Sourced from "Let's Get This Straight" by Jackie Roman and the Beacon Staff
It’s no secret that Washington and Lee is dominated by rich, white heterosexuals. This means that those of us who do not check off one or more of those boxes are the minority, and sometimes the outcasts, even if it is not intentional.
I came to W&L because I believed it to be the perfect place for me, and I couldn’t wait to be truly myself – as in, completely out of the closet – where at home that was a little harder. However, very quickly, I found that even with the existence of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center and Generals’ Unity, I had trouble finding comfort with being truly “out.” I understand that not everyone goes away to college to be their gayest self, but I argue that college should be that place for those who need it to be. I couldn’t necessarily trust the immediate people around me, either. My RA is a Trump supporter, and I am not comfortable around him. It took me almost a month to come out to my roommates, even though we are best friends. The way I have always dealt with coming out to other people has been aggressive and defensive to protect myself. Since coming to W&L, I have become even more defensive of it, because at this school, you have no idea how anyone will react.
Our school is permeated by a culture of heteronormativity, also known as straight until proven guilty. Those who are straight assume that everyone else is also straight, forcing those who are not heterosexual to either keep their identity hidden or risk being ostracized for who they are. The Greek system perpetuates this toxic environment, as there have been instances of outright intolerance at formals or parties.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines heteronormativity as “the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality.” At this school, it is much more subtle than violent expressions of homophobia. People are (for the most part) pretty quiet about their homophobia. This manifests itself in jokes like, “Wow, can you imagine if I was gay? I think I’d kill myself” or likening “X” bad thing to AIDS. These comments make it even harder for people to come out and/or to feel comfortable being themselves around others who are not in their inner circles. People retreat farther into the closet, and sometimes subconsciously convince themselves that they are not anything but straight in order to prevent themselves from being the butt of the joke. I have joked that I know every person in the LGBTQ+ community at W&L, because it’s such a small school, but the reality is that I don’t. Obviously, I don’t need to, that’s not my point here – but queer people, closeted or not, deserve a real safe space to be themselves that goes beyond the label on a sticker. If you asked most people on campus if W&L students are homophobic, they would likely say no. The truth is, most straight people don’t see subtle homophobia because they are not looking for it. Because they are not subjected to it and because it is so ingrained in society, it is difficult – if not impossible – to realize the effects of certain vocabulary. But non-straight people don’t have that privilege.
This year, I got to go to my first Pride festival in Staunton. (It was also their first Pride, so shoutout to them!) I had a great time there, but as we were coming back to campus, I started to take off all of the stickers and paraphernalia that I had accumulated so that no one would be able to tell I had been to Pride when I got back. A friend went along with me, who was an ally, and she had on the same level of decoration that I did. When she saw me taking it off, she didn’t understand why. I don’t mean to fault her at all, of course, but because she was straight, she had the privilege of keeping her rainbow bracelets on. This is not to say that allies should not be supportive or should not go to Pride, but there is a key difference between using a position of privilege to support a marginalized community and being a part of that vulnerable community yourself. There is a risk when a queer person decides to display their flag, while allies do it at no risk to themselves.
The culture of heteronormativity that is deeply embedded in the W&L community has forced many individuals, including myself, to “tone down the gay.” Generals’ Unity, a group dedicated to equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, spent hours planning Pride Week events this year, putting up decorations, and planting rainbow flags along campus walkways. Most of the feedback and reactions that we got were very positive and uplifting. However, there were also negative responses that seemed to cancel out the good. For example, some of the flags planted in the ground were stomped on and broken, and no, it was not because of the rain. Also, a professor reportedly told his class while looking at the pride flags that sometimes, people should keep some things to themselves. Undoubtedly, there were people in the class that strongly disagreed with him, but there were others who heard it and said nothing, thus implicitly condoning it. Staying silent in the face of a direct attack on a group of people makes you complicit in others’ oppression. And that’s another thing, too – if there was more outright support of the LGBTQ+ community from faculty members, the climate of heteronormativity wouldn’t be as oppressive.
Heteronormativity is toxic and harmful to everyone who identifies as part of the queer community. I am not out to most people – in the interest of self-protection and because I am not comfortable enough yet in my own identity to completely stop caring about what other people think of me and how I choose to express my sexuality. Part of that is why I cannot put my name on this article, as much as I would like to. Heteronormativity is so subtle and hard to pinpoint at W&L that it is almost unable to be addressed, especially at a school where the vast majority of students don’t “look” anything but straight. After only a year at this school, I am exhausted of hiding who I am so that straight people can be comfortable.
If you are reading this, I urge you to consider your words before you make a joke at a queer person’s expense, and also to check your assumptions about people based on the way they look and act. I challenge you to create a better environment for both out and closeted people of the LGBTQ+ community. I want W&L to be as accepting of a school as I hoped it would be. W&L has the potential to be an amazing and inclusive community, but it cannot live up to its potential until people are aware of the systemic presence of heteronormativity.