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​Sanctions on Single-Sex Organizations: A Queer Perspective

In the brouhaha that has erupted following the administration’s decision to sanction single-gender organizations, there has been an explosion of viewpoints ranging from full support to fierce opposition. In my view, none of the opposing opinions have been as pointed, or at least as widespread on my Facebook newsfeed, as those coming from members of female final clubs and sororities, who have harshly criticized the administration for excluding them from discussions and for abruptly shutting down their “safe spaces.” Even the leaders of male final clubs—places that some might argue are some of Harvard’s least safe spaces for women, depending on one’s interpretation of the recent sexual assault survey—feel that women have gotten the short end of the stick.

I can understand how important these spaces are to women who are lucky enough to have access to them. But even though these groups’ very existence tries to limit our thinking to just “female” or “male,” what happens when we stop thinking about this issue in terms of the gender binary, as the new rules would like us to? What happens when we turn and look at all of the queer and gender nonconforming people who have felt marginalized by these groups during their time here? Harvard’s queer community is already hopelessly fragmented as it is—why is it that we can’t get a piece of the pie, too, and benefit from some of the funding and the physical spaces that these groups have enjoyed for so long?

Here’s my perspective, as a proud, feminine gay man. Many of Harvard’s single-gender groups loudly profess their willingness to accept queer members, and I’m happy to have seen that many do. To me, though, it doesn’t matter how accepting male final clubs or fraternities are of the (in many cases, masculine-presenting, or at least just well-connected and/or wealthy) gay men who make it through the punch or rush processes. Prior to coming to Harvard, I had always had a tight network of almost exclusively female friends, but when sophomore year rolled around, I discovered that many of the female friends I had just begun to make had suddenly been yanked off into exclusively female organizations—groups that I was categorically barred from joining solely on account of my gender.

Of course, I could have done the male equivalent and tried to join a gender-exclusive group for men, but why on earth would I have wanted to join a fraternity or a male final club, where I would have stuck out like a sore thumb with my limp wrists, gay-sounding voice, and too-tight jeans? The one punch event I did go to my sophomore year was one of the most uncomfortable experiences that I’ve had during in my four years at this school. I felt as though I’d been whisked back into my Texas hometown and shoved back into the closet, acutely aware of how much I would have stuck out had I chosen to be myself.

After a rough first two years here at Harvard, I eventually came to the unfortunate realizations that I was far too feminine for male final clubs or frats, that my male gender prevented me from joining the female final clubs or sororities where I would have felt more at home, and that there was no unified queer community to turn to for support either. I eventually did find my niche, but I still can’t help but wonder what my experience here would have been like had I been a member of the class of 2021 instead of 2016.

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To the sorority sisters and final club women of the #HearHerHarvard campaign, I see where your anger is coming from, and I have heard you. But as you continue to process your feelings about the administration’s decision regarding single-sex organizations, I implore you to think of all your queer and gender-nonconforming peers. How “safe” are your organizations for those of us who don’t fit as neatly into the categories of “male” and “female” as you and your male counterparts do? Would your groups, as they currently exist, accept a transgender woman who does not “pass” for female? Maybe your relatively progressive chapters here at Harvard might, but what about chapters in other, more conservative parts of the country? And how could your organizations deal with a potential member who identified as gender fluid, as a number of our peers here at Harvard do?

Finally, from a feminine gay man to all of my friends in female final clubs and sororities, aren't we fighting many of the same battles against the patriarchy, anyway? Why does it have to be the case that we instinctively laugh upon seeing a picture of boys twisting their arms in classic DG fashion—why can’t boys do something girls do without it being seen as a joke? Why can’t a female final club or sorority one day become a safe, inclusive space for people of all genders who express feminine gender characteristics? (Note: this would not by any means eliminate the possibility for these groups to hold women-only events!)

While I know this sort of “let’s erase the gender binary!” thinking might come across as a pipe dream to some, I think that it’s at least worth considering as we grapple with the impacts of these new rules. In making this decision, the administration has certainly stepped on a number of toes, but from a broader perspective—or at least from my perspective as a member of the queer community—I think it’s a step in the right direction.


Carl Rogers '16, a linguistics concentrator, lives in Dunster House.

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