Like most undergraduates, my memories of freshman orientation are blurry at best. There are, however, a few moments that stand out in my mind, as clear as when I first experienced them three years ago. I arrived on campus unsure of how to reconcile my established high school identity with my unclear future at Wesleyan. In high school, I was sure of myself, and in my community, I was known—a singer, an activist, someone who loved to read and write. But there were still parts of me that I didn’t understand; parts of my identity I was unsure as to how to confront. How was I supposed to establish myself at college?

Walking into my BiLeGaTA workshop the fourth day of Orientation, I was unsure of what I was about to learn. I knew that BiLeGaTA stands for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Asexual—all terms that I knew had the potential to help explain the romantic attractions I’d felt to people of different genders.

On the packed floor of the Nicolson lounge, I listened to two older students confidently and calmly explain that gender and sexuality didn’t have to be clearly defined by binaries.
“I love people,” said one of my facilitators, explaining her take on gender and sexuality. “In all bodies and presentations.”

I looked self-consciously around me, wondering if anyone else felt their confused, blurry identity suddenly coming into a sharp focus.

At once relieved and puzzled, I wondered, “What does it means not to identify as male or female?”

Though confusing, this question rang instinctively and thrillingly true to me. Maybe I didn’t have to identify as straight, gay, or bisexual— now there were endless options to consider. Little did I know that the workshop would inform real relationships in my life. As my life at Wesleyan unfolded, I began to use the gender-neutral pronouns I learned during my BiLeGaTA to talk about the people I was meeting and growing close to.

Then, the fall of my sophomore year, I mustered up the courage to ask my mother the question that began my process of coming out.

“Mom, what does the word ‘queer’ mean to you?” I asked. “Well, to me it means that I fall in love with people, and not their bodies or their gender presentations.”

I was surprised when she told me that she understood. She explained that though she’d always fallen in love with men, it’s ultimately their unique selves—and not their bodies or gender presentation—that she has always loved.

I spent the following semester abroad in Paris, and the context of a new city prompted me to think more about my own gender. Whenever a stranger on the metro told me, in one way or another, that I’m an attractive woman, I had to stop and think: what does that mean to me? Leaving Wesleyan, if only for a few months, allowed my thoughts about gender and sexuality to grow wildly.

When I returned to campus, I knew that it was also time to return to the BiLeGaTA conversations that had been so productive for me as a frosh. I’ve now worked as a facilitator for the past two Orientations, and I’ve learned along with the new students both times. I’ve continued to deepen my understanding of how I communicate about gender; to learn new strategies for having dialogues; and to push my own thinking about my continually- shifting feelings about my gender. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to participate in a BiLeGaTA discussion as crowded as the one I attended during my own Orientation. I fear that students, residential staff, and the Administration are all growing unconcerned with building a student body prepared to talk about queer issues.

Now it appears that the University’s new student orientation will be the next program to be seriously affected by the overwhelming budget cuts it has faced in recent years. Next year, orientation will be shortened by two days, and consequentially we’ll have an extended Orientation during the first week of classes. While the proposed extended orientation theoretically would preserve BiLeGaTAs as a part of new student orientation, I fear that the workshops will seem even less significant to first -year students as they begin the madness of classes and extracurricular activities. The BiLeGaTA workshop should not only be preserved in the core Orientation schedule, but should be made mandatory for all first year students.

Such workshops impart crucial ideas that, if encountered by all incoming students, would foster a stronger, more tolerant and united campus community—for queer and non-queer members alike. One of the main objectives of BiLeGaTA workshops is learning to speak appropriately about transgender issues, particularly with the use of gender-neutral pronouns. While many students might think that such pronouns are fake, overly-politically-correct words, accurate pronoun usage shows respect for a person’s gender identity. Familiarity with gender-neutral pronouns prepares students to honor gender-queer or questioning folks whom we may encounter throughout our lives.

BiLeGaTAs also begin conversations about the oppression of transgender people, from bathroom designation to job-search discrimination. These issues affect the campus community, and all communities that we will be a part of—before and after graduation. The BiLeGaTA program challenges heteronormativity, and remind us not to make assumptions about the lives of those around us. Hopefully, this absence of assumption will foster respect for identities that include, but aren’t at all limited to, gender and sexual identity. Finally, the workshops send the vital message to queer students that they are not alone.

Wesleyan must preserve programs designed to care for the needs of its queer students, using its status as a major liberal arts institution to make a statement about the importance and legitimacy of queer identity, and its commitment to fighting the oppression of queer folks.

All WSA elections should be taken seriously by our community, but we especially cannot afford to overlook the survey featured in this semester’s elections. Questions 28 and 29 deal directly with Orientation Week, and I urge all of you to think back to the details that stand out about yours. What do you remember? What do you regret? What are you grateful for? What kind of community were you encouraged to build? And finally, what should new students know in order to become as engaged as possible in this community?

Wesleyan BiLeGaTA workshops changed the way I relate to myself, my friends, my family, and my many communities. BiLeGaTAs prepared me to be open and honest with myself, and have given me numerous tools to build the strong relationships I value so much today. I will fight to keep BiLeGaTAs as an integral part of the University’s new student orientation. In inviting you to participate in this week’s election survey, I ask you to join me.

  • Anonymous

    This is so profound and beautiful. I feel as though I understand myself more now than any other time in my life because I attended the BiLeGaTA workshop this year and because I read this article. Thank you. You changed my life. :)

  • Anonymous

    I second that.