When I wrote the “History of Coming-Out Week Chalkings” article in the fall, I was gratified to receive an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. Many people also shared additional stories with me, stories that I felt a responsibility to share with the larger community.
In this article, I’ve expanded beyond chalkings and counter-chalkings to explore as much of Swarthmore’s queer history as I could track down, trying to document both the good and the bad of our past.
Any un-attributed facts come from either The Phoenix archives, the Daily Gazette archives, or the Sager Committee archives, which are located in the Friends Historical Library.
—-1970s: THE EARLY YEARS—-
Richard Sager ’74 was not yet out to himself when he was a student at Swarthmore, but he recalls that there wasn’t a visible queer community. “The only memories I have are that every so many months there’d be a flyer about a gay student meeting off campus at somebody’s house–I never knew anybody who went to them.”
A few years later, Pieter Judson ’78 recalls a community that was much the same. “It’s hard for people now to understand how hard it was for queer students to be out in college… even if it wasn’t threatening, it was so against the common presumption that you were making a huge statement about yourself at eighteen years old.” He remembers that the queer organization, called “Gay Liberation,” was “anonymous, private, and undercover… they were about serving their own members, not outreach.”
Judson himself only began attending meetings his senior year. “I was in the process of coming out to myself… I was aware of what was going on but didn’t want to be openly involved.” Once he attended, he found that the group “was all about sexual liberation and questioning social conventions… there was a sense of a radical questioning potential in queer identity.”
Judson did say that “there was a strong and self-conscious feminist group,” which included many queer women. Although the group was a strong campus presence, it also kept itself separate, living in Worth and “going their own way.” These women were doing something quite impressive for the time, since “gender was not really a category of analysis… if you brought up women in class people would stare at you.”
—-CONSERVATIVE ATTITUDES ROCKED BY AIDS—-
The 1980s saw the formation of the Gay and Lesbian Union and the Bisexual and Questioning Circle, which merged in 1986. However, Judson described queer culture at Swarthmore as “conservative” in the 1980s, a statement borne out by an investigation into The Phoenix archives.
On March 1, 1985, The Phoenix published an article about students petitioning to add a clause protecting “sexual orientation and affectional preference” to the college’s non-discrimination statement. A question-and-answer panel about the clause “exploded when one student asked whether or not the wording ‘sexual orientation and affectional preference’ instead of simply ‘gay and lesbian’ opened the door to the possibility of protecting those practicing bestiality and pedophilia.” One of the student supporters replied that “homosexuality had nothing to do with child molestation… and said he was offended by the underlying assumptions behind such a question.” The administration wasn’t worried about bestiality, and the non-discrimination clause was added in 1986.
AIDS became the dominant queer issue across the country in the 1980s. As Judson said, “AIDS forced America to confront the existence of queer people.” Swarthmore tried to educate its community about AIDS, bringing in various speakers and providing information through Worth, but the campus was struggling with the idea of the disease and also with accepting its queer community.
An April 4, 1985 editorial titled “If the Shoe Fits” showed the more progressive side of Swarthmore opinion with an interview between a TV talk show host and a deviant heterosexual. “What is your reaction to charges that the promiscuity of heterosexuals is threatening the general population by spreading the deadly Herpes-V virus?” asked the host, and the heterosexual replied, “I’d say, wake up and smell the coffee, folks. Herpes-V is not a heterosexual disease– we just got it first. You nice morally upstanding homosexuals are getting it no, mostly through your hookers and hustlers, not through the blood supply like you are always hollering about.”
But not all students had such an enlightened attitude. On November 1, 1985, The Phoenix published a story titled “AIDS Series Continues” which contained the following paragraph: “Perhaps the most bizarre thought to emerge from the lecture came in the question-answer session, when a student asked whether beating up gay people might be a way to catch AIDS. Supposedly, if one to were assault a gay person who happened to be infected, blood from the person could infect the attacker. Uitert concurred that this could indeed happen, especially if the attacking fists were scraped up, though repeated exposure is probably required for infection.
