Allen: Spencer’s Declassified Queer Survival Guide
Many queer first-years are finally able to be their true selves. Take this new freedom to become you.
This article is featured in the 2022 Freshman special issue.
When I came to Dartmouth three years ago, I knew I would have a transformative experience. The curriculum was far more diverse than what I had at my conservative high school, with the distributive requirements introducing me to a whole host of topics that I could not have imagined. I knew I would be challenged time and again in the classroom. And though the pandemic upended much of what I thought my academic career would look like (curse you, 20F Peru study abroad!), I still cherish the academic experiences I have gotten during my time at Dartmouth.
What I did not know three years ago was just how much Dartmouth would transform my identity.
Growing up gay in a conservative town outside Anchorage, Alaska, it was easier to suppress my identity than deal with the consequences. And I was damn good at it: One of the few friends I came out to in high school did not believe me because of the straight-passing façade I built for myself. But that is not who I wanted to be. I did not want to be “straight Spencer” or “Spencer who can’t get a girlfriend.” I wanted to be Spencer, the gay man that I was always meant to become.
It has taken three long years, and I have come a long way to become the version of myself that I am today. All of you reading this — especially the ’26s, who come from all parts of the world and all walks of life — come to Dartmouth at different starting points: Some of you may have all aspects of your identity figured out to a tee, while others may never have given a second thought to the identity you have carried with you for years. Thus, I have no advice that will apply to every single one of you, nor does anyone else. As such, consider what follows to be a series of tips — “Spencer’s Declassified Queer Survival Guide,” if you will — meant to guide you with a few basic principles: You are you, and you have more than enough time to learn who you are on your own terms.
The first tip I have for you is to take the time to learn about your identity. You may be like me, in that you were confident about who you were in high school, only to have your personal playbook thrown out the window the second you get to college. Or you may be like many of my friends, who were never really sure of parts of their identity before getting to Dartmouth but had the chance to completely reimagine themselves and relearn their identity once they got to college. Rest assured this is a process that almost every student goes through across all parts of their identity. But this can feel especially daunting when you are trying to solidify your gender and sexuality. This process will take a lot of time; you cannot just “sleep on it” and have the answers revealed. The answers you seemingly discover along the way may very well change several times over your time at Dartmouth.
Once you have an idea of who you are, use that to set and enforce boundaries for yourself. There are experiences that you might have or things that you might be exposed to that will make you more or less comfortable. For example, you may not feel comfortable in Greek spaces, though I’ll add that the three gender-inclusive Greek houses — Alpha Theta, Phi Tau and The Tabard — are some of the most prominent queer spaces on campus. In my case, I did not drink my freshman year and was not comfortable around alcohol, so the prospect of going to Greek basements — even in inclusive spaces — made me incredibly anxious. Your boundaries may look different: Maybe you want to try alcohol, but you feel more comfortable in a dorm than a basement. Or there might be a situation where someone pushes you to break one of your boundaries. Knowing yourself, what is good and bad for you, is important above all else.
That’s not to say you should shy away from new experiences. Part of learning who you are is embracing new opportunities to figure out what you do and don’t like. While you know your limits, saying yes to trying new things is a great way to fine-tune your identity. Alpha Theta was the first Greek basement I ever went into, and though I only had water, I felt incredibly supported by the kind members and friends in that house. This sparked me to become more comfortable with Greek life, and I eventually rushed Phi Tau last year. This process — which took over a year and a half — involved a lot of back-and-forth with myself to figure out just how comfortable I was in Greek life, where people can be into wildly different things.
To this point, I have yet to mention a key part of one’s sexual or gender identity: sex. This was intentional. I do not mean to be prude, nor have my editors forbidden me from discussing sexuality. Being queer is a lot more than sex alone; queer subculture influences many of our lives, no matter how intently someone does or does not subscribe to it. Queerness is vast and takes time to explore. Still, sex — and first experiencing it — is on the minds of many students, as surveys conducted by The Dartmouth show that between 30% and 43% of the members of the Classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 reported first engaging in sexual activity at Dartmouth (Importantly, these results are not stratified by reported sexual orientation.)
As with everything I have discussed to this point, what aspects of your sex life you enjoy or don’t will take a good deal of time to sort out for yourself. You may know exactly what you want from sex. Some people find great success in that the very first time they get intimate with another person; as you can imagine, others have to take their time in figuring themselves and their partners out. You may also find yourself partaking in the College’s hookup culture. In yet another piece of noncommittal advice, you may find fulfillment from hooking up with others, or it may be demoralizing. Deep down, you probably already know what the answer will be for you; pressure from peers or partners should not change whatever it is that you feel most comfortable with.
I have tried to provide very broad, general advice that can help queer readers find themselves in their first year and beyond. But my advice is just that: a mile wide, an inch deep and the product of my experiences, which undoubtedly will look different from those of every single reader. Ultimately, finding out what “queer” means to you might involve lots of trial and error, and it likely will not end in a year’s time. Though this may sound daunting, it is ultimately a very good thing. It allows you to get to know yourself more and become the best version of you. When you are in a new place with thousands of new people, standing out from the crowd and being your authentic self is what you all deserve.