Pride and Prejudice: LGBTQ at Georgetown

February 4, 2010

“I came out the day after the election—November 5, 2008.”

After spending eleven months working for John McCain’s presidential campaign, Carlos Hernandez (SFS ’11) was exhausted.

“I was dealing with politicians and people who worked for the campaign that were fake, and I realized I couldn’t do that,” Hernandez said. “I felt fake.”

In a striped collared shirt, sweater vest, and Windsor-knotted tie, he looks every bit the classic stereotype of a Georgetown preppie. Buttoned-up. Intellectual. Politically-minded. Except Carlos Hernandez happens to be gay.

Hernandez is one of many students who associate with the emerging Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning community at Georgetown. More students are out—meaning they are public about their sexual orientation—than ever before, according to Sivagami Subbaraman, director of Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center.

“Before I came [in August 2008], there were maybe one or two people out as professional staff in residence halls,” Subbaraman said. “Now we have at least ten RAs who are out and are comfortable being out, and at least half a dozen full-time, professional staff who are out in residence halls.”

But with growth comes growing pains. As the LGBTQ community has become more visible on campus, internal and external tensions have bubbled to the surface. Controversy about sexually explicit advertisements and discussion panels plagued last year’s inaugural “Sex Positive Week.” A number of leaders of GU Pride, a student-run organization devoted to LGBTQ issues, stepped down during an organizational shake-up in the first weeks of the fall 2009 semester. Multiple “bias-related incidents”—violent crimes directed towards students assumed to be LGBTQ—were committed on and around Georgetown’s campus in recent years.

One question lingers for LGBTQ students on-campus. What does it mean to be queer at Georgetown?

Shruti Dusaj (SFS ‘11), former co-President of GU Pride, has been trying to answer that question since she arrived at Georgetown in 2007.

“When I came to this school, I was expecting a liberal bastion, despite the Catholic identity,” Dusaj said.

Dusaj arrived to Georgetown amidst a series of violent acts aimed at LGBTQ students, the most notable occurring on September 9, 2007. According to the police report filed after the incident, a male student walking along O Street was harassed by shouts of “Where are you going, faggot?” The victim was followed to 36th Street, where he was tackled and punched in the head and face.

As a native of New Delhi, Dusaj was familiar with homophobia, but not violence toward homosexuals.

“I had never heard of actual violence, even though I’m from India and homosexuality is still illegal in most of the country,” Dusaj said. “When the hate crimes happened, it was really unsettling.”

The LGBTQ community responded to the violence with the Out for Change campaign, a student initiative that demanded administrative support for LGBTQ students at Georgetown. Students wore “I am” t-shirts to publicly support the LGBTQ community. A petition circulated around campus gathered over 1,600 signatures—more than a third of the undergraduate population. While Out for Change ultimately led to the creation of the first LGBTQ Center at a Catholic college, the campaign and its aftermath caused divisions within the LGBTQ community.

“I didn’t want to come out freshman year because that fall was the big Out for Change campaign,” Hernandez said. “I didn’t think it was the appropriate atmosphere for me to come out because I thought that people would think, ‘Oh, he’s just being reactive to all of this.’ I wanted it to be a bit more authentic.”

Others, like Antwaun Sargent (SFS ‘10), were not satisfied with the gains Out for Change earned for LGBTQ students.

“I think people expected something different from Out for Change,” Sargent said. “We didn’t want to stop where we did. We wanted to change the climate and culture. You don’t change an institution by getting an office on the third floor of Leavey.”

The LGBTQ Resource Center, which opened in the Leavey Center in August 2008, was Out for Change’s biggest accomplishment. Later, the University would offer support to LGBTQ students through prayer groups organized by Campus Ministry and LGBTQ-specific counseling at Counseling and Psychiatric Services. But the Center was, and still is, the most visible administrative support for LGBTQ students at Georgetown.

With the establishment of the LGBTQ center, GU Pride faced an identity crisis. No longer the most prominent representation of LGBTQ students at Georgetown, GU Pride had to redefine itself and re-evaluate its role on campus.

“We no longer have to serve the mission of being the only outlet for aiding the coming out process,” Robert Byrne (COL ’11), co-Programming Chair of GU Pride, said. “We no longer have to be the only place that’s visible on campus. [There are] lots of different outlets now.”

By most accounts, GU Pride is still seen as the de facto leadership within the LGBTQ community, despite the fact that many LGBTQ students avoid involvement with the club.

“The general Georgetown community sees the heads of the LGBTQ community as Shiva [Subbaraman] and the two head Pride people [Byrne and Rehana Mohammed (SFS ’12)],” Sargent said. “But, most of the LGBTQ students here are not involved with Pride.”

Sargent, who contributes to the Voice’s blog, Vox Populi, was once deeply involved with GU Pride, but he does not associate with the club today.

“It’s a gay, white male-centered movement,” he said. “If you fit into that paradigm, you benefit. And if you don’t, you don’t.”

Last semester, in an attempt to address concerns about the group, GU Pride opened organizational meetings to all members and reduced the size of its leadership board from eleven positions to five.

“It can be problematic when a handful of people are seen as the faces of an entire identity group,” Dusaj wrote in an e-mail.

The changes have attracted students like Alex Buckley (COL ‘10), who were once wary of GU Pride. Buckley attributes his participation to his growing comfort with his sexual identity as a gay man.

