I kissed a girl for the first time when I was fifteen, perched on a picnic table during a game of Truth or Dare that had rapidly escalated. It was impossibly sunny outside. When I opened my eyes mid-kiss, I could see how damaged her hair was; pink-dyed split ends dulled the reflection of the light.
No one knew besides our scandalized audience of one, the ragtag truth-or-darer with somewhat impaired social skills who watched in silence as Emma and I shot increasingly personal questions at one another.
Our cross-examination was adapted from the liturgical guide that is the Rice Purity Test. Have you ever masturbated? Been given a hickey? Skinny-dipped or undressed in public? Sexted? Watched porn?
If I asked you to kiss me right now, would you?
I would like to claim that kissing Emma was affirming in some way, that it helped me feel secure in my queer identity, or in any queer identity. But Emma and the girls who followed her (none of whom I had to prompt with a party game) were tangential at best to the way I conceptualized my attraction to women.
I was unprepared to lay claim to any sexuality at all. Identifying as anything required a comprehensive understanding of an abstruse internet vocabulary. My Tumblr mutuals were trigender and homoflexible and panromantic, with the occasional addition of further-alienating words like “dragonkin.”
Those words felt foreign in my mouth. Girls’ tongues did not.
My newly radicalized fifteen-year-old peers understood sexual orientation as the rhetoric of attraction, not the attraction itself. Despite myself, I’ve remained wary of a lot of the terminology I associate with that point of view. I can’t imagine feeling so compelled to classify myself. I can’t imagine those words—hyperspecific, inaccessible, pathologizing—bringing me any comfort or confidence in who I am.
I explain this sentiment to my roommate, Fi Schroth-Douma, MC ‘23, when she asks me why I so strongly prefer to call myself “queer” rather than “bisexual.” She reminds me, “Everyone should get to identify with the terms that most resonate with them at any given point in time. It’s not hurting anyone.”
Of course I agree with her—as it pertains to everyone except me. By virtue of being attracted to women, I already feel like a science experiment. I think about the last time I kissed someone at a party, just before the pandemic hit the Northeast. When I pulled away for air I saw a face directly behind—almost on top of—my partner’s right shoulder. With the exact kind of smirk you would expect, the man to whom this face was attached slurred at us, “You ladies wouldn’t mind if I joined, then?”
Rachel Kim (as requested, I refer to her using a pseudonym) recalls an eerily similar experience. “I was at this Halloween party my freshman year. I met somebody there, and we went to a frat together. We’re there, we’re dancing, we’re kissing, and then I feel a light on me. And I turn and some guy is recording us. At first my partner and I stare at each other like, ‘Did that just happen?’ Neither she nor I was out to our parents. We both paused for a second. And then I chased that man down and I made him delete it. I was pissed. I never stepped foot in that frat again.”
But Rachel and I are the minority—which is also why we’re still so much of a spectacle. Even though Yale is ostensibly the “gay Ivy,” campus social life renders queer women functionally invisible. When I went to parties, I saw boys kissing girls. Sometimes (still rarely!) I saw boys kissing boys. But I saw girls kissing girls approximately nowhere, and I wanted desperately to know why.
Maya Shah, TD ‘23, says, “I’m still struggling given that I never really got to embrace [my sexuality] in my hometown… Talking about these things is easier on campus, but I still feel very restricted in the ‘hookup culture’ element of it.”
“Dating culture’s very nebulous,” Rachel remarks. She notes that heteronormativity makes it easy to discern what a man who approaches you at a party wants. But women are socialized to be submissive, to repress desire, never to initiate sexual encounters. “With men, there’s a script to follow, and I understand what my role is, so it’s easier in some way. I know how to be that girl that movies show, that books talk about, that porn depicts. With women, there’s no playbook for how these relationships are supposed to go. It’s organic and creative and genuine and exciting and intense.” She adds, “The narrative is very much focused on white male gays. Especially as a queer Asian woman, I don’t see much of myself in that.”
Sofia Lopez agrees: “I heard some things that made me hesitant to seek out queer spaces as someone who isn’t white.” (Sofia also asked not to be identified in this piece; I’ve used a pseudonym here.) Because the Office of LGBTQ+ Resources is the only cultural center that doesn’t specifically serve non-white people, and because other cultural centers have their own race-specific affinity groups, queer programming attendees are often pretty homogenous.
This harmful lack of representation, especially of intersectional queer identities, is compounded by the historically informed awareness that women share about the baggage of expressing sexuality. When I go home with a man there is an unstoppable whisper in my mind asking, “What’s he going to do to you?”
“There’s woman-specific fears and vulnerabilities and traumas,” says Anna Milliken, ES ‘21. “That makes hookup culture with any gender kind of scary to me. There aren’t enough conversations about trust and acceptance, at least not in my experience.”
I find it much easier to relax in the company of other women and gender minorities—especially gay ones. And certainly there is robust and visible representation of women in LGBTQ+ affinity spaces. That’s obviously a good thing, particularly for those of us whose non-Yale communities were and are less than supportive of queerness.
There’s a WLW (women-loving woman) affinity group at Yale called Sappho that’s been intermittently active over the last decade. Until she graduated last spring, Rachel was its de facto leader: “My friends would reminisce about how great Sappho parties were. Senior year, when I was a PL [peer liaison at the Office of LGBTQ+ Resources], my first-years were asking about Sappho. And I thought, ‘I wish it was a thing for you guys.’ So I re-registered [the organization] and brought it back.”
But as a PL (a university-bankrolled mentor) there’s only so much you can do to represent sexuality to your charges. So many queer women arrive at Yale, and at college campuses across the nation, seeking guidance and support rather than sex. (Please bring back Sappho—which returned to dormancy when Rachel graduated last spring—on their behalf!) The affinity spaces we cultivate are deeply necessary. But they also produce a strange tension: because they host community-building events intended to create families rather than fuckbuddies, actually expressing the sexuality we’re there to celebrate can feel sort of predatory.
