On Saturday, September 7, the Queer Coalition of Vassar College (QCVC) held the annual Gays of Our Lives panel. The event, held at the Walker Field House, is put on every year to teach freshmen that students at Vassar identify as various sexual orientations, and that they themselves should not be afraid to identify as they wish. Before hosts Hannah Ellman ’14 and Grace Ashford ’14 took the stage, QCVC co-presidents Julli Taveras ’16 and Lillian Kalish ’16 explained what the event was all about. They insisted, “gaydar is not a thing at Vassar,” and that Gays of Our Lives began to break stereotypes.
The QCVC Exec Board began planning the event last semester. “Our Exec Board had several extensive meetings in the spring in which we discussed what we wanted out of the event and out of the panelists we chose,” said Taveras. Preparation involved “setting up interviews for potential panelists, getting the word out so that those who are interested can approach us, and reaching out to potential hosts.” Taveras said of the vigorous interview process, “We had almost thirty people interview for this year’s event.”
The Exec Board wanted panelists to be compelling and unabashed to talk about their sexuality. “Gays of Our Lives was my favorite event of freshmen orientation,” panelist Elizabeth Ruiz ’14 added, “and after attending the event again sophomore year, I decided to ask around to see how about getting on the panel. A few of my friends in the LGBTQ community were really supportive of the idea, so I auditioned back in the spring.” Fellow panelist Kain Smith ’16 was also inspired to join the panel after watching the event in the past. He said, “Being a panelist for Gays of Our Lives was something that I had wanted to do since attending the event last year. So, I applied, and while being interviewed I answered the questions just as I would have at any other time; I was not raised to be bashful about sex and grew up talking about it with my family often, which made interviewing that much easier.”
“I always saw the fact that Vassar held this event as an indicator that we really are a progressive school—unafraid of discussing something so important to our daily lives as sexuality and identity,” said panelist Rob Leinheiser ’16 about being a part of the event, “and not only talking about these elements usually only discussed in whispers, but doing it through a booming microphone to hundreds of strangers.”
The panel was made up of eight Vassar students of varying sexual orientations. Throughout the night, hosts Ellman and Ashford of comedy troupe Indecent Exposure picked out freshmen in the audience to ask questions. “The questions at the event are all meant to come from first-year audience members. We have no input or power over what is asked or how panelists respond during the event,” Taveras confirmed. Freshmen chimed in asking about numerous topics from favorite dance move at the Mug, to relationship status, to favorite color. “There was a really good range of questions. I especially liked that there were questions about relationships and consent,” said Ruiz. Smith agreed, “Each one made it possible for the panelists to answer in a diverse, personal, and unique way. Some of the questions and some of the responses to those questions incited further discussion after the event as well, which I think is fantastic.”
The rules, though, changed slightly from that of previous years. Instead of the audience guessing the panelists’ sexual identities, the panelists would reveal their orientations themselves after they answered all the questions. “This is really an extension of our efforts in making the event centered more around self-identification rather than falling back onto stereotypes in the queer community that can become quite exclusive,” said QCVC secretary Katie Maguire ’16.
The panelists bared themselves to a gymnasium full of fellow Vassar students, most of them wide-eyed freshmen. Smith admitted, “I was pretty nervous throughout the whole thing, but it didn’t stop me from having fun!” At the beginning of the event Ruiz was also apprehensive. As the event went on, however, her nerves faded: “That was the first time I had spoken in front of so many people, and I wanted to give answers that were illuminating and likable. Once I settled into the flow and banter of things I felt much more at ease.” Leinheiser agreed, “It’s a nerve-racking experience, but one that I knew was important to do despite any fears. And honestly, once it got going, it became more fun than scary to grab the microphone and talk about your personal life.”
“Hopefully the freshmen brought home with them the idea that diversity goes much deeper than surface level. I also hope that the idea of fluidity of identity was reinforced,” said Maguire. She continued, “QCVC put in a lot of work into Gays of Our Lives, so seeing it come together is simultaneously exciting and revealing.” Ruiz concured, “The answers were all very relevant and interesting, and my hope is that we got the ball rolling for the Class of 2017 to have their own conversations regarding these things.”
Ruiz continued, “Overall, I think it went really well. QCVC did a great job selecting panelists, if I do say so myself. There were representatives of a variety of sexualities, genders, and ethnicities.”
Leinheiser summed up the ambitions of QCVC and the panel, saying, “Overall, it was a great experience—and if it made even one incoming student feel more comfortable with their identity or talking about their sexuality, than it was a success.”