Rin Abernathy ’13
Hometown: Columbia, TN
Spend two minutes in a room with Rin Abernathy, and your first impression of her may look something like this: academic, activist, English major, bibliophile, writer, and red-head. In another ten, you might discover that she’s also marvelously cheeky, makes jokes about Althusser’s methods of reproduction, and is perhaps the only American who knows all the German lyrics to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but not their English counterparts. Within the walls of Rhodes College, however, she’s best known for her former weekly column in the campus newspaper, the Sou’wester: “The Sassy Lesbian.”
Anyone who has read Rin’s front-page opinion piece—and it’s safe to say most Rhodes students have—can tell you that while the “sassy lesbian” tone is fun and flippant, she’s not afraid to push against the boundaries of heteronormativity, to ask her audience to think more deeply about the instances of “casual” sexism, homophobia and genderphobia they encounter every day.
Rin considers her writing for the newspaper to be a form of activism. Even when the column’s content is less politically charged, it reminds students that there is a proud LGBT community on campus. And it sends a positive message to prospective students about the kind of environment Rhodes tries to foster for those who belong to a sexual or gendered minority. “I like the idea that a visiting student, who might be LGBT, could see that there’s someone at this school who’s not worried about putting her name on the front of the paper as the ‘sassy lesbian,’” she says. “And that’s the most rewarding thing.”
Rin’s concern for LGBT students and her interest in LGBT issues permeates both her academic studies and extracurricular commitments. Since September 2010 she has been a member of the LGBT Working Group, a small organization of students and faculty/staff that addresses LGBT issues within the Rhodes community, such as the college’s Diversity Code, discrimination policies, and housing options. As the former secretary and current co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), she works to establish a safe and supportive space for all students to discuss sexual and gendered identity. Last semester the group threw a “Prom for All,” complete with a rainbow balloon arch and ballroom full of students dancing with whomever they chose.
“I want to help people feel comfortable with their personal identities,” Rin explains. “And that’s something I like exploring in my academic life as well: the way literature helps define your personal identity, especially with regard to gender and sexuality.” In line with this interest, Rin has co-founded a literary journal of fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction that will focus on issues of diversity. Titled Perspectives, the journal “seeks literature that questions how we see ourselves, how society sees us, and where these paths cross over and intersect.”
Although Rin focuses on the benefits of being the “sassy lesbian,” she is aware of the strings attached to her column’s provocative title. Students have recognized her by her ink-and-paper name ever since she started writing for the Sou’wester. Case in point: last year, shortly after she joined the newspaper’s staff, Rin took a trip to Gibson’s Donuts (a local hangout, popular with the college crowd for its late night discounts). “It was just after eleven o’clock, when they have the really cheap ones, and you get like five dozen donuts for a penny,” she recalls. “I was there with my roommate, and she was talking to a fellow member of the track team. After she introduces me, one guy yells, ‘Hey! You’re the Sassy Lesbian!’ And I just say, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I am.’”
“Most of the time I forget that I’m the Sassy Lesbian,” says Rin, “because that’s not the main way I think about myself. I know that the work I do for queer kids is really important, and that’s why I like being out—and very vocal about it—on campus. But I believe you can be really passionate about your service without letting it be the sole thing that defines you.”