As a writer’s statement, the idea for this piece has now undergone multiple changes and iterations. I simply couldn’t figure out how best to share the experiences I believed should be shared—whether they be mine or those I have bore witness to. There is no better way to marry the bluntness of the experience with the tenderness that advice should be given than through penning an open letter. The aim of this letter is to act as a sort of guidance and insight into the real experiences of a queer student at Dartmouth College, from the beautiful to the painful. Please understand that this letter is drawn from the experiences of myself and those who have shared their story with me, queerness is not a monolith. If you have an experience counter to the advice in this letter, that is perfectly fine and perhaps normal.
Dear First-Year Queer Students,
Everyone comes to college with some kind of fantasy constructed about how things will go. I came to college from the Deep South and had never lived in an area where the pleasure of existing in your queerness was common or acceptable. Similar to a lot of the queer friends I have made at Dartmouth, I had a fantasy about the queer liberation and unabashed expression that I would be able to embody and engage with. It’s not to say that that fantasy can’t exist for you at Dartmouth—to some extent it can. The truth is that it can be hard to navigate and create queer community.
To be frank with you, the social scene as a queer person can be daunting and confusing. Greek life dominates the social scene. It can feel like existing within a locked box. Due to the heteronormativity inherent to Greek life, it can create a sense of isolation or commodification for queer people. This is because Greek life is entwined with the hookup culture of Dartmouth. When going into a basement, there is a subtext of sex. Beyond the dancing, the pong, and the socializing, this subtext permeates. Even for those that just go to dance or have a good time, an observation of the room is being made. It is because of this that Queer people exist in basements as commodities of the dancefloor, as exciting wallflowers. Naturally, a sense of isolation comes from all this. Being new to college can make finding community an already pertinent task. Once you add the layer of dysphoria and confusion that can often spring from existing as queer on Webster Ave, it can all be very overwhelming. Don’t Worry. I’ve been there as have most queer students. As you begin to find your bearings on campus, trying out different social circles, it’s important for you to know that there are alternatives to greek life. Although it is true of everyone seeking community at Dartmouth College, it is especially true for queer students as they find their way.
On the topic of alternatives, there is both broad and specific advice to give. The broad advice is the same that was given to me by queer upperclassmen. Just follow what attracts you, find your space by trying out new spaces. Don’t be afraid to leave the locked box and see what kind of scene works for you. The specific advice is to try out something like a non-affiliated community or a co-ed house. Many of these are even spaces that center queer experiences such as Tabard, Panarchy, EKT, and Triangle House to name a few. The point of all of it is, you define your experience.
One of the greatest barriers to creating queer community is just reaching out. Perhaps the best thing I did as a first-year was connect with queer upperclassmen who were willing to show me where to find myself on campus. Establishing community is essential, whether it be with a professor whose work interests you, an upperclassmen who has been through it all before, or a queer first-year peer who may need community just as much as you.
As for life on campus, the harsh truth is that you might feel really isolated or unvalued when you first get to campus. Before you find any space to call your own, you may feel out of the loop of the “Dartmouth experience” that your straight, cis peers may have. It’s normal to want to transfer, to want to throw it all away because none of it feels right. I don’t think I could count the number of queer students I’ve talked to who were close to transferring. If you’re in that situation, treat it seriously. Everyone who didn’t transfer, made their decision because they found some sense of community and belonging. It’s perfectly ok to want to transfer or to even go through with it. This is your experience, you are the only one who is in charge of it. You will find what you seek.
Despite the grim overtone that much of this letter may have, I also have had some of my most beautiful, unabashedly queer experiences at Dartmouth. The point of this letter is not to say that queer students are doomed at Dartmouth. Rather that there’s a preciousness to finding community in the isolation of the woods. There’s a security and warmth to finding a queer community on campus. The ability to prance, laugh, and cry with no regard for “how gay” or “femme” you are being is a treasure that I will cherish for a lifetime. The sensation of queer liberation is something to search for and something to cherish. It is a sensation that I, and many of the lovely queer people I know at Dartmouth, only found by realizing that you can mold your Dartmouth experience to whatever shape you may need.
Through all of this letter, I hope you are able to find guidance or at least feel seen. It’s difficult to give advice on something so intangible. Just as queerness is elusive in its definition, separating the yolk of queer experience from the rest of campus life can difficult in its own right. Everyone’s experience is, to some degree, their own. If you take nothing else away from this letter, understand that you are the architect of your Dartmouth experience. You can shape it in any way you like.
The Dartmouth Radical