This might come as a surprise to the scores of left-leaning straight people with good intentions on campus, but it’s actually pretty hard to be gay at Carleton, at least in my experience. If anything, I’d characterize it as brutal and overlooked.
Though I knew I came to campus questioning my sexual orientation, it wasn’t until after my first year that I came out. And it wasn’t on campus, either. During the summer before my sophomore year, as much as I felt relieved, I kept wondering what it was that made it so difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin on a campus that purports itself to be welcoming and accepting.
But as much LGBTQ literature and queer theory as you might read in your classes, if any, there’s no denying that this is an overwhelmingly straight campus, and that has implications for the day-to-day social lives of queer Carleton students.
I can’t count the number of times my straight friends have reassured me that it’s all fine, some going as far to presume that my college experience might be just like their own, simply because of the political climate at Carleton. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not.
While there is valid reason to believe that college students overestimate or over-report the amount of sex they’re actually having, it’s still painful to constantly be privy to my straight peers’ norm of cycling through partners and still having options.
And I can’t even fathom what it must be like to walk into a party with the hope and possibility of finding someone to hook up with, let alone hooking up with someone at a party. That sounds like a luxury I might revisit later in my twenties.
What’s always struck me as odd is the dissonance between the numbers on queerness at Carleton and the reality of the size of the pool.
According to a 2017 Institutional Research and Assessment (IRA) report on first-years, 81 percent of Carleton’s class of 2020 identified as heterosexual; four percent as gay or lesbian; six percent as bisexual; three percent as other; and six percent as unsure.
Enter proximity-based dating apps. “There’s no one around you,” Tinder’s error message says after a mere few swipes, at least in my experience. “Expand your discovery settings to see more people.” Whether you swipe right or left, Tinder will continue to display nearby people with the same sexual orientation and a specified age range and mile-radius until the platform exhausts its prospects for you. When you’re gay, exhausting your Tinder options in Northfield tends to happen in less than a minute’s time, which presents a saddening, frustrating and isolating realization.
Specific to the gay world, and the locus of an undue amount of misunderstanding and stigma from straight people, logging onto Grindr at Carleton truly hammers home that the pool at Carleton is miniscule.
Let me preface by saying this: despite its reputation for being a gateway to on-demand sex, and that it’s ridden with racism, transphobia, and even internalized homophobia, one of the remarkable feats of Grindr is that it shows you how close you are, in feet or miles, to other queer men.
Sometimes, it’s nice and reassuring to know that there are other people like you nearby. I think we should all consider the implications of that idea: that this platform is the byproduct of a community in hiding.
Because Grindr is proximity-based, it’ll show you thumbnail-sized profiles of the 100 users closest to you. While logged on at Carleton, the 100 users closest to me ranges from a handful or two in Northfield to those up to 20 miles away.
For reference, I’m from a suburban town in northern New Jersey, and when I’m home, the closest 100 users are generally no more than a few miles away, and in New York City, the closest 100 users are generally no more than one mile away.
My point here is not to compare Carleton and Northfield with more densely populated areas. Instead, what I hope to illustrate is that we should take pause at the very real isolation that queer people at Carleton experience. (Not all queer communities even have something like Grindr!)
This is a problem that I want straight people at Carleton to consider, at least out of compassion, if not as an impetus for strategizing how we might do better at supporting queer students at Carleton.
What I find most troubling is a problem of culture, not numbers. In my view, when we talk about heteronormativity—that Carleton is a heteronormative place—we’re not just talking about the fact that over 80 percent of the student body identifies as straight.
We’re talking about how that overwhelming majority actually feels for queer students. At Carleton, it only goes so far to include in your party invitation emails that “all are welcome.” That’s not at all how it feels.
Moreover, there’s something curious about the way in which queer people’s dignities are co-opted for the cause of “open-minded” college students’ “exploration” and “experimentation.” It’s excused when two seemingly straight people get drunk and make out. It’s excused when one seemingly straight person “tries something different” with someone who’s not straight, lonely, and unable to pass for straight on this campus. And it’s not excused when queerness is right there, out in the open, here at Carleton.
Once in a while, there are parties for queer students at Carleton. Every weekend, there are several parties for straight people at Carleton. Once a year, there’s a whole week of them, too!
While we might pride ourselves in being an inclusive campus, inclusivity in Carleton social life belongs to the imagination of straight Carls. As a gay student, there’s an underlying but palpable sense of isolation that trails me in every crowd I encounter.
When it comes to the topic of dating and hooking up, something I used to think was central to the excitement of the college experience, I now realize that this is a part of growth that I’ll have to save for summers and my post-graduate years.
It’s past time for a sincere cultural shift: statements of inclusion and rainbow flags are not enough for the inclusion of queer people on campus.
I encourage you to take a look at your friend groups and social networks on campus. Do you regularly interact with queer people? Can you hold a conversation with one? If not, why?