Somewhere over the rainbow

From left, Madeline Fitzgerald ’21 with Chloe Jensen ’20 at an Archives and Special Collections exhibit that Jensen created about the history of LGBTQ+ activism at Mount Holyoke

by Madeline Fitzgerald ’21

My senior year of high school, I made two of the most important decisions of my life. The first was where to attend college. The second was to share a secret I’d harbored since age 11.

Making a college decision

Picking Mount Holyoke was obvious for me. I wanted New England. I wanted a small liberal arts college. I wanted a women’s college. These ideas were ingrained in my brain from the age of nine, when my older sister started at Mount Holyoke. As the years went on, my resolve grew. In fifth grade I was the first girl I knew to call myself a feminist. In middle school I fell in love with the traditions at women’s colleges. In high school I became a Seven Sisters proselytizer to my friends, while still a braces-faced, frizzy-haired teen.

Aerial view of the Community Center and Skinner Green
The center of the Mount Holyoke campus, as seen from above

For all the reasons I loved the idea of a women’s college, the one factor I never allowed myself to think about while I was growing up was my sexuality. I knew that women’s colleges were considered by some to be “gay schools.” I knew that these schools had legacies of acceptance and self-discovery. I had read the news stories about trans-inclusive admission policies that were so progressive that most people in my hometown didn’t understand them. But I never thought of LGBTQ+ culture in relation to myself.

To say the LGBTQ+ scene at Mount Holyoke was a draw would have been to admit to and legitimize something that at the time I so desperately wanted to suppress. If anything, it would have felt like a failing. I wanted to prove to the conservatives in my life that you could be a feminist, fight the patriarchy and attend a women’s college without being a lesbian.

When other girls in my high school class said they could never attend a school without boys because dating and partying would be too difficult, I was smug in my denial. I told myself that I was smarter and more mature — a serious student would never be deterred by a lack of dating opportunities. I ignored the obvious fact that dating would be so much easier for me at a school like Mount Holyoke. I ignored, as best I could, that I wanted to date girls.

Sharing a secret

It was not until the deposit was paid and the metaphorical ink had dried on my college decision, marking the end of four years of academic stress and focus on higher education, that I was able to confront the reality of my sexual orientation.

Convocation 2018: President Sonya Stephens addresses a sea of students in their class colors at the Gettell Amphitheater
Convocation 2018: President Sonya Stephens addresses a sea of students in their class colors at the Gettell Amphitheater

I bought my green griffin T-shirt, joined the admitted students’ Facebook group, and slowly told my high school classmates and my friends from summer camp that I was gay. But it was still in fits and starts, with a lot of deep denial. As I prepared to leave for campus, I was still closeted and ashamed, to the point that rarely a day went by without me being plagued by anxiety.

Arriving at Mount Holyoke

It’s a somewhat trite comparison, but there is none more apt than this: Arriving at Mount Holyoke was like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” going over the rainbow, into technicolor excitement. In my hometown I could count on one hand the number of LGBTQ+ people I knew and none of them were lesbians. At Mount Holyoke, over half the student body falls into one of the LGBTQ+ categories. The MoHo chop — a bold haircut where students crop their hair to a short masculine length — is a campus tradition. At parties, I see girls dance together and kiss openly. This overwhelmed and excited me so much that I ran out of a party my first weekend of college.

A valentine created by Misha Ali ’17 for Mount Holyoke’s Archives and Special Collections, celebrating Mary Woolley, Jeannette Marks and their collie dog.
A valentine created by Misha Ali ’17 for Mount Holyoke’s Archives and Special Collections, celebrating Mary Woolley, Jeannette Marks and their collie dog.

There are buildings on campus named after known lesbians, such as Mary Woolley, president of Mount Holyoke College from 1901 to 1937, and suspected lesbians, such as Emily Dickinson, class of 1849. The romance between Woolley and English professor Jeanette Marks is celebrated in Bryna Turner’s ’12 critically acclaimed play “Bull in a China Shop.”

Whereas outside of MoHo I tend to assume that everyone is straight, inside the gates it’s a safe bet that lots of people like girls. Even the straight women on campus are unlike others in the “real world.” I never experience what I refer to as the “straight person blink” — the strange second glance that straight people give LGBTQ+ people when they find out about their identities. LGBTQ+ culture is so enmeshed in campus life that I sometimes forget that the jokes we MoHos make, the clothes we wear and the pop culture we reference are, off campus, considered niche. When I’m in public with my girlfriend, it doesn’t cross my mind that I should worry about kissing her or holding her hand.

A sign that reads: Diverse, Inclusive, Accepting, Welcoming, Safe Space for Everyone.  We Stand Together.
A classroom door on campus

I have found that there is no shortage of upperclass students who will befriend you and give you advice about everything from coming out to your parents to asking out women. And there is not just one category of LGBTQ+ people here. There is, no pun intended, every color of the rainbow: Athletes, nerds, partiers and artists are all represented in our thriving community.

Living without fear

If I had gone to a co-ed school, I am sure I would’ve lived so much longer with residual fear and shame. Every time I meet someone struggling with their sexuality or gender identity, I want more than anything to bring them to Mount Holyoke. Every LGBTQ+ person deserves a home like this one, where you’ll find a vast array of people who are just like you, in a most important way.  

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