Hookup culture and heteronormativity: Reflections from a gay athlete
Less than a month from graduation, I’ve recently caught myself doing that thing most seniors do at this point in our college careers: reflecting on all of the moments over the past four years — both miniscule and monumental — that have made this place home. Looking back, my time at Middlebury has a distinct before and after — a divide defined by that fateful day last March when a single email tilted our world on its axis. It’s not surprising to realize that I have grown and changed drastically over the past four years, but in a time defined by “a new normal,” there is an even more poignant sense that the campus I first stepped onto in September 2017 is not the same one that I will be leaving behind.
Many of my best memories at Middlebury have been shaped by my experiences as a student-athlete, an identity that remains significant despite the loss of my senior season and this semester’s absence of most of my teammates. From the moment I stepped onto this campus, it seemed like there was a place for me here. Being part of a team was an immediate comfort in a college environment that was so new and intimidating. It was simple: I was on the hockey team so I would always have a table to sit at during lunch, people to say hi to as I walked to class and a place to go on Friday and Saturday nights. Outwardly, it looked like I fit in. But having a team doesn’t necessarily mean having a sense of belonging; feeling like there is a place for you often comes with the corresponding pressure to change yourself to fit into it.
Even the identities I hold closest are not free from the distinct discomfort that comes when I enter a space that is not built for me. I am a hockey player, but I am also gay, and at Midd those two identities sometimes feel conflicting. On Friday and Saturday nights, my team would make its weekly pilgrimage to Atwater, a social scene that is athlete-centric but also aggressively heteronormative. In the beginning of the night, screaming along with my teammates to whatever music was blasting over the speakers, I did feel like I belonged. Inevitably, though, the entire mood would shift. The boys’ team would enter and suddenly, I was on the outside looking in — standing and watching as everyone else chatted and flirted and danced, keeping up a performance to gain a stranger’s fleeting attention.
Most people think the ticket into an Atwater party is the athlete identity. But as gay athletes know, that’s not the case. The key is being straight — being able to play into the hypersexual dynamic that plagues Atwater every weekend. And while to some extent everyone may feel the artifice of it all, when there’s nothing to gain at the end of the night, playing this game feels like a greater sacrifice.
So most nights, I would leave early, opting to walk home alone instead of pretending to be someone I’m not. The next morning, I would sit quietly at the breakfast table, listening as my teammates recapped the night’s escapades. Every weekend it was the same thing — I would muster the enthusiasm to attend the next event, only to realize that nothing had changed: I was still an outsider. And as much as I wish I could walk away, it’s not as simple as just finding something else to do with my weekends. There’s always a choice to be made: leave a part of myself behind in order to fit in, or miss out on memories shared with my teammates and friends.
I am not an anomaly. It is no secret that Middlebury doesn’t always feel like a place for everyone. The Campus’ 2019 Zeitgeist survey found that almost 1/3 of surveyed students felt othered here, a sentiment shared by a greater proportion of students of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and recipients of financial aid. We know that many of the social spaces at this school leave people feeling left out or uncomfortable. So why has it been so hard to make a change?
The truth is that there is nothing holding us back from reshaping the way we interact. But we need to listen to the voices of people who are struggling and we need to understand that even if we feel like we belong, someone else may feel unwelcome. Tradition is not unshakeable, and adhering to it is not always the right thing to do, especially when it comes at the expense of inclusivity.
I have no doubt that soon, weekends will again be filled with music blaring from the open windows of Atwater suites, and that Sunday breakfasts will consist of spirited recounts of the night before. But as we seek a return to normal, what’s stopping us from rethinking what “normal” meant in the first place? For all of the horror and heartbreak we have experienced over the past year, we’ve been able to step back from many of the social structures that we took for granted before. Even though this pandemic has fractured many of our college experiences, Middlebury now has a unique opportunity for a fresh start — to carefully consider who our spaces have historically been built for — and to rebuild them so they are welcoming to all. Let’s not waste it.
Meghan Keating is a member of the class of 2021.