“The most striking thing about the lesbian community at Princeton,” one 1979 article in The Daily Princetonian noted, “is that it doesn’t exist.”
In 1979, lesbian students took to the ‘Prince’ to describe Princeton’s lesbian community, characterizing it as “informal,” “primitive,” and “very fragmented.” Nearly 45 years later, circumstances have changed drastically — both on campus and in the broader United States. The stigma of “coming out” has greatly diminished, especially with the legalization of gay marriage in 2015. Across the United States, despite recent legislative threats, public opinion of the queer community has continued to improve over the years and is higher than ever before. Public opinion on campus has similarly improved, and Princeton’s Gender + Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC) has worked tirelessly to create institutional support and programs for LGBTQ+ students, sponsoring events and fostering a community that would have been unthinkable in the past.
Despite advancement in LGBTQ+ acceptance throughout society, as a lesbian woman navigating Princeton’s campus in 2023, I find that the 1979 description of Princeton’s lesbian community still seems to apply: It still feels informal and fragmented. But it could be so much more than that — in fact, it needs to be more. While past projects have failed, now is the perfect time to give sapphic communities another chance.
In order to understand the current climate of lesbian representation and community on campus, we need to understand the historical organizational politics and structures that have led to where we are today. Princeton has long struggled to foster a lesbian or sapphic community on campus. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a surge in motivation to create sapphic spaces; however, these organizations ultimately died out due to the homophobia and gender politics of the era, as well as a lack of institutional support.
Nearly a decade after the 1979 ‘Prince article,’ in 1987, an editorial asserted that “Lesbians have been one of the least visible groups on campus … there has been little cohesion within the lesbian community, which [has] prevented the formation of a much-needed support system.” At the time, there was a great deal of prejudice and violence against LGBTQ+ students. “Raising the general consciousness” became a priority as queer students drew together to create safe spaces. Yet even within the queer community, there were issues of visibility and acceptance for queer women — spaces were overwhelmingly dominated by gay men. These issues pushed queer women to attempt to create new spaces.
In 1983, due to the male-dominated nature of the Gay Alliance of Princeton (GAP), queer women defected and created Gay Women of Princeton (GWOP) (through a complicated series of merges, the two would later fall under the same umbrella again — GWOP disbanded after only five years). In the late 1980s, there was also an effort to create the Bisexual and Lesbian Support System (BLSS), which aimed to “help lesbians meet others in order to discuss their common experiences and problems” and “bring to light lesbian issues on campus.” Yet that group also survived for only a few years.
Later, in the 1990s, both the Women-Oriented Women (WOW) group and Princeton’s Eagerly Awaited Radical Lesbians (PEARL) defected from the Gays and Lesbians at Princeton (GALAP, which had replaced GAP). One 1991 ‘Prince’ article entitled “Lesbians and bisexuals seek visibility” described the WOW campaign, claiming that “the lack of officially recognized space for lesbian and bisexual women reflects their peripheral presence on campus.”
The very issues that prompted the formation of these groups prevented the creation of a strong and cohesive lesbian community. The homophobia and prejudice against queer women meant that very few women were willing to be openly gay (thus, membership was low). Additionally, there was likely a severe lack of institutional support and funding — after all, these were simply student-led groups catering to the “peripheral” lesbians at a time when 55 percent of Americans believed gay sex was “morally wrong.” As a result, these groups faded, leaving an absence of a lesbian community on campus that persists today.
When I stepped onto Princeton’s campus nearly 30 years later, I had no understanding of Princeton’s queer history — indeed, I was still coming to terms with my own queer identity. In the two years since I passed through FitzRandolph Gate, I’ve found a kind, caring, and inclusive queer community. Yet I’ve never felt a real sense of lesbian or sapphic community on campus. This is not because of a lack lesbian or sapphic women on campus; I’ve made a number of lesbian and sapphic friends. That these beautiful and essential sapphic friendships do, in fact, exist, makes the absence of a community all the more noteworthy and painful. While organizations like the GSRC provide countless resources and ways for queer people as a whole to engage in the community, there are no clear sapphic spaces. Similarly, while there are activities that tend to bring queer women together (e.g. theater groups), there is no clear sapphic space or group.
In my experience, being a lesbian can be incredibly isolating. We exist in a highly heteronormative and patriarchal society, with our very existence resisting both of these tenets — not only do we resist the ideal of heterosexuality, but we also defy the cultural centering of men. Our identity and sexuality are often diminished (the classic “you haven’t met the right man yet” mentality), fetishized, or villainized (the “predatory lesbian” trope). These struggles do not detract from the struggles that any other queer individuals experience; rather, they’re simply a different set of issues that lesbians (and even other sapphics) understand.
Yet common struggles are not the only basis for sapphic communities. There’s so much joy to be found in connecting with queer women. While romantic relationships are of course important, platonic friendships between queer women are often overlooked. In reality, my friendships with other women-loving-women have been some of my most fulfilling friendships. These relationships often provide me the space to be my most authentic queer self — there is a common basis and understanding of sapphic interests, culture, and emotions that allows me to feel truly seen.
Groups like BLSS and WOW died out in the 1980s and 1990s. But it wasn’t because they weren’t necessary — it was because of the homophobia and gender politics of the era, as well as poor funding and support. There weren’t nearly as many women who felt comfortable being openly queer. Now, we exist in an age where more women than ever identify as queer. Princeton has larger institutions created to support the LGBTQ+ community, campus is far more accepting of queer identities, and the queer community itself has become far more diverse and inclusive.
The need for these spaces has not disappeared, but many of the barriers have. It’s time to give these projects another shot. Because I know the lesbian — and larger sapphic — community at Princeton does exist. And at least for the fleeting years of college, we should have the opportunity to experience such a community in its fullest and purest form.
Community Opinion Editor Lucia Wetherill is a sophomore from Newtown, Pa. She is studying in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), with certificates in Global Health Policy and Latin American Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com.