Memoirs from the evolution

Maia Ettinger ’83 is a writer and attorney. This essay is excerpted from her remarks at the GALA reunion in April.

1983 <i>Yale Banner</i>

1983 Yale Banner

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Profound transformation occurred in the 30 years between my freshman year and the GALA reunion of April 2009. We attending the reunion, in fact, were a category of person that didn't exist in 1979. We are public, self-proclaimed LGBT people, and the same time, we are doctors, historians, parents, and middle-aged married folks. This world would have been science fiction to me in 1979.

I arrived at Yale knowing of very few out gay people and almost no gay people my own age. Older lesbians called me a "baby dyke," a term that signaled a completely new phenomenon: lesbians coming out as teenagers. Young gay people were even more lacking in role models than adults. It was an act of great imagination to envision our own selves in the world, to envision fitting into an institution like Yale whose rituals and traditions very explicitly excluded us.

Being out as a lesbian at Yale in 1979 was equivalent with being a radical lesbian feminist: no other lesbians were visible on campus. While I felt aligned with much of their politics, I quickly began to chafe at the constraints of their rather separatist ideology. The older lesbians told me my blue eyeliner was a tool of the patriarchy. They urged me to trade my Elvis Costello records for women's music. When the poet Adrienne Rich read on campus, she told a private gathering of lesbians that we shouldn't vote in the Carter-Reagan election, because elections were just games for boys. While I didn't fit into the mainstream, I also felt alienated from that separatist impulse. And not just because I wanted my MTV.

The gender divide between lesbians and gay men was very pronounced when I arrived on campus, and the lesbian feminists were entirely content with that. To them, gay men were men first, beneficiaries of male privilege. As someone who had come out in high school, however, I knew firsthand that being out as a lesbian was far less dangerous than being a boy who failed to conform to gender norms. Patriarchy exacts a terrible toll on young gay men, and my cohort tended to operate from that assumption. We lived, studied, organized, and partied as lesbians and gay men together. Notably, this cultural evolution was occurring right before AIDS entirely rewrote our lives.

I believe that in that pre-AIDS moment, the greater unity between gay men and lesbians generated a more outward-looking activism, including several "firsts" at Yale, like the gay-straight raps, Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days, and dances. Another important first was that in 1981, the Gay and Lesbian Co-op was invited to send delegates to the freshman orientation weekend. This was an incredible breakthrough: Yale was inviting us to join the university gatekeepers, communicating to new students that homophobic harassment was not acceptable, and that gay students had the backing of the school. For years after, freshmen who attended told me how much it changed their views of Yale and of themselves.

The early ’80s was also a time of great tension between seeking acceptance and insisting on our radical difference. This tension was especially pronounced for gay women and people of color during the era of identity politics, a markedly two-edged sword. On the one hand, we were honing a vocabulary of selfhood that resisted the definitions of a hostile mainstream: we were not inferior; we were not sick; we were not less-than. This was a beautiful and necessary project. On the other hand, like any marginalized and frightened group, we demanded conformity to our new definitions of selfhood. There was a rigidity to how we understood ourselves, and an impatience with those who questioned or blundered in trying to understand us.

Our attempts to reach across lines of race, class, gender, and sexual identity were imperfect and not always gentle, but I cannot help but feel moved by the fact that we tried. The ties we forged, and the cultural shifts we helped drive, enabled us to construct an integrated sense of self against the backdrop of a culture that vehemently denied our existence. Most of us arrived closeted and -- whether we knew it or not -- in great need of comfort. Most of us graduated out of the closet and able to celebrate the people we had become.  

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