Harvard Law Students Carve Out Space for Queer Crushes

Queer Happy HourSejal Singh and Heather Lynn Pickerell. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Heather Lynn Pickerell and Sejal Singh stood with drinks in hand, surrounded by friends and strangers, at Russell House Tavern in late October. The two Harvard law students had invited some of their new classmates to their inaugural “Queer Crush Happy Hour”—an evening for queer women and transgender and non- binary folks.

With booze flowing, the group of individuals, couples, and friends chatted away for hours about law school, about Harry Potter, about anything and everything that came to mind.

While Singh and Pickerell knew almost all of the 35 people who came through at the first happy hour, they’re encouraging attendees to bring “friends and lovers” to expand the happy hour’s reach. The duo plans to hold the happy hour monthly, each time at a different bar in Cambridge or Somerville.

“We just want people to be able to come, chill, get a drink, and vent with people who share their experiences,” Singh says.

The idea for the happy hour stemmed from an expedition to a popular gay club in downtown Boston. Singh says the experience was fun, but “it was very, very obvious that there were like seven women there. And they were all with our group.”

Tanekwah Hinds, the women’s health program coordinator at Fenway Health, a Boston community health center focused on the LGBTQ+ community, agreed based on her own experiences and those she’s heard about from other queer women.

“In male and masculine spaces, from what I’ve observed specifically within the LGBTQ community, is that misogyny and sexism manifests in different ways,” Hinds says, explaining that in predominantly masculine spaces she has had to deal with invasions of her space and comments about women’s bodies.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Health, women are more likely to have anxiety and mood disorders than men. Looking at the numbers for mood disorders in queer women—44 percent of lesbians and 59 percent of bisexual women, in contrast to 42 percent of gay men and 37 percent of bisexual men—Hinds says it’s obvious there is “a gender gap that folks aren’t addressing.”

The Power of Community

Groups for members of marginalized identities can be incredibly beneficial to individuals, according to Jane Powers, the director of behavioral health at Fenway Health. From a mental health perspective, she says events like Singh and Pickerell’s happy hour can greatly help those feeling isolated due to their sexuality.

“Clinically, we are often recommending that people find social relationships that support their being authentic and whole people,” says Powers, a licensed social worker. While some people may prefer an affirming hiking group or a faith community to a happy hour, the important part is finding a sense of community, she says.

Singh, who is from New York and lived in Washington, D.C., was surprised by the total lack of lesbian bars and similar spaces when she moved for school.

“I was taken aback by how little space there is for queer women in this city, or at least that I was aware of as a newcomer,” Singh says. “We’re the kind of people who, if something that we want doesn’t exist in the world, we like to go do something about that.”

Both Singh and Pickerell are in their first year of law school and plan to pursue careers in civil rights law. Singh says she wants to focus on “fighting discrimination against women and girls, especially women and girls of color.” Pickerell would like to work for the American Civil Liberties Union or the Department of Justice.

Pickerell says that because she and Singh share a perspective that few others have, they can vent to each other about topics or comments in their studies that others might not relate to or understand.

Singh and Pickerell first met at an event for LGBTQ+ Asians in D.C. soon after they’d both been accepted to Harvard.

Pickerell said her most meaningful experience at the first happy hour was talking with a few other queer Asian women and cracking “Ali Wong-type” jokes about their experiences together.

“I think complex identities are important,” she says. “Being queer and Asian are inextricable to me.”

Hinds says that being mindful of and embracing complex identities is integral to creating programming for queer people.

“Once you enter a space that validates [your identity], whether it’s a bar, whether it’s a workshop, I think that that’s really important because it allows you to feel validated in your narrative and it kind of brings you closer to folks who have had similar experiences,” Hinds explains.

Powers says that while some queer people enjoy a “mixed” space, many will tend toward a group of people like them, in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

“It can feel particularly affirming to find [a role model] who is reflective of their lived experience,” Powers says.

Striving for Inclusivity

Pickerell and Singh wrote on their Facebook event that the happy hour was for “a lady who likes ladies” and those who are “trans/NB.” They explain the language surrounding gender was meant to make it clear that all are welcome.

“Our goal is to be very intentional and very upfront about the kind of space that we’re trying to create,” Singh explains. “One thing to be mindful of when you run these events is, you know, I’m not going to police somebody’s gender identity when they show up. I’ve had friends who are trans women tell me that they felt [events for queer women] were exclusionary because they felt that their gender presentation wasn’t femme enough or that they hadn’t physically transitioned enough. That’s why we very explicitly said anybody can come. It’s all about hanging out, chilling with our friends, trying to be supportive of one another.”

Pickerell says she felt marginalized at her previous job, as the only woman in a “pretty male, pretty white, pretty old” LGBT forum board. She took ownership of an event for queer women, publicizing it and making it her own. She then got an email from a transgender friend and colleague, talking about how her event, in trying to address her own marginalization, had made him feel excluded.

“That was a hard thing to hear at the time, but upon retrospect, I’m really glad he told me that,” Pickerell says. “That informed our inclusion in this event and every other aspect of my life. That philosophy has to apply not just to hanging out at happy hours, but standing up for your friends, your allies, and the people in your community every time that it’s necessary.”

Hinds says creating inclusive spaces for transgender people should be a focus when planning an event for queer folks.

“Thinking about the layer of transphobia and how they face it not only in the straight, cis world, but also within the queer community too is really important,” Hinds says.

Pickerell and Singh agreed that while the happy hour can provide a romantic space for people to meet each other, it runs deeper than a singles event.

“If beautiful relationships start at our happy hour, I will be very proud,” Singh says. “But I also really think it is more about personal community and friendship and family.”

Missing Spaces

The complete lack of dyke bars in the Greater Boston area is not an isolated phenomenon. Singh and Pickerell recalled their hunt for bars and clubs in other cities, but most of the time, they resorted to dyke nights that “invaded” straight or predominantly male gay bars.

Powers says it’s a “particularly interesting time in our culture and society” to talk about the queer community carving out spaces in bars.

“When I was coming out, many years ago,” she said with a laugh, “there were a lot of lesbian bars in Boston—and gay bars, in general, and mixed bars—that catered to queer-identified people. I think that for people who identified as not straight—whatever language they might have used—it was so important to have a space that was defined as safe and welcoming and affirming.”

Singh sees the happy hour as a continuation of the legacy of queer women before her.

“It’s not just nightlife for queer people,” Singh explains. “For so long, clubs and bars were the only places where queer people could be open about themselves, and in some ways that is still true. It is certainly on the heart of the queer community to see the dyke bars dying. It feels like we are losing a huge part of our history. I’m just not willing to do nothing while that happens.”

This story originally appeared in the The Wellness Issue issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Scout on Patreon!