As one of three Alabaman students on campus, a non-film major who also happens to be head house manager of the Film Series, and a former leader of the Gay-Straight Alliance at her Alabama high school, Emily Brown is used to not fitting in. Brown sat down with The Argus to talk about becoming comfortable in her own skin, finding her role in the Wesleyan community, and the pursuit of catharsis.
The Argus: You have played an important role in the queer community on campus during your time here. How did you get involved in queer activism?
Emily Brown: I joined the rugby team at the beginning of my freshman year and it was a really open community—a lot of queer people were on the team. I was kind of out in high school, but not super out and involved, so that was something I wanted to do at Wesleyan. The rugby team was my gateway into queer life at Wesleyan. The community used to be much more fractioned than it is now. There were parts that were really cliquey. A lot of people were like, ‘I never go to Open House because it’s just a bunch of lesbians,’ and I don’t identify as lesbian, so that was challenging. As soon as you get involved, people start labeling you.
A: That’s changed?
EB: It’s getting better. That’s something that Open House has been working on—trying to hold open dialogue, holding queer community meetings, discussing what places are open, what people want to make of the queer community.
A: You were House Manager of Open House last year. How do you see your role in the queer community?
EB: I’d like to think that I’m a resource for people to talk to. Having communities is important to me. I’m not trying to be anyone’s mentor—I don’t want to be patronizing, because we’re all adults, but I do feel a certain kinship towards other queer people and people who are marginalized by society. Building coalitions with other oppressed communities is also important to me.
A: How do you identify?
EB: At Wesleyan, I identify as queer because people know what that means. At places where people are less aware, I identify as bi.
A: When did you start to realize you identified as queer?
EB: I’m not completely out to all my family. The first time I remember having a crush on a girl was in sixth grade, but that wasn’t something I talked to other people about. In high school, a friend of mine at home and I would go out on dates a lot—I would take her to school dances. I was the Vice President of my high school’s Gay-Straight alliance. But it’s different in Alabama.
A: As one of the three Wesleyan students from Alabama, how did you end up here?
EB: I knew I wanted to go to a liberal arts school with a really liberal student body. But I did go to a cool high school and there were a lot of kids at my high school whose political leanings were very different from the rest of Alabama. But I do have friends from high school who are tea partiers. I knew I wanted to go somewhere with an engaged student body, somewhere different from the University of Alabama, where life wasn’t dictated by a bazillion frats and sororities. But I did get a little disappointed when I first came to Wesleyan because it’s marketed as “Diversity University” and in terms of socioeconomic class and race, it’s much less diverse than my high school was. But I do feel for the most part like Wesleyan kids have their heart in the right place. I feel so engaged and there are so many wonderful, intelligent, awesome people and I’ve found a lot of them. I just feel like our reputation is a little bit of an exaggeration.
A: So how did you get involved in the film series?
EB: I applied at the beginning of my sophomore year. I love the film series, even though I’m not a film major. We don’t get to pick the movies—we’re the ushers, we make sure everything goes smoothly, tell people not to text. I get to meet a lot of students, Middletown community members, and speakers when they come talk about their films. One of my favorite things about Wesleyan is the film series.
A: You’re an English major—how did you decide on that?
EB: I wasn’t sure when I came here—I did a lot of English stuff in high school; I worked on my high school lit magazine, I wrote a lot of really awful poetry. At Wesleyan, I took poetry workshops with Elizabeth Willis and she’s amazing, so I got better. Now I’m writing a poetry thesis. I’m doing different sections of poems. One section is about dreams. One is about machines. One is about a gay male porn star. And also about cyborgs and cybertexts and how images of bodies become their own entities and exploitation.
A: Wow—what led you there?
EB: I was reading on some blog about this porn star, Brent Corrigan, who made his debut several years ago and won all of these awards like “best bottom” and “best new twink” and it just came out that his first four films were made when he was 17, so they’re now illegal to own. I think he’s a really fascinating figure—this kind of exploited person who also has his own sexual agency. I read his Twitter feed a lot. He rides horses and wants to be a writer. But the way he got into porn was he had an older boyfriend who taped him sleeping naked when he was 16 and sent that into porn companies. It brings up a lot of really interesting things about gazes and consent and the internet and how once an image exists you can’t get rid of it. These films he made when he was 17 you can easily find and download, even if it’s illegal to own them and all the hard copies are locked up in a warehouse somewhere.
If my dad reads this, I don’t know what I’m going to do. My dad likes to Google “Emily Brown Wesleyan.” He found an article about a poetry slam I did in which The Argus described my poems as “sexually violent,” “obscene,” and “unprintable by newspaper standards” and my dad emailed me with the subject line: “Emily…WTF?”
A: Do you feel like you lead a double life between Alabama and Wesleyan?
EB: Well, I’m out to all my close family and friends. I’m not out to some of my dad’s friends who are racist and homophobic—I have nothing to gain from coming out to them. I’d rather not go there. My family is pretty supportive. There are several other queer members of my direct family, so that makes it easier.
A: In a way, you’re sort of an anomaly at Wesleyan because you’re from Alabama.
EB: I’ve never really fit in anywhere. I used to wear a cape sometimes.
A: Do you like not fitting in?
EB: No. It was really hard for most of my life; I didn’t have friends in middle school hardly at all. I was made fun of a lot—there was a group of girls who brutally teased me. I had a pretty rough childhood—a lot of bad shit happened. But I do feel like I’ve become a better person because I’ve been sort of an outcast. I used to want to fit in so bad. In high school, I used to be so self-conscious about what I was wearing; I could never afford the fancy book bags, I was freakishly tall at an early age, I went through puberty really early. Me and my siblings got teased a lot for smelling bad. I kind of escaped by reading a lot. I became known as the smart girl, which was kind of a comfort—it was something else to be known for other than smelly or freakish.
A: How did you grow comfortable with yourself?
EB: At a certain point, I just decided that I liked myself and that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with me. But still, everybody is self-conscious in some way. Even though I’m very comfortable with myself, I’m not in a perfect place. We all still have deep relationships with our own self-worth and self-presentation. It makes me happy that I’m known as being confident and open about myself because I would like for other people to know that it’s possible and that you don’t have to look perfect or act a certain way to be who you are.
A: Is this something you explored in your presentation for In the Company of Others?
EB: Well, the first time I did In the Company of Others, I talked about being from Alabama and coming out. This year, I talked about being raped as a child and my own sexual agency.
A: What was it like talking about that to a chapel full of freshmen?
EB: It was intense. A lot of people came up to me afterwards crying. People are so empathetic and it’s beautiful. There are two different performances and someone in the other one was also doing something about sexual assault, and everyone doing it was so supportive. We all have a really intense relationship because we sat in a room together for five days and told our stories and cried together.
A: Was it cathartic?
EB: Yes, it was so cathartic. It was something I couldn’t talk about for literally ten years and it’s really nice to be able to talk about this and not feel like I’ve done anything wrong—to instead open myself up for other survivors and use pain as a tool to grow as a person and gain more empathy. I’m focusing on things like forgiveness and healing.
A: You said that when you were younger, you turned to reading to escape. Do you feel like poetry offers a similar sort of catharsis?
EB: Yes—I’m a pretty confessional poet and poetry is pretty cathartic. I feel like I’m kind of cheating with my thesis because everything I’m writing is about me; it’s so different from writing 100 pages about Chaucer. My thesis is a lot about girlhood in the South and sexuality and how bodies are figured in society.
A: Any last words?
EB: Don’t text at the film series.