A queer history of Swarthmore

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!

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