Another indication of campus attitude can be seen in a March 6, 1986 letter to the editor titled “Stop Harassment of Gays and Lesbians at Swat.” The queer female who wrote the editorial compared her experience at a GLBT conference at Brown to her experience at Swarthmore. “At a Sharples dinner we sat in a booth and someone from the outside threw a tomato at our window. On this campus, we have had bottles thrown at us, books stolen, our belongings and bulletin board vandalized. On Monday night a friend found ‘faggots go home’ written on his notebook in the library.”
German Professor Eugene Weber died on July 15, 1986 of AIDS-related complications. He was a beloved figure on campus; The Phoenix’s article announcing his death quoted students and faculty on his “exuberant teaching style,” his “constant roars of laughter,” and his “fascination with German culture.” One faculty member stated that his shoes would be “impossible to fill.” Judson described Weber’s death as “really horrifying… he was a role model to me.”
In order to commemorate Weber’s legacy, Swarthmore created a panel for the AIDS Quilt, which can be seen in the picture above. The center is a scene from “Adriane auf Naxos,” an opera by Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The bottom banner reads: “The sun is setting, soon the stars will be shining–oh, if only you were here!” This is a quote from “Naehe des Geliebten” by Goethe. Around the edge are the prepositions that take the dative case in German.
Many of the people I spoke to suggested that this tragic event played a large role in increasing AIDS awareness on campus. One student wrote a thoughtful editorial inspired by Weber’s death in The Phoenix, encouraging Swarthmore students to educate themselves about the disease. “AIDS hasn’t killed as many heterosexuals as homosexuals. At least, not yet. Only a fool–the sort of fool nature soon dispatches–would dismiss the disease as a homosexual problem.”
—-THE SAGER LEGACY AND THE INTERCULTURAL CENTER—-
In the late 1980s Richard Sager started to think about estate planning and what his legacy was going to be. “I thought, I’m not rich but if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what happens?” While he considered leaving money to one of the queer organizations in his hometown of San Diego, “the money would be gone in a week.” Swarthmore, on the other hand, “has a great history of managing its endowment… we all want a legacy, and so I called Ken Landis, who was the Vice President of Development at that time.”
At first Landis tried to convince Sager to leave an unrestricted endowment, but when he explained that he wanted to do something for the queer presence on campus, “he came back with a proposal for a specific fund… I came and visited the campus, people were excited, it was amazing.”
Sager had promised to leave money to an endowment when he died, but he wanted to see how his idea for a fund would work out while he was still around. “I said to Ken, ‘What if I made a donation to see how it might operate?’ and he said ‘Let’s see.’ I wrote a $5000 check, then Dean Janet Dickerson pulled together a committee, and they decided to do a symposium.”
Sager has continued to donate to the fund every year, and the Sager Committee has increased their budget in order to put on the symposium through applying for departmental and other college funds.
Moskos recalled that “when Sager first started, I think faculty were heavily invested in it… with the symposium there was finally sort of a queer presence on campus, it was one of the first of its kind in the country.” He continued, “at the beginning the committee was based in the Dean’s Office,” he said, “but the faculty and staff became so involved that we said we’re going to take it over ourselves… all we got was support.”
Professor Allen Kuharski arrived in January 1990 to help launch the fledgling Theater Department. “I was very excited to come to Swarthmore because I had heard that it already had a non-discrimination policy, I had heard about the lengendary Kaori Kitao [an art history professor who transitioned while at Swarthmore], who was an icon of Swarthmore’s hipness about these issues, and I had been in touch with Swat alums who were gay who had told me about the place… the Quaker history of inclusion was also very appealing to me.”
Kuharski continued, “It was a funny coincidence… there was one out lesbian on the faculty when I came in 1990 and she was ending her appointment as I was arriving… I inherited my faculty house on Crum Ledge from her, I lived in 5 Crum Ledge for eight years.. I passed it to Tia Newhall in Computer Science… for a long time it was the unofficial queer faculty townhouse!”
Kuharski “got involved with the committee right away” and was chair for three years. When he began, “we could not assume that support of gay and lesbian issues was on the agenda of the administration,” but when Al Bloom became president in Fall 1991, “all kinds of things took off,” including the Intercultural Center.
In 1989, Alternative Sexualities Integrated at Swarthmore (AS IS) was founded, quickly to be replaced by Action Lesbigay in 1991 and the Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance in 1992. The Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance became one of the three founding groups of the Intercultural Center.
