LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Queer Privilege at Smith (or, Upon Leaving the Bubble)

Jamie Marie Estrada
Letter to the Editor

When I was a junior and senior at Smith, I was blessed to have an adviser who pushed me to take classes in the Study of Women and Gender department. She saw beyond my excuse – “I go to an all-women’s college, I know all there is to know about women and gender” – and suggested I take “Introduction to the Study of Women and Gender” with her. I remember reading about intersex, intersectionality and the fraught history of “feminism” for the first time. In that class, during the large group lectures held in Stoddard Hall, we talked about how to talk to straight people about being queer in the “real world.” I told my coming out story for the first time in front of hundreds of my peers. I remember shaking.

That class was extremely empowering. I am forever grateful to my adviser for pushing me there. One thing I realized in subsequent classes and in my Smith experiences later, however, was that while we often talked about our anxieties about dealing with the heteronormative “real world,” we rarely talked about how to hold conversations with the LGBTQI folk who don’t necessarily use the vocabulary of privileged academia or a Seven Sisters education.

Since moving to Philadelphia last August, I’ve been immersed in “Gayborhood” life, which means clubbing and partying late into the night. I am a weekend warrior, you could say. This, as well as going to academic conferences and working at an Ivy League school, has thrown me into a myriad of situations where my Smith queer vocabulary has presented significant breaches in communication. Oddly enough, these situations weren’t with straight people. They were with local communities of queer activists and women of color who were willing to welcome a woman who passes as straight and white into their inner social circles.

I’ve since been asked to be on the Smith College Club of Philadelphia Alum Board. This request has given me pause. Similar to the anxiety of how to explain my “queerness” to the “real world” is how to represent Smith in Philadelphia from a position of power as the youngest on the managerial board for our local club. Smith for me was a place that empowered me by definition as “woman.” Not only that, it empowered me as a “woman” despite being the assumed lesser on the traditional “binary” of gender. It empowered me to question, rethink and redefine that binary.

However, the longer I have been gone from my alma mater, the more I have longed to go back and have conversations with my queer and straight friends and undergrad companions about thinking beyond the buzz words of “intersectionality” and “queer” and wonder how they will explain and congregate with both fellow non-hetero identified individuals and heterosexual individuals who don’t share this vocabulary and often don’t have a desire to use it.

It has come to my attention recently that “intersectionality” has been co-opted by well-meaning “white” feminists as an excuse to take over speaking space in mixed rooms of white and women of color feminists. Recently, I attended an event at which Melissa Harris-Perry told me in front of an audience of my peers that sometimes the best thing one can do when one is in a position of privilege is to listen, to turn to your neighbor and go, “Hey! This sister has something to say!” and then sit in devout silence. This was Dr. Harris-Perry’s response to a question I had asked about how to be a better ally in places where I was not visibly a member of the group.

At first, this response stung like all hell. However, I have mulled it over and have come to the conclusion that sometimes, well-intentioned and armed with my Smith education, all my SWAG words are null and void in the face of the lived experiences of women who are speaking from [a different background]. This is the piece of education I wish I had received at Smith and continue to hope becomes absorbed as all different sorts of Smithies have conversations about their identities both in and outside of the classroom.

– Jamie Marie Estrada

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