“Where are the lesbians?” was the question that gave birth to this article. It was raised at a Nass meeting by one of our editors, and not one person in the room was able to offer insight. That the question was even asked is in itself an issue. Why do so many Princeton students tell me they do not see a strong gay/lesbian/bisexual (various individuals preferred each term) women’s culture? At a school our size, how was there this seemingly hidden population?
Rather than a definitive analysis of gay life at Princeton, the article that follows is based on personal perspectives from several individuals. In no way could anyone, least of all myself, possibly offer a conclusive picture of what it is like to be gay/lesbian/bi at Princeton.
Finding interview subjects proved a challenge at first. One girl who agreed to meet with me is Josie.* She identifies as bisexual, but is not fully out with everyone. She hooked up with a handful of female friends in high school, and thought it would be an option in college. But so far, she’s only found frustration. “I have no idea how I would even go about it,” she says. “Even just communicating that I’m into girls.”
One resource center that many students see as a meeting point for gay/lesbian/queer students is the LGBT Center. But Josie has limited experience with the Center. She went to one or two events last year, but didn’t feel comfortable. “I don’t know anyone there,” she says. “I think some people assume that all gay people on campus know each other—but the Center is just another student group you might not want to go to without a friend.”
Showing that our “where are the lesbians?” question might not be just a query raised by an ignorant group of straight people, Josie herself says she does not feel that there is a gay female presence here at Princeton. She doesn’t hear about gay women, and does not see them on the Street. “I don’t know any girls who hook up with other girls,” Josie says. She recounts a time when she was dancing with another girl in a club, and it felt like the “start of something.” But two guys came up and started dancing with them. The boys assumed that the two girls were just friends looking for guys to get with. The possibility of “something” dissolved.
Even in situations like that one, with “attractive, single, bi-or-lesbian girls,” Josie says she doesn’t feel comfortable acting on her suspicions. Of this ambiguity she says, “It feels like I’m in social no-man’s land.” She explains that it would hurt less to be rejected than to remain unsure of the other girl’s feelings and attraction. “It brings this extra layer of ‘I shouldn’t have even tried.’” As someone who socializes on the Street, rather than the LGBT Center, “there’s no cultural template,” she says. “I’m not bi enough on one end, and too bi on the other.”
Claire*, on the other hand, is still closeted. She assumed she would come out when she got to Princeton, but when she got on campus, she did not feel comfortable revealing her sexual orientation. She did not want to meet with me in person, so I received her interview through a proxy. Like Josie, she said she definitely feels the lack of a gay female presence. “We don’t have that many ‘social’ lesbians,” she says. This makes her, as someone just coming into Princeton, think: “Where is there a place for me?”
A quick note on the distinction between “social” and “center”: many girls
mentioned this divide, but others have a problem with these labels. For this article, I was told that “social” essentially
refers to those who enjoy going out to the Street and socializing in eating clubs. “Center” refers to those who tend to socialize and meet people through the Center. These are by no means strict definitions, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
Like Josie, Claire appreciates the availability of the Center, but says, “Why should I need to do that? Gay guys can look up to other guys as an example for how you can function very normally or in a variety of ways.” She says that the best thing for her would be “talking to older girls who have gone through it.” She has not been able to find these role models, and does not want to go to the Center. “I don’t know any gay girls or bi girls,” Claire says. “You don’t see girls hooking up anywhere, basically.” She notes that this is different from other colleges, or even from her high school experience. She remembers going out to parties or clubs where girls got drunk and hooked up with each other. “I’ve been to parties at colleges of my friends and seen girls hook up,” she notes, but she hasn’t seen that here at Princeton.
Another girl I spoke to, Anna*, notes, “It’s frustrating when straight people are like, ‘There is no one for me to hook up with.’” There are constant and open narratives—in print, gossiping, or general griping—on this campus about how hard it is to find relationships with members of the opposite sex. And yet, for non-straight women, it can be even more difficult.
Many women spoke about how the absence of “markers” makes it difficult to discern if someone is interested in women. “There are some girls who dress in a certain way, but that’s far from universal,” explained one student. And because women’s fashion choices are incredibly diverse, even dressing in a certain way might not be interpreted as intended. Claire thinks this makes it easier for girls to conceal (or at least not immediately reveal) their sexuality.
Anna echoed this sentiment. “I think it’s harder with girls because sexuality is so fluid,” she says. “It’s less obvious who is queer.” She thinks that gay men might be able to find each other more easily, and are also aided by Grindr, a social app that facilitates hookups.
“Relationships” also includes friendships with guys. Josie says that coming out as bisexual affected her male friendships. “It made my relationships with guys so weird,” she says. She found that they would get turned on when she tried to talk to them about her sexual experiences with women. “There’s an element of sexiness for men around gay female relationships that is not present in gay male/straight female friendships,” she hypothesizes.
