Please note: Although the terrible shooting in Virginia this morning must still be fresh in everyone’s mind, I’ve been meaning to post this for a while. I cannot think of another forum in which to share this. For the record, I have embraced diversity in all aspects of life since I was small. Rather, I wonder if mandatory, ham-handed “sensitivity” training that has been de rigueur in U.S. academic institutions since the late 1980s have backfired and contributed to the current climate of absurd intolerance. I’ve wanted to write this for almost 30 years: this is my “coming out” essay.
As a teenager during the late 1980s, I was a serious student. In fact, my fellow classmates voted me “most likely to enjoy writing a research paper.” Academics were my life. I had no close friends, preferring mostly to hang out with boys because they made little personal demands on me. We could talk about anything, as long as it did not creep into the realm of the serious. I wasn’t looking to make a significant personal connection with anyone. Sure, I was horny, but I also feared my own sexuality. Junior year, I had a boyfriend for a hot minute. He touched me—once—and I literally swooned. A week later, he dumped me to resume sexy times with his more experienced ex.
Luckily, the Quaker prep school I attended offered exciting intellectual and artistic pursuits to which I wholly devoted myself. When I wasn’t running the literary magazine with Stalinist zeal, I threw myself into crafting literary essays and reading as many classics as I could. It was only natural that my top college choice should reflect my intellectual rigor. My mother and I visited Bryn Mawr College (BMC) together one crisp, fall day. The grounds were largely deserted. An all-women rugby team practiced in the distance. Dead leaves blew across the grass. I remember being impressed by the stately, church-like architecture, wherein most of the students were assiduously studying. The enticing brochures included photographs of athletically sturdy, preppy women with ruddy cheeks who balanced their scholarly pursuits with brainy leisure activities.
On one level, I was right about BMC. Academically, it was awesome. Classes were small. The professors were not only at the top of their game, they also took their students’ ideas seriously. But the students themselves were a lot like me—high strung and anxious to succeed. I ended up absorbing the collective anxiety and mental pathology. Bulimia was rampant. The transfer rate to other colleges after freshman year seemed high, but the college has asserted that it is comparable to the data for other women’s colleges, which really means that a self-selecting group of 19-year-old women in most all-female institutions of higher learning run for zee hills after one year.
Ultimately, the academic payoff was dwarfed by my impending nervous breakdown. And yet, I might have considered sacrificing my mental health for a degree from BMC if not for one aspect of campus life to which I could not grow accustomed: the pervasive, complete, and utter lack of common sense.
It was as if I had stepped onto a distant planet, untouched by the mores and values of Western culture. White males were simply too rapey. White hetero women were too out of touch, but certainly it was better to have a vagina than not, and the furrier the better. Gay women had a lot of innate wisdom to offer, for sure, but if they were white, they still had too much privilege. No, the ideal was a one-legged, Native American gay woman. She was IT. Needless to say, most BMC students were white hetero women. They needed intensive reprogramming to bring them down a few pegs. However, most women I met there (including myself) were hopelessly insecure. White privilege can only take you so far if you think of yourself as a turd with legs.
I was there to learn and tentatively explore my long-delayed sexuality. Frankly, I was not interested in being told that I was a homophobic racist based solely on my ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, or sexual orientation. I was an individual, consarnit! Until that time, I had enjoyed just being me. I regarded other people in the same way; when I met a black person, or a gay person, or an Asian, or a woman who thought she was a dragon, I evaluated this person as an individual.
In college, labels were suddenly all important. My roommate solemnly informed me that there was a movement on campus to abolish the so-called patriarchal spellings of the words women, history, and woman and replace them with wimmin, herstory, and womyn. I for one did not want to be referred to as a womyn. In addition to being devoid of meaning, it sounded vaguely gynecological. “Why don’t we just call ourselves wombats?” I asked her, exasperated. She didn’t laugh, because there is nothing funny about feminism.
College students today complain that administrators have failed to create “safe spaces” in which they can fully express their perceived hurt. BMC was way ahead of its time. Opportunities to broadcast one’s opinions abounded. One such outlet was the comment board affixed to the wall of the entryway of the dining halls. It was informally referred to as the “napkin board,” the late 80s version of Twitter. My three friends and I read them religiously. The dining service offered a variety of pizzas one night, including the “Hawaiian” variety topped with ham and pineapple. The central napkin (or thread, if you will) angrily objected to the cultural insensitivity of the dining service, citing the exploitation of Hawaii’s native peoples and pineapple farmers. This is but one example of the absurdity that was legitimized by not only the student population but also the administration.
