I’d like to meet them. I walk past the Rainbow Lounge and see a few men eating grape leaves, and I blush.
For some reason, I’ve found myself do-si-doing around LGBT center events for the last two years. I’m not alone in this, either. As freshmen, my friend Lara and I signed ourselves up on the Rainbow Lounge Listserv. We receive emails about weekly lunches, lectures and mixers. We keep up with the events, but only in the past tense. “There was a gay social last night,” she’ll tell me. “They were serving free wine all this afternoon.” Reunions was the only time we ever successfully attended a Rainbow Lounge event, and even then, we told ourselves we were going for the food. My friend Andy and I do the same thing. The Rainbow Lounge has a certain chokehold on us which I can only describe as a mixture of fright and awe. We hear murmurings of Q parties and joke about finding older men to take us out to Elements, but whenever an event rounds the corner, we never go. Something about so many gay people in one place seems like an indulgence. We lose our bearings, as if walking through a maze of mirrors. Inevitably, we find a reason not to go. “I’ve heard those parties are weird,” we’ll say. “Will went to one and hated it.” Underscoring these excuses is the idea that we’d show up only to feel uninvited. Those parties are for other people. Center gays.
This is neither my term nor my classification. The phrase “center gays” is one commonly thrown around. It includes those who made a nest in the LGBT Lounge—the ones who attend LGBT events and ice-cream socials, know all the letters in the acronym, mentor fledgling queers and march on Washington because when there’s a choice between completing a Blackboard discussion post and securing their rights, they choose rights.
Allow this term, too, to exist on a spectrum. If it helps you out, understand it on a scale of one to six.
For argument’s sake, a one is your quintessential “person who happens to be gay.” A one will place all of his other identities first (Floridian, Scotch-Irish, Cubs fan) and takes hidden joy in voting Republican. A six is the other way around: a gayness that happens to take human form. A six complains that straight people are boring, a waste of space, would-be-gay-if-fear-weren’t-holding-them-back. There was a guy I met once, a center gay, to whom I thoughtlessly referred to the Rainbow lounge as the “gay center.” I remember feeling a moment of panic, hoping I hadn’t spoken myself into a lecture on labels. But after a brief silence, he burst out laughing. “You’re so cavalier,” he said. “Your irreverence is so refreshing.” That guy wasn’t a six, but he was close.
I would say that I fall somewhere around a two. Lara is also a two. Andy might edge closer to two-and-a-half. He is taking a seminar on LGBT history which has since awakened him to the cause, but even he steers clear of the LGBT center. Inside of us we feel a growing sense of debt. We haven’t found the time to march or picket. We expect our rights to trickle in without so much as a button on our backpacks. We should inhabit the lounge some time, peruse The Advocate. It would be good for us—for the whole.
“We’re bad gays,” Andy says.
I’ll call us diaspora gays.
* * *
On a Friday night, Lara and I were sitting on her couch, eating handfuls of Life cereal and melting into the cushions. Doing nothing feels less wasteful in another’s company.
“There’s a gay alumni party tonight,” Lara tells me. “In the Fields Center.”
“We should go,” I say. The handful of Life finds my mouth imprecisely. Shards of the stuff tumble out of my hand and get caught in my sweater. “Maybe you’ll find a girl there.”
“Maybe. It’s so far away.” She doesn’t seem too convinced. She spent last semester frustrated by the mysterious lack of lesbians on campus. This semester she’s been more resigned, wastes more nights in her suite and fewer club-hopping in pursuit of imaginary girls.
Without verbal acknowledgment, we get up and start walking. We act like we don’t know where we’re going or why. It is a Friday and naturally, there is nothing else to do.
We drift for fifteen minutes before we find the Fields Center. Neither of us knows where it is, but music thumps and we follow it. Forty feet from the front door, we pause. We see the backs of a cluster of men, slightly chubby, drinking beers and talking. Some of them have bald spots; most wear Mardi Gras beads. It seems that women, once again, were an empty promise.
We step closer. This is a glimpse into the future, and we hate it.
A short, voluptuous man with tight jeans and a chinstrap beard opens the door. “You guys coming in?” he asks.
We look at each other and shrug. He lingers at the door and then leaves us.
“Want to go?” I ask.
“There are no ladies.”
“Not in the doorway, at least.”
“We can get beers.”
“We did walk all this way.”
In the Fields Center, we appear to be the only partygoers our age. Most men wear button-down shirts and too-tight belts. A few have on ties; one man—maybe in his young thirties—wears a tight black shirt and boxer-briefs. He eyes us, and considering him, I smile.
