Queer Histories of Swarthmore Panel Reexamines the College’s Complex Past

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.

Part of the sesquicentennial celebration, “Queer Histories of Swarthmore” featured alumni and current students’ personal experiences at Swarthmore and reminded audience members of the power of queer narratives in reshaping our understanding of Swarthmore’s past. The panel was organized by History Professor Farid Azfar and featured moderator Pieter Judson ‘78 and four panelists: Timothy Stewart Winter ‘01, Nayan Shah ‘88, Ali Roseberry-Polier ‘14, and Lauren Stokes ‘09.

Azfar wanted an event that engaged in personal histories of queer Swarthmore and examined how the integration of queer narratives changes the meaning of Swarthmore’s history. He wanted the panel to explore a history not “just about queer people…[but] about the entire fabric of the institution.”

Judson, in his opening remarks, emphasized the importance of the panel being included in the Sesquicentennial celebrations and the remembrance of queer histories of Swarthmore.

“If we don’t have this panel, we won’t be a part of [the sesquicentennial], our history won’t be an issue, and I think our history is an issue. And I think one reason why it’s an issue […] is that Swarthmore has a reputation for being very queer friendly, and that’s very important,” he said.

“But that reputation is based […] on a lot of hard work that a lot of people did over the years, it didn’t just happen and it wasn’t always this way, and in fact it’s fairly recent,” he continued.

Stewart-Winter was the first panelist to speak. He gave a detailed account of his time at Swarthmore, including his process of coming out, and the political activism he did on campus. He also was involved in proposing co-ed housing and spoke about how the administration was helpful in defending the then-controversial measure – particularly Myrt Westphal, who was in charge of housing and residential life at the time.

He also added that the he felt supported in other ways. “For a place that is as academically oriented as Swarthmore is, I think it is progressive. Jim Hormel was chair of the board of managers when I was here, openly gay […]. I think Swarthmore can be legitimately proud of its track record on LGBT issues and its alumni who have been involved in LGBT issues.”

Ali Roseberry-Polier ‘14 was next and discussed both her time at Swarthmore and her academic research on queer activism at Swarthmore in the 80’s and 90’s, challenging Swarthmore’s self-image through queer history throughout her talk.

“Part of […] what queer history is going to be is, you know there were death threats, there was graffiti, people were assaulted [and] gay spaces were vandalized. And those can be hard parts of our history to come to terms with,” Roseberry-Polier said.

Roseberry-Polier, in her work, studied the longer history of these “ruptures” in the social fabric of Swarthmore. She spoke about how the campus usually treats each act of vandalism or violence as an isolated incident uncharacteristic of Swarthmore.

However, Roseberry-Polier said that these are not isolated incidents, nor are they bizarre or anomalous, “because it keeps happening.”

Roseberry-Polier also said that her personal experiences at Swarthmore fueled her research.

“I guess the reason why I wanted to do that research was because of things that I had been thinking of and experiencing as a student. I don’t want to see that research as being disconnected from personal issues,” said Roseberry-Polier.

Nayan Shah ‘88 spoke next about his own experiences as a queer person of color at Swarthmore in the 80’s, and the importance of critically examining who falls under the lens of queer history. Nayan also spoke of how the AIDS crisis is another forgotten piece of Swarthmore history.

Judson agreed, saying, “I want [it] to be remembered […] that a lot of people from the Swarthmore community died of AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s and that’s something that we almost never talk about. It’s not that we’re trying to hide it, but it was a trauma that we can’t talk about easily.”

Nayan also talked about redefining what queer history could be, especially in thinking about students as a privileged group within the writing of Swarthmore’s history.

“It was really interesting, some of Nayan’s thoughts about thinking of students as a privileged group […] and thinking about all the other people who cross this campus, and some of them much longer than students. Some people are here for 30 years and often their perspectives aren’t told at these sesquicentennial events,” Stokes said, who concluded the panel discussion by discussing the importance of finding ways to tell queer history without losing voices through prioritization of certain voices over others.

Initially, Stokes was nervous about speaking at the panel, due to her lack of involvement with the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and queer activism at Swarthmore. However her thoughts changed after she began to think about the interconnectedness of history and queerness. She wanted her talk to demonstrate the importance of approaching queer history through a systemic approach.

“For me, as someone who wasn’t out in a traditional way for most of my time at Swarthmore, I […] feel like I still belong in this history[…]. And I think that was true for a lot of people and I think it is important to see how queerness and sexuality work in a systemic way and in discursive spaces, […] ways that are much bigger than [an] individual and their identity,” she said.

Like Roseberry-Polier, Stokes was also involved in researching Swarthmore’s queer past. In 2007, she published an article titled “Queer History of Swarthmore” in The Daily Gazette. Stokes found the recovering of this history both difficult and interesting, remembering the painfulness of rediscovering the obstacles ingrained in the queer history of Swarthmore at the time.

“Swarthmore did kind of seem to be an oasis of liberal tolerance in some ways while I was here, and to realize the vandalism had been happening forever, and that sometimes it had been worse, was really transformative,” she said

The audience that included faculty, staff, and students reacted positively to the panel. Some faculty and staff remembered the fights for faculty same-sex partner benefits, the first Sager Symposia, and the founding of the Intercultural Center. Students also seemed to connect with what was said.

One current senior, who wished to remain anonymous, identified with the frustrating difference between the Swarthmore brand and actual rate of change on campus.

“Ali […] quite well articulated this idea of the Swarthmore brand as being one that is very social activist-y but is also still a branding tool […]. There’s something of a facade in any place that brands itself as something – there are going to be things underneath.”

Sanaa Ali-Virani ‘15 was disappointed in the continuation of familiar problems but also inspired by the people who had fought the battles to make Swarthmore what it is today.

“On the one hand, it is really amazing to see that there are forerunners in the work we’re doing and the lived experience we’re having. On the other hand, its really depressing how much the same problems come up over and over again. But […] I think both are really important, and I’m going to try [to] hold on to both of them.”

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