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FIFTEEN MINUTES (weekly magazine of the Harvard Crimson)

Harvard Crimson, February 22, 2001
14 Plympton Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
(E-Mail: letters@thecrimson.harvard.edu )
( http://www.thecrimson.harvard.edu/ )

The Lesbian Mystique: A Scrutiny
By Arianne R. Cohen

Ask a heterosexual boy what he thinks of lesbians. A smile will quickly appear on his face and his
eyes will reveal thoughts of all the sexual possibilities. Girls know this. Girls will kiss in the Grille
and grind on the dance floor for their amusement. The unspoken fact underlying this is that these
women are not actually lesbians. The idea of it is cool not the practice. But the real lesbians are
out there. And to these women, same-sex love is not a fleeting fad, but an identity. At Harvard, as
in much of American society, the absence of out lesbians is marked.
Where are the lesbians?
I was coming from a South Texan Catholic home, says a sophomore of her first experiences with
Harvards lesbian community. I had this foolish notion that there would be a bunch of lesbians
everywhere, practically waiting at the door for me... And there were a lot of gay men, many of
whom are now my close friends. But very few lesbians."
I didnt really expect anything, says Kate Callaghan 03. I wasnt really thinking about it. But yes,
there are very few lesbians around here.
Harvard is so fucking lame. So, so lame. Ive walked into rooms and had people grimace in disgust
because Im so elegantly femme. Its quite. Put simply, fags like me arent terribly popular at
Harvard, erotically or otherwise. There is a rush to homogeneity here. It would seem the average
gay boys erotic life is entirely contained within the covers of this months Abercrombie and Fitch
catalogue you know, enthralled with blond boys decked out in overpriced clothing and that
slicked-down hairstyle thats spiked up in the front, whiter-than-white and better at playing straight
than most straight boys can.
Being so effeminate, I have spent much of my life pointedly out. I never had a choice. In that
sense, Ive never experienced myself as what most people mean when they say closeted, though I
clearly had my own outings with family and friends. I came out directly into AIDS politics and
work on queer cinema in California, spaces that were all about calling normalcy and homogeneity
into question, both within the queer community and the community at large.
In the course of my work on queer issues at Harvard, a number of gay men have accused me of
making it harder for others to come out that, because of my experiences, I narcissistically ask
every LGBT person on the planet to be as queer as I am. My ass. Queer space is not about
establishing some ascending scale of whos appropriately queer. Its not about whos cool enough.
For me, queer space and indeed coming out as well would help people have different kinds of
desires and different ways of doing their sexuality. This does not mean we should tell the boy whos
always wanted to look like Justin Timberlake to strap on 12-inch heels and a 13-inch dildo. Its
obviously not that easy. But while you cant just change who and how you desire, you can work to
think past your own way of experiencing your sexuality and about the lives of others. Its the
failure to do so thats so narcissistic.
Obviously I have BOND in mind. BOND claims to provide a space that is beyond our normal
differences that though you might be, for example, a queer person of color or transgendered, we
can get beyond these normal differences and reach a place of commonality about some vague
concept of respect, dignity, blah, blah, blah. I mean, their acronym really begs the question not
only are our differences normal and ours but were beyond them anyway. If only our differences
were universal too then wed have BOUND! But theyd never be so creative.
BOND would claim to be neutral, apolitical, and indeed universal space, but of course they
represent a rather weighty political view namely, that of those who can afford to believe or who
really want to believe that we can bond beyond our differences by not bringing them up. What
BOND fails to take seriously is that our normal differences are part of who we are we live these
differences in very real ways. If were looking for a point of commonality, it should be in a
commitment to engaging with these differences rather than ignoring them like idiots.
Where theyre not
The Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Straight Alliance (BGLTSA) is an umbrella
organization for Harvards queer students. But their union is a precarious one. Theres really very
little in common between gay men and lesbians, aside from being ostracized, Claire E. Herrick 02
says. Society tends to look down on feminine men and masculine women, but they arent the same
thing. Not at all. Theyre not even comparable. So how did gay men and lesbian women end up
married in political alliance? The classifications for sexuality [heterosexuality and homosexuality]
are only about a hundred years old, Herrick adds. Gay men and lesbians have only recently been
lumped together.
