Sheila Njau, Trinity College Class of 2017, conducted this interview with me for Professor Tabar’s course Global Feminism.
Sheila Njau: Describe to me what it has been like being a queer woman on campus.
Michaella: When I got to Trinity, I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t choose a campus based on queer life or think about that at all because I hadn’t come out yet. I hadn’t really accepted that I was queer yet, so when I got here and started the process of coming out while I had just gotten to campus, it kind of all hit me. As I’ve been here longer, I’ve seen a lot of homophobia and other things that have really bothered me, so it’s kind of left me in a tough place. I think there’s a lot of work to be done fighting the homophobia and creating a more accepting student body. There’s just so much stigma. It’s so common just to hear the words “f*g” and “f*ggot” being used casually on campus, even in classes.
SN: How does this match up to how queer women are treated in general from your point of view?
MK: I think that Trinity is a really good case study of how queer women are boxed in and pushed to the side. I’ve not really broadcast my identity too much because I never really felt the need, but then when Trump was elected and I got more involved in student movements on campus, I was just really angry and really upset, and that was actually the point where I had no reservations talking about myself and being queer anymore. I just felt like I had nothing else to lose. I needed to talk about it because that part of me drives so much of what I do. But I think in general, especially when women come out as queer, we are not believed or taken seriously and it just becomes another tool to sexualize us for the benefit of men.
SN: Describe your experience coming out as a queer woman.
MK: I came out pretty fast, right after I kind of put all the pieces together for myself. I had just gotten into college, I was feeling pretty good about where I was, and I had been pretty privileged my entire life, so I hadn’t really thought about getting any negative response. Long story short, when I ended up coming out, I felt like I was on my own. I didn’t really have much education, especially about bisexuality. So, I wasn’t doing too well for a little bit there. I really didn’t know much about it, I had all the self-doubt based on all of these stereotypes that are placed on you when you say you’re bi, especially within a college setting and putting it in the context of religion. I had to deal with issues of shame, just the different things society tells you should be ashamed of. Just to keep you in your box and keep you on the margins. I had to deal with all that pretty much on my own and educate myself, then once I got to a point when I was able to talk about it with people and I had some people who I knew accepted me and I knew I could talk to about these things, I started building more confidence. I think when Trump was elected, there was nothing… no shame, no fear left in me. I just like had to move on and start doing work instead of sitting and worrying about myself. I think that was the point where I moved forward; there was no reason for me to dwell or feel any kind of shame anymore. I didn’t have time for it, and I saw so many others claiming their identities and moving forward.
SN: How do you view the queer community both on campus and as a whole?
MK: On campus I would say it’s pretty small and invisible. I kept trying to go to EROS meetings last year, but I was still not at a place where I was comfortable with the people or walking into the building, to be completely honest. But now I realize there are only so many people here who understand what it’s like to be a queer person, especially on this campus, so how could I not interact with those people? Those are people that understand what I’ve gone through. Why would I shut myself off away from those people? I think on campus, the community is small, but there’s a lot of unity I think around different issues. I think there’s some support from the administration, probably much more than in past years, but I don’t feel enough support from the administration. I feel like we’re still locked away in the corner of campus where nobody can see us. The Queer Resource Center isn’t even mentioned on tours. There’s a lot to be done. This is not a place that queer people are going to look at and say “this is the school I want to go to.” If I had been out and looking at colleges, I would not have come here. If I had known how small the community, the culture of the student body, or our ranking for campus homophobia, I absolutely would not have been here. I would have chosen pretty much any school over this one. There’s such an environment of hypermasculinity and heterosexism, and it’s so heightened because of the income inequality.
SN: How do you view queer feminism’s progression?
MK: I’m sure there are similar experiences outside of Trinity. I think Trinity is a nice little bubble, and everything is kind of accelerated here because there is so much inequality. I would like to see more done on this campus, but I think that requires a bigger group of people or more people to be out at least. I think there’s a lot of people who are not out on this campus… a lot. I think that there’s organization here, there’s community here, but I think in order for people to feel there is a space for them, there needs to be more of that. And I think it is easier to do that off campus than on campus.
SN: How does the queer feminism movement compare to the feminism movement in general from your point of view?
MK: In terms of, let’s just say LGBTQ activism, I have a lot of issues with the way that its gone. I think its been very white centered, very male centered, and it is always centered around a binary, which I have a huge problem with. For example, the TV show ‘When We Rise’ that just came out features mostly white characters and people along a binary, so lesbians and gays. They are also portrayed in very stereotypical ways. I know that they are based on historical figures, but they didn’t really make space for anybody who wasn’t on the binary. I know recently it was criticized for not representing bisexuality and for some other issues. I think that it demonstrates how far we still need to go- we are still on this binary.
There is also this “normal” way to live life; a queer couple is only accepted if they adopt children or have a dog and have nice house in a suburban neighborhood, that sort of thing. That’s how a queer couple gets accepted. I feel like there’s still a lot of pressure to fit into that heterosexual mold. In queer movements overall, I don’t think there’s been a lot of resistance to that. I think people are just looking for a space to be accepted and they cling to whatever they can get. I don’t know if that’s too overly critical, but I just see a lot of that, a lot of celebration of things that queer people can do. For example, we can serve in the military, but I’m sitting here thinking “okay, we are perpetrating this violence on other countries and now we’re celebrating the fact that as queer people, we get to participate in that?” It bothers me, but again it’s part of the mainstream American culture.
