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A queer uprising at Swarthmore: what does it meme?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

On the chilly evening of March 15, snow lay on the ground from the winter storm that had recently swept across Swarthmore’s campus. Little did we know that there was another storm approaching. No, not with wind, nor sleet nor snow — oh no, nothing could prepare us for this storm, not umbrella nor coat nor boots: a meme storm was coming.

It all started in the humble abode of the Swat Danker Memes Society page on Facebook. This page is a place where over 1,000 Swatties (a surge in members came after aforementioned storm) come together to share relatable memes, sometimes post original content, and just generally have a good time.

However, this was not the case on March 15, at 4:30 pm. No, on this fated day the revelry was displaced by none other than, the discourse. It all started with fairly innocent origins when a member posted a meme that consisted of a bit of an inside joke for the queer community. Some non-queer members of the Swat Danker Memes Society, naturally, were confused about what it all meant, and one reached out to the community for an explanation —no problem here. It is what happens afterwards, however, that struck a nerve within the queer community and caused the page to gradually evolve from comment war to gay meme hellfire.

A member of the queer community rejected this request for explanation. Their declination to explain, however, was not met with the same earnest desire for learning and respect for the queer community that the original question suggested. What happened next was an overwhelming flow of online discourse on the matter of respectability politics, whether the queer community (or any marginalized community for that matter) owes anyone an explanation of their culture and many, many offshoot debates that included everything from misgendering people to US foreign policy. It was a bitter war that ended in deleted comments, screenshots, and even more memes. It was a sight to make any baby boomer stop in their tracks and go “those goddamned millennials.”

But what does it all matter? Can political debates on college meme pages have any significance? I’d first like to start this discussion by expressing my frustration that we even need this “Facebook war” in the first place. I was originally pretty upset that the queer community was just trying to enjoy a meme that was meant for them (and was hilarious, by the way) but it had to devolve into political arguments and discourse. However, at the end of the day, perhaps the conversations held around gender and the queer community were, if anything,  important for the growth of Swarthmore’s communal understanding of how to approach oppressed groups in their safe spaces. I do believe that it is perfectly respectable to ask questions about another’s culture — and that sometimes it may well generate enriching discourse that offers both parties a meaningful experience. However, as we have seen through last week’s online discussions, demanding that members of a community participate in discourse with you at your beck and call, even after they have expressed their desire not to, is where it gets dicey.

At the end of they day, a healthy dose of respect and a good understanding of your place is what is needed when approaching these situations. Sometimes, one needs to step back in an argument and ask themselves “Who am I really helping, and who am I hurting by saying/asking this? Am I simply putting unnecessary stress and pressure on already oppressed groups by saying/asking this? What are my privileges in this situation?” All it takes is a little conscientious thinking — really!

Now on to the gay memes. Yes, the glorious overflow of queer memes the following day, which was a response to the fact that all the arguing pretty much ruined the one posted the day before. This outpour of memes proved to me that we really can have nice things (sheds single tear). It may seem trivial, but I’m super pumped by the unity and hilarity of Swat’s queer community that was shown that day.

People might say that the debates were pseudo-activism and there is no real depth behind anything that occurred that day. However, I would like to disagree, activism starts with raising your voice — in whatever context, whether that be online, or in the newspaper or at a protest. No one is saying that you’re going to single-handedly change the world with a Facebook post, but social change happens after the culmination of several incessant voices who refuse to be silent in every sphere of discourse. That day, the Swat Danker Memes page happened to be one of those spheres. Believe it or not, people can tackle more than one issue at once, and being active on  a Facebook debate doesn’t mean you aren’t engaging in other forms of activism in different areas.

Also, as it relates to the specific act of the proliferation of queer memes one needs to remember that the queer community wasn’t trying to be activists in the first place: we were trying to feel good about ourselves. No one is saying that memes are some shining form of activism that are going to change the world (though that may be up for debate). But in those moments, they made the queer community feel empowered and united. It sure as hell made me feel good after feeling pretty frustrated with the whole thing. Isn’t that what matters?  

Just a phase: Genderfuck is over

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Due to concerns felt by the Swarthmore queer and trans community, we believe that Genderfuck should not be held this year. The initial aim of the party was to celebrate queerness and gender variance through the destabilization of gender in a public setting.