Basic behavioral differences exist between the two groups. Men are more socially forced to face the
reality that theres no one to date, and that they need to go to a gay venue, Jesse A. Green 02-03
says. Laure E. Voop de Vulpillieres 02 echoes these thoughts: Women are more content with being
asexual. If their last relationship was six months ago, theyll say I havent met anyone, not, I havent
found anyone. When explained this way, as two groups with little in common, it is not surprising
that one group might end up under-represented, as happens with any general group dynamics.
Basic behavioral differences between men and women are more pronounced in smaller
communities, such as Harvards gay and lesbian population (the BGLTSAs mailing list currently
serves around 400 students, though many are either inactive or straight supporters). Guys have to
be either on one side of the fence or on the other, says Vulpillieres. Its hard for a guy to be
bisexual. But for women its more accepted. Women do not necessarily feel social pressures to be
lesbians if they arent straight. It is easier for them to be bisexual.
Bisexuality as a phenomenon in pop culture has made it easier for Harvard women to blend in.
Very few Harvard women identify strictly as lesbians, although many more identify as bisexual.
Ever since the whole thing when bisexuality became cool, says Betty C. Luther 03, chair of
BAGELS, Hillels sexuality discussion group. There are a lot more women who dont feel the need
to define themselves. If youre bisexual its a lot easier to not come out, because lets face it, once
you graduate its a lot easier to be straight and date a man; its something to reassure the parents
with. For some people, bisexuality is like a stepping stone to coming out.
College years tend to be years of sexual exploration. Smith College is an example of this
phenomenon, known to the gay community as the birthplace of the four-year queer. In college,
when many women arent quite sure of their sexual identity, they are hesitant to accept the lesbian
label. As categories such as gay and straight are very constricting, many have latched onto more
lenient terminology, such as heteroflexible, bisexual and homoflexible.
To further the label confusion, female sexuality has a tendency to be much more fluid than male
sexuality. In two 60-person surveys Vulpillieres ran for sociology projects asking general
populations of men and women to rank their sexuality on a scale of one to five, five being
completely homosexual and one completely heterosexual, women invariably did not rate
themselves as ones or fives, implying the slightly flexible nature of female sexuality. Not one
woman identified as a five, Vulpillieres says, while only one male identified as not a one or five.
Unlike men, many women do not rule out dating someone outside of their usual status quo. I
wouldnt ever rule out dating a guy, says Callaghan.
Many of Harvards queer women who classify themselves as bisexual enjoy the privacy and
anonymity Harvard gives them, happy to focus on other aspects of their lives. They criticize
Harvards gay organizations for wanting to classify and stereotype for an entire group of people
that only have issues of sexuality in common.
Im not sure what out means or entails besides me telling my parents and close friends, says a
female junior, who is involved in a homosexual relationship. Theres really not a problem [with not
advertising sexuality]. I dont know what else I would do besides walk around in a rainbow. Its
good that there are people who are politically active, but everyone who is gay or lesbian does not
have to politically active. There are other common bonds you can form with others besides
Women are not necessarily proud of being lesbians, says Vulpillieres. Theyre still hoping for a boy
and considering themselves bisexual. Theyre not going to advertise. With more women choosing to
keep their private lives private, the political sector will continue to miss them.
Visibility and politics, the two issues where lesbians and gay men seem to differ the most, are
pivotal to the BGLTSA. Often, an unaware Harvard community looks to the BGLTSA as the
spokesperson for gay issues, without recognizing that the BGLTSA only represents a portion of the
gay men and an even smaller fraction of the lesbians in their ranks. Most students dont seem to
give it much thought, says Janet Hanseth, co-chair of girlspot. They assume the whole gay and
lesbian community is the BGLTSA. Taking on the role of spin doctor, the BGLTSA tends to
handle more politically oriented events and general community concerns as they arise. Were a
non-specialized queer student organization, Michael A. Hill 02 says. We handle more political
events, speakers and faculty interaction. The organization also hosts semi-annual dances which
draw campus crowds. But, contrary to popular belief, many gay and lesbian students are not at all
affiliated with the BGLTSA. BGLTSA is by no means synonymous with the gay community.
