The sight of two boys kissing at GW isn’t a rare scene.
GW has a large gay population, leading one to believe that gay students have an easier time fitting in and being accepted than in environments where they are a small minority.
While most students would probably describe the overall atmosphere on campus as accepting, many gay students say they still face pressure. It’s not the pressure to conform to the mold of a stereotypical straight guy to gain acceptance with peers like one might expect. Instead it’s the pressure to fit in with the cliques in GW’s gay community.
Steven Forssell, an openly gay psychology professor who studies GW’s and D.C.’s gay culture, said that he finds the city overall to be quite gay-friendly, but has noticed a lack of networking among gay students on campus.
“There is certainly no shortage of gay outlets in the city,” he said. “I do, however, perceive a paradoxical lack of (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual) community bonding on campus, and in the city as a whole, as compared with those in smaller and more conservative cities.”
Forssell found that about 15 percent of his students last year who responded to an online survey conducted in two of his general psychology sections reported being gay or bisexual. GW has a reputation for attracting gay students, probably because D.C. has its own gay communities that are pretty well-known. D.C. has only recently become an attractive city for gay men.
Matching the image
Forsell said that this lack of a network on campus can be partially attributed to many parts of the city being openly gay neighborhoods, and while that’s a good thing, it does affect the dynamics of the gay community on campus.
“Perhaps this is because there is so much to do and the campus is so close to the heart of the gay neighborhood and establishments, so there’s less of a need for on-campus resources,” he continued. “I think there is also something to the old adage that ‘misery loves company.’ In more oppressive environments, gay people need to stick together more.”
But at GW, where gay students are free to make out or hold hands with their significant other, sticking together is rare and gay students are split into several cliques. The one thing many gay students said they often worry about is fitting the stereotypical mold of the “hot gay guy.”
Many gay GW students said most of the pressure about their sexuality comes from within the University’s gay community itself: pressure to be hip, skinny, well-dressed, among other things.
“I’m not an ugly guy, but there’s so much pressure to look good because that’s what people expect – that’s what even gay guys here expect,” said Ryan Liddell, a senior and English major. “Sometimes I really feel that people have this misconception of GW being a welcoming, happy place, but once you’re in the community it can quickly become a dog-eat-dog environment.”
Some may argue that the pressure is all around, gay or not. GW has a self-proclaimed reputation of having atypically well-dressed students walking around in the latest designer clothing and accessories. Despite it all, some suggest perhaps the pressure is different for another reason.
“College is the high school for gay people. All of a sudden you get to be in a community where you can experiment and have all these relationship issues,” sophomore Adam Chamy said.
Other students within the gay community agreed – GW is the high school equivalent for some same-sex relationships, all the drama and superficiality included.
“I have a friend who’s a little overweight and he doesn’t feel that he is cool or thin enough to be a part of the gay community here. He’s afraid of coming out because of it,” said a GW senior, who wishes to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The clique here is so tight that it scares boys from coming out.”
“Everyone is subject to judgment, is scrutinized under a microscope,” he continued, stressing that image issues at GW are one of the hardest for gay students to avoid. “If someone gains 10 pounds, everyone knows it. The only positive thing I can think of that comes from this is that everybody shares a connection then, everybody has been through this, and I know that we all feel the need to take the pressure off ourselves.”
Stephanie Kendall, a post-doctoral clinical fellow at the University Counseling Center, said that she sees such struggles on campus with gay students just trying to fit in. She said a lot of gay men first come out in college and that can cause confusion about where one fits.
“Coming out is a lifelong process,” she said. “There are so many variables that affect how comfortable an individual is with being him or herself.”
How GW can adapt
But in the instance where help is needed, many said it’s usually available. Because of the higher numbers of gay students at GW, it’s not surprising the University has a strongly visible gay rights activism and support group, Allied in Pride.
An organization formed from the merging of two other groups, Out Crowd and GW Pride, Allied in Pride has a Facebook membership of more than 140 GW students, and sponsors many gay rights awareness events, like protests and discussions, throughout the year.
“At GW there are so many official and unofficial networks to fall back on if you’re ever uncomfortable,” Chamy said.
Dominic Abbate, the co-chair of public relations for Allied in Pride, said he feels that despite all the efforts made, school sponsorship for gay student groups is still an issue that GW’s administration needs to tackle.
“If Allied In Pride could become a part of the school’s administration instead of just a student group, more issues could be addressed,” he said, “Like housing, for example. We could work with students’ preferences, or at least have somewhat of a small say, to put them in housing situations where they would be the most comfortable.”
Forssell agreed that GW does lack a University-sponsored support system for students who are struggling with sexuality issues or who are looking for a place to hang out and meet other gay students.
“Much of GLB life in the city can be off limits to students because of age restrictions and budgets, so the University could always do more,” he said.
Kendall thinks it would be a good idea for GW to follow suit among other schools in their market basket and establish a campus-wide gay community instead of just having students organize it themselves.
“There are many schools comparable to GW that have administrative resources, like school-sponsored LGBTQ support services, like AU and NYU,” she said.
These centers provide services like counseling centers, community rooms, and they are connected with multi-cultural organizations and work with housing, too, according to Kendall, and even provide information and education for faculty and staff.
“They are generally very busy, and have been highly successful in giving students a way to find an official or more formal place to go to seek help and become involved,” she added. “Something that is school sponsored is generally lasts longer has more of a sense of stability than something that is just a student group, even though Allied in Pride is wonderful and definitely have their place on campus.”
Junior Steven Blum said that sometimes, being gay at GW isn’t an issue at all – he feels like he just fits right in and rolls along with rest of the college crowd.
“Being gay at GW isn’t being different. I don’t notice it. I don’t feel like I’m the token gay one or anything. I’m not the gay Jewish Steven Blum, I’m just Steven Blum,” he said. “It’s freeing.”
Liddell, who came out in college, said in the end he also couldn’t be more content with his experiences at GW as a gay male.
“Looking back at it, I would do it over in a heartbeat. I’ve learned so much; I’ve matured so much,” he said. “Really, if you choose to come out in college, then GW’s the place to be.”
-Aaron Miller contributed to this report.