Grinnell College is an open-minded campus where people of all ethnicities and sexualities are accepted. Right? After all, could we call ourselves a liberal arts college if we didn’t love our gays? To determine if queerness is accepted at and integrated into Grinnell’s culture, it’s important to define the queer community. So what exactly does the queer community at Grinnell College look like? And what makes it different from the Grinnell community at large? How does the queer community fit into Grinnell’s broader culture?
To answer these questions, I interviewed Grinnell students (and one alum!) to find out what the queer community has to say. I wanted to draw a portrait of a 21st century queer community at a liberal arts college because now is a definitive moment for queer communities everywhere.
I think it’s important to ask these questions at Grinnell because it asks us to look at our community and really think about our place in it. Grinnell students are used to this kind of self reflexive tradition, but beyond this, I wanted to do the queer community a service by providing an intimate and honest portrayal of what our colleagues and friends have to say about being queer in a time like this. In a place like Grinnell, is being queer even that big of a deal?
At first I thought, maybe it isn’t.
Maybe I’m writing this article just because I love gay stuff. As I was telling my roommate and a friend about how I was writing an article on queer life at Grinnell, they gave me the traditional round of kudos for doing something I was interested in. Then, one of them mentioned how he had heard from a gay friend that the queer hookup scene was frustrating and difficult.
“ Yeah I don’t understand what that’s all about,” he said.
I sat there for a second as my mind summoned the many reasons why the queer hookup scene can be frustrating. So I told my friend, “Well have you ever thought about how few queer people there are compared to straight people?” They looked at me for a moment until an Aha! look dawned on their faces.
My roommate chirped up, “Oh, so you guys have less options?”
“Uh, yeah,” I told him. “If you’re a straight guy trying to hook up with a girl and you don’t get the girl you’re hoping for, there are tons of other girls you could go for.”
“But it’s not the same for you guys, because there are only so many queer people, right?” he asked me. Now they were starting to get it! “And what if they’re, like, your friend and you don’t want to hook up with them?”
For a second, I was overwhelmed with the sensation of “How do they not know … ?” But then I thought, “How could they know?” If I could put us out there and show people what we’ve got, maybe it would illuminate some things that the Grinnell community at large had never even considered.
So I went around and interviewed queer Grinnellians. I didn’t know what kind of questions I could ask to get a sense of people’s queer experience. Did that mean I needed to ask them how much they love RuPaul? Whether they prefer Madonna or Lady Gaga? If they were a member of the SRC?
But as I began to interview, I didn’t need to ask questions about gay shit. These people were willing to open up to me about their lives if prompted in the right direction, as if they were waiting for the opportunity to talk about their queer experiences. As I interviewed them, I found some wonderful insight on the queer community and how it functions within Grinnell. I got a real sense of the personal triumphs, frustrations, fears, and love that queer students feel at Grinnell.
This is not so much a profile of several queer Grinnelians, as it is a description of some of the experiences, strategies, and motivations of the queer community. I interviewed Isaac Walker ‘15, Deshuan Peters ‘14, Austin McKenny ‘15, Keilah Courtney ‘13, Violeta Ruiz Espigires ‘15, Christian Castaign ‘14, Michael Riegsecker ‘15 and alumnus Zoe Schein ‘12.
The way that these queer students negotiated their places in the Grinnell community on a daily basis was fascinating. It’s a constant process of adjustment and self-analysis. We’ve all learned what to look out for, how to project ourselves, and, perhaps most importantly: how to adjust behavior to fit the groups that we’re in.
QUESTION: Do you identify as queer, and when did you identify as such and to who?
Isaac Walker: I would identify first as gay and then queer. I came out sophomore year of high school, so I was all the way out when I came to Grinnell.
Deshaun Peters: I identify as queer. I made a realization my sophomore year of high school. A close friend had kind of always known, but that’s when I came out to my immediate family.
Austin McKenny: I’ve identified as queer since I was 15 years old. Pretty heavy set in queer identity [transmale] when I got here.
Keilah Courtney: I do identify as queer. The label I use for the sake of simplicity is bisexual.
Christian Castaign: I do identify as queer. I would say that I’m a gay man.
Violeta Ruiz: I don’t say I’m queer. I say I’m gay. I tend to evade saying I’m a lesbian. I don’t know why, but I think there’s a lot of assumptions that come with the word.
Zoe Schein: I do identify as queer. It’s the easiest term to use.
Michael Riegsecker: Just gay at this point. I used to identify as bisexual but I’ m not really interested in going back to girls at the moment.
It was funny, because people hesitated when asked to give their name and sexual orientation. Although I wanted to present my interview subjects as more than just names and labels, I could tell from the hesitation of my interviewees that these were words they felt the need to choose carefully.