However, even within this large BGLTSA network, there are very few lesbian women. Many joke
that they all went to Wellesley, but the question remains, why are they not as active as the gay
I was the only out gay person in my high school, so I could never test out my sexuality, the
French-born Vulpillieres says. I couldnt wait to get to America, because in America, the streets
were going to be paved with lesbians! I was so excited, I couldnt sleep the night before the prefrosh
BGLTSA [Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance] meeting. But then I
got there, and there were three women and five guys. Id expected hundreds. Three months later at
the first real BGLTSA meeting, 75 percent were guys, only seven or eight women were there and
half of them were straight supporters.
It turns out that the BGLTSA social structure, in which active male political committee members
outnumber women seven to one and only two of eight board members are female, mimics that of
the national political arena, where women have long been reluctant to participate. The social half
of BGLTSA is dominantly male, says Claire E. Herrick 02, BGLTSA political chair. Theres much
more lethargy among women to maintain social and political activity, which is unfortunate,
whereas men tend to much more make their sexuality their identity.
Nationally, higher percentages of women run for office in regions where more women are already
in office, a statistic that jibes with the BGLTSAs difficulties in maintaining women. Women are
not represented in campus groups, Callaghan says. And I think its because not many women
participate. Its a self-perpetuating cycle not many women are there, so not many go.
This remains problematic for the BGLTSA board. People ask a lot why there are two male
co-chairs of BGLTSA, says Hill. Only males ran. People say we should actively seek out women,
but we cant force them to run for office.
Being classified as lesbian, political or feminist on the Harvard campus is often perceived as deadly
to ones social status. At Harvard, women are more likely to become president or run an
organization, but theyre not as likely to stand up for what they actually believe in a social contest,
says Angela L. Peluse 01, a straight Womens Studies concentrator. Peluse adds that while fear does
not always restrict womens actions, it can still cast an underlying mood. Fear of being labeled can
extend to the general Harvard population. Some people are reluctant to take gay and lesbian
studies courses because of the connotations, Herrick says. Professor Bradley S. Epps, who is
teaching this semesters Womens Studies 103: Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies, announced
during his first lecture that students have the option of selecting an alternative, more vague course
title to appear on their transcripts. The issue resonates among gay and lesbian students enough to
warrant yesterdays student-faculty panel entitled, Should I Be Out on my Application?
Why theyre invisible
People seem to think were only gay on once a year, on National Coming Out Day, says Hanseth, a
cute, bubbly blond. Gay and lesbian-sponsored events on National Coming Out Day tend to draw
attention to gays and lesbians, commonly eliciting, I didnt know you were gay responses from
Beyond simply having a lower profile, the pooling of the lesbian populations into various pockets
is a fascinating phenomenon. As a general trend in society, lesbians tend to crop up in larger
percentages than the accepted 10 percent statistic in certain extra-curricular areas, and smaller
percentages in others. Harvard Hankido, for example, has an inordinately large lesbian
population, with all five female leadership members identifying as lesbian or bisexual. At Hankido
theres an interesting dynamic sometimes I have to remember to stop cracking queer jokes because
not everyones gay, says Herrick, a member. This trend does not only surface in the world of sports.
The vast majority of interviewees for this article concentrate in Womens Studies and ESPP. In my
ESPP 78 section last semester, over half of the 10-person class was gay, Callaghan says. Similarly,
many queer students are involved in the Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club.
Given the social nature of a well-sized, vibrant university where students often associate based on
common activities and interests, this natural pooling of gay and lesbian students makes general
student awareness of gay and lesbian life dependent on interaction. Students who happen to
participate in activities with higher gay and lesbian populations are much more likely to be aware
of the population.
