Illustration by Megan Reddi
Before the Internet, a teen living outside of a city often had little information about or connection to gay life. When I arrived at Barnard’s Reid Hall from a small town in New England in 1987, I had never met another lesbian, as far as I knew. But I did know that young queers who come to urban meccas tend to find their people in bars, which for decades have been safe spaces for closeted and searching queers.
Soon after arriving at Barnard, I took the subway to the Cubbyhole in the West Village. The bouncer stopped me at the door. “You’re cute,” she laughed. “Come back when you’re 21.”
I desperately needed a space that felt safe. I found it not at the city’s nightclubs or bars, but in the halls of Barnard.
In the cramped rooms at Reid and Brooks, I discovered my tribe. My friends and I would talk all night and laugh and make friends and fall in and out of love. We shared our hearts, talking politics and sexuality and homophobia and liberation as we developed our strength as young lesbian feminists.
My first girlfriend at Barnard lived on my floor at Reid. When her roommate was out, my girlfriend and I transformed her bed into our home.
Then the worst thing happened, and our world collapsed. “I’m not coming back next semester,” she told me. Her parents found out she was a lesbian and pulled her from Barnard. Two weeks after she was gone, she sent me a letter informing me that they had sent her to a “mental institution” to treat her “lesbian deviance” by having her “wear dresses and lipstick.” I never heard from her again. Years later, I searched for her on Facebook and Google. Nothing.
That’s when I knew that my survival depended on this sexual liberation. Back then, we didn’t have the word “intersectionality,” though that is what we were doing. We called the analysis we did that intertwined race, class, gender, and sexuality “identity politics.” In our women’s studies classes and workshops, we devoured Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Adrienne Rich, Zora Neale Hurston ’28, Gloria Anzaldúa, Evelyn Torton Beck. I was one of the students who created Wimmin-Oriented-Wimmin, a group that provided support for lesbian and bisexual women.
Then I met Naomi*, and we fell hard for each other. More than anything, we wanted a place of our own to be together. It was against the rules to remove furniture from a dorm room, but one night we brought her mattress from her room to mine. We were in love, so we thought the rules didn’t apply. New York City is never really dark, even at midnight, so the sky was a soft pink. We dragged her mattress down the stairs and across 116th Street, then lugged it through the basement service entrance and into the elevator. With the two beds ensconced side by side, we had made a room for two.
I found my safe space in that bed, in Naomi’s arms, within Barnard’s walls.
*This name has been changed.