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To Be Gay at Yale

by Jay Dixit, Rolling Stone Magazine

Once, this university was a hotbed of activism, but now queer students don’t even show up for protests—they’re too busy fitting in and hooking up.

Before Ethan Guillen decided to come out during his sophomore year at Yale University, he agonized over it for months. “It was all I could think about,” says Ethan. “I dropped everything I was doing that semester.” He chose to tell his roommate, Jack Rubin, first. But he was afraid of how Jack would react. “I think I’d built it up into this huge, melodramatic after-school special in my head,” says Ethan. The two of them were in the habit of having deep conversations late at night. One night, when they were both about to fall asleep, Ethan decided to do it. “Jack,” he said. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

“OK,” Jack said.

“I think I’m gay,” said Ethan.

There was a silence. Ethan lay in bed, waiting, contemplating what he had done. He was expecting something big, though he wasn’t sure what.

“OK,” Jack said. “So is this a big deal?”

As one junior says, “People here are so accepting that they’re insensitive. They’re kind of flippant about it. ‘Why aren’t you out already?’ is their attitude.”

Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, has always been at the forefront of gay campus culture: What happens there tends to occur at other campuses a few years later. The fact that the old prejudices have fallen away almost completely at Yale suggests that the same thing will happen at other colleges across the country. The danger is that a complacent student elite will abandon the larger goals of the gay-rights movement, including a ban on workplace discrimination and protection of the rights of gay parents.

Yale was one of the first academic institutions in America to tolerate openly gay students and professors, but only after a hard-fought struggle. In 1969, Johannes Van de Pohl, a Fulbright student at Yale from Holland, founded the university’s first gay organization—with the help of two members of the campus clergy. Forty people showed up at the first meeting. That group, known as the Gay Alliance at Yale, then consistently drew up to forty students—more than show up for the average meeting of the school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Co-op today.

In 1986, a group of activists successfully petitioned to have sexual orientation added to the university’s nondiscrimination clause, making Yale one of the first universities to do so. In 1987, Yale alumnus Larry Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which soon became a world-famous protest organization. By the late Eighties, Yale had a reputation as the “gay Ivy,” due largely to a now-notorious 1987 Wall Street Journal article by Julie V. Iovine, the wife of a Yale faculty member. As students on campus today are quick to explain, the article contained an exaggerated estimate of Yale’s gay population. Iovine implied that all 1,000 students who attended a dance sponsored by the Co-op were gay and claimed that prospective students received a notice saying that one in four Yale students was gay.

The article provoked strong responses at the time—Yale associate dean Betty Trachtenberg wrote an angry letter to the editor attacking the numbers and denying the existence of any such notice sent to incoming students. Nevertheless, the gay community on campus seized on the figure and coined the slogan “one in four, maybe more”—always an exaggeration, but a rallying point nevertheless—and the reputation became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There was such a huge media frenzy over that article,” says Paul Festa, who was a freshman at Yale in 1988. “In San Francisco, I heard about this idea that it was one in four, maybe more, and I don’t want to be crass about it, but I just started salivating.” Eventually, students coined the rather more confrontational “one in two, maybe you.”

In 1990, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, who was then secretary of health and human services, was invited to speak on campus. Enraged by the Bush administration’s unresponsiveness to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, militant students organized a protest at the chapel where Sullivan was speaking and shouted him down, much to the embarrassment of the university. “We had this feeling of incredible passion and anger that people didn’t understand what was going on, and that people were complacent, and people were dying, and people were being beaten up for being gay and lesbian, and people couldn’t be who they were,” says Sam Zalutsky, a student who was brought up on disciplinary charges for his involvement in the protest. These feelings of embattlement and urgency promoted unity among gay students. “One of the best parts about being gay at Yale was the sense of community and camaraderie,” says Festa. But by the late Nineties, the furor on campus had quieted down. Gay students at Yale achieved the tolerance they’d been fighting for, the AIDS epidemic had worn down older activists and, little by little, the protests disappeared. By 2000, gay activism on campus was virtually dead. Last year, the Co-op suffered an organizational “near-death experience,” says 2001 grad and former Co-0p coordinator Kathleen Eddy. There weren’t enough people involved to keep it running smoothly. For the first time in years, Pride Week was canceled.

