My Experience Being a Lesbian at Stern College for Women

By: Yaffa Goldkin  |  May 10, 2024

By Yaffa Goldkin

On the YU housing platform online, there used to be a way you could ‘match’ with a potential roommate. Since I knew about zero people planning to attend Stern College for Women, I decided to try it out during my year in Israel. I matched with a girl named Rina. Apparently, we had similar interests, similar values, and similar sleep schedules. I messaged her on the website, feeling a bit dumb, but she responded promptly and we set up a Zoom call to chat.

Although a bit nervous, Rina made me feel comfortable over the call, and I decided to tell her my not-so-secret secret: I am gay. Before I could even get out my little rant about how that shouldn’t affect anything regarding our roommate-ship, Rina immediately blurted out: “Omg, no way! Me too!” 

“Wait, really?” I said. I honestly couldn’t believe my luck. My first potential roommate – another queer Jew who was about to attend Stern with me. 

Rina and I ended up being roommates along with two other girls (you know how they pack those Brookdale rooms), and she was my first connection to the queer community at Stern. A few days before classes, Rina magically found the official queer undergraduate group chat of YU. The individuals who were a part of that group chat became my friends, my community, and a part of my heart for the next three years.

I only ended up living with Rina for one semester of my sophomore year, but I strongly attribute my quick connection to the queer community at YU to her. The queer undergraduate chat that she introduced me to was a small group of about twenty students who were nervous, but hopeful about friendship and connections to each other. 

One of my first instances of mild homophobia (or you could even call it heteronormativity) came during orientation when we did a quick ‘speed meeting’ event with other first-time on-campus (FTOC) students. One of the Deans joked that it was exactly like speed dating, except that was not the case because “we were all the same gender.” Immediately, I was thrown off. Not even the first day… I texted Rina with the news. We quickly became one another’s ‘queer news of the week’ hotline. We had a lot of fun laughing together at ridiculous people.

During my second semester at Stern, I started becoming closer friends with queer people from that chat bit by bit. I had joined the board of the YU Pride Alliance, which was a foreign club to me at the time. More or less, I began making my place at YU. I got a student job at Cardozo Law School. I felt good about being at Stern.

When students received emails about applying to be resident advisors (RAs) for the next year, I honestly didn’t think twice about it. It was not something I considered… until I did. A friend in my political science class was an RA and happened to mention it once, and after that, I couldn’t stop hearing about it. Everyone I knew was applying, or considering it. To me, the biggest perk was the free housing. It would take 10k off my payment to Stern for the year. I didn’t receive any financial support from my parents regarding college and knew I would be paying off loans for a while after graduation. I decided to apply, honestly, mainly for that reason. There was a group interview, in which about 80 people showed up. I knew that they would really only call about 20-30 of those people for personal interviews, and hire even less. I felt like my chances were pretty poor. 

Somehow, I was called back for a personal interview. I texted our queer chat, asking if I should mention that I was a part of the Pride Alliance. Would housing immediately not hire me because I was part of a club that was actively suing the school? Would I get ‘diversity points?’ Would they be happy I felt comfortable sharing an important part of my identity with them? It seems silly, but I felt like if I didn’t tell them that I was queer I was lying to them about who I was, because I wanted to be out and assumed they would find out sooner or later. So, instead of randomly saying, “yeah I’m gay,” I said that I was on the board of the Pride Alliance which hinted to it, but didn’t openly say I was queer. For some reason, they hired me. I was actually so thrilled. From the group interview to the personal one, I had been hearing more and more about the position and felt genuinely excited about it. I ended up in Brookdale with two new roommates and a new start to my junior year. 

As an RA, we received sensitivity training during our RA orientation week. This training was mainly directed towards the sensitivity of LGBTQ individuals. They brought in Dr. Sara Glass, a licensed psychiatrist and the clinical director at Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), an organization outside Stern that I am involved with. She asked a few queer-related questions that I knew all the answers to, but I felt a bit silly answering all of them myself. I was in a room of 22 people that I didn’t know that well yet and did not want to only be known… for this. 

There ended up being an argument. Dr. Glass suggested that RA’s should make it known that we are allies/queer-friendly to our residents. A few ways she suggested one could do this were to put a safe space sticker or sign on your door, share your pronouns in group chats with residents, and/or use inclusive language (i.e. say partner instead of assuming boyfriend). These are all things I do with residents as well as everyone else. Yet an RA challenged Dr. Glass, asking what to do if someone was uncomfortable with sharing their pronouns or that type of language, saying they did not feel comfortable doing those types of things in case a resident didn’t like it. 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I stayed back afterward with Dr. Glass to officially introduce myself. When I mentioned the previous comment from the RA, Dr. Glass chuckled. She considered it to be more catering to the homophobic students, rather than helping the queer residents. I believed her answer to be a good point.

My junior year was more than eventful. I began planning basically all the events for the Pride Alliance. We had new leadership that year, and I wanted to make events happen with queer students. To me, one of the most important things about having the Pride Alliance was doing events and meetups where LGBTQ students could actually meet each other and talk. The queer chat (which is unaffiliated with the actual club) was great, but seeing a human face and having a new friend was even better. Over my two years as the head event planner for the Pride Alliance, I planned about 10-15 events where people got to meet up with each other for the first time. I created friendships and partnerships with the queer student body by doing this, and it is honestly one of my personal biggest achievements. 

In my senior year, I actually became the admin of said queer undergrad chat along with Manny Ehrlich. As admins, our job was to make sure everything seemed chill, that everyone in the chat was having a good time, and of course, interview new applicants for the chat. (If this chat is something you may be interested in, email I was able to find queer students in many ways that you wouldn’t expect, which is always fun. 

