News Commentary

Validating communities: Exploring queer joy at Georgetown

April 18, 2023


Design by Sabrina Shaffer

Upon deciding to attend Georgetown, I began the tenuous and vulnerable process of gauging my future home’s level of acceptance towards LGBTQ+ people. Each new cultural marker felt auspicious: the “Homo Saxa” Patio (boo GroupMe), Ben Telerski (CAS ’23) remarking on TikTok, “I go to a very gay Catholic university,” and the appearance of the “Lavender Haze” on the Corp’s menu.

But actually entering Georgetown’s queer community revealed a landscape of identity and experience far more diverse and complex than one affinity group chat for queer people or just a “very gay” university. After interviewing 11 LGBTQ+ identifying students, I’ve excavated a complicated and beautiful picture of what it means to be a queer student at Georgetown. It’s an individual understanding: a lived reality filtered by race, gender identity, class, and other aspects of identity. Viewing this complex picture in all of its nuance and diversity matters because queerness is too often flattened into one experience, when it’s multiple and individually defined.

Queer people have arguably become more visible on campus over recent years. The 2022 Marriage Pact Survey and the Voice’s sex survey show that more than 35 percent of Georgetown’s undergraduate population identifies as non-heterosexual.

For me, coming to Georgetown from a Catholic high school, where I could count the number of openly queer people on one hand, was liberating. I entered a space where I could both celebrate my queerness and let it exist as one facet of my identity amid many. For one of the first times, it was not hard for me to find other queer people—a principal source of anxiety for me. I did not have to worry as much about my queer identity when I entered a class, made friends, or started dating.

“One of things I was worried about specifically after committing to Georgetown was, ‘Am I going to be the only trans person here? Am I going to be the only non-binary person here?’ ” Marre Gaffigan (CAS ’26) said. “Upon coming to campus, I realized such a huge percentage of this population is queer in some way.”

Some of this visibility on campus stems from queer students’ heavy involvement in campus clubs and affinity spaces. “Every queer person who is out loud is often doing a lot of work on campus,” Ollie Henry (CAS ’24), a student activist who’s very present in affinity spaces on campus, observed, discussing how many of the queer students they know sit on multiple club boards.

This sense of visibility also extends to broader queer social life. Olivia Yamamoto (SFS ’24), director of this year’s Rocky Horror Picture Show—a musical comedy horror film that has become a queer staple due to its themes of sexual liberation and self-discovery—recounted an unofficial GU Pride party at an upperclassman’s sweaty Henle in their freshman year as liberating compared to more repressive high school environments: “This is how it’s supposed to feel like at a party where you belong,” they said. “Where you could make out with someone on the dance floor if you wanted to. To feel that same messiness that every first-year college student should have.”

Historically, spaces like GU Pride, the LGBTQ Resource Center, Haus of Hoya, queer retreats like Journeys (which haven’t run since the pandemic began), and traditions like Gender Funk parties, the “i am.” shirts, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show have been staples in cultivating queer life at Georgetown. On more individual levels, queer students have also built vibrant informal spaces: charcuteries on the lawn, music-sharing, or queer-centered friend groups. Remaking institutions that might not be explicitly queer—like theater—into especially queer-positive environments has been, for some, uniquely validating.

“Theater at Georgetown has provided me not only with lifelong friendships but probably the most validation that I’ve ever received in my life as a trans person and as a queer person,” Gaffigan said.

Queer people haven’t always been visible on campus. Shiva Subbaraman, a faculty member in the Department of Performing Arts and former director of the LGBTQ Center, spoke to a significant cultural shift in LGBTQ+ visibility. “I started the center in 2008 when most of the queer community was very small because there was so much homophobia on campus. Very, very few students felt empowered or safe to be out on campus,” Subbaraman said.

The very work of making queer life possible is difficult. “You have to go against the grains of hustle culture, of ascribing yourself to a thousand and one clubs, to build community. You have to go against Georgetown’s culture to build community.” Henry noted Georgetown’s preprofessional culture encourages students to value career building over community building. 

Many interviewees also questioned whether there even is such a thing as a unified or singular “queer community” to build upon. 

“I don’t think there’s a ‘queer community,’ I think there’s queer communities,” Nikash Harapanahalli (SFS ’24) said. “There are communities that are both racialized, that are put into different groups based off of identities, that are a part and parcel of who they are, with queerness being something in conversation with those other identities.”

The unpaid and time-consuming work of leading queer affinity spaces often falls into the hands of queer students that hold the privilege and thus the bandwidth to do it—which at a predominately white and wealthy institution often means white, cisgender, affluent, gay men. The result is these affinity groups like GU Pride often engineer spaces to intentionally or unintentionally exclude certain students. Harapanahalli, who left the GU Pride board in fall 2021, described how they felt that as a person of color, a lot of the labor of making GU Pride more inclusive fell to them without much support from the rest of the board.

The racialized dynamics of the university’s queer communities also seep into the dating scene. As Yamamoto mentioned, “It is kind of hard to navigate dating because just because someone is queer doesn’t necessarily mean that they are A, not racist, and B, willing to connect with you and understand your experience as a queer person of color.”

Sometimes this means students of color date off campus in order to find people who can understand or share their experiences and perspectives beyond simply being queer.