Over the years, the focus of the party has shifted, and it now prioritizes the experiences of straight, cis individuals. In its current form, Genderfuck has become a space where straight, cis people can displace queerness as the focus of the party, instead wearing it as a costume or mocking it altogether. Over the years, traditions of dress and behavior have developed under the party’s name: many cisgender men will wear a dress as a dare with their friends, and cis women will equivalently borrow boxers from a hallmate, which they will accompany with a bra. These tropes are not displays of exploration or engagement, but rather costumes like those worn at any other themed event. Genderfuck has essentially become a costume party planned by queer people for straight, cis people.

What was initially intended as a space to celebrate queer identity and to interrogate gender presentation has become one where participants engage in an uncritical costuming, trivializing queer and trans individuals trapped and ridiculed by the rigidity of gender expression in society. It has become a tokenized display of queer presentation. Queerness has been decentered in favor of more privileged groups and expressions to briefly “visit” the queer and trans experiences as a party of mockery and appropriation. Looking beyond the scope of Swarthmore’s campus, we are thinking deeply about the violence that gender non-conforming and trans people face for expressing their genders. Since the start of this year, 10 trans women have been murdered in the United States. It’s February. Gender expression is not a costume to be worn lightly, or a conversation to be centered around an alcohol-fueled party space with a reputation for sexual assault and general perpetuation of rape culture.

Let’s rethink Swarthmore exceptionalism, or take it to its logical conclusion and then reexamine our assumptions. If Swarthmore is a safe and accepting place for queer and trans individuals — ignoring perennial anti-queer chalkings — we shouldn’t need a party space for people to explore their gender expression. In lieu of Genderfuck, and regardless of Genderfuck, we encourage people of all genders to experiment sincerely with their gender presentations on a regular basis — such as in class or at meals — rather than relying on a party to do so.

In parallel with this shift, the party has become a space where sexual assault and harassment have become rampant, due to associations of queerness with sexual promiscuity, and this image is too intrinsically tied to the party to ever be fully separated from it. No matter what alcohol policy we have, it does not address the underlying issues with the party. We do not believe the college’s revamped alcohol regulations have affected any significant positive change in this regard. In short, both safety and the queer experience, tenets of the event, have been lost.

As it currently stands, the organization of the party is left to an unstructured GenderFuck Committee, vaguely linked to the Social Affairs Committee and Student Government. Because only a few, usually queer, individuals sign up for this committee, the responsibility for the event falls primarily on their shoulders, and has taken a huge emotional toll on past organizers. The immense workload and distress caused by the inevitable divergence of the event from the intended purpose are two main factors in this. We do not wish to impose this upon future students, nor do we wish to take on such a responsibility ourselves. We feel that Genderfuck as it currently stands does not effectively shape a safe party space, which is something that queer and trans people want to center — safety for ourselves and safety for others. Genderfuck currently has no training requirements for attendees, and lacks organization for consistent, targeted consent workshops that are crucial given the party’s history.

Below are two statements, the first by Bryan Chen ’15 and the second by Tom Corbani ’17, about their experiences planning the party in the past. They are the only current students who have done so.

“When I planned Genderfuck two years ago, I was starry-eyed imagining what the party could be. The year before, a couple of amazing queer and trans students fought to keep the event alive, diverting its dangerous trajectory by upping security and re-envisioning its scope. I was happy to continue this legacy and to push it further. I had plans of further reform: to shift its focus to a deeper understanding of the vastness of gender identity and gender expression through workshops and atmospheric changes at the party. But despite my dreaming and my drive, I was not able to change much at all. With little administrative support and near nonexistent student energy, there was nothing I could do. Eventually, from all of the inaction amidst countless meetings and the stress of having to plan a party for around 1,000 people essentially by myself, I had to step down. Genderfuck was and is an absolute beast, and those trying to fix it are severely underestimating what they are dealing with.”

“I organized the party last year with a couple of seniors. I got involved for the same reasons I applied to the college: a promise of a queer space, and an opportunity to be actively involved in shaping such a vision. Although it was my freshman spring, I ended up taking on a significant workload, coordinating a performance and workshops, and the limited support from the administration meant that the process took a significant toll on my mental health. My goal, in light of what I’d heard of the event, was to “revamp” it with drag performances and workshops whose aim was to refocus the party around queer identities. Unfortunately, the event itself felt almost like a carnival: the minority of individuals who had put effort into their dress, mostly gay boys looking “fishy,” were gawked at by the other attendees, and the drag queen felt like a professional leader of this bunch. The space was only queer insofar as they were present: I couldn’t help but feel like the space I’d aimed to create had become a spectacle. In light of this, I no longer feel like my vision is foreseeable under the label of Genderfuck.”