There is strong gay subculture on campus, says Rebecca A. Windt 02, a straight student who
interacts with the gay and lesbian community reguarly through blockmates. Its well fleshed out in
terms of activism, but not in terms of the general Harvard world. This means that a student who
has minimal contact with gay and lesbian students (or is unaware that he or she does), may have
an extremely superficial awareness of Harvards gay community. Youre either in or youre out.
Straight students will either have many gay friends and regular contact with gay students or almost
none at all. Considering that many lesbian and bisexual women keep quiet about their seuxality, it
is to be expected that only students who know a lesbian or bisexual student well will be aware of
other women who she is dating or has previously dated.
To add to the confusion, there are small pockets of lesbian social circles, but most are
unconnected. The idea that there is a lesbian community at Harvard is a highly contestable claim.
In this way, Harvard lesbians are a particularly invisible campus group in contrast to gay men,
who seem to draw considerable attention. The male community is bigger and more noticeable.
Women will quietly have a girlfriend for a year and a half, but never be active. They might be on
the BGLTSA mailing list, says Herrick. And because it is quite common to see two women sitting
together in the dining hall or walking around campus together, the general student population
never assumes that the two may be involved in a relationship.
Where they are
Where are they? Lesbian women at Harvard clearly exist. Most lesbian women stay unaffiliated
with any BGLT group, so theyíre just not seen, says Callaghan. At Harvard, a number of lesbian
and bisexual women can be found enjoying the Boston nightclub scene. Thursday Gay Nights at
ManRay Night Club in Central Square are particularly popular among Harvard students. The club
features two main dance floors and a bar, complete with televisions broadcasting male porn from
the corners of all rooms. The smaller dance floor, mostly populated by dancing women, features a
raised platform occupied by two professional male Chippendales in thongs, one red and one blue.
The Great School of the East even has its own unofficial dancing area on the main floor, where
students tend to congregate. Whenever I see Harvard people dancing here, theyre usually dancing
with each other, Vulpillieres says. Theres a spot on the dance floor where they usually are.
Harvard students enjoy clubbing regardless of sexuality. However, due to the smallness of
Harvards gay community, clubs are very hot spots to meet and greet other gay people. Lesbian
and bisexual students flood ManRay, Avalon and Axis gay nights. Theres a decent-sized
community here, Vulpillieres says. But when it comes to personal dating preferences of what you
like, there arent that many people to date. It can get incestuous.
This seeking out of relationships outside Harvard grounds further explains the lack of visibility
lesbian and bisexual women receive, in that many carry on relationships off-campus. Seeing the
need to broaden the campus gay and lesbian populations, last year Vulpillieres founded New
England Queer College Organization (NEQCO) as a multi-campus network of gay and lesbian
organizations. With a quarter of a million college students in the greater Boston area, theres quite
a sizable area gay and lesbian population. Through NEQCO, students on different campuses have
been more aware of lesbian events in the area, the most popular of which is Wellesleys famed Dyke
Ball, which annually attracts around 1,000 area students each spring.
A few female students also take towards advertising, posting online personals at well-known gay
sites, though this method of finding others is significantly more popular among gay men. A
Tuesday evening search of the gay.com and planetout.com sites revealed seven Harvard students
perusing chat rooms and 16 personals advertising their traits. Only two were from Harvard
A number of closeted women can be found on sports teams. Cracking into the athletic women is
impossible, says Herrick, referring to the substantial number of lesbian women playing sports at
Harvard. There is an underground lesbian world, and many female athletes are only out in that
underground world, says Jones of her observations of Harvard lesbian athletes tendency to stay
amongst themselves. But where else would they be? she adds. Lesbian athletes appear to be
disconnected from each other by sport there is not one large conglomeration of lesbians or
bisexuals who identify as athletes. Still, multiple interviewees joked about the Harvard Female
Athlete Dodecahedron of Love, touching upon the same level of incestuousness the gay and
lesbian worlds feel due to small numbers. Sometimes the behavior doesnt fit the identification,
Hanseth says. The behavior is clearly lesbian, but the identification is not.
Oldrich agrees, A lot are in the middle of the spectrum. Its not black and white, and college years
are where you experiment with that. The team helps people accept their own identity, though its
always easier if someones set a precedent.
