Kelsey Manning ‘17 was making out with another girl on the dance floor last weekend, much like many other couples, when a male student approached.
“So, can I get a two-for-one?” he asked. Manning and her companion were irritated, but brushed off the encounter. Later in the night, a different male student would attempt to physically insert himself into their interaction, which prompted an angry lecture from Manning’s companion.
While queer students on campus come in many different sexualities and gender identities, students contacted by The Phoenix for this article agreed that Swarthmore is a mostly welcoming and supportive place in which to experiment with one’s sexuality, to come out, or to be queer. However, they each pointed to a unique set of challenges which still confront queer students. These challenges were not limited to the behavior of peers, as in Manning’s case, but also included divides within the queer population, the way in which queer students can feel isolated and burdened at Swarthmore, and a challenging dating and social scene due to a small student body.
Some queer students, such as Kenneson Chen ‘13, found particularly welcoming communities in the form of the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA). When Chen arrived on campus his freshman year after a lengthy and difficult coming-out process, he immediately joined both groups. “I was just loving what was to me a large amount of queer people who were open and supportive, in most ways, of me,” Chen recounted.
In particular, his participation in SQU helped Chen to tackle the more difficult aspects of his identity. Chen found that SQU provided him with a language through which he could identify as queer, which he feels is a more fitting label for his identity than gay.
SQU has also allowed Chen to become more comfortable with his gender expression. “The people at SQU helped me realize that, yes, I can be a man and still do very unmanly things. Even using the word unmanly has such a negative connotation in our society, and being in SQU has made me realize, fuck that. I don’t need to subscribe to masculine preservation. I’m more comfortable being effeminate now,” Chen explained.
Chen also attends meetings of Colors, a group of queer students of color, and Persuasian, a group for queer Asian students. Chen found Persuasian especially to be extremely nurturing and helpful as a place in which he could share experiences he could not necessarily discuss in SQU or in other communities at Swarthmore. “There are some things that I am not able to talk about, specifically around my identity as a queer person of color, with people who don’t share that experience,” Chen said.
In addition to specifically queer groups, athletic teams may also provide a support system for some queer students in their transition to Swarthmore. Rose Pitkin ’14, who plays varsity softball, feels that her team has created an extremely comfortable environment for her as an out athlete.
“Athletics create an extremely heteronormative and homophobic space, but luckily for me I’ve had teammates that have been really supportive,” she said. She cited the three openly queer players on her squad of fifteen as evidence for a supportive and welcoming environment on the field and in the locker room, which she attributed to the attitudes of coaches, captains, and upperclassmen on the team. “So much of that I think is because we’re open, and the team talks about it, and it’s an okay thing, and so much of that is because of the coach and the precedent the upperclassmen set,” Pitkin explained.
Similarly, Manning has found the women’s rugby team to be a supportive space.
“I think that queer women in sports isn’t something that’s talked a lot about, especially in high school,” said Manning, who swam competitively before arriving at Swarthmore. “I found it pretty oppressive to be a queer woman athlete in high school, and my experience with rugby has shifted that paradigm in a positive way.”
Ultimately, Manning feels that her participation in women’s rugby has helped her to develop the way in which she relates to her queer identity. “I’ve gained a more holistic understanding of how not just to be a queer woman but how to be a woman, who plays rugby, who does environmental activism, who is also queer, who takes pride in that identity, but I’m not demarcated or limited by that identity in a way that I feel like I used to be,” Manning explained.
Most students felt that the broader community of Swarthmore is a largely accepting and welcoming place. Amit Schwalb ’17 feels as though there is a vibrant and visible queer community and that this community has a strong presence. “I haven’t reached out to explicitly queer spaces on campus as much, but probably at least half of my friends are queer and I just kind of use that as my queer space,” he said.
Additionally, Schwalb has enjoyed the degree to which he has perceived queer and straight students as well-integrated on campus. “I just have a lot more straight friends at Swarthmore than I’ve had in a long time,” he said.
