What is the history of queer chalkings on campus?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Editor’s note: Some readers may have seen this article once or maybe even twice yesterday, but due to a technical glitch in the daily morning email and the quarantining of the unscheduled midday update by the new ITS spam filters, others have not seen it all. We print it here in its entirely as a service to those readers and apologize to those for whom it is “old news”.

Based on an investigation into the archives of the Phoenix, the first occurance of pro-gay chalkings occurred on Halloween night 1986. Students Ruth Lande and Ellen Perry wrote an editorial in the Phoenix a week later claiming responsibility for the “pro-lesbian graffiti,” which took the form of “female symbols with smiley faces or peace signs, slogans such as ‘I like dykes,’ and lesbian symbols.”

The graffiti was described as “a celebration of ourselves on a traditional night of mischief… a declaration of our love for ourselves and for each other,” but Lande and Perry suggested that it was at least partially a response to a series of anti-gay incidents that had occurred on campus. “In the last week alone, there were five reported incidents. For example, three students were on their way to a party last weekend when students in a car pulled up next to them, shined blinding lights in their faces, and yelled ‘FAGGOTS!’ at the top of their lungs.”

The next issue of the Phoenix featured a letter to the editor, which objected to the graffiti, stating “there is no consensus on this campus that approves of colorful demonstrations of any group’s opinions on public walkways.” The campus culture has clearly changed in the last twenty years–what we would call “chalkings” today were referred to as “graffiti” throughout this debate, and many of the writers argued that marking sidewalks with chalk was equivalent to defacing public property.

The pro-lesbian graffiti was also met with a more hostile response. One group of students made soap scrawls which, according to a brief news item in the November 14th Phoenix, “depicted penises penetrating sheep, and read ‘Queers don’t know where it’s at,’ ‘I Hate Lesbos,’ and ‘I Do Beasts,'” on the windows of Sharples, Cornell, Parrish Parlours, and McCabe. The Dean’s Office issued a statement condemning these scrawls and stating that the individuals responsible were “guilty of a transgression of the most serious nature.”

In response, more pro-gay and lesbian graffiti appeared on the patio of Sharples, including rainbow smiley-faces, peace signs, and messages such as “Make love, don’t worry about how.” Shortly thereafter, messages such as “Kill the fags” and “F*ck you, fag shit” in addition to a KKK logo appeared on the door of the Gay/Lesbian Union meeting room.

In the November 21st issue of the Phoenix, nine students co-signed a letter which stated that “two groups of students have overstepped the bounds of free speech… all graffiti shows a basic disrespect for private property.” They argued that both groups of students were wrong because of the method they used, and said that the Dean’s Office should have issued a statement condemning both groups, saying that as it was, the Deans “seem to suggest that only certain subjects can be discussed… the fact that some people found one statement more insulting than another does not justify a double standard.”

Of twenty-one students who expressed some opinion about the affair in the November 21st issue, every single one felt that graffiti was an inappropriate method for political or personal expression. Some felt that the content of both displays was equally reprehensible, some found the anti-gay graffiti far more reprehensible, and many simply did not address the issue of content whatsoever.

On December 12th, there was a front-page story announcing that members of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity had been tied to the pro-bestiality graffiti, but not to the anti-gay and pro-KKK graffiti. The event happened after a bi-weekly Phi Sig party called Libations, but had nothing to do with Phi Sig the organization. An unnamed student was quoted as saying “‘We wanted to parody the use of graffiti to express pride. We didn’t feel that the whole campus should be subjected to an expression of sexual preference in graffiti… the next day I was told that there had been anti-lesbian, anti-gay graffiti sort of appended to ours.'”

The debate over the “lesbian graffiti” continued to be referenced in pages of the Phoenix throughout the rest of the 1986-87 academic year. A greater variety of opinions were ultimately expressed than just those in the November 21st issue. A handful of students wrote in who were worried by the “method-only” argument of the first few editorials, some of whom even declared that the pro-gay graffiti should have been allowed.

It seems that anti-gay vandalism, such as destruction of the GLU board, continued to occur throughout the year, but there were no more displays of pro-gay graffiti that year. Pro-gay chalkings are not mentioned in the Phoenix for another eight years, but it appears as if anti-gay vandalism was a continuous presence on campus throughout that period.

For example, on March 27, 1992, Patrick Egan ’92 wrote an open letter in the Phoenix addressed to “the goddamn dykehaters and faghaters who write homophobic graffiti on bathroom stalls, McCabe carrels–even the Tarble Desk phone directory.” He advocates “positive graffiti” as a way to “even the scales,” and gives as an example the message he wrote in a Tarble bathroom stall: “Your hatred only makes me more angry; your bigotry only makes me more proud of who I am and who I love.”

On October 9, 1992, in the middle of National Coming Out Week, an editorial titled “Coming Out: A Gay/Lesbian Guide” credited to “Anonymous” appeared in the Phoenix. She writes that “here at Swarthmore, Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual students have become less and less visible” and tells students about some of the resources on campus, including the Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Alliance and the Sager Committee, which was founded in 1988.

