Kristen Sharpe

Out in the Redwoods

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82 Kristen Sharpe

Live Free Or Fight

by
Kristen Sharpe

 

Narrative

Santa Cruz is the lesbian capital of the world! At least that was the word on the street when I was searching for the "perfect" university. Straight guys were warned not to be fooled by UCSC's overwhelming 60/40 female to male ratio, because most of the sixty percent didn't swing their way. In fact, UCSC had such a reputation for being queer that my new co-worker claimed to know I was a lesbian, despite my feminine appearance that throws off even the best of gaydars, simply because UCSC was my number one school of choice. I had done my research. I visited GLBT centers online and in person and I reviewed Planet Out's `Queer 50' (a report of the best fifty queer-friendly universities). I even went as far as my local community library to check out a book that included ratings and commentary from students about the queer atmosphere at universities around the country. I had very specific ideals about the place I would spend the next four years of my life, and I wanted to be sure that my expectations would be met. I grew up in San Diego, a diverse but semi-conservative city. I came out to my friends and family at the beginning of my senior year, although I had personally accepted my sexuality the previous year. And just like birds of a feather flock together, about eight other people from my high school came out that year as well. We ate lunch together, started a Gay Straight Alliance, took our same-sex partners to Prom, and spent most weekend nights in Hillcrest, the queer `Mecca' of San Diego. I felt reasonably safe being out in my local community in north county, but I felt at home in Hillcrest. Hillcrest was the one and only place that I felt comfortable being myself. I could hold hands with another girl while walking down the street and not be followed. I could even sneak in a little PDA without receiving ice-cold glares or degrading remarks from passer-bys. As I became a regular in Hillcrest, I started getting more involved in the queer community and what I consider the queer movement. I soon found myself immersed in the drama of the queer culture. Strangely enough, it was in all the gossip and triangles that I found the acceptance and support I had been desperately seeking.

To be honest, I never planned to actually come out. I thought I could live my life the way I wanted without exposing my lifestyle to family and friends. Growing up in a religious home and digesting the spoon-fed Christian morality as my own, it was not an option for me to live openly as a lesbian. For an entire year I lived two lives, and for an entire year I also lived with the heavy burden of deception and lies. One night I had a vision. I envisioned my life filled with honesty, love, and acceptance. I imagined my parents telling me they loved me, but this time not because I was the perfect daughter in disguise. This time they said "I love you," knowing full well that I was not the daughter they had always hoped I would become. In my dream, I was more than what they hoped for, not less. I envision freedom, from deceit, from fear, from silence. Somehow that night I found enough hope in that vision to march upstairs to my parents' room and come out to my mother. That night began my journey to create a life for myself that would be questioned, censored and discriminated against. But hope was all I needed, and it was a good thing, because it was about all I had at that point.

This vision came to me just a few weeks before my mom and I would be driving up the coast to look at universities all over the state. It was no surprise that I was mostly concerned with how each school catered to my newly claimed identity. My research left me with only two very strong candidates, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. I had a few other requirements aside from queer-friendliness. I wanted to live away from the city; I wanted no religious affiliations, and I wanted a school that could provide me with a strong sense of belonging. After visiting all the schools in southern California, I was starting to get disappointed. Nothing seemed to feel right for me. My visit to Berkeley was just as disappointing the moment I arrived and saw the nine-story dormitories amidst the city streets. Then I visited UC Santa Cruz.

In just the first few minutes of the tour, we walked by a few students who were painting the outside of the dorms and listening to Ani DiFranco. Amazed that I had stumbled across others who appreciated her music, I was compelled to go talk to them. In a matter of seconds, they began informing me about the open and queer-friendly atmosphere at UCSC without me ever asking. It was as if they knew exactly what I wanted to ask, but knew I could never ask it. I thanked them, and ran off to catch up with the tour group, as the lyrics of "Swan Dive" echoed from in the distance: "They can call me crazy if I fail, all the chance that I need is one-in-a-million, and they can call me brilliant if I succeed." In the next hour, we passed by wild deer and crossed bridges through the woods. We walked through the moat at Merrill and I caught a glimpse of all the queer murals I needed to know that this would be my future home. This would be the place I would live out my vision, all the chance I needed was one-in-a-million, because I had hope for freedom.

My first month at UCSC was loaded with queer excitement, from discovering all the other queer students at Merrill, to attending my first womyn's dance, downtown. I felt like I was in Hillcrest, but there were no boundaries to this liberal world. I did not have to travel to a certain street to find a certain coffee shop that I could feel safe in; I felt safe everywhere, especially on campus. I had no inhibitions, and for the first time in my life I was able to be honest and transparent to everyone I met. Then, in what seemed out of the blue, my RA called an emergency meeting to hold a CLUH workshop. I approached her afterwards to inquire about the reason for such a workshop, and she informed me that some people on the hall were feeling uncomfortable. Immediately, I apologized and offered to be less overt about my lifestyle, as I was consistently conditioned to do in high school. But instead, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You don't have to change, they do." From that moment on, my perspective changed and my confidence soared. My entire first year was spent re-learning what being queer meant to me and adapting to my new freedom outside of censorship and gender roles. I was enlightened by the discovery of the innumerable factions within the queer community, especially at UCSC with all its eleven GLBT student organizations. No longer was I just queer, but I was queer-and-then-some. Unaware of it at the time, I was being shaped as an activist.

