I first knew, as in cognitive recognition, that I was gay as I sat in the practice session for my 6th grade graduation. It was a sunny, hot southern Californian afternoon, and we were gathered for what passed as my primary school’s “auditorium,” which was really just a large room with linoleum tile and big windows that looked out onto eucalyptus trees. I was 12 years old, just becoming aware of myself in space, and I considered myself terribly ugly. I was fat (a butterball with sticks for arms and legs), I had big puffy unruly hair. Worse, I had to wear, in approximately seven hours, a really ill-fitting polyester grey suit (size: Boys “Husky”) from Sears, when suddenly, the answer to a series of inchoate questions roaming around in my head for maybe a year or so hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m gay.
I remember being remarkably calm at this revelation, neither orchestra soaring nor slasher movie sound effects, as clueless sixth graders mangled the stage choreography of the increasingly put-upon Choir teacher, and the rest of us shifted in our chairs, bored, in our heads. At that moment, my naïve 12-year old brain made a firm yet practical resolution: well, that’s that, and my family will just have to deal. Punto, final.
Fast-forward six years. I’m not sure where that resolution went, but it came to be lost. As I progressed through junior and senior high, a growth spurt turning me from a meatball with legs into a tall, moderately handsome “big guy,” my sexuality retreated like Napoleon’s armies in the face of a Russian winter, and I threw myself, like so many other brainy LGBT folks I know, into books, ideas, the life of the (teenaged) mind, as a displacement for what my heterosexual peers were exploring in real time: French kissing, bodies, feelings, the placement of various genitalia, birth control. What I did gain, through my rigorous work and sublimation of my sexuality, was a 4.0 GPA and a cream coloured letter with a Latin crest granting me a place as a freshman at Prestigious Eastern U.
Such was the fortuitous set of circumstances that led me to the particular place and time that was Prestigious Eastern U in the mid eighties. It was not only to this place where I would learn a series of lessons on what it meant to be a PU undergraduate and as such being a member of a particular intellectual class and caste, but also who I was as a sexual, cultural, and national person, in tension with other variants of the same models present at an arguably unique time, the mid eighties, when political lassitude reigned in the public sphere, but colleges and universities were seething with racial, gendered, and sexual tensions, and theory was on the rise. This series of posts began as an effort to explain, to a fellow collegiate traveller, the dimensions of my experience at a shared place, but in different times. And although lumped together with its sister schools, PU always seemed to me, at the time and subsequently, to be unique in its odd combination of oligarchic power, radical sexuality and race discourses, and critical student cultures. Universities are constantly evolving organisms, and as such their tenor changes from moment to moment. My PU is one grounded in a certain place and time, familiar to myself and others who shared its temporal and spatial and intellectual elevations and exhilarations, but potentially unknown to others before or after. It is, above all, a personal story of a particular time, a particular place, and a peculiar gathering of like-minded souls.
When the special freshmen issue of the Prestigious Eastern U student newspaper arrived the summer before my first year, I devoured it in one gulp. It was a telling issue, full of stories rife with sexual innuendo and proclamations of alternative sexualities, bisexual dating strategies, double-entendres, and Lesbian and Gay (the B and T would come many years later) organizations, dances, and protests. Oh, sure, it also had articles on how to select courses out of the voluminous catalogue available to undergraduates, how to negotiate roommates, all the quotidian stuff of “special freshman issues.” The sexual angle, however, left me a bit shocked, for by this time I just figured I would be in the closet my entire life, so deadened were my horizons. The titillation of the issue, which I would discover later was of course intentional, designed to shock, didn’t immediately promise a period of liberation. I didn’t see myself marching out under an arc of rainbow balloons. Instead it made me very, very nervous. As it did my mother, who made little commentary but from her face it was apparent she was less than pleased her “str8” son was being sent to some Eastern Sodom and Gomorrah. We were nervous, together.
I arrived at PU that August three weeks early, to participate with about 80 other freshmen in a pre-college “minority” student program that no longer exists in the same form, for a number of reasons (a recent perusal of the student newspaper website reveals that the program now has a trendy multi-culti name, something ridiculous like “Cultural Jambalaya,” and is open to all freshmen/first year students, with the exact same critiques of it made twenty years ago: it marginaliises students of colour, limits their connection to white PU, makes them “angry”). The program had been started in the seventies, when PU, like many elite institutions, had responded to the demands for increasing student diversity triggered by the socialmovements of the sixties and the rise of Ethnic Studiescurricula by literally going into barrios and ghettos and seemingly grabbing any able-bodied local brain who was Black and/or Latina/o, dragging them up to campus, and enrolling them.
Needless to say, this institutional methodology had its downsides, low retention, chemical addiction and a markedly pronounced higher rate of suicide being the most prominent, which makes perfect sense if you imagine, in the seventies, taking students of colour and dropping them onto the big white powder puff that was PU at the time with absolutely no support. So, originally this special program for “minorities” had been an affirmative action support program to help students of colour “transition.” But by the time I had arrived, PU, like its sister schools, had figured out the magic formula that is still very much in vogue today: draw most of your students of colour from your base, which is to say, the middle- and upper classes, the professional class, the BoBos, the rich, with a few extraordinary exemplars from the lesser classes to balance it all out.