We appreciate the eagerness expressed by various members of the administration and students to “fix” or “salvage” the event, but it is not feasible to detach Genderfuck from its murky history at this time. There have been previous attempts with the best of intentions and strong leadership to reform Genderfuck, but to no avail. These efforts have only resulted in mistakes that still marginalize queer and trans people, even though they are “in charge” of Genderfuck. Hitting our metaphorical heads against the wall will only result in more injury. We will not endorse, support, or help plan any event related to Genderfuck. It will be equally problematic to hand over the party to straight cisgender people, for reasons that seem apparent given the initial aim.

Over the past three years, various queer student leaders have tried to reform Genderfuck, to bring it back to its roots: a party that celebrates queerness and gender variance. But this has not been possible, since the party has always reinforced gender norms by upholding stereotyped ideas of gendered clothing and “crossdressing,” rather than recognizing a vast range of gender expressions. Genderfuck exists within a false collective consciousness, carrying baggage from over a decade ago into the present day. While the exhausting labor of these queer and trans students have undoubtedly made Genderfuck better, the party’s premise still dehumanizes queer and trans individuals and still silences the students that it is supposed to support and celebrate. With new support from students and administration, we can continue to slowly change Genderfuck, but in doing so, we simply continue its harmful legacy, further pushing queer and trans students into the margins. It remains that the very concept and core of Genderfuck actually supports a system that it is trying to break down. Trying to fix Genderfuck is simply self-defeating.

We do not wish to place specific blame, and demand no apology or retribution; we simply do not feel comfortable seeing and supporting this event any longer. We hope that you respect these considerations.

If you wish to sign onto this piece as a petition, please fill out the following form:

http://goo.gl/forms/fkF3tSzpvM

Bryan Chen ’15, Nora Kerrich ’16, Tom Corbani ’17, Gretchen Trupp ’18

A queer history of Swarthmore

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Swarthmore College is universally described as a socially liberal school, especially in regard to LGBTQ representation and support on campus. However, thirty years ago, Swarthmore was known as a place where the queer community was isolated and hidden. In true Swarthmorean tradition, the actions of queer students determined to have a voice created a multitude of changes within the college. It is to them that we owe many current forms of support for LGBTQ students. Organizations such as the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), the Swarthmore Queer and Trans Conference (QTC), and the Intercultural Center (IC) all stem directly from the dedicated efforts of queer students and alumni before us.

The first recorded LGBTQ group at Swarthmore in the 1970s existed primarily for private support of its mostly-closeted community; activism and “reaching out” were apparently not feasible goals at that time. For students who were questioning their sexuality or coming out, there were virtually no signs of a queer community at the College. Richard Sager ’74 recalls that flyers would sporadically appear advertising ‘a gay student meeting off campus at somebody’s house’ on behalf of Gay Liberation, the queer student group at the time. However, Sager didn’t know of a single person who actually attended. There did exist a tight-knit feminist group on campus that provided support for women who identified as lesbian or bisexual. Evidently, they caused a considerable amount of social disturbance simply because they were a feminist group: even at Swarthmore, gender was not then seen as a valid topic for discussion.

After the silent ‘70s, the attitudes of many Swarthmore students — and of the administration — dramatically shifted. Student ideas about queer culture may still have been conservative; however, for the first time, some students began to speak out. In the early ’80s, two new student groups formed: the Gay and Lesbian Union and the Bisexual and Questioning Circle. These groups did not hold secret candle-lit meetings miles off campus — they advertised and were accessible to any student who identified as gay/lesbian or bisexual/questioning. They quickly grew in numbers and in influence. In 1986 the groups merged under the name Gay and Lesbian Union.

1986 was a big year for Swarthmore. A student petition started a year before had asked the administration to add a clause to the College’s Statement on Non-Discrimination Equal Opportunity to protect the “sexual orientation and affectional preference” of its students. However, backlash from other students was swift. One student worried, at a question-and-answer panel, that “affectional preference” referred to pedophilia and bestiality. The college didn’t have the same worry, however, and oversaw the addition of the clause into its Statement.

