Being gay isn't easy. Neither is being a woman. For a school that prides itself so much on its robust LGBT community, Penn's queer scene seems to be running low on ladies.
The graffiti–covered walls of one frat house on 39th and Spruce streets had never housed more women than it did on January 25th last semester. The Queer Ladies at Penn group was throwing a party for the queer women of Penn, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore. After months of planning and communicating with women’s groups at other schools, finding a venue, and bussing in the girls, over 100 women were in attendance. I stood in the corner talking to the few I knew, sipping my drink and bopping along to Marina & the Diamonds.
Despite the large amount of women (and some men) present, it was a relatively low–key party, especially considering Penn’s frequent and wild “LGBT” parties—which usually consist of attractive men making out and dancing on elevated surfaces. Although I enjoyed talking with my friends and the women from other schools, it soon became very apparent that this wasn’t a party intended for my demographic. I walked home, certain that there would be another gay party—for men—next week. But for the queer women at Penn, this event was one of the only opportunities of the semester they could party with a large group of women that shared their interests.
“It’s not like anyone’s actively excluding queer women on campus,” said Sarah*, when asked about the presence of queer ladies at Penn. “Nobody in the LGBT community hates lesbians. But like, where are they?”
“But like, where are they?” Good question. In a school with such a thriving and vibrant gay male community, what about the ladies? “I would say there’s definitely a lesbian community at Penn. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily the most accessible or cohesive,” Jordan, a Wharton senior, tells me. “The people are very nice for the most part, but there’s a certain type of girl that tends to be very active in the lesbian community.”
Rosa, a College junior, puts it differently. “I think it’s hard for LGBT women. There are girls and you know them, but I wouldn’t say it was like, ‘Hey girl, our feminism and vagina power cements us as queer sisters for life!’” Yet a sense of a queer male community is central to the lives of many gay men at Penn and ostensible to everyone else. So why isn’t it the same for queer women?
Every woman I talked to agreed that the presence of queer ladies is definitely lacking in a school so lauded for accepting each letter the LGBTQ acronym. “The atmosphere can be very exclusionary. I don’t feel like there’s a place for me to be involved,” Jordan says. And maybe we aren’t seeing them because we aren’t creating an environment where they can be seen. Regardless of their political leanings or level of activist engagement, gay men have a space—at the bars, in the basements, even on frat row. The gay male scene seems predominantly defined by its social character. “We don’t hold pregames or go out together. It’s very different than the male community, which I think is focused on the social. [The queer lady community] is more focused on activism.”
Lezzie. Lesbo. Scissor sister. Femme. Butch. Lipstick lesbian. Suddenly I found myself thrown into a world that in theory should feel familiar, but in practice, seemed so fringe. The members themselves didn’t consider it a true community. When women make up half of the population here, why are queer women on the periphery of the larger LGBT community? Are there simply fewer of them? Or is something else turning them off? “You’re never getting a simple answer to that question,” Lauren, a sophomore in the College told me.
Beyond academics, let’s look at what draws people to Penn—especially queer people.
It already has a significant gay male presence. Philadelphia is a cosmopolitan city with an established gayborhood, and that can be very appealing to gay men looking to come here. “Especially sexually appealing. You’re going to get it in here as a gay man. For certain queer women, those aren’t necessarily appealing factors. Queer women may be more attracted to small liberal arts schools,” Rosa said after considering where her queer female high school friends ended up going to college. “They may be going to rural areas in Massachusetts or Wisconsin, not West Philly.”
So numbers–wise, yes, there may be less of a pull for queer women to come to Penn. Unfortunately, due to the still sketchy legality of homosexuality as a minority, the University has not maintained statistics on the male to female ratio of LGBT individuals on campus. Still, while it may be that there are fewer queer ladies than gay men walking down Locust, it’s doubtful the discrepancy is as great as their quiet presence would suggest. Maybe we aren’t seeing these women for another reason. “Queer women who are more masculine might be assumed to be athletic, or a tomboy. And queer women who are more feminine might be looked over. There’s an uncertainty people have about female sexuality that they don’t have with guys,” Sarah said, “The default is that everyone’s attracted to men.” Feminine men may not be gay but are labeled as part of the LGBT community, while feminine women have to constantly reaffirm their queerness. “It got to the point where people just straight up didn’t believe me. People would tell me, ‘Come on, I’m convinced you’re going to give this up someday and go back to men,’” Jordan said. “Gay men don’t have to face that.”
