Katie Barnes ’13 is distinguished.
That’s what St. Olaf College thinks. Katie was awarded the “Distinguished Senior in Student Leadership” award from the college last Wednesday in recognition of the amazing things she’s accomplished as a coordinator for the student organization GLOW! (Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever!), among other achievements.
“I’m honored,” she says as I sit down to chat with her before Gender Bent on Thursday night. The show, hosted by GLOW!, highlighted men and women of various sexual and gender orientations performing in non-traditional musical roles (for example, a large chorus of men performed a rousing rendition of “Big Spender” from the musical Sweet Charity). It is just one of countless outstanding events that GLOW! has been responsible for in the past few years, including Drag Ball, Pride Week and numerous panels and speakers. A large number of these events have been successful because of the many hours Katie has devoted to the organization (for the majority of her experience at Olaf, she’s survived on minimal hours of sleep, waking up anytime between 4 and 6 a.m.). Still, Katie remains down-to-earth, humbled by the larger community that she works with.
“It’s impossible for me to win an award without honoring that a) I’m gay and that b) I’ve had unbelievable connections and conversations with the LGBTQ community both here and throughout the state,” she says. “I hope I can sincerely convey that the community shares these awards with me.”
Katie says “awards” (plural) because St. Olaf has not been the only organization to recognize her hard work. She also recently received the “Voice in Action National Leadership Award” from Campus Pride, a national organization that works to lift LGBTQ voices on campuses nationwide. The award will bring a notable speaker of Katie’s choice to campus, all expenses paid, in 2013. It is interesting to note that this speaker will come to campus after Katie has graduated and moved on to Miami University in Ohio (where she is pursuing a M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education). If that doesn’t show commitment to the St. Olaf LGBTQ community, nothing does.
This growth of this community, in particular, is what Katie is most proud of during her time as a coordinator for GLOW!. While she still feels the community has a long way to go in terms of finding institutional support (she feels that some of GLOW!’s work has been censored on an administrative level), Katie is ultimately overwhelmed by the personal community that has emerged for LGBTQ students. “I had no queer friends during my first year, couldn’t have named you a single lady that identified as anything other than straight,” she says. “Now I can walk into Fireside on almost any given day around 3 and there’s a whole group of us willing to sit and talk. It’s not just that queer people know each other, it’s that we’ve found power from the community. People feel safe and affirmed.”
Katie’s own growth within the LGBTQ community, and within the wider St. Olaf community, has taken a bit of a winding path. Katie attended a high school at a prestigious boarding school located in her hometown of Culver, Indiana. Both of her parents were educators. “Because of my parents, working in education was something I’d vowed to never do,” she says, laughing. “And here I am, about to pursue a higher degree in it, because I’ve realized that’s what I’ve where been successful here and that’s what I love. My mother thinks it’s hilarious.”
In high school, Katie played within the realms of what was considered “normal” by her peers. She attended weekly Protestant services, was a high-achieving academic student, founded and coordinated her school’s Relay for Life Team (which became the top-grossing high school for fundraising) and played point-guard on the school’s basketball team (she’s still a big basketball fan, and filled out 10 brackets this year). “I even wore a kilt every day,” she says. “With a blazer and a camel peacoat! By default, I had to put my more ‘butch’ self on hold.”
Her own sexuality was a bit more ambiguous. Katie is very open to admitting that she frequently wrote (and continues to write) online fan fiction about characters in the television drama Grey’s Anatomy. While online, Katie met and fell in love with a young woman, and they began dating. “I still didn’t consider myself gay, or even bi,” she says. “I just figured I was going to marry this girl and so my sexuality didn’t really matter. After all, I had dated boys. I still think guys are beautiful. I’ve just come to recognize that I am pan-aesthetic [physically attracted] to all genders, but that I’m only sexually attracted to women.” Katie originally decided to label her sexuality as lesbian because she figured that’s how society would label her if she married a woman, not because she believed she actually was. It was only after more self-reflection that she came to realize that she actually felt quite comfortable under the label.
Katie’s internal struggle led her to her first GLOW! meeting during her first year at St. Olaf. Even though she wasn’t quite sure where she fit within the community, she applied to live in the GLOW! honor house under the prompt of her close friend Brian Walpole ’13 (who also currently serves as a GLOW! coordinator). “I really started to explore who I was and learned a lot of the language,” she says. “I didn’t know how to speak like a queer person, and living in the house and having those deep conversations taught me so much.” After her sophomore year, she ended up running for a coordinator position within the organization, and the rest is distinguished history. Katie and her co-coordinators developed and implemented a strong vision for the LGBTQ community at St. Olaf, creating a safe and welcoming environment across campus for students of all sexual and gender orientations.
But don’t for a minute believe that this alone makes Katie distinguished. “There’s a perception that I don’t do anything but be gay,” she says, laughing. “While that’s true, I also watch How I Met Your Mother on a frequent basis, watch football and make jokes all the time. I’m overtly attached to my phone, and I struggle with my addiction to Diet Mountain Dew on a daily basis.” Additionally, Katie juggles a triple major in history, Russian area studies and American studies and a concentration in women and gender studies. She served as President for the student organization Oles for Justice in Palestine, has been heavily involved with the St. Olaf Gender and Sexuality Center, works for the admissions office and has coached basketball off-campus to Northfield youth for the past three years.
“No matter how busy you think you are, you are not that busy,” Katie says. “Busy is something we say to make ourselves feel productive, but I find I’m never too busy to help another Ole, listen to a coming-out story. I think sometimes at Olaf we get caught up in a façade of busy-ness.”
As she reflects back on the time and energy she has devoted to St. Olaf’s campus, both inside and outside of her work, Katie points to all of these causes as the prime reason for why she feels so “distinguished” as an individual today.
“For me, each of the things I do serves an important purpose in my life,” she says. “I choose to spend my precious time surrounded by people who love and support me, and they help me through my stress. To me, it is these people that I hold most valuable. They’ve led me to become who I am today. You just can’t get over a thing like that.”
All photos are provided by Katie, with permission.