“I was reluctant to go to any meetings for a long time … people who seemed straighter—less flamboyant, more restrained—seemed not to be entirely welcome,” Buckley said. “I didn’t see anybody in there that came from where I came from. But I feel much better about the club now because of the changes.”

Since the LGBTQ Resource Center has opened, GU Pride has searched for a new niche, largely through peer outreach.

“[GU] Pride should at least try to reach out—not to pry people out of the closets, but if someone is coming out and wants a place to test their sexuality and identity,” Dusaj said. “I think Pride has a responsibility to students. Pride should provide services that the Center or CAPS can’t because they’re grown-up professionals.”

The results of these services have been mixed. At least a dozen students regularly attend Outspoken, a confidential, peer-led discussion group that explores the LGBTQ community and sexual identity, according to Rehana Mohammed, Co-Programming Chair of GU Pride. Mohammed, along with Byrne, leads and facilitates Outspoken meetings.

A varied mix of LGBTQ students attends Outspoken meetings. Some are closeted or attempting to come out, while others have been out for years. Mohammed claims the balance allows students to help one another and draw from one another’s experiences.

While Outspoken is open to all—or perhaps because it is open to all—some LGBTQ students choose to avoid the group for privacy reasons.

“I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with going to Outspoken … It just seems like there are a lot of issues with confidentiality in that group,” Hernandez said. “There’s only so much that a student-led group can keep in confidence. Things get out. It’s a fairly small community.”

A fear of being involuntarily outed publicly is almost universal in the LGBTQ community. But it’s a matter of degree—how far out must a LGBTQ student be? At all and in all contexts?

“There’s this assumption that if a guy goes to a gay club on a Thursday or Friday night, and going and hooking up with boys, they’re out,” Dusaj said. “That’s not necessarily true. People move through different spheres, even on campus.”

As an Indian lesbian, Dusaj faces her own difficulties. She says that her friends at Georgetown don’t understand how she can be out at Georgetown, while not telling her family about her sexual orientation. She believes that Indian culture and the prevalent opinions about homosexuality in India require a different approach to coming out.

“It’s a very American thing to go to your parents over Thanksgiving break and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you. I’m gay.’ In Indian families, communication just happens without words,” she said. “My mom is friends with me on Facebook—she can see I have ‘Interested in Women’ on there. They can see it, but it’s just not the same way as it is with American kids.”

Other students, such as Byrne, suffered because they were public about their sexual orientations. Byrne avoids the well-trafficked Georgetown bar scene, claiming the atmosphere makes him uncomfortable.

“I would never go to the Tombs, ever. Or any Georgetown bar, really. I don’t think many queer students go to Georgetown bars because if there’s any sort of gender expression that isn’t hyper masculine, you will absolutely get called out on it,” Byrne said. “People will dance up on you if you’re dancing with someone of the same sex. On Thursday nights, we don’t go to Thirds. People go to Apex. [The Georgetown scene] isn’t our climate.”

Apex, a gay nightclub in Dupont Circle, is popular among many gay men at Georgetown. Every Thursday, Apex offers free admission to college students aged eighteen and older. On Thursdays, the last Georgetown shuttle bus to Dupont Circle at 11:45 p.m. barely has enough room to stand, let alone sit comfortably.

“On the GUTS bus, people are usually falling all over each other because they’re kind of sloshed,” Byrne said. “People make a lot of jokes and eye each other. It’s part of the process of figuring out who you want to dance with or flirt with. Are you going to hang out with friends or are you going to meet new people that night?”

Despite the discomfort LGBTQ students face around campus, the LGBTQ community has persevered. It is a unique community of one and many, a group of students and staff simultaneously drawn together and pulled apart by their sexual identities. As the LGBTQ community continues to grow, students must confront the seemingly paradoxical nature of queer culture on campus—progression by division.

“You’re only fragmenting the community if you assume that we have to be one in order to be healthy,” Subbaraman said. “We want choice in toothpaste and milk, but we don’t like plural when it comes to ourselves. That bothers me.”

Can an LGBTQ community thrive at Georgetown? Hernandez paused, leaned back, and placed his forefinger against his temple while he pondered the question.

“It will never be a homogeneous community. Lesbian issues, gay issues, transgender, transsexual, bisexual issues are all very different and you can’t really lump them together,” Hernandez said. “I think most people are starting to accept that fact.”

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Rob Byrne

Hey Georgetown Voice,

So I just wanted to clarify a couple of things. As someone quoted in this article, there are a couple of occasions where it sounds like I am trying to represent GU Pride as an organization or even the entire LGBTQ community at large. When I said that places liked the Tombs are not “our climate”, I really just mean that they are not places a lot of my immediate friends regularly go to. I mean, on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s bro central. I only meant to express that a lot of queer folks prefer 17th Street or U-St. But at the same time, I also personally know men who have been together openly at Georgetown bars and felt fine.

And another point that I feel is a bit misrepresented here deals with the OUTspoken meetings. As a facilitator for over a year, I can say that there is absolutely a community agreement to uphold confidentiality. If participants break confidentiality, they’re asked not to return to the group. And it’s true, anyone is welcome to come to the meetings, but I take issue with the implication (“–or perhaps because it is open to all–“) that someone would show up to an OUTspoken meeting just to see who else is there. That simply has not happened, at least in my time here.

Thanks again for covering LGBT issues at Georgetown. Overall, I really enjoyed the way you incorporated so many perspectives.