QUES TION: Do you think that queer life at Grinnell is different from queer life from where you come from?
Violeta: In Spain, when I was 16 and one of my friends came out, she made friends with a shit ton of lesbians. The friend-group was very incestuous. This friend who dated this friend who’s the ex of this friend and now wants to get with this friend. And it’s something I see here in Grinnell.
Austin: Yeah, it’s definitely different. The L-word is totally a real thing! At least in Atlanta: circles of people who have slept together. The culture at Grinnell is a lot more positive here than in the South, where there’s a lot of homophobia.
The L-Word is a reality TV show that follows the lives of young, hip queer women from different parts of the U.S. The show does not hold back on the sauciness, ripe with scenes of women canoodling in showers and under bed sheets.
Isaac: For me, it’s very visible in Madison, but it’s a small group. Most of them are out and proud for the most part, but it’s a minority culture.
Keilah: In West Hollywood, queerness is not something necessary seen as something to be celebrated or worth fighting for. It’s tolerated.
Christian: Queer life in Grinnell is very small. Grinnell queer life here is so different because it’s so ingrained in what people are learning about the LGBQT community and its so central to how we understand queerness, where that’s not the case in San Francisco.
Michael: I’ m from Goshen, Indiana and there is no queer scene as far as I know of. This summer I met someone who introduced me to his gay friend group of like 8 people, but I wouldn’t say there’s a community for 32, 000.
Deshuan: Back in Chicago, we can see a distinction between what I do in Chicago or when I’m in the Southside. Grinnell is a safer place for all types of expression. You won’ t get that type of freedom in lots of other places.
Whenever I hear a mention of Chicago, my ears perk up. I know the Southside that Deshuan is talking about; a place where the ideal queer presentation is a mix of self-assured confidence and don’t-fuck-with-me hardness.
Do you ever find yourself navigating selves? For example, the token queer vs. someone who happens to be queer?
Christian: When I was younger, I had some shitty experiences when I couldn’t hide that I was gay and people would call me out on it. I wish I could go back in time and say some sassy comment, but I was just angry at the time. Now I focus first and foremost that I’m safe, before I can identify in any way.
Austin: I don’t usually censor myself around people because of their sexuality. But sometimes I do that with people with different majors; I wouldn’t want to talk about queer theory with people I don’t know very well because its kind of pretentious. I feel like that makes me a token queer.
Zoe: I’m gonna have my style, and if that means people know I’m queer, I don’t care. If I’m walking down the street in my boy pants and short haircuts, I’m aware that I like look gay. I’ve very rarely been around people who were actively trying to assimilate.
Michael: I just don’t want to come off as not serious about our athletics. I want to fit in better. I don’t talk about gayness as much because it’s not something they can relate to. I have queer friends that I talk to about that stuff.
Isaac: Well It’s mostly with straight men that I change my performativity. I’m less likely to be like, “omg Ke$ha,” you know. I also change my voice when I’m with gay men or women when compared to men. I’m more likely to talk about what men talk about.
I know exactly the kind of switching that Isaac is talking about. I’ve caught myself doing it on multiple occasions. But I’ve also admired myself when I don’t feel the need to do it; when I get straight friends to watch an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or get their opinions on the latest One Direction song as I’m fan-boying over Niall, my Irish prince from One Direction.
Keilah: I get frustrated with myself that I sometimes think conversations are only for certain people. And that’s not me talking the talk that I believe in.
Christian: When I’m with my friends I can be whoever I want to be. But outside of that, that person can’t exist. It’s something I’ve accepted and internalized but at the same time part of me hopes and wishes that one day I won’t have to worry about this, that one day LGBQT people will have a right to exist publically in all spheres.
Keilah: It’s impossible to break all my identities apart, and I refuse to do so. I am a queer black woman from Los Angeles from a lower middle class working family. All of that works with each other and I would be a completely different person if one of those things changed. And I never ever fully step out of my intersections.
Deshaun: Being black and identifying as queer, growing up with a Baptist Christian family, the gay identity is very hard to come to terms with. There’s culture between being black or they really dislike queer identity, and I had to learn how to interact with both identities; black and queer not being able to meld.
Isaac: I wish I could be like Dorian Corey from Paris Is Burning, who’s just so open and doesn’t hide anything about who he is. I want that to be me.
QUESTION. Grinnell’s reputation as accepting of queerness: Is that the reality? Does that affect your comfort at Grinnell?