None of us needed the remedial aspects of the program itself, arranged around writing workshops, supplemented by lectures on student life at PU by politicised undergraduates who warned us about white racism and generally freaked us all out (the purported “anger” of the program would come later, when we found out for ourselves how true it was). At this point, in the mid eighties, although we were all aware of ourselves as affirmative action currency for the institution, we also were all “qualified,” some of us extraordinarily so, and in any event much more some special groups on campus, such as the “legacies” that always took their fair share of places among each incoming class, dullards almost to the last, yet lacking the requisite outrage of newspaper editorials and op-ed pieces. Acting affirmatively for whiteness, which was the constituency at the time for almost all legacies, rarely raises the ire of anybody, depressingly enough. Those advantages, not based on merit but race and class intertwined (here white upper-class families), are in this instance chalked up to the truism “life is unfair,” and left unexamined.
Most of the students of colour in the program came from well-regarded private schools along the eastern seaboard, or the famously rigorous elite public schools of New York City. Those of us from working class backgrounds, while perhaps not as culturally sophisticated, were on par with their technical training. This rift between old expectations of deficiency and new realities of preparation gave the program an effect that was, in short, bizarre. What it was worthy for was the fact that we got free room and board for the duration of the program, and the chance to socialise amongst ourselves and find a niche way before school actually started. Although in retrospect I think this program was kooky, at best, it was the beginning of a particular approach, a place of critique, which is what made it both so controversial and influential for those of us who attended it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, PU had a history of homosociality stretching back to the turn of the century. Many of the most famous early and mid-century American gay male cultural producers had attended as undergraduates, and the place practically vibrated with their energy. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but to wit, met my first queen as I first climbed the stairs of my entryway hauling a very heavy and ugly blue trunk filled with Agree shampoo, clothes, shoes, and other assorted and unnecessary freshman junk. Ms. Truffles, as he would later be known, came flouncing down the stairs with his very proper and elegant black Georgian mother in tow, very big hair, very well done, I still remember. Miss Truffles was 5’5,” thin, small, mahogany, with very short cropped hair, and clearly, evidently, obviously, irredeemably gay. We exchanged pleasantries, and he told me many months later, as he continued with his mother to lunch, she said, “I thought you said this was a program for minority students?” To which Miss Truffles, never short of a quick answer for anything, answered, “Maybe he’s Jewish.”
In short order, an odd clique had formed during the program, which consisted of several gay men of colour (including myself and Miss Truffles, although none of us were out at the time of its forming) and several women of colour, all from different races and economic classes. This group would wax and wane, lose a few members along the way (drama!), but remain, somehow, linked, through different dorms, friendship circles, majors, and traumas. After school started, the clique (or as it began to be derisively called by the prep school crowd, “The Circus”) generally took meals together, socialised together, attended dances as a group, and stalked the pathways and lawns of PU as a group, done up in our finest eighties regalia of strange asymmetrical haircuts, trench coats and big book bags slung on our shoulders, Doc Martins and turtlenecks, later (sophomore year) with cigarettes and ennui. As extraordinary as PU said we were (which is also how we came to think of ourselves), we were like most college students: scared, intimidated, emotionally overwhelmed. These ordinary pressures were compounded by racial and class sentiment that exacerbated the vertigo most freshmen feel. We retreated into the clique, somewhat uncritically, as a place to mount a defense. Personally, even with the uneven support of the clique, for of course the clique had tensions and layers, my first year at PU was remarkably difficult: I was lonely, freaked out being so far away from my home life, and confronting significant changes in my self-conception.
Everyone in the clique had a particular visual fashion look that could generously be described as “New Wave,” and as such were different from most other white students, with their classic prep look of J. Press slacks, rep ties, Laura Ashley dresses, keggers, and Bruce Springsteen. The tentative enforcement of these institutional social norms in those first few weeks, however, tended to reassert the importance of the clique as a space apart. For the Freshman Address, I realised to my shame that my formal clothes paled in comparison to my white roommates’ collection: my pleather loafers with rubber soles and off-the-rack navy sports coat with cheap plastic buttons, purchased at Mervyn’s, made me self-conscious next to the army of handsome young men sporting the brothers Brook. I never wore those clothes again, deciding the algebra of whiteness and the upper class in that regard was not worth my time, but in reality too painful a reminder of the true material differences between PU undergrads (I would return to this sartorial primer later, however).