Fernando Chang-Muy, currently a lecturer at Penn Law School, came to Swarthmore as Assistant Dean and Director of the IC in the fall of 1993. He explained that “students started laying the groundwork and lobbied the administration for its establishment… they put out an ad looking for a Director of a Center that would serve Latino, Asian, and Queer students, and I’m gay, Asian, and Latino, so I was the perfect person!”
He described his job as convening student meetings of the Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance and giving advice. “One of the issues was whether or not you should come out on your resume… should you disclose this to potential employers.” He could not remember any major homophobic incidents during his tenure there, although he observed that “around exam time there was always incidents.”
As the faculty advisor for the Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance, Kuharski recalls that “at that point the group was small and shaky… there was a point where the continuation of the LBGA was made possible from the top down… something was very fragile at that point and now it’s the opposite.” He continued, “students were more closeted then than they are now… it was part of my job to be a confidant for students.” Since then the culture has changed, and “students come to Swarthmore much more comfortable with their sexuality.”
—-THE SAGER SYMPOSIUM: WHERE HAS IT BEEN?—-
Sager has been to most of the symposiums and calls them “all over the place… some years it’s very strong and some years it hasn’t been as well organized.” He lamented the decrease in faculty involvement in recent years, explaining “faculty have certain resources and connections that students don’t have, and they can also give the event historical continuity.”
Kuharski stressed that “the picture of the Sager Committee was completely different then than it is today.” In the early 1990s it “was overwhelmingly a faculty-staff-alumni committee with a couple of students,” but today it is almost all students. Judson finds that in the early years, “people went because of a political commitment… that was how people showed their solidarity with the queer community.”
The 1989 Symposium topic was “Revealing the Unspoken: Gay and Lesbian Studies in Academia.” Students explained in The Phoenix that they wanted to connect gay life and Swarthmore, and what better way to do that then through academics?
The 1991 Symposium was titled “Piece Work: Creating Responses to AIDS,” and several segments of the AIDS quilt were displayed in Parrish, including the segment honoring Eugene Weber. A post-event survey showed that over 500 people came to view the quilt, including a large group of visitors from a local church which had recently lost its pastor to AIDS.
“There was a blow-up every year, every symposium, about all kinds of things… though it was usually about issues of representation,” remembered Kuharski, and 1992’s symposium, “Constructions of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Identities in the Popular Media,” was one of the more notable ones.
Joseph A. Mason, Assistant Dean, wrote a letter to the Committee saying “We successfully designed and delivered a symposium this year that appealed to a graduate level audience in some forms of theory. What perturbs me about this particularly constructed audience is that it is comprised of very few people of color and not that many women. An additional concern is that I do not think the symposium reached many of our current students.” A student wrote a letter saying “The most obvious problem facing the 1992 Symposium was its focus on white men.”
Kuharski stressed that “the committee was a model of social engineering…. the majority of the committee was not queer-identified. It was very explicit that the committte was a coalition of people in support of GLBT issues that went beyond GLBT identified people… when we invited people, the selection process was very consciously to make sure we had every kind of representation on the committee… we wanted women in balance with men and diverse minority representation.” That said, the Committee always tried to bring the best-known people in the field and at the time, “the field was having issues diversifying.”
1993 saw “Social Policy and Activism in the Lesbian/Gay Nineties,” lauded in the Sager Committee minutes as “the best in our five-year history!” It may have been the best in their five-year history, but a 1993 editorial also shows that the Sager party was not always as welcomed as it is today. A student described a conversation he had heard in Sharples: “Two partygoers: ‘Yeah, we were so hard up for something to do last night we went to the party in Pearson!’ Non-partygoer: ‘Was that the party with all of the cross-dressers and fags?!'”
Also during this semester, queer students and the LBGA seemed to be coming into their own. The Sager Committee minutes show that students were concerned that “the Sager Committee has unintentionally undercut LBGA,” but do not elaborate on why. Students began to take a larger role in the Committee and with the Symposium in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After these first years, the Sager Committee archives dwindle off, but a list of titles show the variety of topics it has tackled over the years. The symposia seem to have moved from being purely academic to having more wide-spread appeal, including “Queer Activism in Philadelphia,” “Race, Religion, and Gender in the Queer Community,” and “Making Love, Queering Sex.”
