Personal Histories – Alicia Kismet Eler (OC 06)

Essay written Aug. 2006

ElerBefore I went to Oberlin, I thought that I knew everything about being queer. I mean, I was an early bird! At age 13 I came out to myself and at age 14 I outed myself to my parents and immediate family. Throughout high school I identified as queer and openly dated women, and during my last summer before Oberlin I participated in a theatrical production by the queer theatre company Aboutface. So, naturally, I was certain that I knew everything about being queer.

However, as soon as I stepped foot on the Oberlin College campus, my previous “all-knowing” attitude changed dramatically. I thought that I was very original with my shaved head and baggy cargo shorts, but I soon discovered that the Baldwin Women’s Collective had the same look as me. The ladies there were all a year above me – sophomores – and not only played up all different lesbian genders, but also had an intense lesbian clique. Although I had worked with many queer people in a theatre production, I was not used to being around a bunch of semi-incestous lesbians who all lived in one big house! At first I attempted to befriend them and date within their circles, but this soon turned sour and I gave up. The drama was too much and I withdrew.

As the year went on, my hair grew back and I decided to lose the cargo-shorts look. I drifted further away from images of the “butch lesbo” and started to define my own image largely through my artwork. I befriended a free-spirited hippie gay boy named Morgan and a Tori Amos loving diva named Munib. Morgan grew up in the mountains of New Mexico, and showed me an attitude towards queerness that I had not experienced before in others. At once in touch with nature and rural life, Morgan also yearned to be an “urban queer.” This was a conflict that we both shared, as I too had a deep interest in nature and solitude but wanted to ultimately reside in a city. Munib showed me the difficulties of being bi-racial (Lebanese and Korean), being an immigrant, and being gay and Christian. We spent hours discussing race, class, and gender in U.S. society, analyzing queer movies and pop culture TV, labeling this and that as “too white,” and dreaming of fabulousness in New York City. Munib opened my eyes to my own mixed heritage – my father is an immigrant from Istanbul, Turkey, and my mother is Jewish-American — helping me to interrogate and question how my queerness fit into my complex identity.

During my sophomore year, I met an eccentric bisexual cinema studies major named Cary. As a lesbian, I had always wondered how bisexual people felt and how they dealt with such a fluid sexuality. For the first time, I felt comfortable asking a bisexual woman how she thought and felt about this. Cary helped me answer questions that I had about human sexuality, straight privilege vs. queerness, and if anyone is really “100% gay or straight.”

As my connections with these three special friends grew, I found myself also becoming more interested in queer art and film history. I spent the majority of my senior year studying queer German cinema and contemporary queer films. I wanted to find out how queers expressed themselves artistically, and how I could become a historian of such treasures.

Before I came to Oberlin, I imagined myself as part of a large queer community and figured I already knew what it meant to be gay. I would never have thought that I’d spend all my time with people who, on the surface, seemed so different, but inside shared deeper questions and interests with me. For me, Oberlin was a total learning experience – not only through queer schoolwork, but also through my amazing friends!