Today, gay students at Yale no longer feel that being gay is a primary part of their identities. The word students use is “backgrounded,” as in, gayness has been backgrounded in their personalities. “I would identify myself first as a college student,” says Ethan Guillen, “and at appropriate times as a dancer, and as a gay person only after that.” Junior Laura Horak, the organizer of this year’s Pride Week, says, “A lot of people don’t feel the need to foreground that part of their identity. Most gay people spend the majority of their time outside of strictly gay situations.” Grant Dyson is a politically conservative senior. “If there’s actually any part of me that has caused me to encounter resistance from my friends,” he says, “it’s not that I’m gay but that I’m conservative.”

“There’s a prevailing attitude of, because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean that’s my life,” says Jonathan, a junior who was out to fellow members of the heavyweight crew team (and asked that his last name not be used because he hasn’t come out to some family members). Many people will go to gay-oriented dances, but they don’t go to meetings, he says. “They’re like, ‘Why would I come to a meeting? I’m not a “gay person,” I’m a person who happens to be gay.'”

And that’s a good thing, says Guillen. “It makes it possible to just go about your daily life, rather than having to sit around reminding yourself that you’re gay all the time, fighting for all these causes.” Of course, other schools have yet to reach Yale’s level of acceptance. “It must be nice to live in that kind of bubble,” says Jennifer Storm, an activist at Penn State University, where four gay women were chased and attacked last year. And students are painfully aware that their families might not be as nonchalant as their peers. Hoa Huynh, a Vietnamese-American 2001 grad who came to Yale from Northern California, grew up in a Buddhist monastery. By the time he came out to his family, he had already completed the first three steps of becoming a Buddhist monk —including the vow of celibacy. “When I came here, it was freedom,” says Huynh. “Being able to be myself and not having to worry about what might get back to my parents.”

Even traditionally homophobic groups at Yale such as sports teams now have openly gay athletes. Old traditions die hard—heavyweight crew members still have a practice in which they point to the freshman team and chant “gay” and point to themselves and chant “straight”—but gay rowers swear it’s all in good fun. “It’s kind of awkward, but it’s been done forever,” says Jonathan. “They’ll make a comment, or make gay jokes, but they would never hold it against someone.” J.C. Reindl, a track star who’s out on Yale’s team, concurs. His fellow athletes rib him, he says, about being gay. “That’s their way of letting me know that I’m one of the guys,” says Reindl. “They don’t try to be ultra-PC around me, like they can’t kid around with me.”

Gay students on campus are just as focused on traditional careers as their straight counterparts. “I would say it’s about the same breakdown as the straight population,” says Roric Tobin, a 2001 grad. “There’s no difference.” At this spring’s Pride Week panel “Out in Your Career,” presenters offered advice and insights on being openly gay in corporate America: dealing with the “lavender ceiling,” securing domestic-partner benefits at a corporation, figuring out the best time in the interviewing process to make it known that one is gay. Nobody mentioned protests, changing legislation, rallying or picketing. The gay social scene generally takes place within the overall social scene, and not apart from it. Groups like Not-Straight Frosh are mainly social clubs: People show up at the first meeting not because they need to share their struggles but to see who’s gay, who’s hot and who’s datable. Myles Gideon, a senior and founder of the discussion group T-GAY (Trannies, Genderqueers and Allies at Yale), notes, “Nobody wants to come to Yalesbians meetings, so they’ll have movie nights or parties.” Mostly, gay Yalies meet each other at the same parties as straight people. For example, John, a junior from Long Island who asked that his last name not be used, says, “I met this guy from Tufts at a party the other night,” he says. “It wasn’t a gay party or anything. I just spotted him, and he turned out to be gay.” Jonathan describes how he met John at a naked party hosted by a campus prankster organization. “His female friend was trying to get with the two of us, so as to get with him,” says Jonathan, “and he was trying to get with me, but I was in a relationship, so it turned into a rather convoluted, although amusing, evening.”