The Symposium was not held in 1999. According to a Phoenix article from December 11, 1998, “the committee felt that it was more important to work on long-term visibility of queer issues at Swarthmore. In previous years, so much energy would go into planning the symposium that the committee would be burned out afterward and would be unable to complete other projects. This year, instead of holding the symposium, the committee has decided to sponsor three separate events in the spring while focusing on adding a Queer Studies Concentration to the curriculum.”
When the symposium came back in 2000 with the theme “Trans/Forming Gender: The Future, Present, and Past of the Trans/Gender Movement,” a Phoenix headline declared that homophobia in the form of verbal slurs had been reported at the Sager dance. One student referenced the party and then said “Fucking faggots ruin everything.”
The article went on to report that “in the wake of last weekend’s events, members of the queer community are now doubting whether to continue organizing the dance in future years… SQU members also feel that the dance has strayed significantly from its original purpose, which was to provide a fun complement to the more serious Sager symposium held the same weekend. Last weekend, the behemoth dance greatly overshadowed the quieter symposium.”
A student was quoted as saying, “The symposium had an extremely low attendance from Swarthmore students, and most people at the party didn’t even know the symposium was going on, or they didn’t care.” She went on to say that the dance had become an “institutionalized event [in which] guys… dress up in drag but not really with the spirit of breaking down gender barriers. It’s just this expression of homophobia.” The dance has obviously survived, but has it been at the expense of the symposium?
Although the student attendance at Sager symposia might not be overwhelming, Kuharski lauded the Sager Symposium as “the longest-lived symposium in the country devoted to GLBT studies… it’s an absolute revelation to people that the reason we have what we have at Swarthmore all comes from alumni giving, if it weren’t for the alumni community tangibly giving money we wouldn’t have these things.”
—-BENEFITS FOR SAME-SEX FACULTY PARTNERS—-
When Judson was hired in Spring of 1992, he explained that “one condition of my coming was domestic partner health care benefits.” Judson had come from Pitzer College in California, which already had the benefits.
Kuharski and other members of the Sager Committee were already working for the health care benefits. “I remember I went to Al Bloom and made the argument that this should be something Swarthmore does, and he said yes, we should absolutely do this… we were all really pleased and amazed, at that point only three or four other universities in the country had announced such a policy.” Unfortunately, Kuharski “did a fatal thing… I said, ‘Let’s do a press release,’ and Al Bloom said yes… but when it hit the press office it just stopped cold. The press release was the deal-breaker. They did not want it to be national news.”
Kuharski says that at the time, “the first resistance was a financial argument… everyone across the country was saying ‘We can’t possibly afford all of that,’ and ‘all of that’ was always clearly all of those sick people with AIDS… it was clearly about AIDSphobia.”
However, a study done at Stanford shattered the financial argument when it showed that “statistically gay and lesbian faculty always cost less, even with AIDS,” because of generally having spouses who also work and also having fewer children. “If you have a budget crisis,” quipped Kuharski, “hire as many queer faculty as you possibly can!”
Kuharski remembers that Provost Jim England was swayed when the question was raised about whether you would have to provide benefits for straight unmarried people as well as for queer unmarried people. “He discovered a legal loophole… in Pennsylvania at that point in time there was still a common-law marriage law,” meaning that heterosexual couples could already invoke common-law marriage and receive benefits. With that, “Jim England began to understand that it was a discrimination issue.”
Judson stressed that “Al Bloom was really supportive in the early years of this issue,” and indeed, Al Bloom announced in August 1992 that he would extend health-care benefits to same-sex partners of college faculty and staff, although this was not implemented until December 1993 because of the difficulty of finding a willing insurance provider. Judson added that of the few colleges he knew that offered benefits at the time, Swarthmore was particularly generous because “it takes into account the added tax burden assumed by its employees who receive domestic partner benefits.”
“My partner Richard and I were the first people to claim what Swat called spousal-equivalent benefits,” remembers Kuharski, “and the paperwork was so simple it was a joke… it was an anti-climax.” Swarthmore has never asked for proof of marriage or cohabitation from straight couples, so they don’t ask for any such paperwork from GLBT couples either, and “that was a really important and beautiful decision that it has to be exactly the same for us as for a straight married couple.”