There’s kind of a self–perpetuating cycle: LGBT spaces are commonly dominated by cis–gender** gay men, who talk about cis–gender gay male issues, which attract more gay men, to an extent blocking out anyone who doesn’t identify with that subset of the LGBT community. “It can be hard to break into. Eventually you just stop trying,” Sarah informed me. There are very few queer female–specific spaces available at Penn or in the larger Philadelphia community—even fewer now that Sisters, a popular lesbian bar in Philly, closed last month due to poor turnout. When these areas get dominated by gay men, intentionally or not, women tend to get pushed out.
Jordan couldn’t believe it when two of her sorority sisters told her in confidence that a picture of her kissing her female date at Theta formal made its way onto AEPi’s listserv. She regrets not immediately sending an email to their president demanding an apology. “I was sick of going to mixers and getting hit on by guys—which isn’t their fault, to be fair, I understand a mixer is a place where guys hit on girls. It just wasn’t fun for me, and that’s such a big part of what Greek life is about,” Jordan explained concerning her time in a sorority. Tired of her relationships being fetishized by frat brothers, she ultimately left the Greek system.
“Given the very, very miniscule number of gay women in sororities, and the very largenumber of women in sororities in general, I think we can safely assume there are women in Greek life who aren’t being open about their sexuality. Why exactly? I don’t know,” College junior Dawn expressed in an interview. Although gay men may dominate the LGBT community at Penn, even if only a third of Penn students are active members of the Greek community, these organizations do have social dominance across many circles. While historically Greek life has been portrayed as gender–blind in its hostility to LGBT individuals, the few Greek queer women to whom I spoke expressed the opinion that the Greek system was significantly easier to navigate if you were a queer man than a queer woman.
Shaun*, a gay male senior, discusses his views on the Greek system: “Sororities aren’t there for sister bonding. They’re there to mix with frats. And say there’s a gay guy in that frat, he can still go to the mixer because every woman loves a gay guy. They’re going to be the ones dancing with all the girls and afterwards he can go on Grindr and hook up with whomever he wants. Gay guys have a power to them that gay women don’t.”
Male privilege is exacerbated when you think about how being a queer woman constitutes a double minority. “This might not be the most politically correct way of putting it, but it’s ‘cool’ to be a gay man here. There’s a social capital. It’s not seen as ‘cool’ to be a lesbian,” Jordan says. The commoditization of queer men raises a wholly separate set of issues, but in the Greek system, it can have its advantages. “How you present yourself in rush is how they decide if you’re an appealing candidate. A feminine gay guy would still wear a suit and tie. Any effeminacy in body language might not be judged as harshly because of that. But if I, as a woman, had to get dressed up for rush, I’d wear khakis and a button–down shirt. I wouldn’t wear a dress and heels, and I think that plays a huge factor,” Lauren explains. The incompatibility of Greek life—which is so central to Penn—and nontraditional female gender expression may be keeping queer women out of the public eye.
“I think for better or worse, lesbian interactions are much less hook–up focused than those of gay men. So when your community is centered and focused on hooking up by nature, you need to gather in large groups and frequently,” Jordan tells me in a text after we finished our interview. “The gay male community is a lot more focused on the hook–up culture, but I think if there were more women here, it’d be a hook–up culture for women too,” Lauren agrees. “But now, it’s not as much a party culture. It’s a lot more a coffee shop culture.”
Jordan says she spent forty–five minutes before our interview panicking and being comforted by her girlfriend. “I thought the lesbians would hate me for saying certain things. I was scared.” In a school that is supposedly so LGBT–friendly, why are we scared to talk about issues that need addressing?
Anastasia, a College senior, wanted to end her interview with a shoutout: “Girls, if you’re out there, and you’re not super visible, please get active. Stop hiding.” It seems you can’t go a day without running into a different queer guy on campus. If we have to tell queer women to stop hiding, there’s a problem. There’s no one reason, but the culture surrounding the LGBT community here could stand for some more diversity. Maybe we shouldn’t be telling girls to stop hiding. Maybe we should be creating a place where they don’t need to.
Zacchiaus McKee is a senior from Pittsburgh, PA, majoring in anthropology. He is Highbrow Editor for 34th Street Magazine.
*The names of these individuals were changed because they wished to remain anonymous.
**cis–gender: one whose gender identity matches his/her assigned sex at birth.