"Perhaps it was the shock of archaic traditions and Gothic architecture which made me feel so intimidated"Esmé Kenney

Writing this, my bedroom walls are covered in queer art and artists: images of King Princess and Frida Kahlo, poems and fragments by Sappho, Butler’s Gender Trouble, and a novel by Ali Smith lays on my bedside table, dog-eared and highlighted to death. I feel so at ease with myself and my sexuality that you wouldn’t have thought my experience in Michaelmas and Lent term has been punctuated by questioning, insecurity, and a sort of queer impostor syndrome brought on by the isolation of the pandemic.

Like most people, I was daunted by the prospect of coming to Cambridge in Michaelmas. Although I’d never considered the fact that my queer identity might become a barrier — that was, until I found myself afraid to broach the subject of sexuality and essentially back in the closet. Without my usual queer friendship group to rally me along, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of re-emerging from the closet into a hostile or judgemental environment.

“I found myself afraid to broach the subject of sexuality and essentially back in the closet”

Perhaps it was the shock of archaic traditions and Gothic architecture which made me feel so intimidated — compounded by the loss of the lively queer and alternative culture I’ve grown used to at home in Manchester. Then take into consideration the onset of restrictions in the pandemic which rendered corporeal queer networks and spaces obsolete, and you can understand how my confidence was totalled.

In normal times, queerness as an identity is hallmarked by subversive friendships and grounded by a shared sense of othering. I can recall vividly how friends have pointed out my now-favourite clothes shops, queer-friendly coffee shops, and recounted their weird and wonderful experiences in the queer dating scene. Whilst imperfect, of course, these relationships are symbolic of the alliances made within the queer community – which, like any marginalised group, are indispensable in navigating our identities. When your experiences aren’t well-documented in media it’s essential that you find people in the real world who can share cultural know-how.

What’s more, for some within the LGBT+ community, friends provide the safety net that families cannot. Queer friends of mine have grappled with what can sometimes be a dangerous scene for teenaged boys, in an age of internet dating, catfishing, and — let’s face it — a raging problem with pedagogic encounters. Others have struggled with the untold issues of dental dams, or have grappled with the practicalities and social etiquette surrounding douching and other subjects too taboo for a secondary school biology lesson. In the absence of sex education and with little-to-no media representation, these friendships provide frameworks (or at the very least, moral support) for individuals who are, otherwise, left in the dark.

Despite the attempts of my (wonderful) JCR officers to host LGBT+ events online, Zoom calls fail to nurture the candour and transparency needed to share these ideas and form these bonds — as I’m sure we’re all very much aware of now — and this is particularly tough when broaching subjects such as sex and relationships, or having specifically LGBT+-centred conversations under the gaze of parents and inquisitive siblings.

“For some within the LGBT+ community, friends provide the safety net that families cannot”

To make matters worse, the digital worlds we’ve been immersed in since last March have been dominated with caricatures of queer identities, which discredit the spectrum of identities, experiences, and expressions out there. On Instagram and TikTok we’ve been fed an onslaught of queer aesthetics — in which ‘cottagecore’ and ‘dark academia’ have become by-words for the queer identity. The issues of this surface-level digital media were exacerbated in Lent term, as Pride month came and went in a torrent of corporate-sponsored rainbow content — and little cause for celebration as Facebook feeds teemed with hostile messages from Cambridge Colleges. I couldn’t help but feel further than I ever had done from my queer identity, as what it meant to be ‘LGBT+’ was suppressed or simplified into a debate of visibility vs invisibility. Occupying, as I do, a comfortable medium, I felt simultaneously unfit for the ‘loud and proud’ queer community and cast out of the straight ideal imagined by these colleges.


Mountain View

On hair, labels, and queerness

Thankfully, the Easter break yielded a string of picnics and barbeques with my friends from home. Far from the world of formals and flag-flying, I felt at ease once more and was — more importantly – validated in my identity. Whilst, certainly, our conversations cover myriad topics, from the politically contested to the everyday, it’s within these networks that queer issues can be brought up and resolved. Our closeness has persuaded me that with the support of old friends at home and new friends at university, I can define for myself what it means to be queer in Cambridge.

If my estrangement from the community this year has taught me anything, it has instilled in me just how necessary queer networks are at university — and just how fragile they are too. Amidst exam pressures and essay deadlines of this term, I hope we can all find some time to connect and to share our personal struggles, experiences, and practical advice and form a substantial queer community here once more.