Based on a 1995 editorial where the author described herself as having “spent three years walking over the sidewalk messages,” it seems that pro-gay chalkings appeared on campus in the fall of 1993 and 1994, but the Phoenix does not appear to have covered the incident.

On September 26, 1994, “hateful speech was scrawled… on the Lesbian, Bisexual, and Gay Alliance board in Parrish. The words ‘pickle-stuffer’ [for the male] and ‘cunt’ [for the female] were written next to the names of the two LBGA interns,” according to a September 30th news item. “In the wake of the appearance of the graffiti, LBGA responsded with a series of signs indicating that ‘childish words will not make us go away.'”

An editorial about the issue of hate speech said that the incidents “have occurred often enough to convince us that they are neither ‘random’ nor the products of occasional ‘Ville spawned interlopers… homophobia and misogyny do exist on this campus in very real ways.” Homophobia and misogyny were not the only types of hate speech appearing at Swarthmore in the 1994-95 school year. The “pickle-stuffer” incident occurred a week after a working group had been formed to discuss speech issues on campus, and that group was formed after “Fuck niggers” was found chalked on Magill Walk.

Queer chalkings (with messages such as “Queers study science here,” “Have you kissed a cunt today?” and “Queers eat out here”) appeared at the beginning of the 1995-96 school year and, in an echo of 1986, were quickly responded to with a series of pro-bestiality chalkings. The campus attitude towards chalkings had clearly changed since 1986, however; the author of a September 15th editorial wrote, “I usually just shrug and accept that the sidewalks are a public forum and that we all have a right to express ourselves via chalk.”

However, this author was forced to question her nonchalance when a mother on her admissions tour “asked me why the words written on the sidewalk were so graphic.” It is unclear what set of chalkings the mother was referring to, but the author could not answer her question. She came to the conclusion that while she agreed with the message of the chalk, she disagreed with its method. “Isn’t it possible to inform without shocking?” she asked. “Isn’t there a way to educate without offending some members of your community? Are we being reprimanded into awareness because all other measures have failed to promote tolerance, or because ‘yelling’ was the method of choice?”

The response which appeared on September 22nd argued that the chalkings “were intended to welcome Queers, returning and new, and to share the fact of our existence with our heterosexual friends,” but a September 29th editorial asserted that “there seems no useful purpose behind explicitly sexual messages on sidewalks that other approaches to reminding or informing the community of the LBGA presence would not accomplish with less hostility.”

The last editorial in the series appeared on October 6th. The straight woman who wrote it argued that the chalkings were important because “the nuts and bolts of heterosexual sex are built into our consciousness. Images of homosexual sex are not. They are thus shocking. LBGA’s chalkings were one small step towards making gay sex and straight sex equally understood and equally accepted… the LBGA chalkings no more imposed homosexual imagery on the viewer than the average movie, advertisement, or love song imposes heterosexual imagery.”

Coming Out Week was celebrated in the fall of 1995, although the exact dates were not clear; the only mention of the week in the /Phoenix /was in the October 6th issue, in a caption to a photo of people passing out stickers and ribbons.

On October 10th, 1996, several articles about Coming Out Week appeared in the /Phoenix./ There were three testimonials about coming out, one titled “Being Out at Swat: A First Year’s View,” another called “Gay and Graduating,” and a third about the difficulty one student had in coming out to his parents over winter break.

There was also an article titled “Gay Life and Politics at Swarthmore Over the Years” which stressed how far the college had come on the issue of gay rights. For example, sexual preference was added to the College’s statement on Equal Opportunity in 1986, and 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. The Gay and Lesbian Union had only four members in 1987, but in 1996, the Swarthmore Queer Union boasted over sixty members.

This article interpreted the series of anti-gay incidents in the late 1980s and early 1990s as “part of a backlash against the increasing awareness, activism and visibility of students around queer issues and the issue of AIDS,” and ended by saying that “even this semester incidents of homophobic hate speech have been reported on campus.”

In late October of 1996, the statement “fuck homos” was spray-painted on Parrish, and a college-wide collection about hate speech, including the presentation of Swarthmore’s new speech code, occurred on November 8th. It is unclear whether chalkings were part of Coming Out Week in 1995 and 1996. If they were, they did not inspire the same debate in the /Phoenix /that they do today. At this time, the community was clearly more concerned about hate speech than they were about pro-gay speech.

Coming Out Week chalkings were also defaced in 1997, “as many of SQUs messages were defaced and replaced by strong anti-gay rebuttals… Bob Gross, Acting Dean of the College, issued a statement which read, ‘Swarthmore values the lively presentation of dissenting views, but we deplore this cowardly and anonymous form of expression.'” A staff editorial placed free speech above all else, asserting that we should strive to fight hate speech with dialogue instead of censorship.

On September 25th, 1998, a news article reported that ” Three anonymous acts of homophobia have occurred on campus since the semester began. One or more people wrote a slur on a students dorm marker board, scribbled on the Swarthmore Queer Union section of the Intercultural Center banner, and removed materials from the SQU board in Parrish.” The SQU co-coordinator was quoted as saying “It seems like every year at the beginning of the year there are homophobic incidents… they have happened very early and in rapid succession.”