Similarly, Manning has also found the non-queer community of Swarthmore to be a comfortable one for queerness. Her main experience of Swarthmore as a positive place to be queer has come in the form of one-on-one conversations with fellow female students. Though these students may not necessarily identify as queer, Manning said, they had had a great deal of queer experiences on campus and were willing to share. “I’ve found that those conversations have been spaces for me to explore what it means to be queer here, through their experiences,” Manning reflected.
Despite these and a host of other positive experiences, queer students still face a number of challenges and have confronted disturbing incidents which raise serious questions about Swarthmore’s inclusivity and safety. When reflecting on her experience from this weekend, Manning was shocked and disturbed by what had happened at the party, as it had not fit with her impression of the campus community. “I thought people at Swarthmore, to be honest, would know better,” she said. “I thought that they would refrain from putting someone in that place or making assumptions about their sexuality.”
Manning acknowledged that this experience was not limited to Swarthmore. “I think it’s just typical of men in our society, assuming that two girls hooking up needs the approval or validation of men,” she said.
Chen has found that there are some spaces on campus which are more comfortable and accepting of queer students than of others. These places can range from the field house, where Chen, on his way to yoga class, sometimes feels that he does not belong in an athletic space, to Sharples. Chen is uncomfortable eating in certain areas of the dining hall due to the homophobic slurs he has heard from mostly male students on campus. “I’ve heard some pretty horrible things … things like hearing the word ‘fag’ or hearing the word ‘gay’ used as an insult or hearing people AIDS-shaming,” Chen said.
Sometimes, Chen feels as though queer students are separated from the rest of the student body. “I have not felt completely safe on campus, especially when things pop up like chalkings which contain hate speech, or when people are attacked on Mertz Field,” Chen said. “There’s this feeling that we are alone, that we have to protect ourselves.”
Chen feels this isolation and division perhaps most acutely in Swarthmore’s reliance on the queer community to provide education around certain issues. He feels that there is an enormous responsibility placed on queer students to educate students about sexual health, sexuality and rape and sexual assault prevention. “When I helped to facilitate ASAP [Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention] workshops, almost every facilitator was queer,” Chen recalled. “That is not something that we should have to do alone. It’s embarrassing that it has to be this way. Queer people should not be the only ones who think about their bodies and sex.”
Chen believes that this burden of education is one which perpetuates an “us vs. them” divide between queer and straight or cis-gendered students, a dynamic with which Chen is extremely uncomfortable. “I know
some queer people who make conscious decisions about their friends because of their sexuality or gender, and that makes me uncomfortable because that is unhealthy,” Chen said.
Manning has also been disappointed by the insularity of the queer community in some academic disciplines. “I think there are certain disciplines that tend to give more or less visibility to queer identity,” she said. Manning recalled that her American Politics class had discussed varying interest groups in terms of race, ethnicity and religion, but had not mentioned sexuality at all.
On the other hand, Manning’s LGBTQ Linguistics First-Year Seminar is an exclusively queer space. “There are definitely academic spaces which promote the exploration of sexuality, but even with that, I find that the space is limited,” she said. While the absence of non-queer students was initially comforting for Manning and provided a space in which she could be honest, she feels that the group is self-selecting in a limiting fashion. “The class only attracted queer people, even though the study of LGBTQ linguistics has implications for straight people as well,” Manning said. “It shouldn’t just be a queer discipline studied by queer people.”
Chen also pointed out that there are divides within the queer community itself. While he has never felt alienated by the queer community, Chen has felt that some queer students have been less than entirely inclusive of others, particularly at SQU meetings. “I feel sad that others aren’t comfortable or have had negative experiences in SQU,” Chen said. “I understand SQU will never be for everyone but I would like for it to be a place where if you identify as queer or if you are questioning you are unquestionably welcomed. I am ashamed and embarrassed as a former leader of SQU that people do not feel that way.”
