Coming to Princeton as a brand new, bright-eyed freshman is, let’s admit, a terrifying prospect all on its own. While we’re being honest, I should confess: Arriving as an openly homosexual male has brought its own set of challenges. Battling through the suffering that accompanies hiding an identity for years, then rejoicing through the triumph of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when the truth demands to be liberated — these experiences taken in their entirety represent a coming out story. But that was before Princeton. Since arriving — and approaching the end of my first year — I have learned that the story is far from over and, for better or for worse, requires rethinking.
There has long existed a stereotype about homosexuals coming out of the closet: The Midwestern boy secretly stashes away some savings and quietly packs a suitcase so that, on his 18th birthday, he can announce to his corn-husking parents that he is gay and flee to New York or Los Angeles with nothing but his gayness. With a self-congratulatory attitude, many like to believe this stereotype is a relic of the past. It’s possible that the new coming-out story, however, will make us yearn for that original rainbow stereotype.
This new reality may be grimmer than the stereotype of old and seems to manifest itself quite prominently at Princeton University. At Princeton, it’s okay to be “out” — as long as you’re not gay about it. Boys should only hold hands in the final stretch of their 3:30 a.m. walk home from the Street, and same-sex dancing should only occur among straight girls. After all, gays are meant to be “tolerated,” not seen or heard. It doesn’t take more than a quick review of PrincetonFML, Princeton GoodCrush, or (the epitome) BoredAtFirestone to discover the true venues for which people are apparently supposed to save their “gay.”
Theodore Olson, a prominent conservative who served as President George W. Bush’s lawyer in Bush v. Gore in 2000, characterized the struggle for gay equality as potentially “the last major civil-rights milestone yet to be surpassed in our two-century struggle to attain the goals we set for this nation at its formation.” His statement is particularly noteworthy because he, with his conservative credentials, is one of the lead attorneys battling California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in federal courts right now. If there is any remote validity to this statement, the lack of political action around this issue on a major college campus such as Princeton is unnerving. True, the institution is a small one (and the LGBT community, then, necessarily even smaller). But surely any potential for action is only hindered by conforming to this new brand of pseudo-tolerance that is steadfast in its principled, academic resolve that LGBT rights ought to be promoted — but we would prefer never to have to, say, see two women kiss or something gross like that.
The suppression of homosexual (as well as a variety of non-heteronormative) expression at Princeton is certainly not exclusively the fault of the school’s heterosexual majority. Of course, years of hate and intolerance have left a cultural legacy of oppressed behavior; however, minority and majority alike share the blame. It is a common political phenomenon that minority leadership (either selected or self-appointed) is often taken up by those who fall a bit outside of that minority’s norm. Even today, black leaders tend, for example, to be far less in favor of government assistance for the black community than the average black citizen. To be successful, many black leaders had to be (or, at least, felt they had to be) the most white; and to be most successful, budding gay leaders at Princeton seem to believe they need to be the most straight. Gay. But not too gay.
At a fundamental level the question at hand is one of expression: How free do individuals feel in allowing their external behavior to reflect their internal thoughts and desires? It is likely that there are few thresholds more basic in experiencing genuine and meaningful personal liberation. It is not too radical then, I propose, to recognize a link between the extent to which individuals consistently enjoy the experience of matching their outward behavior with their inner desires and the success we are entitled to claim in architecting institutions, cultures and communities that espouse tolerance, justice and equality. Certainly the distance between our current realities and the ideal can be measured in the number of “selves” we use to distance certain elements of our identity from outward expression. Is this true for any number of demographics and identities? Is it particularly true at Princeton? I am inclined to answer: Yes and probably. The fact that this issue is not unique to the LGBT community seems like less of a reason to disregard the question than a reason to be even more deeply troubled, and to reflect on it even further.
Perhaps we wrote off that original stereotype too hastily. The Midwestern boy who preferred his sister’s dolls to his brother’s football escaped to those big cities with himself for the first time in his whole life. At Princeton, it’s not clear if everyone can claim the same just yet.