Also on September 25th, there were anti-police chalkings on campus, saying “If you can’t criticize the men with guns, who can you?” and another began “The following words were erased” continuing with a number of police insults including “pig” and “copper.” A junior signed his name to the chalkings and, when interviewed, stated that “his main purpose was not to insult the police but to fight censorship, whatever the actual content of the speech may be.”

The 1998 Coming Out Week “continue[d] the goals of the Campus Queer Watch campaign which began before break… this campaign was very successful because it emphasized the fact that there are so many queer-friendly people here.” One student commented, “a distinctive element of queer activism on campus this semester is that queer-friendly people are visible.”‘

There were chalkings in 1998, and there was once again a dialogue. One writer wrote, “regardless of my personal position on homosexuality, I don’t think drawing explicit pictures of intimate acts of a gay or heterosexual nature is appropriate. Call me a Puritan, but I think some people might be offended by that, regardless of what sex was doing what to whomever. And clean up the language, too. If I can’t hear the word on NBC, I don’t want to see it walking to French.” Worries about the college’s seemingly inconsistent policies on hate speech continued: one student wrote that he didn’t understand why a public masturbator warranted a Public Safety Bulletin when the anti-gay vandalism did not.

The events of 1999 appear to have received no coverage in the Phoenix, but in 2000, an article entitled “Closets can cause claustrophobia” covered both sides of the issue, quoting students who found Swarthmore “amazingly accepting with regards to sexual orientation” and also those who felt that Swarthmore “is not all that liberal, it’s not all that queer-friendly.” The article concluded that “the majority of Swattie intolerance of the queer student body occurs out of the public eye or from hidden sources, where the queer-friendly majority cannot negatively judge or reprimand the people responsible.”

On October 25th, 2001, Coming Out Week chalkings (“I can’t even think straight”, “I want my roommate,” “All-American cocksucker”) provoked a confrontation in Sharples. A student who was offended by the chalkings reportedly approached a SQU Board member handing out buttons at Sharples and asked “Why are you so belligerent? Why are you so disgusting?” According to the board member, “he said he thought if all gay people were like me, gay people shouldn’t have rights.”

When interviewed later, the offended student said he was particularly disturbed by the use of the word “cocksucker,” adding “If they [SQU] behave like this in the real world, I guarantee you their progress will be slim to none.” Posters for the week were also defaced with messages like “sick pervert” and “die, faggots, die!” Together, these two incidents were described as evidence that “homophobia does exist here at Swat” in an e-mail sent to every SQU and QSA member.

A discussion was held about the chalkings the next week. Some people felt that “the chalkings not only alienated the straight Swarthmore community but were divisive within the queer community as well,” but others felt that they served the important purpose of making straight people feel the way many queers do every day. According to a November 1st article, “most of the students who attended the gathering felt that the more offensive chalkings were counterproductive.”

Coming Out Week 2002 was the first in a string of celebrations without any major anti-gay vandalism. With anti-gay hate speech receding into the background, the pro-queer chalkings finally became the center of attention.

A 2002 article called “What to chalk and why” reported that “the students who write the Coming Out Week chalkings are debating how controversial and how graphic the chalkings should be.” The chalkings in 2002 were reportedly “less graphic, and more positive,” than they had been in 2001.

Which is not to say that Swarthmore students did not have opinions about them. One 2002 editorial worried that the chalkings, which can seem to equate coming out with sexual freedom and sexual freedom alone, could actually deter students from coming out because they do not represent the more difficult parts of coming out. Another asserted that while “there may be some visitors who are turned off by the chalkings… there are visitors who feel relieved, accepted, and safe because of a wide-ranging, self-contradictory, fun-loving, attempted-inclusive, colorful depiction of queer and sexual identity.”

Coming Out Week 2002 was arguably the first year where the chalkings debate looks similar to the 2006 debate, and so we will stop our history here, first because we feel that we have charted all of the major events and shifts in attitude in the history of queer chalkings, and secondly because after 2002, the information is easy enough to find through the online/ /archives.

In conclusion, although we were unable to discern the exact date of the first Coming Out Week chalkings, our survey of the Phoenix certainly charted a long and colorful history of queer chalkings at Swarthmore. In this history, a few trends are apparent.

First, the content of the chalkings themselves has become more graphic and confrontational over the years. 1986 was marked by rainbow smiley faces and “I like dykes”, but 1995 saw “Have you kissed a cunt today?” and “Queers eat out here.” 2006 greeted us with diagrams of vaginas, “Your tour guide is queer,” and the statement “Anal sex is for everyone.”

The increasingly confrontational chalkings have appeared as overt homophobia at Swarthmore has diminished. While chalkings started as spontaneous and deeply subversive acts (consider the 1986 “graffiti”), frequently in direct response to anti-gay vandalism or violence on campus, over the past five years, the chalkings appear have become something of a yearly ritual. The conversations surrounding them have also become more ritualized over the years.

While the dialogues in 1987 and 1995 were to some extent unpredictable, many of the phrases and arguments found in 2002 editorials are rehashed in 2003, 2004, 2005, and now 2006. What do you think Swatties will be talking about in 2016?

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