Abigail Henderson ’14 commented on the nature of specifically queer spaces such as SQU and on some of the challenges she has confronted within these spaces. “SQU has almost always felt like an inclusive space for me: people care about each other, listen to what people have to say, and reach out to other people,” Henderson said via email.
However, Henderson has felt at times as though some of the stories or jokes shared during SQU meetings reinforce binaries and generalizations which are not true to life, and has been bothered by this experience. “It seems that when in queer spaces we often perpetuate generalizations and stereotypes that we claim to want to fight against,” Henderson said. This has created problems for Henderson in feeling as though she can claim a space as her own. “I don’t know how to challenge generalizations or insults that are tossed around as jokes among queer people without feeling like I am taking something away from their/our safe space. And that’s something I struggle with a lot, especially in the Swarthmore community,” she said.
In terms of developing alternative queer communities, Pitkin expressed desire for a group of people to discuss the relationship between their queer identities and their status as athletes, and the unique set of challenges which these combined roles can present. “I would love for there to be a group for queer athletes, because so many of the issues that queer athletes face are so different from what you might face on campus — you have to go to the locker room, to other schools, you have to form really intimate relationships with your teammates, these bonds with them which are really, really, super trusting … and at that point your identity becomes part of that bond,” Pitkin said. “It would be nice to have a group of people to talk about that with regularly and to work towards creating a more inclusive athletic space.”
The quality of queer social life can also present a challenge for some students, and may be a problem which is unique to Swarthmore, due to the school’s small size. When Chen first came to Swarthmore, he believed that he would have many options for romantic and sexual partners and that he would eventually have a long-term boyfriend. As sophomore year rolled around, however, this appeared to be an increasingly distant possibility. “You realize how few queer people are actually on campus, how many potential partners are not there, and that was very disheartening my sophomore year,” Chen said. While he acknowledged that dating could be difficult for straight students as well, Chen felt as though queer students often had more difficulty, citing a much lower relative number of committed queer couples.
Chen chalked up this dearth of potential partners to Swarthmore’s size. “I think there are just not enough people here to really support a vibrant or healthy social life,” he said. He added that because of size, drama within the queer community was often magnified and could cause students who had been romantically or sexually involved and then broken up to dissociate from the group, which Chen found upsetting.
Manning has also found herself frustrated with the size of the queer community, though this has mostly manifested for her in social situations, such as at SQU’s annual Queer-Trans Party (QTP), entitled “Gay Old Party” (GOP). “There was such a lack of turnout at the GOP, and I found the lack of people surprising,” Manning said. She felt that most students she had met tended to be open about at least their exploration of their sexual identity, but that something about the GOP as an exclusively or strongly-demarcated gay space had turned people off. “I didn’t really understand why that was and that was kind of disappointing,” she said.
Schwalb feels as though Swarthmore is an opening and welcome space relative to the rest of the world, but believes this does not mean the school or the student body are absolved of a responsibility to change. For example, Schwalb said that although he was happy that there was a sense among his peers that they should ask for and clarify gender pronouns, fellow students often used incorrect gender pronouns to refer to or address him. “The world is a really shitty place to exist as a trans person and in a lot of ways so is Swarthmore,” Schwalb said. “Just because it’s good relative to the world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it.”
While supportive communities and healing experiences can be found on at Swarthmore, it is clear that queer students still face a host of challenges and problems, both within exclusively queer spaces and within the broader campus community. Obviously, Swarthmore still has a long way to go towards being a completely inclusive and positive place for queer students.
Schwalb believes that the path to creating this place is to ensure that the each member of the campus community commits to examining heteronormative and cisnormative impulses within themselves. He concluded, “To actually have a campus community that really engages with questions of gender and sexuality in a challenging way and commits to challenging themselves in that way — that’s how you create a really actually inclusive culture.”