Next thing I know Lara and I are back outdoors.
“I saw a hot girl,” Lara says, “and then I realized it was my crazy ex.”
“Maybe she was looking for you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Do you think we’re going to be those 40-year-old alums that come back?”
“We won’t,” she says.
“One can only hope.”
Like good diaspora gays, we wander off.
The syndrome of the diaspora gay—contrary to what it may seem—is not a rebellion against the stereotype. Lara and I do not walk away out of scorn. Stereotypes are something many of us have learned to poke fun at, if not embrace. I recall a night when Andy and I drank wine, ate shortbread cookies and watched Brokeback Mountain just because we could. Instead, the reason we turn away, and the reason the diaspora scatters is a deep-seated, somewhat adolescent need for independence. No matter how comforting the LGBT center may seem, the diaspora gay will always refuse the support. We need to know that we can find acceptance in other spheres, meet LGBT (in my case, specifically G) students without the rainbow crutch. We don’t want to rely on Fields Center shindigs to fuel our sexual contentment. Most of all, we need to know that we can come out—and stay out—on our own. Even if we know it is the hard way.
Andy and I came out together as freshman, and it took us more than a semester. We sometimes made out with girls and criticized each other for it. Over breaks we would promise to tell our families, only to return in the same closet we left in, convinced it was simply convenience that held us back. What resulted was a constant ball-change across sexuality lines, which we didn’t overcome until our loving mothers begged a confession out of us. Each was convinced that the other’s parents were more understanding. Sometimes we circled the Rainbow Lounge, but we didn’t permit ourselves to walk in.
Another part of the syndrome: as much as we call ourselves bad gays, we never entirely believe it. We convince a part of ourselves that what we’re doing—blending in—is in its passive way, a form of activism. After all, it is we who wander in to all professional and social spheres—transcend the boundaries of eating clubs, go out on a limb and become engineers, or maybe even play a varsity sport. It is up to us to not study ourselves, to create enclaves in as many activity groups on campus as we can, so that the LGBT pamphlets can later point to them as “gay-friendly spaces.” It’s because of us that Princeton was labeled one of America’s most tolerant campuses. In our quiet way, we are depended on: agents so undercover we haven’t quite discovered we’re fighting.
Saturday is the final night of the conference. I’m in my room working but I want to be out; tonight is the night all the alums crawl out of the lectures and back to the street. I text Andy. Without asking, I know he’s at Ivy.
“I’m going to Tower. The alums are teeming,” I write.
“I kind of wish I were there.”
I already know he’s not coming.
At Tower, one thousand alums have been boiled down to thirty. The theme of the night is “thrift shop” which a number of guys have construed as an excuse to show leg.
It’s not long before I find myself in a circle of alums. All of them are guys in their mid-twenties, all drunk. To spark conversation, I ask about the conference.
“Lots of single guys,” one of them says. He stares just above my head, and I get the feeling he is less excited than sad. He shuffles around. “All the women showed up with wives and kids and Subarus,” he says.
I tell him about the chubby men in Mardi Gras beads. He nods.
“The gay guys all came back alone.”
Something told me the guy in the boxer-briefs didn’t have a boyfriend.
We get more beers and I drink it all in: these gay men with bald spots, my fear of becoming them, the real world. I remember when my ex visited earlier in the semester. He was single in New York, and he complained about the lack of intellectual gays. All they want to do is hook up, he said. None of them can carry a conversation, or if they can, they’re not content with it. I told him I was sorry, but I said it to myself as much as him. I didn’t want to enter that world. In front of me I watch a hairy man dance alone with his shirt unbuttoned, and I realize that the club is clearing out. All these conferences—what drives them? Sweat rings gather under the hairy man’s arms, and I wonder whether he was a Center gay in his time. I question if there even was a Rainbow Lounge. If there had been, maybe he would have gone—if only for the free wine and condoms—but maybe he was like me: jaded, rainbow-avoidant, slightly apathetic to the cause. Just another spec in the diaspora, and this weekend is just a brief return to the center. Fast forward ten, twenty years and I’ll be that man with my shirt off, drunk and wearing boxer-briefs in the Fields Center. There’s a delicate interdependence at play. The center and the diaspora are held together with a certain centripetal force, matched like axel and wheel. The center plans events, and we attend them. We move through life with the illusion of drifting away, but really we are circling the center.
To my future, balding self with the glowsticks: drink another beer and have fun with it.