The few gay parties are generally thrown by grad students. “It’s architecture grad students, or in the divinity school,” says Reindl. “Graduates are pretty ravenous for any undergrads they can get their hands on.” But even those parties are “pretty tame,” he says. Off campus, things get racier. A favorite activity, especially among closeted students, is to go to gay clubs in New York en masse. It is a rite of passage in the coming-out process. “You kind of have a campus reputation, but once you’re off campus, you let everything go,” says Reindl. “I have friends who do maybe one or two on-campus hookups per semester, but if you count what they do in New York, you might enter double digits.”

Otherwise, the sexual climate is not much different from that of straight students. “There are one-night stands, and there are also people who are very committed long-term, and there’s not a whole lot in between,” says Jimmy Johnson, a junior who’s out in his singing group. “I’d actually say the straight scene at Yale is characteristic of a traditional gay scene, based more on hookups,” says Reindl.

But one significant difference is the widespread use of gay chat rooms. At colleges nationwide, “so many gay male students are finding sex with these chat rooms,” says Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams, an expert in the development of gay and bisexual youth. “They don’t even need to go to gay groups to find sex partners anymore. Whenever a student wants to have sex, they can have it.”

The most popular forum at Yale is “There’s definitely a big underground sex scene there,” says Reindl. “Most of the hooking up on campus—at least among my friends—happens through Well, maybe not most, but it’s close.” Yalies go into the Connecticut chat room and find one another by placing the word Yale or a capital Y in their screen names. “Late at night, especially Thursdays and Fridays,” says Reindl, “like around 1 or 2 a.m., after the whole party scene dies down, with the boys who didn’t find anybody else and aren’t tired enough to go to sleep—that’s when it really gets exciting, from what I hear.”

Savin-Williams sees the advent of chat rooms as a factor in the decline of student involvement in gay organizations: “With these chat rooms, it’s not as if they even need to go to gay groups to find sex partners. It used to be a major reason why gay male students attended meetings. Why spend all evening going to a meeting if you can meet somebody online in a few minutes?”

As a general trend, the new gay Yalie dresses, talks and acts no differently than his straight peers. On a day-to-day basis, “it’s as if they’re straight,” says John. “They don’t need to do anything to assert their identity.” Guillen agrees: “You almost feel like you’re in England, where you can’t tell who’s gay and who’s not.”

Gay students at Yale no longer need to define themselves through opposition to straight culture. “There’s no need to adopt stereotypically gay mannerisms to identify yourself, because no one really cares or is going to object to you if you are gay,” says Guillen.

The real world, of course, is much different. “The struggle among my friends is, what do we do when we leave this place?” says Kathleen Eddy. And not everyone on campus agrees that assimilation is unambiguously positive. “I think that the people who started the Stonewall riots wouldn’t be too pleased with people moving into suburbia and getting a split-level home and buying an SUV and adopting kids,” says Grant Dyson. “It seems to me to be completely out of whack with the whole idea of sexual liberation.”

As a result of the atmosphere of tolerance, gay activists are a dying breed, says Jonathan: “There aren’t many people who are out postering, or trying to be like, ‘Oh, accept us, we’re the same.’ It’s because the rest of the campus is never going to say, ‘Yeah, that’s disgusting.’ So it’s like, who are you protesting to?”

In fact, making a big deal about being gay is seen as distasteful. The unwritten rule is, you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t act like you’re part of an embittered minority. Jimmy Johnson gives an example: “You might get two guys who are dating, and outwardly people wouldn’t even know they were gay. I don’t feel this way, but they might have a negative attitude toward people who were active in the Co-op committee, or someone who’s putting up fliers, because they see that as over the top.”

“It’s sort of avoiding the ‘I’m here, I’m queer and I’m pissed off’ attitude, because that just turns everybody else off, especially because it’s so unnecessary,” says Guillen. It’s not just that only a small number of people are involved. Many gay students actually shun activism. “This is going to sound really terrible, but in order to improve their sex lives on campus, people actually try to avoid being labeled as activists,” says Dyson. “People who are out on the front lines are almost viewed as unpopular in a certain way. I’m not going to use the word stigma, because that’s too harsh—but there is a sense of that.”

When I asked Janson Woodlee, a junior who’s out in his singing group, what distinguishes gay people at Yale, he took offense. “That question doesn’t make any sense the way you’re asking it,” he said. “Gay people at Yale are just as diverse and unique as straight people.” Maybe the biggest change is that gay people at Yale don’t feel different anymore.