From ‘Orlando’ to ‘Luna’: Robyn Relyea ’22 Researches LGBTQ+ Characters

The junior used a Field Period® experience to learn how representation of LGBTQ+ characters has evolved in literature.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A hallmark of a Keuka College education is the annual Field Period® experience, and like many College opportunities, it changed during the coronavirus pandemic. The College currently encourages students to complete project-based Field Period® stints at home, rather than working in-person at an organization.

Students still design their own learning and development opportunities. And they still expand their education by creating a tangible project using outside learning components.

For Robyn Relyea ’22, who uses they/them personal pronouns, that meant spending the summer reading. And they couldn’t have been happier. 

“My original plan was to do a creative writing-based Field Period® but my advisor, [Professor Emerita] Dr. Anne Weed, suggested I do a research-based Field Period® on something I’m passionate about,” says Robyn, a Hornell resident.

As an active member of their local LGBTQ+ community and an English major, Robyn decided researching LGBTQ+ representation in literature would make an ideal Field Period® project. They were specifically interested in how the roles of LGBTQ+ characters have been portrayed throughout history.

Unsure which books to read, Robyn turned to Dr. Weed, who suggested “Orlando: A Biography” by Virginia Woolf, published in 1928, “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin (1956), “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker (1982), “Andre’s Mother” by Terrence McNally (1988), and “Luna” by Julie Ann Peters (2004). Robyn analyzed each book, along with three articles on LGBTQ+ cultural history, among other program requirements.

“I had never read any of these, but was excited to read each one,” says Robyn. “My main goals were mostly to see how these books all related to one another, and how representation of LGBTQ+ characters have evolved in literature over many years.”

Robyn says that for the LGBTQ+ community, it always comes down to gender.

“Being transgender, such as in ‘Luna’ and in ‘Orlando,’ is literally about transitioning into a gender that you were not born with,” says Robyn. “And when it comes to sexuality, like in the other three writings, it’s about whom you are attracted to and who you love based on gender.”

Of all the books, Robyn says “Orlando” was their favorite.

“It wasn’t necessarily LGBTQ+ related, but in a way, it was coded with its themes of gender transformation and gender roles. It was a wild story and just a fun read all around,” says Robyn, adding that the novel set a precedent for what LGBTQ+ characters could be.

“Not only was it written in 1928, but it used themes that weren’t really seen in that time period—such as feminism—and what would now be seen as LGBTQ+ themes,” they say. “After Orlando turns into a woman, not only was she virtually unfazed, she took on this new identity like she knew what she was doing her whole life. She also really enjoys being a woman, becomes attracted to men, and uses her new womanhood to her advantage whenever she can.”

Robyn discovered the novels have not only LGBTQ+ characters in common, but themes of love.

“Love is important when it came to these readings because much of what kept these characters chugging was love,” says Robyn. “For Luna, it was her sister; David, it was Giovanni; Celie, it was Shug and her family across seas; Andre’s story was the lack of love, and Orlando was in search of it.”

The Field Period® had a personal meaning for Robyn, who identifies as gay ace (one definition of asexuality) and nonbinary. They believe they were able to relate to these characters on both an emotional and experiential level.

On a separate level, the Field Period® confirmed Robyn’s career aspirations.

“My future career goals are to become an author. I’m currently working on a coming-out anthology and I have a children’s book idea,” says Robyn. “This Field Period® helped me realize that I really want to focus my writings on LGBTQ+ themes because I feel we are an underrepresented community.”

Robyn will have a chance to read more LGBTQ+ narratives as a student in Keuka College’s newest elective—a course focusing on Queer literature that will be offered in the Spring 2021 semester.  

Taught by Dr. Brandon Barile ’05, instructor of communication studies and English, the course will dig deeply into novels, poetry, non-fiction, dramas, television, and film for contributions to LGBTQ+ lives, including the systemic reinforcement of normative—and often harmful—gender(ed) roles.