Deshuan: Heterosexuality is the norm, and everything [else] is deviance, from birth. Once you become older and more comfortable in your old skin, you push and push because you were pushed down for so long, and your own identity and identification was stifled the way you were brought up and people were so forceful. But when I came here, some senior queer students, Juan Garcia and Lily Cross, really helped me be ok with going for it.
Zoe: There are these people encouraging you to be self-reflexive and be self-conscious, and partially it’s people who for four years said, “You are of value, you belong to this community in some way, and you’re important.” You can’t overestimate how that affects you. That’s affirmation that a lot of queer people don’t get. It feels good going into the world thinking I’m of value to someone, to a community, and I have something to contribute.
I found myself agreeing with what Zoe was saying. There have been nights when I’ve gone out dressed to the T with a snakeskin dress, pearls, and black lipstick. Before I went out to face the music, I fidgeted in my room as I adjusted every part of my outfit. “This isn’t Drag Show,” I remember thinking. “ You got some nerve dressin’ up.” Yet, that night, I had praise heaped upon me like a homecoming veteran. Every compliment from my peers reminded me of how special the queer community here was; I wasn’t just receiving support from fellow queers, but the community at large was letting me do my thing and loving it! With every compliment, I was reminded that only at a place like Grinnell could I ever do what I did— casually wear a dress and lipstick on the weekend. If I did so in the real world, I could potentially be putting my safety, not just my pride, at risk. But here, I never felt threatened in the slightest.
Violeta: I haven’t encountered anyone feeling uncomfortable with me being openly gay. I feel more confident to say, “Yeah I’m gay.” But the myth that we’re so open and aware is not all true. I was talking about AIDs with a Russian major, and he said if it’s an issue it wouldn’t be talked about. It wasn’t till last year when being gay was legal. What do you see wrong with it? It straight up associates AIDS with gay people.
Michael: I feel comfortable in almost every setting unless I’m around the football/baseball/basketball team. They make me a little uncomfortable but that’s the only time I feel particularly uncomfortable. But I don’t feel like I’m at any disadvantage not interacting with those people.
Keilah: I think Grinnell is definitely more accepting of queerness than many other campuses. And it’s an incredible privilege that I often have to check. I think for the most part Grinnell can put its money where its mouth is. How many schools could you have cross dress to class day, or a queer professor and nobody bats an eye. Or you can say in class that you are queer, and it’s “on to the next reading.” I think sometimes in social situations, people are flawed and that’s ok.
Michael: I just recently got involved with the SRC, specifically Queer Athletes and Allies. We’re trying to bring awareness to the dynamics of athletics and how it’s a very different atmosphere. A couple years ago at the SRC flip cup tournament, someone on the sports team called someone else a faggot. Because some of the sports teams don’t have openly queer people on them, they’re not very sensitive to those kinds of things.
Christian: In our age group, we either adopt the whole “progressive” label and group ourselves together or separate ourselves. There needs to be more conversations about where I’ m at and where you’re at and sometimes it doesn’t happen and that’s disappointing.
Deshaun: I feel like there’s an effort to be a cohesive community but there’s a lot of disconnect between all the groups on campus. There are people coming to terms with their queerness, people who’ve established themselves as queer accepted it for a long time, then there’s the straight community.
Violeta: Especially here when you think oh we’re liberal we vote for Obama, but there are so many people here that are oblivious to so many things and not interested in changing their opinion. People here are like Social Justice we do so many things to be progressive. But we’re not accomplishing anything if I have conversations with people everyday who hold these kinds of beliefs. People need to be able to step out of themselves.
Isaac: I feel like there’s this ridiculous dream that if you bring all different people from different background to a place like Grinnell, that they’ll lose their previous preconceived notions and behavior and just love each other.
Michael: For how progressive this school is I feel like I feel like the minority groups on campus are not so progressive. Not saying that I think these groups are destructive or exclusive. I just wish they would make it aware to everyone on campus that everyone is welcome. I don’t even know the other racial groups on campus. And maybe that says something that I don’t even know what they are. They’re not even a presence on campus. At least, I’ve not noticed them really. If the point of that group is to bring those people together, I feel like they shouldn’t be offended when they’re not reaching out.
Keilah: I think at Grinnell, the queer super powers have their hearts in the right place. They push the dialogue and they push the activities and they really try to put the theory into action. But I’ve also heard people complain about everything. From the way something was phrased, to who was running an event, to how it was too ambitious, how it wasn’t ambitious enough. I personally appreciate the dialogue that comes from it, but I have no patience for people who have nothing to do but bitch and moan. I know too many people in this community who want to work for a greater community for Grinnell than for people to offer their own two cents then leave. There’s never gonna be a perfect solution. But if we understand that we’re working towards an ideal, then I think we can get there.
