By Fleming Smith
On Tuesday, April 12 in Convocation Hall, Karl Afrikian (C’16) discussed LGBTQ+ life at Sewanee. Afrikian received the 2016 Gessel Fellowship for Social Ethics and used the resources to study what he calls, “An Exploration of Gays and Straights, Greek Life, and the College’s LGBT History.” In his talk, Afrikian acknowledged the progress Sewanee has made in accepting LGBT+ students and the areas in which Sewanee students and administration could improve.
“Everything I experienced in my first few days at Sewanee, every Southern stereotype that I had was validated very quickly,” Afrikian said of his freshman orientation days after moving from Massachusetts. The racism and casual homophobia he noticed surprised him. “But over my four years here, I’ve seen tremendous change. And every new generation coming into this school has more people living openly.” Afrikian also noted the dramatic change from even the early 2000’s, when there were “no gay Sewanee students, just gay Sewanee alum.”
However, Afrikian finds that not all spaces on Sewanee’s campus are receptive to LGBTQ+ students. He listed several safe spaces on campus, such as the Gender and Sexual Diversity House, Spectrum, the Wick, All Saint’s Chapel, EQB signs on professors’ doors, and even Yik Yak, the anonymity of which makes some students comfortable to speak out. These spaces occasionally come under attack: two weeks ago, several EQB signs were ripped down.
“Lots of people don’t feel comfortable here. I know that during my first few weeks here, I was told, ‘don’t go to this place or that part of campus.’”- This brings the question: is Sewanee homophobic? Depends on who you ask,” said Afrikian, noting that Southerners find Sewanee very liberal while Northerners find it conservative.
Such unsafe spaces on campus, including many parts of Greek life, leave many LGBTQ+ students afraid to come out of the closet, especially men. “One student said he’d rather jump off his fraternity balcony than tell his brothers that he was gay,” Afrikian said. On being in the closet, he described, “It’s like you’re an actor, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, pretending that you have to live up to this expectation that you’re a straight, because that’s the assumption.”
Afrikian noted that alcohol can make this experience even worse. “It’s self-medicating, and you just hide the truth,” he explained, mentioning that several men and women have come out to him while under the influence but cannot acknowledge their sexuality while sober. “But the reality is that when you come out at Sewanee, it does get better. It might be hard, with some speedbumps along the way, but it will get better,” Afrikian said. “Your friends’ mentalities will change when you humanize the issue for them.”
He noted that his presentation tended to focus on gay men rather than gay women. “One thing I’ve come across in my surveys is that it’s easier for queer women to come out here than queer men,” Afrikian explained. From that, Afrikian asked, “Why are frat boys so homophobic?” He connected such a loaded question to the common stereotype that, “You can’t be masculine and be gay, it’s impossible. In many ways, men use strong heterosexuality to bond with each other…homosexuality becomes something to laugh at.” Fraternities and sororities that do accept LGBTQ+ members openly may be labelled as “gay” frats or srats, according to Afrikian.
Afrikian criticized straight men and women who call themselves allies while perpetuating homophobic culture. He argued that many women objectify gay men when they want a “gay best friend” to go shopping with them. He mentioned that many women also want gay men as dates to formals so that they do not have to worry about sexual assault. Straight men, Afrikian said, often fetishize gay women who show affection in public.
Afrikian urged Sewanee’s administration to work with its students to make the campus a safer and more accepting place for LGBTQ+ students and alums. “We still have a long way to go,” said Afrikian. In particular, he mentioned that no progress has been made for trans students at Sewanee. “Gender identity is not in the Sewanee discrimination policy,” he noted, therefore offering no protection for trans students. Afrikian said that co-ed bathrooms on campus should also have signs indicating that they are trans-inclusive.
He criticized Sewanee for “falling behind everyone else in terms of institutional support” by “waiting for other schools to act first.” In order to attract a diverse and talented applicant pool, Afrikian stressed the importance of a LGBTQ+ Resource Center. Afrikian used his Gessel Fellowship to start Sewanee in the right direction by adding LGBTQ+ resources to Sewanee’s website, in addition to creating a plan for a LGBTQ+ mentoring program by students to be implemented next semester.
“At Sewanee, we have too much YSR and not enough Rethink This,” Afrikian concluded, acknowledging all the progress Sewanee still needs to make. To future LGBTQ+ students, Afrikian was clear: “Sewanee’s ready for you.”