Both on and off campus, very few athletes are out of the closet. (There is currently one out male
varsity athlete and very few openly lesbian or bisexual athletes in an athletic department of 1,592
students.) For example, producers of HBOs Real Sports, a show that takes a monthly look at all
aspects of sports, spoke with upwards of 100 suspected queer female professional athletes for their
recent segment on gays in sports. In the end, only one lesbian athletes agent would speak. He
spoke with his face covered, for fear of losing his clients endorsements.
Athletics is a place where invisibility is perpetuated, says Jones. Its very irresponsible for a known
gay athlete to allow him or herself to be portrayed as straight by the media. Its not just a Harvard
problem, because its accepted by society to not have integrity about this issue.
While an incentive to coming out on a sports team is an increased level of comfort, there are many
disincentives that generally keep gay athletes quiet. Its hard to come out on sports teams because
theyre heteronormative, says Callaghan, who recently came out to the Womens Water Polo team.
On a diverse team, boys are often the only bonding point aside from the sport itself. Also, I was
tentative to come out because what if they didnt accept me? I can always get new roommates or
new friends, but I cant go play water polo by myself.
Beyond clubbing, sports and the political scene, some students make roads into Harvards gay and
lesbian community via more support-oriented organizations such as the First-Year Sexual
Orientation Discussion Group, Girlspot, BAGELS (a Jewish group) or Cornerstone (a Christian
group). Created in 1995 amongst claims that the BGLTSA was too misogynistic, Girlspot is the
only official organization for lesbian and bisexual women on campus. The group maintains
friendly relations with BGLTSA, sharing members, though Girlspot is a much more social in
orientation. This past year, Girlspot, which maintains a 100-person email list, ran a how-to
workshop on ways to pick up women. They also hosted transgendered speakers and representatives
from Parents, Family, Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
The FDO-sanctioned First-Year Group is widely praised in gay and lesbian communities for the
support it offers students at a time when the new college lifestyle is stressful enough without the
added complication of sexuality concerns. Im not really in the main gay social scene at Harvard,
says Thomas N. Saunders 02, a bisexual student. But I know a whole bunch of people from the
first-year group.
With around 20 members and usually around 10 per weekly meeting, the First-Year Group fosters
a bond among gay and lesbian students, although, as with the BGLTSA, there are very few women
present. Usually lesbian or bisexual women will stop by for a couple meetings, Vulpillieres says. I
think its nice for them to know that support is out there. Everyone needs a support group, straight
or not. Just getting together and talking about being scared and pouring your heart out is a great
Though small, the group is successful enough that members of QUEST, the First-Year Groups
upperclassman outgrowth, often return to the group to talk to freshmen and build support
networks. Maureen Jones and her partner, head softball coach Jenny Allard, are like den mothers
to the group from their proctor suite in Matthews, often taking friendly calls from students. Before
our meeting for pre-frosh, the pre-frosh will often come up and tell me, Im not like them, Jones
says. After the meeting they say, Hey, theyre just like me. And two years later, theyre coming back
to tell their stories to prefrosh.
But Jones and Allard are more than just a support system they serve as role models for gay and
lesbian students who may be questioning the feasibility of living a happy and healthy gay lifestyle
in a heteronormative world, emphasizing that not only is the lesbian and bisexual population
rather invisible to the general population, theyre partially invisible to each other. Very few gay
people have a positive role model a person in a stable relationship, a loving and committed
relationship, says Jones. Its empowering for freshmen to see that it can be done, and that all those
stereotypes arent necessarily true.
Lesbian women at Harvard have a lot to deal with: small numbers, invisible ranks and flat-out
ignorance. Sexual choices at Harvard run the gamut, and most agree that being a gay woman can,
but does not have to, be the centerpiece of ones existence. According to Jones, Your sexuality
doesnt mean youre marching in Washington in a G-string. Its a personal preference. There may
not be one lesbian lifestyle to be stereotyped, but lesbian and bisexual students do exist at Harvard
just not quite where one would expect to find them.