Jean/Gene Beebe ’10 was taken aback when I contacted her. “I’m curious as to how you found out about me, and why you want to interview me,” she writes in an e-mail, adding in parentheses: “(Unfortunately, in this socially conservative climate, I get quite a bit of faux interest from those interested in mocking me.)” Beebe’s concern about an antagonistic social environment hints at the answer to her question. The fact is that on a relatively conservative campus, the lone, self-proclaimed spoken-word, genderqueer activist stands out.
Beebe was difficult to miss the first time many Princetonians including me encountered her at the Program in Creative Writing’s student reading last December. Her preferred medium is slam poetry (she’s been on the competitive circuit since high school), and unlike the other students chosen for the event, Beebe went onstage and acted out her piece, “Boat on the Border”, a poem about a renegade female Roman Catholic priest ordaining other women. Beebe becomes frenzied, almost breathless when she performs in this style, flying through her lines as if she might lose control of them : “It’s a Catholic club / coining kings from priests, / where only men can lead / where incantations succeed / sacredly only if the sex of the prophets / that preach them is right.”
“What I discuss with my activism is modes of how society considers gender,” Beebe says, referring to the organization she founded, Moving ForWords. The group’s website at www.movingforwords.com describes it as “Queer-positive, gender-blending media foundation and art acquisition ‘cum-penny,’”and Beebe’s campus and online activities reflect this broad mission statement. While Beebe’s preferred medium is slam poetry, she also directed The Vagina Monologues on campus this February, which she advertised as a “Moving ForWords Production.” Meanwhile, on her website’s “glog” (gender log), Beebe opines on everything from Kegel exercises and iPod vibrators to her disapproval of the recent State of the Union Address.
“Being genderqueer is a political statement,” Beebe explains about her proclaimed sexual identity. “It’s different from being straight or gay, or male or female. Being genderqueer means you see sexual orientation as more fluid than that.” Beebe has applied her gender-blending agenda her name, which she now often writes in two parts: Jean/Gene. “Jean connotes a female subject, and Gene connotes a male subject,” she says. “They’re pronounced the same. When you put them together, you’re supposed to vacillate between the two spellings. You don’t know what my gender is, but you say Jeen.”
Jean/Gene Beebe sat down with me to discuss identity politics, gender-blending, and poetry late one recent Thursday night in the LGBT Center lounge on Frist Campus Center’s spookily empty second floor. Beebe sports a messy pixie cut and wears thick-rimmed, angular glasses – a combination that brings to mind an updated version of Velma from Scooby Doo when she speaks. “The mission statement of Moving ForWords is to problematize ideas of a binary gender system, male-female, straight-gay – in favor of a more dynamic model,” she explains, using her hands to illustrate her point. “But instead of a line, I’m looking for a more dynamic model – like a sphere, where you can cross many planes of existence through gender…The axes are constantly shifting. There’s class, race, gender, age…”
Moving ForWords, however, is not an officially-recognized student organization. “Not yet,” Beebe adds. But she is already planning future activities to challenge traditional gender roles. In our short conversation, she throws out suggestions such as altering the names of public restrooms to more inclusive terms. “Everyone could be in one room,” she says. “The Women and Men’s Bathroom…The Queer Radicals tried it,” she adds, alluding to another unrecognized campus organization. Beebe also objects to Princeton’s policy on campus activism. “You have to register protests on campus [with the administration]. That’s absurd. That completely erases the spontaneity of youth culture.”
What possessed Jean/Gene Beebe to choose Princeton over a more progressive institution like Brown or Wesleyan? “The summer before my senior year, I took courses at Drake University at Des Moines,” Beebe explains of the school near her home in West Des Moines, Iowa. One of her professors was Sally Frank, the Princeton class of 1980 graduate who famously sued three eating clubs – Ivy, Cottage, and Tiger Inn for discriminating against women. “She saw a lot of herself in me,” Beebe explains. “And I relate to her on many levels, being a radical feminist. She asked me how she could convince me to go to Princeton…She said there’s more room for growth here than at another school. At a more progressive university, I might not be able to effect as much change. And I thought, if [Sally] can do it, I can too.” Frank is still Beebe’s mentor, and they keep in touch.
As a consequence of her decision to attend an institution that didn’t fit her personality or political leanings, Beebe speaks about Princeton with some regret. “Princeton is a remarkable chauvinist…and socially conservative,” she says. “And I’m struck by the apathy of most undergraduate students that I meet in terms of attitudes on race, gender, class, and political direct action paradigms. They don’t consider certain types of people to be on level planes.” When asked what she would tell a younger version of herself applying to college, Beebe warns, “Don’t be afraid to check out more liberal institutions that are more expensive than Princeton. Weigh your decisions carefully in terms of the social climate you’re looking for.”
Beebe has been welcomed by Princeton’s LGBT community, but still feels distant from many of its constituents. She particularly regrets the low profile of queer women on campus. Every Friday night, she goes to “the Friday Night Thing” an informal meeting with lesbians and bisexual women at an undisclosed “safe space.” Her feelings about The Friday Night Thing” seem largely to sum up her sentiments about the community of queer women as a whole. “I don’t necessarily feel strongly connected with the lesbians on campus…There aren’t many of them. And they’re all very different.” she explains. “Even the ‘Friday Night Thing’ has a lot of bisexual women,” she adds with a tone that suggests disappointment with the social makeup of the group.
Beebe considers this indicative of Princeton’s conservative climate. “I think fewer women are comfortable with [coming out],” she says. “I think they’re just scared because the straight men are vicious here and they fear becoming targets…The culture of the street is a male-dominated culture. It’s like a series of frats. A woman-loving woman doesn’t feel comfortable with that. In terms of her social status, if she pretends she’s not a lesbian, she has access to more opportunities.”
Beebe admits that she is not immune to this sort of pressure. “I’ve gotten more socially conservative since I came to Princeton. I’ve noticed it in the way I dress. I’ve taken out my rings, my piercings. I’ve stopped coloring my hair. I’ve become less goofy, less vocal, less radical.” During our chat, she is wearing a dark loden corduroy vest, dark pants, and a black button-up blouse.
Standing out in the crowd, being the Other, is a common theme in Beebe’s poetry. In her presumably autobiographical poem “Underneath Unum,” which won the Mathey College Freshman Writing Contest, a young, genderqueer woman in Des Moines receives stares as she tries to go to the bathroom and contemplates how strangers must perceive her. “She tries to place me,/ put it there, but I could be a slightly chubby boy/ or a man girl (says my brother), but not, of course, / a girly man…”
But as Beebe indicates, she is quickly turning her personal experience with adversity and alienation into a marketable product. She and her creative writing professor Susan Wheeler have put together a manuscript of her poems set in Iowa and are preparing to send it to publishers.
Beebe’s poems do not always draw on her personal experience, though. Some people have approached her after hearing her perform her female priest poem “Boat on the Border” to ask if it is autobiographical. She explains that it’s not. But these listeners are right to a certain extent. The closing lines of the poem could very well be Beebe’s personal call-to-arms in the coming years at Princeton and beyond: “Yes, women will lead/ And we will rock this boat.”