About this time last year, I met my friend John* at Coho to catch up — not just any friend, a gay friend. I emphasize that fact because I have relatively few at Stanford. Of my five closest friends (my “little family”), four are straight. Among my extended freshman dorm cohort (“the polis”), I’m the only gay man. That has always struck me as strange, so it felt important to keep up with this friend before winter break and his quarter abroad because at the time John was the only other gay man I knew at Stanford.
When we inevitably came to the subject of the gay community at Stanford, neither of us had much positive to say about it. (I hope he doesn’t mind me using a private conversation this way, but all the same, I didn’t ask him before writing this.) We agreed that there seem to exist two poles, and between them, a wide, barren middle.
On one hand, you’ve got the “gay frat mafia.” (Full credit to John for that lovely phrase.) Disavowal runs deep with this lot. Wrist-deep in two-dimensional masculinity every bit as toxic as that practiced by their heterosexual bros, they come off as haunted by the internalized specters of their ex-military, wrestling-coach dads. They’re the sort who say, “Yeah, I’m gay, but I’m not gay like that,” as they scramble to find some unsuspecting theater queen to define themselves in contradistinction to. Besides, they’re often just boring. (Oh, you want to work in biotech, you like Netflix and the gym, and you “don’t really read”? Take me now!)
Thus Scylla: Now open wide and relax your throat for Charybdis. At the other end, you encounter what I call the activist-y queers. Performative and politicized, their sexuality is a constant and ruthless game of one-upmanship. You’ll know them by their nose rings, glitter, endless permissiveness and giddy sexual nihilism. If you were just looking for friends whose physical person wouldn’t totally shock your mother, and all this deconstructionist liberation stuff isn’t what you signed up for, welcome to the middle. You’ll find it isolating, and yes, it feels a lot like erasure down here, but if you can’t hack it at either end of the spit-roast, what choice have you got?
There are a limited number of gay circles and explicitly gay spaces, and if you don’t fit the mold — any of the molds — there isn’t space for you. In that case, you meet your queer peers piecemeal, or you don’t meet them at all. You sleepwalk through your undergrad years searching for a gay community, knowing full well where and what it is and wanting no part of it and wondering why you can’t just be happy with your Grindr feed and your anonymity. Maybe you don’t agree with my assessment (wah wah wah, Terra is so fun, and you’re just salty), but I’m not the only one who hasn’t felt at home being gay at Stanford.
If by now you’re asking, Does this guy have a bone to pick with everything? — the answer is: pretty much. As per usual, the problem isn’t entirely Stanford. In the face of my experience, I’ve asked myself what kind of queer space I would be pleased with (if I can even be pleased with anything) and what a community is in the first place. In answer to the first: neither a thinly veiled cruising ground nor a group therapy session, that’s for sure.
On the large scale, the gay community is a myth. When not mobilized toward political action or courted by corporations showing off their progressive values and thereby targeting us as customers, what connection really exists between us manifold queers across the country? We may have some stock of shared experiences and societal interests, but I have the same sort of overlap with other individuals. It’s just that “gay” is a recognized identity group in a way that “morbidly brooding young man” never will be.
Once, I was part of the kind of gay community that made life feel like a sitcom. I’m from South Carolina, and you might know I like to mention it every chance I get. I went to a boarding school for the arts there for my last two years of high school, and of the 20 boys on my hall, I’d venture 50 percent of them were gay. I remember clandestine gatherings after lights-out, rooms packed with teenage boys teaching each other to twerk, listening to Lana Del Rey (we’re talking “Born to Die: The Paradise Edition,” of course), chatting about politics or novels and looking forward to leaving the South and our small towns and finding something better, something for us.
That was a time and place all its own, and there’s no going back. I’ve come to think now that the communities you find and form yourself — your little family and your polis and your darlings in that very special Snapchat group you check every hour when you’re away from home — are the ones that matter. Real communities are small. They take upkeep, energy and emotional commitment. You don’t always get to choose who’s in them, and sometimes they piss you off so badly you take the rental car keys and leave in a silent huff and abandon them in the middle of Bodega Bay. But it’s never as lonely as the middle.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of an individual that might not want to make his sexuality known to the internet-at-large.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.