[A Lack of Queer] Culture Shock

By Julie Malone

I was approached to author an article for Diverge by one of the co-founders – a feminist brainchild whose foundational spark I witnessed one afternoon of my senior year in a “21st-Century Feminism” course. I enthusiastically agreed while simultaneously panicking about what I would write about. This article is not to ignore my inherent privilege as a white woman in a system that prioritizes whiteness and venerates traditional white femininity, nor is it an exhaustive recounting of W&L experience through a queer lens, but rather to provide more context as to my W&L experience:

Joining the Washington and Lee Class of 2018, I was one of only two students from Idaho. I was born and raised middle-class in Twin Falls, a high-density LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint, also known as Mormons) community. Though my nuclear family is not LDS, the social culture in which I was raised is vastly different than that of Washington and Lee. I tried my hardest during my first and second years to seamlessly assimilate into the Washington and Lee student mold – I purchased Bean Boots, a monogram necklace, cowboy boots, and a colorful array of oversized Comfort Colors t-shirts to pair with my bookstore “norts.”

Evidently, it took me longer than I would like to admit to fully accept that I was different than many of my peers in several significant ways. I can still remember the culture shock that I felt after attending the Honor System Orientation in Lee Chapel as a first-year during Orientation Week. I called my dad and explained that almost every man on W&L’s campus wore khaki pants, a pastel shirt, and a navy blazer (I would later learn that “sports coat” was the correct term). I had no memory of ever seeing a man dressed up in anything aside from a black suit and white shirt.

That same week, I remember searching out the campus LGBTQ+ student group, only to discover it was much smaller than I had assumed any college LGBTQ+ student group would be. I was confused. As a first year woman intending to go through recruitment, I was disheartened at the severe lack of Greek representation within Generals’ Unity. In a school with one of the highest percentages of Greek participation in the nation, I assumed there had to be a community of queer sorority women. I would later learn that W&L’s fraternity-controlled social system disadvantages and discourages Sapphic/wlw (“women who love women”) women from displaying as such. I would also learn that many intoxicated college men interpret two women kissing at a social function as an invitation for them to join, or photograph, or make lewd comments. And I would learn the infuriating truth that there are members from each building on sorority row who consider Sapphic behavior to be a “bad look” for their relevant organizations, and an undesirable trait among potential new members.

As a first-year student, I was confused at the overwhelming straightwashing of my new university. Though I was raised in a religiously conservative community, I was lucky that my immediate environment was not staunchly anti-LGBTQ+. My moderately religious family has always accepted and embraced my gay aunt and her partner, and unlike many LGBTQ+ youth, I was fortunate in knowing that I was in no immediate danger of being rejected or ostracized by my immediate family.

Despite identifying as “straight” in high school, I nevertheless served as one of the founding members of my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and my platform for the Miss Idaho Scholarship Program pageant involved promoting support and acceptance for LGBTQ+ youth in Idaho. I defied pushback from pageant directors, judges (including the First Lady of Idaho), and contestants who argued that my platform was insignificant and contrary to true Idahoan values. Ironically, I even wrote my Johnson application essay about the work I was doing in my community as a straight ally.

You can imagine my confusion and frustration upon arriving at a university where it seemed that members of the LGBTQ+ community did not have a place within the traditional campus mold. And – I hope – you can envision my mental discomfort as I attempted to balance my intense desire to fit in with my new peers while still upholding and staying true to my values and social convictions.

As I familiarized myself with the particular brand of Southern culture and religion that exists at Washington and Lee, I observed the intricate division that exists within certain denominations regarding queer identity and religious identity. This was fairly new to me. My own religious education included attending a Lutheran elementary school, learning about Christian Science from my mom, and eventually joining a nondenominational Christian church in high school. I can recall very little emphasis being applied to teachings regarding the evils of homosexuality or homosexual behavior, and for this I am endlessly thankful. I never associated true Christian belief with anti-LGBTQ+, but goodness knows that I will be working through the religious and social indoctrination I received regarding gender and general sexual behavior for years to come. With all that being said, I was never scared of being bisexual, and I was never angry with myself or with my God for my sexuality.

This is not to insinuate that I was never exposed to religious anti-LGBTQ teachings. Rather, those messages were never the large takeaway. My religious family welcomed my aunt, who engaged in family religious life and whose beliefs were never questioned. Neither the legitimacy of her faith, nor the capacity of her to have that faith, were ever in doubt.

Taking courses in W&L’s Religion department provided me with the opportunity to critically analyze the texts and beliefs with which I was raised, and to delightfully discover that there are a myriad of scholars who argue in favor of LGBTQ+ acceptance and involvement within Christianity. I am grateful for the opportunity to further hammer out my own religious beliefs within this intellectual context.

I am also grateful for many other aspects of my Washington and Lee social education – for the inclusivity and support of my friends (including sorority sisters, individuals from other Greek organizations, and independent students) after going public with my relationship with my girlfriend (also ’18) during senior year; for the mentors and role models that I found among the faculty and staff who supported my identity when I needed it most; and for the social barriers I encountered daily that sharpened my resolve and encouraged my social defiance. I am grateful for the Politics courses that warned me against the blanket cultivating of social media echo chambers, and for the conversations with those professors that clarified the prioritization of mental well-being and the distinction between “alternative views” and “alternative views that are hateful, poisonous, and altogether problematic.” I am grateful for the Sapphic W&L students who came before me, and whose presence I basked in as a young, closeted first-year.

I believe that to change an organization or social system such as Greek life, or an institution like Washington and Lee, you have to do it from the inside. I can also acknowledge the undue responsibility that this belief places on the already marginalized in regards to actually doing the work that needs to be done. Perhaps this article can be a small step towards more understanding and mutual compassion between students within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.

But I am also not unfamiliar with feelings of social or personal alienation, despite the support I was fortunate to have. There are still moments when I crave the same inherent normalization that heterosexuality is gifted, and I have a small arsenal of tried and true resources to which I can turn to ease feelings of abnormality. Perhaps they could help another LGBTQ+ General who may be feeling alone or distant from their peers.

When it comes to LGBTQ+ media, my personal favorites include: the movies Imagine Me & You (rom com), Kiss Me (drama, in Swedish with English captions), Patrik, Age 1.5 (also Swedish with English captions), and The Favourite (historical drama); YouTube channels of Rose and Rosie and Troye Sivan; music by Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, and Demi Lovato.

My girlfriend recommends the TV shows “Wynonna Earp” and “The Bold Type”; YouTube channels of The Carmilla Series, Shannon Beveridge, (also) Rose and Rosie, Amy Ordman, Stevie Boebi, and Alexis G. Zall; music by FLETCHER (especially her “Wasted Youth” music video), King Princess, Tegan and Sara, Brandi Carlile, and dodie.

We both grew up fans of “Glee” and would be amiss to not include it, as well as “Queer Eye” and “The L Word” and basically everything by Kate McKinnon, in this list.

To my beloved fellow LGBTQ+ Generals: you are loved, you are valued, and your presence is a vital part of Washington and Lee’s social and intellectual life. Don’t forget it. I was never alone, and you are not, either.

Didi Pace