At Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr college, photographer Alina van Ryzin explores sexuality and gender identity
Of all the historic Seven Sister Colleges, only five remain single-sex, including Bryn Mawr College, its gothic campus nestled in an opulent Philadelphia suburb. Founded in 1885 as a Quaker institution, the prestigious institution quickly became known for its support of the LGBTQ community under the leadership of its second President, M. Carey Thomas, who held the reigns from 1894-1922.
A staunch feminist long before it was in vogue, Thomas was a leading member of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and an early proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment – which still has not passed the US Senate. More than a century ago, Thomas thumbed her nose at convention, openly maintaining a relationship with Mamie Gwinn, who lived with her on campus at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal. “Only our failures marry,” Thomas famously quipped in a speech to Bryn Mawr graduates.
But Thomas, like so many suffragettes, used her power to advance the cause of white supremacy. In 1916, Thomas gave a speech to the freshman class so that her position on the matter was clear: “If the present intellectual supremacy of the white race is maintained, as I hope that it will be for centuries to come, I believe it will be because they are the only race that has seriously begun to educate their women.”
Although Thomas was far from unique in this regard, her legacy would be imprinted on the school for better and for worse. Native New Yorker, Alina van Ryzin would discover for herself when she enrolled in Bryn Mawr in 2013 as a genderfluid Latinx coming-of-age in an environment very different from the one in which she was raised.
“Growing up, I felt pretty white because of my parents and the kind of home I came from; it didn’t matter how I looked in New York public school,” van Ryzin says. “Then I got to Bryn Mawr and people asked me, ‘What are you?’ People were so strict about pronouns and assumptions about women – but it was all about gender and sexuality but none of it was about race. You would get a lot of social scrutiny for saying one thing and then in the next, someone would ask, ‘What race are you?’”
Van Ryzin recounts the moment during her junior year when someone displayed a Confederate flag in the dorm and refused to take it down. “I had never come across Southern Pride before and that’s what the girl argued for; it became a big deal on campus with protests happening. The school didn’t intervene for a long time. Eventually, it got big and the President stepped in and made a statement that it was not okay.”
While the issue of race gave van Ryzin a critical distance to examine her experiences in the school, the subjects of gender and sexuality forced her to confront elements of her own identity that she kept hidden for years. “I had been in the closet my whole life,” van Ryzin says, noting some members of her mother’s side of the family were conservative Cuban Catholics who believed being gay was a sin. “On the other side, my dad’s father was gay and died of Aids before I was born,” she reveals. “Nobody told me this. It was just this weird secret even though they were for gay rights. I was like, ‘Oh no what if my dad has a gay dad and a gay daughter?’”
Though can Ryzin tried to repress her feelings, they would arise without her consent, taking the form of intrusive thoughts. “In ninth grade one of my good friends was really touchy-feely and would hold my hand,” she says. “It used to make my heart beat so fast and I knew. I was like, ‘Shit she is going to be able to tell? This is so obvious!’ Then her mom was a therapist and one time she said, “Oh I don’t know, my Gaydar doesn’t really go off:’ I was like, ‘Gaydar!? She’s going to know I’m in love with her daughter!’”
“It was hard to be in denial, like ‘I’m taking this secret to the grave’ while being in a space that was so accepting” – Alina van Ryzin
In her senior year of high school, van Ryzin began dating a boy and felt a profound sense of relief. Then she arrived at Bryn Mawr where she saw lesbians living their best lives. “At first it made me uncomfortable; it was making me think about things I pushed to the back of my head for years. There were still ‘boys,’ but it was the (butch) lesbians hanging outside Radnor, the party dorm. I started developing a lot of crushes, hanging out with people, and getting freaked out like, ‘I can’t do it, I’m not gay!’” van Ryzin says. “I had these feelings in middle and high school and had to face them again. It felt frustrating sometimes, like, ‘Why can’t I just do it? Why can’t I just come out?’ Seeing so many people were out and doing things I wanted to do so bad but couldn’t. It was hard to be in denial, like ‘I’m taking this secret to the grave’ while being in a space that was so accepting.”
Then, at her lowest point, van Ryzin found photography and everything changed. “I really got into making the pictures when I was at my most sad. There would be people I would see who were so beautiful and I was like, ‘I’m going to take your picture.’ In the beginning, I would stage a lot of scenarios where I could explore the photographer’s relationship with the woman. I could create this fantasy relationship I wish I could have lived out. The pictures were letting me actively have thoughts instead of intrusively. Photography made it safe because I was like, ‘These thoughts are about the picture.’ Letting myself have those fantasies helped me to eventually come out.”
The photographs, now collected for the first time in the forthcoming book Bryn Mawr (Kris Graves Projects) are a lush portrait of love, desire, pleasure, and joy, beautifully capturing the exquisite mix of innocence and knowing that makes late adolescence a magnificent space for the daring adventure of discovering one’s true self. Bryn Mawr, the school and the book, provided the perfect space for van Ryzin to discover both her sexuality and her gender identity.
“As a little girl, I was always a tomboy, dressing in boys’ clothes. I was really strong and hairy. I didn’t feel very feminine.,” van Ryzin explains, “At Bryn Mawr, I went back into the tomboy phase and then I would have friends who would treat me like a boy or joke that I was a boyfriend to them and I loved it. I started dating a woman at the end of my fourth year. She is really butch. When we started dating, I tried to play up the feminine. The more we dated, the more she opened up her feminine side and I opened up my masculine side. Now we’re three years together and both dress like boys sometimes. Sometimes we switch it up. It’s become much more playful. For a long time, I felt like I had to choose one or the other, butch or femme, and you don’t have to. That was a really liberating thing to realise.”
But the final source of freedom may have actually been the most surprising of them all. Ryzin, the daughter of a college professor, was on the verge of failing out of school after spending all her time in the darkroom working on the earliest iteration of this book. When an advisor suggested she switch her major to photography in order to finish school, van Ryzin remembers thinking, “‘Oh my god I can’t do that! I have to be practical.’ It was a hard thing to admit to my family. I always joke: First I came out as an artist, then I came out as gay!”
Bryn Mawr is published by Kris Graves Projects in May 2020, preorder here