For example, as an RA, we help out with check-in for orientation at the beginning of each semester. I wear a baseball shirt that says ‘Res Life’ along with my lanyard with my ID around my neck. My lanyard is colored like a lesbian flag, but it is such a niche flag that really only queer people know it. I met two new queer students at orientation this way, who saw the flag, introduced themselves, and I got to induct new students into the mildly underground queer world at SCW. 

In my senior year (and my second year as an RA), I pushed for the same sensitivity training we had with Dr. Glass previously over and over again. For some reason, it kept getting pushed off. Eventually, midway through the year, all the RAs cozied into the back lounge of the 36 Street dorms to speak to Rabbi Penner, the founder of Kesher Families, “a non-profit focused on providing support to observant Jewish families with a loved one who identifies as LGBTQ+.” 

I will never understand why they had Dr. Glass come one year and then Rabbi Penner the next. Instead of giving us actual sensitivity training, Rabbi Penner told us that some of our residents ‘may be gay:’ a shocking revelation. The whole thing was so silly. I did not even feel comfortable enough to share that I was gay, which I normally would do in situations where queer people are ‘mentioned.’ I looked back at old notes – a few things that he said specifically were 1. He explained why gay people feel “the need” to share their sexuality with you 2. He said that most gay people are going to have to accept leading a non-Torah lifestyle 3. It makes sense to feel discomfort if you find out someone is gay, but you should get over that 4. Suggested that to be a halachic gay Jew, you have to practice abstinence or marry someone of the opposite gender. 

Rabbi Penner made me upset because it was clear that the housing team no longer cared about giving us actual LGBTQ sensitivity training when we clearly need it at this school. I spoke to a few fellow RAs about the talk, and some found it incredibly helpful, whereas others found it absolutely ridiculous. I sided with the latter. 

In my junior year, a graduate assistant (GA) suggested that I shouldn’t sit at the Pride Alliance table at the club fair as an RA. I wasn’t sure if it was an actual conflict of interest, but I decided to play it safe. However, in my senior year, I knew the housing team much better and did not care at all. I ended up half sitting at the Pride Alliance table and the YU on Broadway club table, which I was the president of this past year, both of which were vital parts of my YU experience. 

Another fundamental part of my time at YU was my days spent in my English classes. As an English major, we are able to ‘request’ class ideas from the department for classes they may offer for the following years. Throughout my junior year, I pushed for a queer literature class specifically. It was something offered in other schools, and I was really excited to take a class like that. I always felt much more comfortable with humanities teachers over religious classes, especially when it came to queer topics. In English classes, my professors spoke about gay themes in books casually, which we would debate and talk about. In my Judaic classes, things were a bit different. I once had a Rabbi compare gay sex to incest. My friend told me about a Judaic teacher who said, “There’s no such thing as a gay Jew who really wants to be Jewish,” as if being gay is a choice. While having a conversation with my friend Avery Allen, the amazing president of the Pride Alliance, we came to the realization that the main issue is: most professors speak to students about the ‘gay issue’ as if there are no actual queer students present. But I promise you, we are more than likely always there. 

I met with Professor Nachumi multiple times about the idea of a queer literature class. We decided that we wouldn’t call it ‘queer lit,’ out of concern that it would turn away potential students and possibly out queer students who might want to take it and couldn’t have the class on their transcript or show their parents. Professor O’Malley, an English professor who ended up teaching the class, decided on the name Literature and Identity. Lit and ID is probably my favorite class I have ever taken at Stern. We honestly had so much fun and read some really cool books. I felt so proud that the English department had taken my suggestion, spoken to me to clarify, and created the exact class that I had wanted. 

While the English department did an incredible job creating a space of acceptance and open conversation, other administrations of YU did not. For example, Kol Yisrael Arevim (KYA) was a huge mess that kind of threw the Pride Alliance and queer students for a loop. It was a “club” the school had created to help with the lawsuit: look, we do have a queer club! YU pushed it forward without really talking to any actual queer students. I did not like the incentive at all, but a few of my queer friends saw it as a ‘blank slate,’ an opportunity to maybe actually create a possible actual student-run club under this umbrella that the school had created. I kind of ended up being right, when all the actual efforts to do events under KYA were mostly shut down, and the club was spearheaded by an orthodox Rabbi, who more or less got to make all the decisions for it. The leadership of KYA (the rabbis, mainly) didn’t seem to want so-to-speak “gay” events, they just wanted community events where they could potentially talk about the existence of gay people. In my opinion, the incentive failed.

Avery was giving a speech in our class regarding the Pride Alliance, and did a poll in our queer group chat about it. The poll asked if as a student at YU, you had experienced homophobia or transphobia from fellow students and/or teachers. Out of the small selection of queer students in that chat, all of them said they had experienced homophobia from both students and professors. 

One of the biggest questions I receive from my friends who are not in YU is: why in the world are you at Stern. Why would you choose to go to a college already known for its prejudice against you? Initially, my reason was because they offered me more money than any other college I considered. However, as I continued my time here, I slowly found a crack in the wall, a space that continued to open until I could fit comfortably. Even though other LGBTQ students and I face issues, the professors and friends I found celebrated me because they too wanted that crack in the wall – these students that could help lead towards positive change.

I am about to graduate and I loved Stern. I am proud that I was able to make a difference in the queer community, and overall in YU in general. I know future generations will do even better than I did. My ability to be an RA, help the Pride Alliance, connect queer students to each other, and find friends I will have forever, is exactly what I needed from my university experience. 

For everyone reading this, I just hope you can remember that words matter. With these issues still facing YU, we have to remember that people are people, and everyone deserves love and acceptance. Gay people are at YU. We are important, and we are fighting every day for ourselves and for everyone to be at a college that we can love and be proud of. I am a lesbian. And I too, am YU.