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The History of Genderfuck

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Genderfuck is not only the most attended party on campus, it’s also the most notorious. Students anxiously wait for this one, usually cold, weekend to run down to Sharples in their silliest, most gender-bending outfits. A Swarthmore tradition many students look forward to, the event—previously “Sager,” now “Genderfuck”—has been around for 25 years despite a couple of bumps along the way. Former Phoenix Opinions writer Adam Dalva ’08 explains the allure: “It is the only party of the year that cannot fail because it operates only on self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, because the past suggests that Sager is always a fantastically drunken and  debaucherous night of hook-ups that never have to be spoken of again, that is indeed what Sager becomes … Like Snakes on a Plane, it is so overhyped it cannot fail.”

Genderfuck’s origins can be traced back to the founding of the Sager Fund in 1988. An article in the November 11, 1988 edition of The Phoenix stated that Richard Sager ’74 created the Sager fund for the promotion of, “among other things, programs of interest to the gay and lesbian community which will help overcome homophobia and related discrimination.” The fund, which was originally set up as a series of five checks for $5,000 that were to be donated over the five years following 1988, successfully hosted a symposium on LBGTQ issues for 20 years, until it was replaced by the Queer and Trans Conference. Campus community members can still apply for money from the Sager Fund to sponsor guest speakers, such as this past February’s lecture by Dr. Patrick Cheng, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who spoke on “rainbow theology.”

Originally, Genderfuck was simply an after-party for the Sager Symposium and did not carry the weight that it does today. The party quickly gained popularity though, and by 1995 became an event featuring gender-bending themes much looked forward to by students, as it is today. Although it’s unclear exactly when the term was coined, “Genderfuck” refers to the Sager fund’s aim to “raise questions about the concept of gender and its constraints,” according to a March 27, 2008 Phoenix article.

Until the last few years, Genderfuck was held in a variety of venues, including the Women’s Resource Center, Olde Club, DU and Upper Tarble. There have been themes associated with the event: in 1995, it was “Sager Party: Genderfuck 3: Future Stars” and featured DJ Schlo-Mo. In 1996, though its theme is unclear, Genderfuck featured the New York queercore band God Is My Co-Pilot. More recently, the 2004 theme was “My Big Fat Fabulous Gay Wedding,” chosen to bring attention to the fight for gay marriage. In 2005, it was “Good and Evil,” with “Good” being held in Paces while “Evil” occurred in Olde Club.

Even in ’90s, the party’s unofficial slogan, “guys wear a dress and girls wear less,” was already established. In a 2004 edition of The Phoenix, Dana Seay ’07 discussed her costume: “I wore fishnets, a pair of tap shorts, a tiny tank top, and devil horns.” Although hardly gender-bending, costumes like Seay’s have usually been considered appropriate for Genderfuck—which is one reason some students worried that the party’s message does not line up with the goal of the Sager fund, to foster a stronger gay community on campus. Genderfuck’s “girls wear less” concept had some students wondering.

At the beginning of the new millennium, concerns about the role of Genderfuck’s association with the Sager Symposium rose greatly, students arguing that many people who partied at Genderfuck had not attended the Symposium’s events from the days before: “For much of the non-queer Swarthmore community, the word Sager evokes images of a Saturday night gender-bending dance,” a Phoenix staffer wrote in the April 6, 2000 edition of the paper, “but in fact the dance is only the wild offspring of the sober symposium.”

In a letter to the editor, Christine Lattin ’01 argued that Genderfuck does not live up to its name but actually perpetuates heteronormative stereotypes of women. She asked, “So men wear skimpy dresses and women … wear skimpy dresses?” It had become unclear who was behind the organization of the party: was it The Sager Planning Committee? The Sager Party Planning Committee? SQU? SAC? A different group seemed to host the party every year and funding came from various places. Finally, worries about sexual misconduct at the party arose, and SMART entered the conversation in 2006.

Although never officially a part of the Sager Symposium, Genderfuck had always been associated with it, often advertised as the “culminating event of Sager.” Yet because of the concerns raised by SMART and students like Lattin, a move to officially disassociate Genderfuck from the Sager Fund was made in the Spring of 2009. In a move dubbed “The Sager Schism” by The Phoenix, the Sager Committee officially ended its affiliation with Genderfuck, arguing that it did not line up with the “safe space” the Symposium aimed to promote.  “After last year, with the occurrence of homophobic events, even from people within the campus, we were getting so disheartened about the party” Sager Committee Co-Chair Maria Kelly ’10 said in a 2009 Phoenix article. “The goals of the Symposium and the party have become separate. We talked about it and concluded that it wouldn’t be associated with us.”

Once that formal announcement was made, the Symposium and Genderfuck were, as now, held on separate weekends and no longer formally or informally associated. Where does Richard Sager, the founder of the Sager Fund and therefore the incidental force behind Genderfuck, stand in this? According to a 2008 interview, he’s totally fine with it.  “The Genderfuck party doesn’t have anything to do with the Sager Symposium, but I think it’s great that this other great institution has my name.” Sager said. “I told them I’m not offended, I’m honored!”

Sager apparently attends the party every year (at least that’s what he said in 2008) and is usually accosted by at least one drunk student who is “so thankful, man.” Sager even went on to jokingly complain that one year, the PAs would not let him in because they thought he lived in the Ville and had come to watch the party. And so, with Sager’s blessing, Genderfuck continues to be one of Swarthmore’s strangest, most exciting traditions.

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