Chalkings, now a well-known tradition utilized by a variety of groups to advertise or make a political statement, appeared first in a specifically queer context in 1968. The graffiti included female symbols making smiley faces and peace signs along with slogans such as “I like dykes.” Unfortunately, the chalkings prompted hugely negative responses by some students: hostile and offensive messages were written in soap on the windows of prominent school buildings. These were reported, in the November 14, 1986 issue of the Phoenix, to involve “penises penetrating sheep” along with phrases including “I Hate Lesbos” and “I Do Beasts.” The offensive graffiti came to the attention of the Dean, who issued a statement that whoever created it was “guilty of a transgression of the most serious nature.”

More chalkings supporting the initial pro-lesbian chalkings appeared on Sharples patio, with phrases such as “Make love, don’t worry about how.” However, these were met with even more threatening messages: “Kill the f*gs” and a KKK logo were left on the door of the Gay and Lesbian Union meeting room. Instances of threatening anti-gay messages continued throughout the year, and most of the offenders were never identified. Phi Sigma Kappa, a fraternity that no longer exists on campus today, was ultimately linked to the bestiality chalkings. Anonymous anti-GLU vandalism continued for several years.

During the same period, AIDS became a crushing reality, at that time inextricably linked by cultural hysteria with homosexuality. Swarthmore began bringing in speakers and providing information about the disease through Worth Health Center, and some students wrote progressive editorials attempting to remove the stigma surrounding AIDS.

Other students, however, did not display the same open-mindedness: In 1985, a student asked in a question-and-answer panel whether AIDS could be contracted from “beating up gay people.” Shortly after this episode, on July 15, 1986, German professor Eugene Weber died from complications due to AIDS. His death had a lasting and profound effect on the Swarthmore community, whose members had greatly respected him. AIDS awareness on campus increased substantially, and with it came more acceptance of the queer community. There was a long way to go, but Swarthmore’s support for LBGTQ rights was just taking off.

In 1988, Richard Sager ’74 decided to create an unprecedented fund to support queer students on campus and spark discussion regarding queer rights both at Swarthmore and in the wider world. With his donation, the school created the Sager Committee, and the Sager Symposium was born: a week of events, outside speakers, and discussions, all with the purpose of combating homophobia and supporting queer activism. The theme of the first Symposium was “Revealing the Unspoken: Gay and Lesbian Studies in Academia.” Other themes since the Symposium’s inception have included AIDS (in 1991), queer presence in media (1992), and queer people of color (2002).

In 1989, a new group for queer students called Alternative Sexualities Integrated at Swarthmore (AS IS) was founded. This group’s name changed first to Action Lesbigay (Les-B-Gay) in 1991, then to the Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance (LBGA) in 1992, and finally to the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), as it remains today. The term queer was chosen as an all-encompassing term for those identifying as non-cisgender and/or non heterosexual or questioning, in order to be fully inclusive as an organization.

In 1991, Action Lesbigay, the Organization for Latino Awareness, and the Swarthmore Asian Organization together founded the Intercultural Center (IC). The purpose was to open a space where those identifying as queer, Latino and Asian could receive support and advice. Career planning became a large part of the discussion: students wanted to know, for example, if it could hurt their job prospects to come out on their resume. The IC was also a place where queer students who were not out to the outside community could speak openly.

In 1992, during National Coming Out Week, an anonymous editorial appeared in the Phoenix called “Coming Out: A Gay/Lesbian Guide” which detailed the growing invisibility of “Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual students” and urged students to take advantage of resources such as the Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Alliance, the IC, and the Sager Symposium. The same year, a senior wrote in a Tarble bathroom stall in response to homophobic graffiti on campus, “Your hatred only makes me more angry; your bigotry only makes me more proud of who I love.” Clearly the school could still be a hostile environment for anyone who identified as queer, but resources, both on an institutional and student level, were tentatively in place to combat homophobia and create safe spaces for queer students.

Beginning in 1993, chalkings spread across campus once again. Messages such as “queers study science here” and “queers eat out here” were met with, unoriginally, explicit pro-bestiality chalkings. Editorials largely reflected the view that either party had the right to express themselves using the anonymity and visibility of chalk, but that extremely explicit messages were not productive to the discussion. Incredibly, there was no condemnation of the pro-bestiality messages.

In the fall of 1995, Swarthmore celebrated Coming Out Week on campus for the first time. It was a relatively low-key event compared to what it is today; the only mention in the 1995 Phoenix says that students handed out stickers and ribbons to passers-by. Coming Out week continued yearly, marked by pro-queer chalkings that received anonymous and threatening homophobic messages in response. Ultimately, the school became more committed to combating homophobia in all its forms; student opinion was strongly in favor of the queer-positive chalkings, and the Dean at the time condemned the homophobic messages. Homophobic responses to chalkings receded in 2002, when the pro-queer chalkings seemed finally to have gained acceptance as a legitimate form of expression and a positive element of Coming Out Week.

