Columbus, Ohio -- At a a recent academic convocation at Ohio State University here, 21-year-old Rebecca Woods, honors student, athlete and campus government leader, walked toward to podium to claim yet another award. Elated, Ms. Woods, a junior, heard herself being cited for among other things, her work with the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
"For a moment I thought, `Now, 500 more people know I'm a lesbian,'" Ms. Woods, said, talking about the ceremony. "I Didn't care. I went onto the next thought: `I got the award!'"
Ms. Woods, who is majoring in women's studies and daydreams about becoming a Supreme court justice, is part of a new generation of your lesbians asserting themselves on college campuses around the country.
Support from Gay Movement
Buoyed by the convergence of the feminist movement and the one for gay rights, these women are declaring themselves lesbians much earlier than previous generations. Their sudden prominence can also be attributed to the support that feminists have offered, a sign to some lesbians that heterosexual women simply do not feel as threatened by gay women as heterosexual men do by gay men.
Still another reason for their emergence is the overwhelming toll that the AIDS epidemic has taken among gay men, who have long been at the forefront of the gay-rights movement and whose dwindling numbers have often created a leadership vacuum for women to fill.
In any case, after years in which lesbians have felt invisible, they say it is their turn to be out front.
"the wall is coming down brick by brick," said Torie Osborne, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. "As more and more women come out on campus, more and more of them will not feel the need to `straighten up,' as we call it, when they go off into the world after campus." Lesbians on campus say they have been emboldened by the visibility of older lesbians like Ms. Osborne; Roberta Achtenberg, who was recently confirmed by the Senate as a top housing official; Dorothy Allison, the novelist, and K. D. Lang, the singer, whose picture was on the cover of a recent New York magazine for an article called "Lesbian Chic."
But if lesbianism is chic, it is only in certain circles. One graduating senior at Wellesley College recalled how she had to leave high school after being taunted by her classmates for being gay. Now, she said, "My younger sister and all her friends, who are all dating boys, think I'm cool." Still she declined to be identified -- fearful of the consequences if all her relatives discovered she was a lesbian.
While there is no way of knowing how many gay and lesbian students are on college campuses, an overwhelming majority still hide their sexual orientation, gay-rights advocates say. And most of the open lesbians on campuses have made their homosexuality publicly known only recently. Of 30 women interviewed for this article -- all of them now open lesbians on campus -- only two had been open about their sexual orientation in high school.
Increase in Bias Attacks
As gay and lesbian students have become more open, incidents of violence against them have more than doubled in the last five years, according to the Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Still, many young lesbians like Ms. Woods say college is the first place where they feel comfortable enough to be themselves. They are coming of age at a time when gay and lesbian alliances, gay history courses and gay awareness weeks are part of campus life at hundreds of colleges and universities, from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., to the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
At some college, women feel free to experiment with the entire concept of sexual identity. At Smith College last year there was a "questioning" support group, for students who were wondering whether they were lesbians. There is even a new term -- "lugs," lesbians until graduation. Some of these women hide their sexual orientation on leaving college, fearing harassment. Some ultimately choose men.
A 25-year-old Wellesley alumna who had a sexual relationship with another female student in college is planning an August wedding to a man she met in Vermont. Both she and her former college lover, who has since become involved with another woman, say they have no regrets.
"It was a real lesbian experience," said the woman, an artist, who graduated two years ago. "I identified myself as a lesbian at the time. It was a unique, phenomenal experience. Now it's not an issue anymore. I'm going to marry Richard."
Some Private Anguish
For all their public boldness, plenty of the young lesbians still anguish privately. A 1989 report of the Department of Health and Human Services listed suicide as the leading cause of death among young gay and lesbian people, estimating that homosexuals account for about a third of all suicides by the young.
Last year 21-year-old Davita Robinson, a telecommunications major at Ohio State, spent hours staring at herself in the mirror. "I would say, `I think I could fall in love with a woman,'" she said. "Then I'd say `No, don't say that.'"
Then during Christmas vacation, she told her grandparents that she was in love with Kym Platt, a junior who is the co-president of the school's gay alliance. "They didn't speak to me for a week," Ms. Robinson said. "I'd always had the perfect grades, perfect honors. They told me, `You've fallen off a pedestal.'"
That Ms. Robinson is black apparently made the situation all the more painful for her family. "They told me, `As an African American, and as a woman, your life is going to be hard enough; why are you adding this burden?'" she said. "I said, ~Would you rather I be with a man and be unhappy?' My grandmother said, `Yes, I'd rather you be with a man who violently abused you.'"
"I love KYm," Ms. Robinson said. "But sometimes I'm not sure if I can do this. Sometimes I think I could end up marrying a man."
Ohio State, a town with a large gay population, is one of eight major colleges with an office of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual affairs financed by the university. But it is also a college where fraternity members traditionally run campus government and where many of the 54,000 students are from small towns.
Consternation Over Affection
Jennifer Olexovitch a heterosexual freshman at Ohio State from Medina, Ohio, was disconcerted by her geography class, where two women sit together holding hands. "It's nothing I've ever seen," said Ms. Olexovitch, who is 19. "At first I thought to myself, ` How can people do this is public?' I didn't tell anyone how I felt. It just makes me very uncomfortable."
Still, many lesbians at Ohio State said they had found heterosexuals to be more tolerant than they had expected. Ms. Woods told how her freshman roommate, a heterosexual woman who later became the president of the Tri Delt sorority, coached her on what to say on one of her first dates with the woman whom Ms. Woods called "the love of my life." And last year, she said, John Hilbert, the president of the undergraduate student government -- Ms. Woods is an assembly member -- asked if they could talk. "He's straight, white, rich and a member of the Kappa Sigs, this total snob fraternity," Ms. Woods said. "He's the coolest guy. He sat me down and said: `Okay, you're a lesbian. Can you tell me about it?' At first I was kind of wary. But he really wanted to educate himself."
`Someone Who's Really Cool'
Mr. Hilbert, 22, a graduating senior, said: "Rebecca's the first openly lesbian person I've ever met. I had this stereotype. I though lesbians actually hated men, looked and dressed like guys and were mean-spirited and overbearing. Then I met Rebecca. I was, like, `Wow!' This is someone who's really cool."
Not everyone shares that attitude. Ms. Platt said that her freshman roommate moved out, apparently because she preferred not to live with an open lesbians. And last month, after the president of the university, E. Gordon Gee, approved a recommendation to allow gay and lesbian partners to live in family housing, there was such vehement opposition from some local politicians that the Board of Trustees deferred a decision on the policy.
For many lesbians, college is just a temporary oasis. After her recent graduation, a Wellesley woman confessed her anxieties about moving on. This summer she will work as a journalist in a small town, where she does not plan to tell people she is a lesbian. She has already packed away in the closet her K.D. Lang poster, her books on lesbian history and the tuxedo she wore to the spring gala, where she danced with her girlfriend.
rizzoe@FASECON.ECON.NYU.EDU (Emily Rizzo)