Even with its overwhelming prep atmosphere, PU had always had its share of nut jobs and eccentrics, of which we were just the latest examples. To wit, student sartorial and social pageantry at PU in the early part of the eighties had centred around Brideshead Revisted passion plays acted out against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Gothic buildings: bicycles and linen dresses and white sweaters flung around shoulders and flannels and monocles, a sort of upper class drag show acted out side by side with an actual real drag scene on campus, with my Big Sis as a “lady” columnist for the student newspaper, attending President’s teas as a student’s “mother,” and presided over the inventive and ironic drag shows for GLAD week.
For whatever reason, when my class arrived, this scene had petered out somewhat (not the least of which is that Big Sis had decamped to Paris on an extended leave; I would meet him when we were seniors, when he returned to finish his degree). But especially after a prominent story in a conservative New York daily the summer before my arrival had profiled the “sexual degeneracy” happening on campus (to much alumni and governing board hoo-hah) and a widely publicised and controversial hate incident around GLAD week the year before where PU couldn’t decide whether to expel the offender or let him return to complete his studies, the sense of play had been lost. For all the liberality of the place, PU remained a conservative elite institution, and the outrageous flouncing about of the campus racial and sexual others was not all fun and games, in the end. Acts of random homophobic and racial violence were more common than would be thought, with faggots and dykes parading about in costume dramas and the appropriate cultural centres on campus, but one (visibility) is clearly related to another (violence).
The latter half of the eighties were darker, more brooding, where the upper class fantasies of Brideshead Revisted gave way to hard knuckle racial and sexual identity politics, both in student organizations as well as the classroom and the dorms. This identity politics, which was informed by and mimicked other debates happening in feminism and racial politics, was at this time for us fairly one-dimensional, “radical,” and positivist. Compared to the insouciance and visual splendour of the previous generation of PU “personalities,” we were sober, deadly serious, and grim. We were, in bell hooks’ phrase, “young soldiers for the revolution.” We were unreconstructed and unsophisticated positivists. We believed in the unitary subject, essential Blackness and Brownness and Gayness, and simple paradigms like “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution,” a political zeitgeist that Mahku later, in graduate school, described as “Button politics.” That is to say, the simple performance of the political (for example, placing the appropriate button on one’s lapel or book bag) is sufficient, and in my first two years at PU, indeed this was enough for most of us. It matched the Vanity Fair of desire and projection that typified the student culture at PU at the time.
My clique joined a number of others that either rapidly formed among the freshmen or existed before our arrival: prep school crowds linked by school or family, jocks, nerds, other “cool” cliques of colour, activists, lesbian heiresses, art fags, pre-Meds and Pre-Laws and English majors, the whole assortment of oddbins that make up most collegiate campuses, perhaps made slightly more unusual by the elite status of PU, but only just. The powerful atmosphere of open, vibrant, and questioning lesbian and gay sexuality, coupled with the intense race politics of the place at the time, enabled us to imagine ourselves as both racial and sexual beings, and our political motivations met the personal in tangible ways.
Within two months our arrival at PU, every man in our clique had come out, in one way or another. My own coming out has a bit of the wet noodle about it, but happened almost simultaneously to the other men in the clique (which oddly enough we never shared with each other. We just one day became openly gay, like Venus became the Xtravaganza). By this time, the Gay and Lesbian Co-operative types had noticed us on campus as had the gaggle of lesbian heiresses who hung out in the undergraduate library loudly and lasciviously commenting on any woman who would walk by and making out for passing strangers.
It was in a lounge in this library in October of my freshman year, on big crayola coloured sofa chairs, that a particularly fey junior member of the GLC asked me point blank whether I was “bi or gay.” Until this moment, I had not decided exactly whether or not I had a public identity as a sexual person, but almost instantly answered “I’m Gay.” He nodded, and we moved on to another topic. The earth did not part, the ceiling didn’t collapse, and he didn’t gasp. My personal resolution to myself as a 12-year old was finally fulfilled, six years and three thousand miles later. No doubt the ease of this moment was aided by the open and invigourating atmosphere of sexual and social questioning at a place like PU, but afterwards I couldn’t get over the fact that aside from all this, everyone already knew! “Glass closets,” as we came to call them, were not uncommon at a place like PU, where many men and women had undergone similar formative processes to my own. It was no accident there seemed to be a higher quotient of lesbians and gay men on campus, for we had all worked our butts off to get there, for the most part, almost as if an unconscious force drove us forward to reach a place where we could become ourselves.
The different ways in which we began to put together the puzzles of our various strands of identity at PU in our first two years would determine, largely, those of us who would go on to become artists, cultural producers, professors, teachers, and non-profit mavens, and others who would slide into and disappear within bourgeois conventionality, to be seen occasionally in class notes remarking on their dream wedding in Prague, the birth of their second daughter and their impending move to trade bonds in London/Tokyo/Chicago/Los Angeles/Dallas. These later decisions and fates cut across the lines of essentialism so important to us in those years. They seemed less grounded in identity, per se, and more in the processes of intellectual and social formations of our individual experiences. In short, the dramas and flings and politics brewing between us as undergraduates would have tangible, lasting effects on the course of our lives that were impossible to see at the time, in the heady rush of the crowd.