In contrast, Anna loves being friends with straight guys. “They like being friends with me because they can
get a girl’s perspective,” she laughs. And she says there’s much less sexual tension than Josie describes. Despite this, most of her friends are straight girls. But—as with this whole article—Anna acknowledges that there’s obviously “a whole spectrum.”
Anna is also an athlete, and initially had doubts about how her team would react. “When I first came to Princeton, I thought, how can I come out to everyone without them thinking I’m looking at them in a locker room?” She built it up in her mind, until she was so stressed out about it that she finally blurted it out. “They did not bat an eyelash…Now, they’re my wingwomen,” she laughs.
When I asked Anna about the perceived separation of “center gays” from the rest of the gay population on campus, she says she is grateful for those who are politically active—such as members of the LGBT Center—but does not consider herself a part of that group. “I like that at Princeton my sexuality happens to be a part of me, but does not define me or dictate what I do on campus. People at the LGBT center who work hard as activists allow me to live like I do,” she explains. She does consider herself an activist—but on her own terms, and outside the Center.
But she thinks that people involved with the Center could be more inclusive. The same goes for students who are not involved in the Center, as she notes that some “social gays” are not welcoming enough of “center gays.” She says that many people are uncomfortable at the Center because they think people will exclusively associate them with the Center, and others think that it makes it hard to be privately gay. But, she notes, “I don’t want to criticize the Center without offering an alternative. Maybe there’s a more inclusive, dynamic way to go about it. I don’t know.”
She says it’s difficult to find a girl to randomly hook up with on the street in the way that a straight person might, but often she’s not really looking for that when she goes out. “Sometimes I just want to hang out,” she laughs. “There’s not as much of a hookup culture at Princeton,” she says. “There are lots of long-term, stable gay women in relationships on this campus.” She associates this with a term she calls “U-Hauling,” which is derived from the trope that gay women move in with each other early in relationships.
And she prefers not to hook up with girls who are not out or comfortable with their sexuality—she understands their need for space to understand their sexuality, but she approaches these situations cautiously. She has friends who do not have this same policy, and hook up with people who identify as straight or are closeted.
While some girls said they felt the absence of a social role model, Anna says she doesn’t feel like she needs an older girl to show her how to be gay and social. “I have gay role models and social role models,” she says. “I hope that in the future I could be a role model for being gay but also doing other things in your life.”
She emphasizes that she comes from a point of privilege. She says that, so far, she’s found that no one has a problem with her being gay, but says that some girls might have a harder time if they are perceived as “too gay” or gender nonconforming. Her family and friends have always been supportive, and she was totally in control of the time scale of coming out. “Someone told me, ‘It’ll feel weird right now but less weird, less weird, and less weird. It’s about you internalizing it and being comfortable with yourself,’” she says.
Before this article I didn’t know (and am still learning) about how women—my own gender, one I thought myself in-tune with—identify sexually, romantically, and socially. I think I used my status as a supporter of gay rights, and as a family member of someone who identifies as lesbian, as an excuse for not really knowing what sexuality entails. I learned that “lesbian” is a term that some women dislike. I learned about the perceived divide between “social” and “center”, and realized that the presence of an LGBT Center on campus does not mean that individuals who identify as gay/lesbian/queer/trans will feel comfortable there, or even want to seek out the Center. I learned about the frustration in not knowing if someone is even attracted to your gender, much less you as an individual.
I think I set out on this piece assuming that I could solve something. The question seemed so simple: “Where are the lesbians?” If I could find them, if I could talk to them, I would be able to understand.
The truth is that I will never be able to understand what it’s like to be gay, at Princeton or elsewhere, no matter how many eloquent, insightful interviewees I speak to. I will never be able to understand what it’s like to be Claire, and not feel comfortable “coming out”—or even fathom having to “declare” my sexuality in some way.
And an article can’t incite the kind of change I want it to. I can’t wave a wand over our social scene and make it so that two women will feel comfortable hooking up on the dance floor on a Saturday night. I can’t erase prejudice or inspire self-acceptance.
But maybe I could offer a piece of advice to our campus as a whole. Recognize that our cliques, our affiliations, our tendencies to be insular are what rise to questions like, “Where are the lesbians?”—not a lack of gay women on campus. Learn for yourself about these women and who they are beyond labels and Centers we assign them to, and then become friends or acquaintances or enemies for reasons entirely unrelated to their sexuality or identity. As Anna said, “The gay women are out there. Maybe you just don’t know them well enough.”
Eliza Mott contributed reporting to this article.