—-HOMOPHOBIA AND HOUSING IN THE 1990s—-
Dean Myrt Westphal has witnessed several homophobic incidents during her tenure as a dean. She says “The Dean’s Advisory Committee was formed and one of its charges was to deal with homophobic or racist remarks on campus… our role was to look at the situation and determine what the public response would be and who would write a letter.” She recalls, “every time something happened there was a demand for a letter for the president… but if he’s always writing letters then his voice gets diffused, so we had to look at situations on a case-by-case basis.”
Every time, she says, “the whole dean’s community comes together to see what’s going on, how can we educate around this incident… we encouraged the RAs to have hall conversations about what had happened.”Also, “the students who felt attacked would come and often have an idea of how they wanted to respond… I remember once there was a rally on the front lawn of Parrish where people talked about difference and how hurtful it was for people to do this.” She doesn’t believe the school has ever been able to identify the people responsible for any of the various homophobic acts.
1993 saw the founding of a new group, All Sexual Orientations Rights and Awareness (ASORA), composed primarily of allies. Fluid Women was also formed in 1993, but changed its name to Our Glass in 1996. The groups as we know them today, Swarthmore Queer Union and the Queer Straight Alliance, were formed in 1995 and 1997, respectively.
In April 1993, LBGA, ASORA, and the AIDS Action Alliance held a rally to protest AIDS-phobia and homophobia in response to graffiti on desks in McCabe “that listed names of two students whom the graffiti claimed were infected with the HIV virus.” They demonstrated in front of Tarble, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, AIDSphobia’s got to go” and “We’re here, we’re queer, deal with it!” According to The Phoenix, “passers-by looked confused and incredulous. Few stopped to talk to any of the rallyers. The nature of ‘the front’ made such friendliness practically impossible.”
The rally organizers were criticized for not addressing issues other than AIDSphobia and homophobia, and apologized in The Phoenix, writing “It was ignorant of us not to deal with how issues of race, class, and gender are linked with and yet often displaced by a monolithic AIDSphobia… the opportunity to build a truly broad-based coalition presented itself, and we realize that through our own ignorance and insensitivity, the chance was lost.”
In the fall of 1993, queer students encouraged queers and allies to wear jeans during Coming-Out Week to show their support. According to Pat James of the Lang Center, who was teaching a self-defense class to Swarthmore students at the time, a hostile group of students organized a jeans-burning.
The event is only mentioned briefly in the Sager minutes and I could not find a mention of it in The Phoenix (the Sager minutes actually record that “letters to The Phoenix [about the event] went unprinted”), but James said, “for a few years in a row students would tell me about the jeans burning… I think the reason I found that so disturbing was its resonance with cross-burning. It is a violent act and it threatens a deeper kind of violence that says to a group of people that you cannot be safe here.”
James also recalled a variety of other disturbing incidents, including the door of a queer student being set on fire during the late 1990s and a disturbing event at the Intercultural Center in the fall of 1998 involving piles of matter that were initially identified as feces and vomit but later turned out to be chocolate cake. A “Respect, Safety, Unity” rally was held in response to the event.
Although such overtly hateful acts have not occurred within the past few years, James says that “there are parts of this community who still think that public heterosexist behavior, such as defacing signs, is OK… somewhere in this institution there’s still some support for it at a very low level.”
Incidents such as these highlight the fear and discomfort that queer students had to face even at Swarthmore. It’s because of incidents such as the door set on fire that SQU began to petition the administration to put something about queer issues on the incoming roommate questionnaire in the Spring of 1996, bringing a proposal to the administration in the Spring of 1997. According to The Phoenix, “the proposal suggested that the following two optional statements that could be checked be added to the questionnaire: (1) I feel comfortable rooming with a gay/lesbian/bisexual roommate, (2) I feel comfortable rooming with someone who would reply “yes” to the above question.”
“We had a very generous room change policy if either party felt they couldn’t live with somebody with a different orientation, and those handful of cases were all handled one-by-one,” Dean Myrt Westphal said, but the petition “was declined for several years for several reasons… many students said they wouldn’t have been able to apply to Swarthmore if this kind of thing were known to their parents, but in the last ten to twelve years things have changed and the issue is not nearly as volatile.”