The bi-college community was very advanced when it came to monitoring hate speech and quickly dampening what are today referred to as microaggressions, which are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (as defined by Columbia Teachers College Professor Derald Sue). Although this term was unknown in 1988, I suspect that the Bryn Mawr-Haverford College Self-Government Association (that was not what it was called when I attended: Its name was much more Trotskyite in nature) unofficially expanded the meaning to include language that “marginalizes” white women, who were feeling very left out indeed.
What this comes down to is if two women engaged in a heated verbal altercation over the fact that Sally had sexual relations with Marjorie’s boyfriend, and Marjorie calls Sally an offensive term, Sally can report Marjorie to the student tribunal. Sally would be advised to confront Marjorie to inform how the word made her feel. If Sally does not find Marjorie’s response acceptable, Sally can then ask a Hall or Resident Adviser to intervene as a facilitator. If THIS action failed to satisfy Sally, she could then present the case to the tribunal, which I suppose would put the screws on Marjorie to atone for her dastardly deed (Marjorie, in the meantime, is now banging other guys and could care less about her boyfriend). Of course, the panel’s principal raison d’être was to ensure that all students follow the Honor Code, which basically stipulated that it is not okay to cheat on take-home and in-class examinations or commit plagiarism. At least, this is how I interpreted the political goings on at the time.
Today, I posit that the bi-college honor codes may ironically support free speech on campus. The incident involving Charles Murray at Middlebury College is unlikely to occur at Bryn Mawr or Haverford because their honor codes govern physical and verbal conduct. Granted, a Bryn Mawr student recently withdrew from the college after she was harassed on Facebook by her fellow students for supporting President Trump. But I have not seen any reports of students assaulting speakers with whom they disagree politically. There have been no Daily Wire articles about violent protests in opposition to conservative speakers at either campus. Now, this may mean that speakers who do not lean left are simply not invited to share their ideas. If Middlebury College had an honor code that applied to more than plagiarism (its website indicates that it does not), the students that obstructed Murray’s speech and assaulted the professor would have been harshly censored, perhaps even expelled.
Living in the specter of the aforementioned tribunal did not make me aspire to become a more enlightened, sensitive person. On the contrary, it compelled me to wonder what exactly it would take to piss people off. What if I were to explode one Saturday night in the library, which was faithfully manned by angry, elderly women clad in sensible shoes and woolen skirts, in a Tourette-like eruption of every racist, misogynistic epithet known to man? Perhaps members of the tribunal, who were likely everywhere, would quickly usher me from my study cubicle to install me in a dank, windowless basement where the long, arduous task of reprogramming could begin.
My silent rebellion extended beyond my mere imagination. By December, when most freshmen had found their niches in the Four-Year Lesbian Club or the Make Ancient Greek a Modern Language, I was still foundering socially. Rather than blossoming into an accomplished, ambitious intellectual, I had gained 20 lbs. With the exception of a powerfully built Nordic lad in one of my Haverford classes, most men shuddered in horror à la The Elephant Man when I lumbered into view. As our French professor lectured about the role of gender in comedia dell arte, I felt the Swede’s piercing gaze rest on my bespectacled, puffy face for what seemed to be an unnaturally long time. I was convinced that the warm glow of the mid-afternoon sunlight pouring into the room illuminated my true beauty. That, or he was focused on a large insect that had landed on the wall behind me. Regardless, I had a lot of free time.
During the day, I’d comfortably seat myself in the library’s periodicals section. Mother Jones and The New Yorker were not for me. Intrigued, I instead picked up a copy of National Review. I was delighted to discover that it was edited by the late, great gentleman thinker who has no compare, William F. Buckley, Jr. In high school, I was a fan of his television interview program, Firing Line, an interesting, much more conservative version of My Dinner with Andre. I read the magazine cover to cover with the hope that someone might notice and report me. This regrettably never happened, but my reading habits affirmed my center-right worldview and expanded my vocabulary.
By the fall of my sophomore year, I was mentally spent. When asked to “Take Back the Night,” I politely declined. Traditions in which upperclassmen symbolically passed on their wisdom to freshmen using lanterns (or something like that) elicited cold sarcasm from me instead of emotional tears. I had refused to accept the mantle of victimhood. Womyn I wasn’t, and wombat seemed equally unlikely. Woman would have to do.