So if you want a hookup, you don’t head to Sig Ep, and you certainly don’t go to Queer Crafternoon. You open Tinder.
I arrived at Yale utterly unprepared for the outsize role that dating apps play in campus life. I had previously believed those platforms were designed by and for millennials who needed tailored spaces for virtual relationship-building. Gen Z was having half-ironic cybersex on Club Penguin. We were—I was—meeting girls on Tumblr because they were reblogging my Star Wars graphics. On the whole, we were navigating the internet, our own sexualities, and the intersection of the two with a degree of ease completely foreign to previous generations.
But Tinder and its competitors make reciprocity far easier to detect than any sexually charged game of penguin sled racing, or (if you’re less inclined to develop an attraction to animated avatars) an is-this-friendly-or-does-she-want-to-fuck-me conversations shouted over Top 40 on a weirdly sticky dance floor.
The gamification of sexuality is not specific to adolescents, women, or queer people. And it manifests differently depending on the user base of the platform. Just look at Grindr—a dating app designed for gay men—versus its (admittedly much less popular) female counterpart, Lex. Grindr is highly visual, with users determining their interest in a potential partner based almost exclusively on their appearance. It’s objectifying in a way that engenders a totally different set of problems, many of which have been compellingly chronicled by its users.
On Lex, as the name implies (from the Greek lexis, “word”), there are no pictures. Character counts on user bios regularly stretch into the thousands. By design, it precipitates deep, emotional connection over visceral attraction.
That may speak to the larger preferences of many queer women, preferences shaped by the fetishization of our sexuality, the trauma many of us have experienced with male partners, and the construction of cisgender, heterosexual sex as necessarily more emotionally intimate for women. (You’re literally letting someone into your body.)
Regardless of the cause, the effect—distaste for mainstream dating apps—is surprisingly universal. Sofia explains, “I did not want to use dating apps. I’m very charmed by the idea of meeting someone in an organic way… And I just wasn’t personally interested in hookup culture; it’s not up my alley. I just need to know a person very, very well, and trust them.”
Anna adds, “My queerness comes out of having these long, tortured crushes on my friends. It just seemed obvious it was people I was attracted to rather than any construct of gender.”
Both Sofia and Anna are in queer relationships that formed over quarantine, and both of them were the asker-outers. Their cited justification is almost identical: “I had nothing to lose,” says Sofia. Anna, for her part, explicates, “It became so obvious I wanted to be with them once we spent four months apart. I was like, ‘I have to tell them at this point. This is absurd.’ And there’s an element of ‘the world is ending,’ too.” She laughs. “Everything is so fucked. You need someone and you can’t make anything any worse than it already is.”
Anna was also friends with her partner prior to starting a relationship. “That made it easier, but it also made it harder,” she says. This, too, reflects the historical positioning of lesbianism.
Queer masculinity has historically been legislated, disciplined and punished far more aggressively than queer femininity, in part because it’s so much more visible. Our identities, by contrast, and the nature of the relationship that exists between partners, are often obscured by the emotional intimacy of female friendship. You know. Just gals being pals.
College relationships are some of the most intimate ones anyone can form because of the degree of proximity they necessitate. You live, learn, eat, socialize, and fuck in all the same places. In characterizing this state of affairs, Fi and Rachel used the exact same adjective: “incestuous.”
That’s particularly resonant given the extent to which queer femme social circles tend to overlap. All of my interviewees mentioned how many of their closest friends were gay.
Anna says, “Queer women aren’t sufficiently represented on campus. [But] the representation that I wanted most was fulfilled; I wanted people who weren’t specifically doing queer things, but who knew they were queer. I needed friends who were queer—friends who were more accepting of themselves than I was of myself at the time.”
Rachel adds, laughingly, “The jokes are like, ‘Me and my ex-girlfriend just got a U-Haul to help her ex-girlfriend, who happened to be dating my ex-girlfriend, move into their new place together.’”
At least on a collegiate level, queer women tend to run in very concentrated social circles. And even though I bemoan the state of our visibility at Yale, it’s still clear to me and to nearly any outside viewer that queer women are better represented on college campuses, especially contemporary ones, than most other places.
But I want to do more than exist. I want to be sexual and safe and seen in ways that have felt foreign to me ever since Emma and I disjoined our lips.
“Weird,” the formerly awestruck observer of my first kiss declared. “Not really,” said Emma, seemingly immune from shame in a way I was suddenly, intensely, blushingly aware I was not. I pulled a splinter out of the hand I had used to steady myself when she leaned her full body weight against me, lips-first. Like I was a magnet. Like I was made for her.
Last fall I matched with a girl on Tinder, someone I thought was attractive and interesting and ridiculously, painfully smart. We sent each other song recommendations. I told her she was beautiful and she told me I should get a mullet. (I got a mullet.)
I wanted her, wanted to be with her and talk to her and touch her, but I wanted her to make the first move. I always want someone else to make the first move. I waited, she waited, and the intermissions between our messages lapsed into a larger silence.
In February we saw each other on Elm Street. I was holding the hand of the architecture student I’d recently started dating. Sam was tall and thin and older than me and endlessly better dressed. He proceeded to dump me a couple months later. (“Josie, you’re so needy. And you’re so fucking damaged.”)
She was holding the hand of someone who looked like my boyfriend’s twin. I imagined taking him apart like a Lego set, popping his too-cylindrical head right off his neck and rolling it into the street. I wanted to anatomize Sam in the exact same way.
I looked at her, she looked at me, and we kept walking.