My activism was put to the test my second year, as I accepted to be an RA for the queer-themed hall at Merrill, a theme that did not exist in the dorms during my first year. My residents did not all identify as queer, some had queer parents, some were queer-friendly, and others just ended up on our floor at random. But we unanimously continued to call ourselves members of the queer-themed hall, knowing that implied as little about our lifestyles as being Caucasian and living on the Pacific Islander floor did. With such a diverse group, I was ecstatic about the potential for an inclusive community and safe place for all. I poured my heart into my residents, knowing undoubtedly that many came from broken homes. I hoped that they would find a family with each other and break the unfortunate tradition of poor retention. The retention rates of queer students in education is a reality that has hit home for me in far too many ways, for reasons that often seem far from my radius of help. But from time to time, I am presented with the opportunity to change the fate of one. Sadly, I cannot boast about the great retention of students on my hall. Out of the seventeen people who lived with us throughout the year, only six remained from start to finish (including myself). While everyone left for different reasons, I find no coincidence in those numbers. But I am thankful that six remained instead of five.

My ultimate goal, however, was to instill a sense of freedom into my residents, a freedom to be themselves, and thus, a freedom from censorship. From covering the walls with blank butcher paper for personal d'cor, to hosting events that encouraged personal exploration as well as expression, I wanted to give to my residents what was given to me by my RA and the larger UCSC community. It was truly an amazing experience for me to participate in the gender-fucking, soul-searching, and history-changing dynamics of our floor. Prior to the annual Banana Slug Spring Fair, my residents decided to expand our floor's d'cor for the prospective students that would be touring through our hall. The d'cor included a cartoon tour guide, Gabriel the gay penis, which welcomed visitors to the queer-themed hall with a small disclaimer that not all residents of our hall loved penis. The walls were covered with a gigantic rainbow peace sign, intricate (G-rated) artistic work, personal poetry, and quotes like "All you need is love," and, "Everyday, people are staying away from church and going back to God." Amongst such socially acceptable expression were not-so-socially-acceptable forms of expression such as "Fuck the regents" and, "Parents, do your kids know what a `rim job' is?" The administration chose to take down the d'cor, for reasons that I can understand. However, I would be lying if I said I did not also identify with my residents who felt deeply offended by the censorship. I came across one of my resident's responses, which was posted on the wall, "To my hall mates: Administrators arrived early this morning and removed a lot of the artwork and expression we worked so hard on to decorate our home. Their discretion was used to decide what prospective students should be allowed to see. Prospective students! WARNING: THIS IS CENSORED! You don't get to see what UCSC and Merrill are all about. The students are the best part of this campus." It was at that moment I realized I had reached my goal. My residents were fighting for the freedom to express their true selves.

While being an RA for the queer-themed hall was quite a test, the true test of my strength as an activist has been in the most recent months. I decided to spend my third year on domestic exchange at the University of New Hampshire. Being a native Californian, this experience has been somewhat of a culture shock for me! There is one queer group on campus which attracts a large- enough crowd to fill a room. Because I have only been out here a few months I do not feel justified to comment on the progression of the group. But in my eyes, they are certainly headed in the right direction. They have what it takes to resist the opposition to the queer movement even in such a conservative state as New Hampshire. I hope to become more involved, and share some of my own experiences and ideas. Coming from an area that seems to be a few steps ahead, I hope I am able to bring some insight and encouragement that a queer movement is possible. In fact, the queer movement is happening right now from California to Florida to New Hampshire, and it has been a long time coming.

The license plates in New Hampshire say, "Live free or die," a slogan that seems a little too ironic to me. Are we, as queer-identified persons, really free? Do we have the same freedoms as our heterosexual counterparts? I say no. If we did, then I could openly serve in the military, legally marry my partner, and adopt a child in any of the fifty states. So I am free as a person, but not as free because I am a lesbian. But do I choose death over that loss of freedom? No, I choose to fight for equality. That is my next vision, a deeper vision than the former, because it is outside of myself. But I had to struggle within myself first. I had to find the strength to believe in a better future for myself before I could see the hope in the future for my entire queer family. Being a member of the UCSC community provided the foundation to my journey as a queer activist, so I am able to shake the waters without being shaken. It is harder to be out and unashamed in a region that is a world apart from Santa Cruz, but I believe if we do not challenge ourselves we become stagnant. Of course there are still thousands of ways to be an effective activist in places that lead the queer movement, but someone needs to bring the fire to the ice. For now, that is my calling.

© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.