To relate it to feminist movements, I think a lot of feminism in general, mainstream feminism, white liberal feminism, and all those things center around straight, cisgender, and middle class white women. There has not been as much inclusion of queer people, especially queer people of color, people from the working class, or anybody other than these white women who are mostly just fighting for like reproductive equality and then pay equality. I feel the feminist movement hasn’t been linked with the queer movement, and it has been marked by a lot of privilege. There is so far to go. And I haven’t quite located myself within that yet.
SN: Do you observe any discrepancies between how queer women are treated in the U.S. versus elsewhere?
MK: I think people in the U.S. are very privileged, which was something I also struggled with when I first came out. I was thinking that people are being killed in other countries, why am I sitting pitying myself for losing a few relationships when people are losing their lives? In other countries, it so much more dangerous, so much more stigmatized. I remember studying LGBT life in Iraq for one of Professor Tabar’s other courses. There were people who had to leave the country and all these different awful things, but they had developed their own sense of community in different spots, and they seemed a lot more unified in their small communities than we do here. Maybe it’s become such a social movement here that all of the letters in the acronym and different groups have become segregated in addition to the segregation that happens across class and race. I need to learn more about how those experiences are different because there is a lot of privileged associated with being in the United States. I also think that when we’re talking about queer people being persecuted in other places, we need to be careful about our privilege and also our western view of it. A lot of the time, I feel like we commodify queerness…I don’t know how to say it, but we really impose our structure of queerness onto people from other countries, and unfortunately the way that queer people have been accepted in the U.S. is through this very heteropatriarchal, capitalist structure. I can’t really speak for other countries, but I would like to know more about different struggles in different places.
SN: In what ways, do you see the queer feminism movement going forward?
MK: Well, I think the queer movement and the feminist movements need to link. I think the feminist movements, the major ones happening right now, I feel like they only have certain goals and are only fighting for certain people. LGBTQ movements have had the same issue, but I’ve seen them doing a better job recently. I have seen a better inclusion of bisexual people as more people come out as bi. I’ve seen a greater inclusion of trans people as this whole bathroom debate has sparked a lot of discussion. I think there needs to be a new model on both sides, and once they have that new model they will be able to come together. Right now I feel like when they do come together, it’s in this spot of privilege and whiteness. So, I feel like it’s not worth anything until those kinds of hierarchies and segregations are broken down. But, there would be a lot of power in activism and in movements if a lot of the segregation was broken down in these different movements, like the segregation of like all the different letters like LGBTQAI…all these letters that we forget about, and then for women, desegregating from women of color, women from different classes. If those can happen, then I think they can be able to successfully work together. But, there’s also homophobia within feminist movements which needs to be addressed. We just need to figure out how to create those alternative spaces and movements where we are moving towards the abolishment of racism, homophobia, of sexism, all of it at the same time.
SN: What are ways you think that treatment of queer women on campus can change?
MK: The way we talk about women in general on this campus, and I say “we” because I have also done it, is really judgemental. I feel I have become more judgmental since I got here. There’s a lot of judgement of women based on what they look like, who they are involved with, what they say in class, a lot of different little things. Women on this campus are scrutinized for everything. They are interrupted, they are not called on in class. I feel like change needs to come from the women on campus: we need to stop putting each other down and stop scrutinizing each other. We can lift each other up for our accomplishments instead. That’s the only answer I have right now, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I think raising awareness about women’s issues is important, but again we are on such a privileged campus and the conversation only goes so far. Queer women are so invisible here, though, even to each other- I really don’t know how to move forward with that. I’ve tried to be more vocal about it, and I’ve been trying to think more about how I can be visible to new students coming in. I think we need to learn how to claim ourselves and utilize the spaces and resources we have to amplify our voices. We just have to show we are present. We like to talk about how the Trinity student body makes assumptions that there aren’t queer people on campus. Being frustrated with the fact that they think we aren’t here doesn’t make us visible, though, it just exhausts us. We need to claim our identities and lift each other up.
SN: What words would you give to an incoming student who has fears about being a queer woman?
MK: I would say don’t come here; that’s unfortunately my initial reaction. However, although Trinity is a bubble and everything is heightened here, these things we experience on campus exist in the real world too. College students are young and still figuring things out, and as queer people we experience such scrutiny and pressure that a culture like Trinity’s can be extremely damaging. I always tell people, you have to find spaces for yourself, you have to put yourself out there, try things, meet with people, talk to people, and you have to consciously identify the spaces where you are accepted, where you are loved, you have to identify the spaces where you feel empowered. Identify the spaces where you can be yourself and talk without feeling judged, identify the classes, identify the professors and then follow those and reach for those. That’s what I tried to do when I didn’t really know where to go or who to go to, I just started reaching out. I didn’t know what else to do at that point and then I found like Gospel Choir, which maybe the whole queer issue hasn’t really reached that realm, but I’ve had conversations with almost everybody in there and I’ve felt pretty accepted. You have to find those spaces for yourself. You can’t say, “Oh, that’s a religious group, they won’t accept me.” If I had said that, I would have lost my faith by now. My faith is one of things that has held me together on my journey, so I’m glad I trusted myself and joined the choir. I started dropping parts of my identity as a queer person into conversation bit by bit this past year, which took a lot of energy, but it really revealed to me who is on my side. I have also connected with the students involved in campus activism and resistance, because those are the people who make me feel comforted, seen and empowered.