“On Tinder, when I set my location, I have to set it, not just five miles, I’m setting it 10, 15, 20 miles. I need to make sure Howard’s included,” Henry said. “I think queer dating is really difficult at a predominantly white institution (PWI) because there aren’t supports for navigating all those different forms of internalized oppression that shows up interpersonally.”

When people of color date outside of their own racialized community, they can experience eroticization that can make dating prohibitive, or even harmful—a dynamic present in straight and queer relationships alike. “There is unfortunately a tendency to see queer people of color as bodies, as fetish, as to fetishize them and to eroticize them, or even to not date them at all,” Harapanahalli said. “I think the unfortunate reality is that, as a queer person of color, I’m a person of color before anything else.” 

Even when students date within their own racialized communities, there are challenges.

“There are still barriers of internalized racism, homophobia, toxic masculinity that you have to also parse through,” Henry said. These are dynamics that make all kinds of dating difficult; however, they feel incredibly acute in queer communities due to the compounding nature of oppression. This acuteness is only complicated by fractured queer communities and a disconnect to LGBTQ+ history on campus.

Queer Hoyas are isolated from their history because they’re rarely exposed to it—university advertising doesn’t mention it, it isn’t readily accessible on most Georgetown websites, and it’s not discussed during New Student Orientation.

“We really lack the ability to be able to sit within our history, and that pulls us farther away from our sense of community,” Henry observed. According to them, this lack of knowledge has tangible impacts on the present day; when queer students don’t understand what was required on the path to achieving acceptance, equality, and resources here at Georgetown, they don’t fully grasp the gravity of continuing this work.

“I also want people to remember that our queer ancestors really fought for our right to be open and for me to even do this interview,” Yamamoto said.

On April 30, 1980, two student groups—the Gay People of Georgetown University (GPGU), which would evolve into GU Pride, and the Gay Rights Coalition of Georgetown University Law Center (GRC-GULC)—filed a lawsuit with the D.C. Superior Court accusing the university of unlawful discrimination after Georgetown rejected multiple efforts to form an officially recognized LGBTQ+ student group throughout the 1970s. After eight years of legal battles, the university capitulated, agreeing to grant equal access to university benefits for LGBTQ+ student groups but not official recognition until years later. A major institutional victory, the win did not necessarily reflect a cultural shift toward queer students. 

Georgetown’s past of marginalizing its queer community is as integral to its history as its Catholic identity. “The University rejected GPGU’s request for University recognition on the grounds that the group presented a homosexual lifestyle as morally acceptable,” President Timothy Healy wrote in a 1988 letter. Healy’s letter displayed the university’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ students in the 1980s: Their “lifestyle” should not be condoned.

Often, institutional and cultural hate manifested in violence. In fall 2007, a string of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ students—including an assault that hospitalized a student on Sept. 9—went publicly unaddressed by the administration. Following months of student organizing by Georgetown’s LGBTQ+ community, the first LGBTQ Resource Center at a Catholic university opened on Aug. 1, 2008. 

But even the LGBTQ Resource Center has a complex place at Georgetown, seen as a support mechanism for a community that struggles because it is “abnormal.” “But that’s part of how they pathologized us, right?” Subbaraman said, reflecting on the suffering slot queer students are often placed in. “So, from the very beginning, right, I was very focused on saying, no, I want to show my students as happy, thriving, well-adjusted, joyful people.” 

The understandings of what queer joy is are as diverse as the Georgetown queer experience. It was described as everything from “liberating” (Joe Hofman, CAS ’23) to “freedom in community” (Tara Ravishankar, CAS ’22) to simple scenes of love and community abound. 

“When I think of queer joy, I think of the party that we threw for a trans student when he got top surgery,” Siena Hohne said (CAS ’22).

Henry, who sees queer joy as something beyond words, highlights that some of the happiest experiences of queer community they’ve found here are grounded in connection. “It is the best feeling when I meet a trans-masc person and I’m like, ‘You’re here, I’m here, we’re here.’ It’s those moments of affirmation of your existence,” they said.

Yamamoto found queer joy in their involvement in Rocky Horror. “For Rocky, I think you can just show up and be silly. You can go up in your brawn thong and dance to a song that doesn’t make sense in a movie with a plot that doesn’t make sense,” they said.

“Seeing this person that made a really good point in your IR class also be able to strut down the aisles in stilettos—it’s a very exciting thing to see,” she added. Seeing the raw and visible queerness of Rocky Horror is important and exciting because it represents that queer people can show up to spaces as they are and want to be.

For me, understanding, accepting, and expressing my queerness was a journey marred by shame and seriousness. I hid my own queer identity for years, from myself and the communities I loved, and dismantling those external and internal barriers changed my relationships and made me feel fully seen and valued. This experience of interviewing my peers on what queer joy means to them has provided a moment of pause and reflection on that journey—it’s shown me how far the joyful, silly, expressive person with almost completely faded pink hair is from the fifth grader who didn’t understand why he liked boys, and hated himself for it. Reflecting, here, in community with others has shown me that the work of self-affirmation, above all else, ends in joy.


Connor Martin
Connor (he/him) is a junior in the college and the managing editor. He is also a member of the editorial board, a collector of snowglobes, and he can't wait to make you pasta after studying for three months in Florence, Italy. Ping Connor at managing@georgetownvoice.com.


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