I am out, but still hesitant. As a result, when asked to write this piece, I requested if I could do so anonymously. When I told my girlfriend about it, she didn’t miss a beat, telling me that if I wrote this story anonymously, I’d be feeding into society’s erasure of gay women.* She’s right. I’m a gay woman at Northwestern, writing an article about the invisibility of gay women, and I’m asking to be invisible.
My fears themselves aren’t so important. Rather, it’s where these deep-seated fears of coming out come from that matters. They come from a few places: my family, my internalized homophobia, but also the University I attend. I am not entirely sure who created this culture, but I am here to tell you that, from my perspective, it is real and it is sad. Gay men tend to be the center of Northwestern’s social life. They are welcomed into fraternities. They go about their lives openly gay. And they have more than ten “swipe lefts” before the Tinder screen tells them “There’s no one new around you.” Everyone knows who they are and calls their name when they walk through the door of Nevin’s. Gay men are campus celebrities. Gay women are not.
This, of course, does not encompass every gay man on NU’s campus, nor every gay woman. Gay men’s general popularity and overall acceptance, however, stands out, especially in contrast to the gay women that live, often invisibly, on and around the University. Statistically, gay women are out there. There are 8,907 undergraduate students at NU, and roughly 4,453 of them are women. Therefore, according to Gallup's poll on the percentage of people who identify as LGBT (3.8 percent), of those 4,453 undergraduate women, 169 identify as gay, though likely more. The question I’m asking today, and have been asking for the past year, is where are they? Why can’t I find them?
It’s because we are virtually invisible. A straight, sorority-tied female friend of mine once remarked to me that she was astonished at the fact that of the more than 100 women in her chapter, not a single one identified as LGBTQ. While I could assure her that, statistically speaking, and from personal confessions, she was wrong, it was her lack of awareness that bothered me most. We, gay women, are not the center of attention. We are not abounding, as the cliques of gay men seemingly are. We simply are not as popular as gay men in the wider community.
Instead, we covertly set our Tinder settings to “only women,” we set our radiuses wide and we wait and wait and wait. I should note that even male-specific dating apps, like Grindr, are wildly more popular and well-known than their female equivalents, HER and SCISSR. The reality is that gay women on this campus are far less likely to tell people they are not straight. Maybe it is because it is easier to lay low, under the presumption of straight-hood. (Guilty). Or maybe it is for fear of the consequences. We are no doubt a liberal institution with more left-leaning students than right, abounding healthy dialogues and a collective of more radical student groups who are pushing for what is right. But how far does that liberalism really reach? When it comes to gay women, I say not far enough.
To be fair, I don’t think anyone would stop being friends with me just because I’m gay. In fact, no one has. The homophobia, or erasure, that I’m referring to is of a different variety. When I came out to a close friend, she told me it was “just a phase.” She has yet to bring the subject up again, but constantly lauds our gay male friend for his hookups and repeatedly begs him to take her to Boystown. I have felt more than uneasy around acquaintances who assume I’m hitting on every girl I talk to. And just two weeks ago I was at a party with my girlfriend, dancing the night away, per usual. Throughout the party, a few stared and one attendee told us: “It’s okay, I just want to watch; it’s hot.” So, no, I have never been told outright that I am going to hell because I like women, but the lack of acceptance is disconcerting, and stands in plain contrast to the popularity of gay men.
I will note that the stereotype of the “Gay Best Friend” is an issue in and of itself. The issue of invisibility, however, goes beyond the interpersonal, and also beyond NU. If you look at Chicago, the center of LGBTQ life is Boystown. The North Side neighborhood is famous for its bumping nightclubs and streets decked in large, rainbow-colored pylons. I have romped the streets of North Halsted and West Belmont just like the rest of my gay-identifying friends, but who, you ask, fills those clubs? Gay men, and the lucky few straight women they have chosen to tote along with them for the night. If a woman were to frequent a club on North Halsted with a gay man, she could never, god forbid, be mistaken for a gay woman. Rather, she’d be assumed to be a straight woman out for a night with her gay best friend.
Andersonville is Boystown’s counterpart, the hub for Chicago’s gay women. In recent years, as the New Yorkernotes, Andersonville is steadily acquiring male residents who have left Boystown:
Ghaziani, among others, suggests that lesbians are sometimes the first to move into a new neighborhood—“canaries in the urban coal mine,” as the sociologist Sharon Zukin has put it—followed by gay men, who then dislocate the lesbians. Because women tend to have less purchasing power than men, lesbians are often the first to be pushed out.
I cannot help but think that all these things are related. We laud gay men and fawn over their latest nights on the town. We put them at the center of our social lives and plead for them to take us all to the illustrious clubs of Boystown. At the same time, we gay women are shunted to the side, made to feel unwanted in comparison to our male counterparts, or merely a spectacle for the straight guys. As a result, I spent the last year in anonymity. I felt unwelcome in a community I was supposed to find liberating. I hid behind veils of heterosexuality and waited for something to change. I do not have much of a solution, but the least we can do is begin to think about the community we call liberal and accepting. We gay women should think about why we might want invisibility. And together, as a campus, we should think about the prominent gay communities and the people they’re filled with. After all, gay women are pretty cool, and I would highly recommend you try and meet one.
*Note: I use the labels “gay men” and “gay women” in this article because that is the term with which I identify. I use them, also, with the knowledge that many identities exist within LGBTQ communities and that each one faces a wide variety of issues when it comes to the intersection of gender and sexual identity.