Tristen Shay interviewed by Ree Robson
November 22, 2019
Tristen Shay is a 2004 Art History and Gender Studies Whitman alumni who, at the time of the interview, used multiple pronouns including they/them/theirs and he/him/his. Coming to Whitman from a small rural community near Albany, Oregon, they remembered standing out as an obviously gender non-conforming individual. Shay quickly became involved in Whitman’s LGBTQ+ community, as president of Coalition Against Homophobia, the LGBTQ+ activism group on campus. Besides his leadership in Coalition, Shay was also an RA, an active member of Shalom, and they worked in Whitman’s alumni relations office. Shay and a close friend actually decided to become Gender Studies majors together, and their outline for the independently planned major that they shared became the basis of the official Gender Studies department major a couple years later. At the time of the interview, Shay worked at Oregon State University as the head of liberal arts advising and lived with his partner and child.
In this interview, Tristen Shay ‘04 (who uses multiple sets of pronouns including them/them/theirs and he/him/his) discusses how their childhood in a small rural, and homophobic town shaped their personality and experience of college. Due to growing up under threat of potential violence, as a visibly queer person, Shay learned to be confrontational and confident in order to convince people to leave him alone. He then found Whitman a much more accepting and safe place, although acknowledges that this was relative and not true for everyone at Whitman. Their attitude quickly made them a leader in the Whitman LGBTQ+ community and Coalition Against Homophobia, especially as one of the few out people on campus. Thinking back on LGBTQ+ activism at Whitman, Shay notes that it was mostly about having fun and making queer life visible on campus, with events like drag shows and dance parties. One event that he particularly remembered was bringing Leslie Feinburg as a speaker to campus and getting to talk with zie. Around halfway through the interview, Shay discusses the emotional labor that being a community activist required, and how they were willing to do it at the time, but now recognizes the pressure that was put on them and other queer students. In remembering their life at Whitman, Shay comments that it was surprising to him how accepted and supported he was at Whitman, despite standing out as openly queer. In the later half of the interview, Shay also shares the story of him and his friend helping to found the Gender Studies major by creating a shared independently planned major in the department with the support of Professor Robert Tobin. Throughout the entire interview, Shay talks about their journey of self discovery in both sexuality and gender identity after living their whole life as a gender non-conforming person, from a realization that being gay was possible and not identifying as trans due to assumptions made about how trans identity should be experienced to more recently deciding to come out as a trans man.
1 digital audio recording: 02:04:12
Whitman College and Northwest Archives, Whitman College LGBTQ+ Oral History Project Recordings and Transcripts, WCA159
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