As Lafayette is a large community made up of smaller communities, the individual connections and smaller-scale communications play a huge role in how campus climate is developed and communicated. Peers learn from one another what is or is not acceptable while also creating spaces for one another to explore their identities and grow. For some, like Leah Wasacz, ‘16, this peer-to-peer exchange has overall positive implications for their own self-growth while for others, like Stacey-Ann Pearson, ‘15, this exchange has silencing effects.
For Wasacz, coming out to her friends first as bisexual and then as a trans woman created a space for her peers to feel comfortable and to learn from one another. She tells how when she first came out, many of her friends responded by coming out as bisexual. Her coming to terms with her own identity made space for other students to do the same and allowed for this sharing of information based on experience. She made it acceptable for her friends not to identify as heterosexual and created a climate within her own social circles of inclusivity and acceptance. This also created a climate of sharing experiences. Wasacz explains how once she and her friends came out to each other, they were able to ask questions and learn from one another how to relate to their identity. Her coming out also opened up conversations with cis female friends about how to present as a woman and “processing feminine identity.” Within this smaller community of Lafayette, a climate of learning, understanding, and sharing was created.
While sharing experiences of queer people at rallies and official events registered with the school are instrumental in providing institutional recognition and validation of these identities, the real growth and power comes from the small interactions people have with one another in class, in the dining hall or working on homework.This was also apparent in Leah’s story about a Writing Associate (WA) staff meeting in which Professor Tatu announced Leah’s pronouns and supported her. Just his acknowledgement of her identity sent the message to the WA staff that she existed, that she mattered, and that she would be respected. It also, in a way, validated trans identity at a higher institutional level and sent the message, to WA staff at the very least, that queer-identified people exist on this campus and contribute to the College.
Leah’s story illustrates a snowball effect of coming out, in that her coming out as trans made space for other queer people to come out and for queer and non-queer individuals to have conversations with one another about gender, sexuality, and identity. Stacey-Ann Pearson, ‘15, had a different experience in her interactions with other students regarding LGBTQ+ identities. She begins talking about her experience at Lafayette with a conversation about “some obnoxious lesbian” and how hearing her peers talk in such a disgusted way about lesbians sent her right back into the closet. Her peers were sending a very clear message that this was not acceptable and if she wanted to belong on campus, she couldn’t be gay. Interactions such as these are powerful, as Pearson remained in the closet for two years. A climate of intolerance and shame was communicated to her very quickly and effectively through her peers.
Pearson also talks about how she would hover around the Quest office and occasionally go to meetings, but it all felt too public and exposing for her. From her experience on that very first day at Lafayette, it was too much of a risk to be so open. This led her to create BCD, a space where people could be closeted and explore their identities safely.
Before BCD, Quest was really the only representation of queer life and the only “face” of an out queer community. Quest represented an out community that was ready to be visible on campus, rainbow flags blazing. For some, that was the only way to change campus climate and they were comfortable with that. For others, however, there needed to be a space within the larger Lafayette context that allowed them to safely learn about themselves and relate to the struggles and victories of other queer people. BCD provided that space while illustrating that the general Lafayette community was not ready to fully accept its queer members. If queer people could, however, find those small, informal networks of support through friends or organizations such as BCD or Quest, then the rest of campus, and the overall climate, would follow.