Progressiveness: the queer community’s greatest advantage as well as its greatest weakness? Perhaps we’re so critical of our own identities that we sometimes forget to acknowledge that our efforts are geared towards building a community. The kind of issues that Michael brings up demonstrate that the queer community is not all on the same page. So how can we reach out to the Grinnell community at large when there are divisions within the queer community itself? I’m not sure how we can do this, but we must acknowledge that these divisions exist before we can develop plans to bridge these gaps.
Isaac: Well there is The Track Team. I don’t know how queer people on track team actually feel, but the fact that there are gay men integrated into the track team is pretty cool. They’re just kinda chillin’.
Zoe: The community is nice. Every part of campus is plastered in safe space posters. In 2010 and 2011 that vandalism. When campus was vandalized about “all fags need to die” it really upset me. But I had non-queer friends who wrote me “I have no idea what you’re feeling, but I’m with you. And if there’s anything you need, I stand behind you 100%.” The campus culture is not perfect, politically, but people have big hearts. They wanna be behind you as much as they can, and sometimes they don’t know how, but it’s there.
Christian: My first year, there was a hate crime on campus against a lesbian student, whose room was graffitied and vandalized. There was massive campus action: queer students and straight allies stopped going to class and sat in front of the JRC. That student no longer goes here, unfortunately, but the way that the students and even faculty stopped and was like this is not ok was incredible.
QUES TION: Do you find it difficult to pursue or have a relationship on campus? Hook-Up Culture?
Isaac: I think it’s different in that they’re like a very restricted number I don’t want to speak for the whole queer culture cuz I only hook up with gay men. It takes the same way the hookup culture works at Grinnell. It’s a limited pool of people to hook up with; you’re also connected to them in other ways and you’re part of the queer community and if you’re not friends, you have mutual friends. I don’t want to bash the gay hook up culture but it seems incestuous to me and that turns me off.
Deshaun: The queer community is so small and you find those people in the beginning. IN the beginning, you get into friend zone so it’s difficult to pass that zone and then you want to keep them as friends so a part of the community is crossed off.
Michael: There’s a lot of overlap in terms of friends and who you’ve hooked up with. In the straight community there are men and women and they hook up with the other half. In the queer community, it’s a different social dynamic. I was involved with this guy and we eventually realized that we had hooked up with three of the same people.
Violeta: Yes it is incestuous. You find yourself talking much more with people you’ve hooked up with in one random night. For example, if I was to hook up with some random guy on the football team, I would never interact with him because I don’t hang out with those people. But in the queer community you can’t do that because everybody knows each other.
Keilah: I’ve had some very unpleasant hookup situations with the opposite sex mostly with the fact that I was not respected and seen more as a means to an ends as opposed to a human being. But with other women, I was treated like a human being. We established consent and we respected boundaries and it being more about being two people who wanted to enjoy each other.
Christian: I’ve had my ups and downs with the hookup culture and the dating culture, but I’ve kind learned to move on beyond the petty aspects of awkwardness or cattiness, but I think overall, if I could go out and hookup I would and feel comfortable about it. I think feelings get hurt very easily and sometimes if you’re dealing with people who aren’t incredibly stable or secure, you’re playing with fire.
Austin: One thing I find more of an impediment to partners on campus is like sex positivity for me looks different than a lot of peoples’ on campus. I’m very sex positive, but I also identify as gray-sexual. Therefore, sex positivity for me looks different than people who are sexual. That would be more of an impediment I guess.
There is heart in saying that we’re sex positive but we have a long way to go. The whole campus isn’t talking about it together, we’re not gonna reach a lot of conclusions and it’s going to be a sex-nebulus for a while. The conversation just has to be more organized.
Christian: I think the hookup culture is typical of anyone our age group going through college. But I think when it comes to the queer community, you can build up reputations, and those stick to you. Once you have a reputation and you can only hook up within a certain pool of people because you’re gay, it’s like “fuck!” I think ultimately it hurts everyone because we want to be sex positive but we don’t know how because we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.
So there you have it. These queer students can’t speak for the entirety of the queer experience at Grinnell, a fact that they each acknowledged at one point or another. However, each of their experiences and opinions are valid, and together, they provide a snapshot of Grinnell’s queer community. And, honestly, I think these students should be proud of themselves.
Grinnell has a thriving queer community that’s integrated itself into Grinnell culture at large, something that’s been made possible through a combination of the devoted efforts of queer students and the open arms of the Grinnell community. Like Deshaun said, maybe queerness will always be regarded as a deviation from the norm. But these students have demonstrated that queerness is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be celebrated: something that allows us to explore identity and community in entirely ways. Here’s to queerness, and here’s to fucking shit up!