The Housing Office also feared that by putting ‘gay-friendly’ on the questionnaire “it was sort of allowing bias and prejudice to exist… we didn’t want to put things out there that made it look like people would reject others because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation… we didn’t want to set up the ability to be biased.” There was also a concern for the well-being of incoming queer students. “This was a time before high school students were coming out and we didn’t want people to have to self-identify.”
Although the proposal was rejected, SQU did make other gains that year, working with the Admissions Office to publish a brochure for prospective students about queer life at Swarthmore. The Phoenix noted that “whereas in the past, only two or three perspective students each year have self-identified as queer, this year eight students came to the SQU meeting on prefrosh weekend.”
That said, the proposal “meant a lot to some groups of students and so finally it happened.” According to a Daily Gazette article, “queer-friendly” was placed on the roommate survey for the first time in 2002, meaning that the Class of 2006 was the first to benefit from this change.
Dean Myrt Westphal echoed the voices of others who pointed to outside cultural change pushing change here, saying “I think students come in with a more knowledgeable and tolerant view than they did a dozen years ago.” Students were coming out earlier and parents were less worried, so the Housing Committee’s concerns “became not as much of a deal… I’m struggling to figure out why we put it on when we did.”
Westphal reflects, “I think Swarthmore has always been a very supportive environment for queer students… we used to always say queer and questioning students, but nowadays more of them have already thought through those issues.”
In 1992 the Sager Committee nominated a list of possibilities for the Lang Visiting Professor, hoping to remedy the lack of lesbian professors then on campus. Lesbian and feminist theater scholar Sue-Ellen Case was chosen. “This was a sign of the new Al Bloom ethos on campus,” said Kuharski.
Case was the Lang Visiting Professor in 1993-94, and “she taught the first queer studies courses at Swarthmore… she taught a queer literature class and a queer performance class.” Kuharski remembered that she said of her queer performance class, “I don’t think I have any gay guys in the class, but they’re so queer friendly!”
Case also wrote “The Domain Matrix” at Swarthmore, a book about the expression of lesbian identities in cyberspace. In the “Acknowledgments” section, she wrote: “Several people gave me wonderful feedback at Swarthmore, where the Lang professorship provided me with time to write.”
Case gave a lecture on the topic on November 10, and was quoted in the accompanying Phoenix article saying “[it is] isolating to be the only self-identified lesbian on the faculty.” The article continued, “Case prefaced her lecture by stating her desire for a Lesbian and Gay Studies program and for the recruitment of more lesbian professors.” Kuharski noted that “Sue Ellen’s presence provided a key voice in support of the college’s hiring out lesbians that year.”
Also in the fall of 1993, the Women’s Resource Center decided that of its nine board members, a minimum of three women of color and two queer-identified women would be required to serve so that the WRC could better serve all women on campus.
Interestingly, there was a student outcry in the spring of 1994 when a professor within the English Department was passed over during a national search for a tenure-track Film Studies position within the department. During the course of the search, the professor “asked to be considered also as a candidate for the secondary field of Gay and Lesbian literature” and also declared that she was bisexual. According to The Phoenix, there was “concern that [the professor] had been improperly forced to declare her bisexuality,” but faculty members of the search committee declared that this was not the case.
Professor Patricia White was offered the position instead. “We were hired in a wonderful felicity because LGBT studies was a desired area in the English department at that point and then we ended up with two faculty who did it,” said White. “I felt very welcomed by the other gay faculty at that time… we were also welcomed with Mellon money for a new curricular initiative in LGBT studies.”
A grant from the Mellon Foundation enabled a seminar for faculty who were interested in learning more about LGBT studies and possibly incorporating into their coursework. One scholar from each division came to campus and met with interested faculty, and a large number of faculty from disciplines such as English, Political Science, and Psychology used the lessons for developing their own courses.
“We’ve always felt that we wanted to offer a more robust and coordinated gay and lesbian curriculum,” said English Professor Patricia White. “We’ve talked about different ways of doing it… we could have a team-taught intro class on the issues that we would have a release from our home departments to do.” White has taught the Introduction to Women’s Studies twice, “and both times I’ve had students who were interested in feminist stuff but who were there because it was akin to GLBT studies… I always have students whose main interest is in that.”