The Sager Symposium was replaced in 2008 by the Swarthmore Queer and Trans Conference (QTC), a weeklong meeting in March that continues the traditions of the original symposium. The Intercultural Center, too, has grown as an organization dedicated to promoting social justice by fostering systemic change across all cultures. Coming Out week has continued to be hosted by SQU each year; this year, it was changed to Pride Month: Month, to give more time to the celebrations; Pride, to better portray the event not as a time to necessarily come out or feel pressured to do so but as a time to celebrate queer identity.

Swarthmore’s tradition of queer activism is vibrant today, thanks to the actions of many brave students, past and present, determined to voice the concerns of the queer community despite at times overwhelming oppression and hostility from fellow students. The history is now left open for the current generation of Swatties to continue the legacy of activism and social justice that has become a part of Swarthmore’s identity. Happy Pride Month, Swarthmore!

So Far to Go: Hilton’s Words Remind Us to Stand Up to Bigotry

in Columns/Opinions/Real Talk with Slam by

“Ewww. Eww. To get fucked? Gay guys are the horniest people in the world. They’re disgusting. Dude, most of them probably have AIDS … I would be so scared if I were a gay guy … You’ll, like, die of AIDS.”

These were the words of none other than the infamous hotel heiress, Paris Hilton. This disrespectful and offensive rant was caught on tape in a NYC cab this past week when a gay friend of hers was trying to describe to her the very popular app called “Grindr.” I think it goes without saying that not one part of what Hilton has said is true, by any means, but what comes to my mind is, what would have happened if the cab driver never recorded this rant? My guess is absolutely nothing. I firmly believe that her gay friend probably would have tried to excuse Hilton’s behavior (which he did), and the cab driver probably would have been silent as well as anxious for them to get out of his cab. Then I would imagine that everyone would continue living their lives while not addressing what was problematic about her statements. Sigh. But this is the world we live in: a world where friends and bystanders don’t speak up about what is wrong when a friend makes an incredibly offensive comment.

Now, some of you reading this may be thinking, “Slam, you can’t speculate on what could have happened!” But that is where you’re absolutely wrong. I can indeed speculate on what could have happened in that taxi ride and I will tell you exactly why. It is because we live in a time where as peers, we often remain quiet when our friends say outlandish and offensive comments for fear of getting into a heated argument with a treasured and trusted friend. It’s a real thing that everyone struggles with; in particular, Swatties. But we shouldn’t! If something is homophobic, racist, or sexist, call it out and never be afraid of confrontation. At some point, some responsibility has to be on the friends of whoever is offensive because how can we progress as a society if we allow people we claim to love to make reckless and disrespectful comments?

I call this lack of action the “bystander phenomenon.” As bystanders to ignorant comments, we sometimes feel it is not our place to interfere with. The taxi driver probably didn’t feel comfortable butting into the conversation, but he should have! He should have let Hilton know that the comments were unacceptable to all gays and gay allies. However, for fear of confrontation, I’m sure he refrained and put the recording device on in hopes that whoever watched it would see how crazy Hilton is. Although it is agreed that many people do not agree with her, I also do not cannot excuse the friend’s decision to let Hilton’s comment slide. He cosigned and simply said “no thank you” after Hilton says “you’ll, like, die of AIDS.” Had I been the cab driver, I would have pulled over right then and there and told her to not trip on the way out. Then I would have tried to find a puddle of water on the side of the road so that I could drive through it and splash her entire outfit.

Moreover, don’t wait for the moment when the person who is being offended is sitting a few feet away from the offender at the lunch or dinner table. Tell your friend what is wrong about what they are saying when no guards are up and you two are just hanging out. It starts there. If they are truly a friend, then they will hear and appreciate everything that you are saying.

If not, then they can exit stage left, because someone who doesn’t listen to what you have to say is not someone who you want to keep around in your life. Likewise, if you feel offended by a friend, let them know. If they dismiss how you feel, feel free to dismiss them from your life. There is no use in keeping someone like that around. There is never a reason strong enough to keep someone in your life who adds nothing but constant bigotry and ignorance. Not to mention, your friends will always be reflections on you, so unless you want people associating you with that mindless jerk of a friend who doesn’t even understand how disrespectful he or she is, I would suggest you find yourself some new ones.

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