A recent series of fliers advertising Swarthmore’s newly formed Campus Republicans ignited controversy when they used phrases on their posters such as “Coming Out? Questioning? Join the College Republicans!”: language traditionally used by the Queer community. In response, a group of students posted additional fliers condemning the “misappropriation” and “parodying” of queer language. The responders chose to remain anonymous because they did not want their message to be dismissed based on their authorship.
The anonymous responders posted their initial fliers on Wednesday, February 13th. According to Shane Breitenstein ’08, a member of the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and one of the students responsible for the response fliers, their fliers were taken down the next morning and replaced by even more College Republican posters. These College Republicans fliers were supplemented by other fliers asking to be not taken down, out of respect for free speech. The “anonymous” group responded again with a new set of posters, which they claim were taken down again by Sunday night. This statement exchange has spurred an exchange of diverse viewpoints but also caused some tensions.
Justin Shaffer ’08, president of the College Republicans, was inspired to use “coming out” phrases after learning about “Conservative Coming Out Weeks” on other college campuses. Such terminology has become popularized among conservative student groups, as liberal viewpoints in academia have trampled over the right of speech for conservative students, said Shaffer, emphasizing that Swarthmore especially is dominated by a liberal culture. As a result, he believes “coming out” is necessary for conservative students.
“Sadly,” in his experience Swarthmore’s “environment seems to only accept and promote the ideas of secular liberalism that dominate the campus almost exclusively,” said Shaffer. “My personal favorite is when people at Swarthmore will describe someone as Republican as though he/she has some deep character flaw. ‘Wait, you’re a Republican!'”
Despite Shaffer’s justification, some members of the Queer community were offended by the attempt to equate the difficulties of being gay with the difficulties of being conservative. “Historically, it’s not been not okay for people to come out,” said Breitenstein, and to use it flippantly is offensive.
Rafael Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center, noted that this problem generally arises when one group appropriates the language of another. “[Appropriation] usually is devoid of the social and historical context,” he said.
However, Geek Coming Out Week has traditionally parodied slogans from Queer Coming Out Week without evoking such responses, leading Shaffer to believe the responders were specifically against the Republican party. Sebastian Duncan ’08, a SQU member, admitted the authorship of the posters by the Republican party was significant in the implications of their language. “The Republican party has created conditions under which coming out is very scary for people. That’s what makes it wrong.”
Zapata shared similar sentiments, saying that “College Republicans are affiliated with a greater organization that uses homophobia to engage in cultural wars which has been successful as a political tactic, but deeply bruising to the queer community.” Even though the College Republicans may not have adopted the homophobic agenda of the national party, it does not mitigate the group’s usage of the language.
Rafael [last name removed] ’09, a gay student who is also a member of the College Republicans, disagrees. He said that it was important, firstly, to distinguish between the beliefs of the campus group and the national party. “I would never say that the Campus Democrats believe something because I heard Obama say it the other day,” he explained.
“On this campus there is a group of homosexuals who subscribe to a victim mentality.”
While responses against the Republican fliers have significant support base, according to Breitenstein, there have been schisms of opinions even within the gay community.
Rafael ’09 believes the flier war is an issue overblown. “On this campus there is a group of homosexuals who subscribe to a victim mentality. Every month it’s a new crisis and usually, it’s something they’ve created, like the [Queer Coming Out Week] chalkings.”
The schisms of opinions extended beyond the involved parties, as evidenced both on the Daily Jolt, an online Swarthmore forum, and on this publication. Several posts accused the response posters of acting like “P.C. Police,” which irritated Duncan. “People don’t realize that there are cultural markers all over the place that reinforce and delegitimize queer people,” he said. “We chose to fight on this issue because it was happening in a very obvious way, but if we were the PC police, there would be a hell of a lot more fliers.”
Nonetheless, Rafael ’09 feels that such responses to the Republican posters were unwarranted, given the progressive nature of Swarthmore. “Swat is such an accommodating place. Everyone you meet will bend-over backwards to tell you that they are not homophobes,” he said.
Zapata cautioned, however, that Swarthmore has a unique environment. “Being a Republican, or being gay — these identities are not confined to Swarthmore,” he explained. “They go beyond this community. And maybe it’s easier to be gay at Swat, but Swat is a unique place…we are part of a broader space in which that is not always the case.”
Ultimately, questions of which identity is more victimized on campus has limited utility. Zapata believes that it is important for groups like the Campus Republicans to engage in a dialogue about their relationship with the queer community. “We need to think about questions like what is the role of this particular group of College Republicans. How does this group feel about the role of the Republican Party and its stance on issues on people who are not heterosexual, on issues that are important to queer people?” he explained.
Despite the tensions on all sides, both groups expressed a desire for dialogue. SQU plans to hold open meetings on these topics, with explicit invitations to the College Republicans; the College Republicans hope to hold Ring discussions.