Although there was interest in starting a queer studies concentration, the faculty involved in teaching courses with queer studies content are already highly involved in individual concentrations, and so “there was no way we were going to be able to staff more interdisciplinary initiatives from this same pool of people.”
Because of this, their only option appeared to be working with Women’s Studies to create a Gender and Sexuality Studies concentration. English Professor Nora Johnson was co-chair of the program in 2000-2001, when it was up for its regular review. She explained that “since this question had been brewing, it was decided that we should talk about changing the name as part of the review.”
Alumni, students, and faculty were invited to write letters about the review, and although “we included the question about the name change… there wasn’t enough support.” White explained that “it encountered opposition in terms of preserving the historical mission of women’s studies.”
Johnson said that “although there can be reasons for linking the two programs, that didn’t promise the best for each program independently… it’s not obvious that women’s studies should be the place where sexuality is studied.” That said, “students can easily do a women’s studies major while emphasizing sexuality based courses.”
Judson wondered if the concentration was necessary now that so many faculty are teaching courses that focus on queer issues, including Judson’s own “Sexuality and Society in Modern Europe.” He explained that “for many years the goal was to legitimize queer studies as a legitimate form of knowledge… a lot of our concerns got addressed and many courses now have a queer component. If you have that maybe you don’t need a concentration.” Judson continued that despite the large number of queer-related courses, “In my opinion, gender and sexuality studies belong togther, especially at a small college. I understand the historical importance of Women’s Studies, but things change.”
White does not think anybody would oppose a queer studies concentration if the issue were raised again, “but there’s not the infrastructure for it.” Moskos agreed, saying that “without that curricular structure, we have so many other things that we have to teach that I think we just sort of ran out of steam at some point… if you can’t stick it into a structure then it’s difficult to keep up the enthusiasm.”
“There’s a big question about to what extent is the committee about advocating queer studies in the curriculum, there was a lot of momentum in the past,” said Kuharski. “it’s a big question that has never been answered and has now stopped as a conversation.”
That said, many faculty members pointed to recent hires such as Luciano Martinez of the Spanish Department, who teaches “Gender and Sexuality in Latin American Literature,” as evidence that there is still student interest and that the question will almost certainly come up again.
—-LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE—-
Kuharski is impressed with how far the student population has come in just fifteen years. Whereas students used to come to Swarthmore unsure of their identity, more students are coming out in high school and arriving at Swarthmore already educated about the issues. “In 1991 Sager was overwhelmingly a faculty and staff project… we had debates about how to recruit more students… today I think Swarthmore has accomplished the mission that we set out to do, we have wonderful gay and lesbian and queer identified faculty all over the campus… Nora Johnson is head of the humanities division, Pieter Judson is chair of History, we’re institutionalized now.”
Judson thinks that “if the committee has problems now it’s because it’s been such a success.” Many of the problems which the Committee set out to confront, including AIDS awareness, queer content in the curriculum, and same-sex partner benefits, have been solved. The Committee’s ultimate mission of combating homophobia has been rapidly progressing, thanks to changes both within Swarthmore and the outside world. That’s not to say that all the work is done–far from it–but with queer culture becoming “institutionalized,” as Kuharski said, some of the urgency of the early days is gone. Judson feels that the symposium has simply become “less of a galvanizing force.”
Kuharski continued, “the problem now is how can we make it possible for senior faculty to again have time to do the Sager Committee… the students are still anxious to have faculty involvement, but we all have such complex responsibilities… how can we release faculty to do that again? I think somewhere we need to find the money for a professor to have a course off to devote to committee work, or the funding to offer a course in queer studies.”
Moskos agreed, saying that he’s recently been involved in discussions about reviving faculty participation in Sager. “In many ways I think it’s admirable that the students have taken it on… but we’ll see what happens with the faculty. I think there is again renewed interest.”
Looking towards the future, Sager sees the committee having to struggle with questions about what its place is. “Is it a symposium, or something more academic? When they had Dan Savage come, I was skeptical about spending so much money to bring such a big name, but there were so many students at that event that… it was the most cost effective lecture in the history of the symposium.” He continued, “the fund, per its charter, is meant to combat homophobia and related discrimination, but there are lots of ways that can occur… where do we move from here? There are lots of questions about how to most effectively utilize the funds.”
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