Homophobic chalkings resurface on campus

Photo by Sadie Rittman.

Around 10 p.m. on the night of Monday, October 27, members of the Swarthmore Queer Union chalked queer-positive statements around Swarthmore’s campus for a Pride Month initiative to increase queer visibility in the community. By 2 a.m., at least one chalking expressing anti-queer sentiments had appeared, saying “Gays can’t make kids w/o a Petri dish.”

Maria Vieytez ’16 came across the chalking in front of Sharples as she walked home that night. She immediately took a picture. Vieytez said that she was reminded of the threatening chalk messages toward queer students on campus that have occurred in the past.

“When I saw it I immediately thought back to that and was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen tomorrow when people walk by this?’” she said. Vieytez expressed that as potentially the first person to see the chalking, she felt conflicted on how to act, given that she anticipated it would be upsetting for many to see.

“It was left out as a device for sparking campus discussion when, really, at least for me, what’s most important is the reactions of people who are directly affected by that,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable with things on campus starting to happen in a sort of contrived way because of what happened in the spring.”

Lili Rodriguez, dean of diversity, inclusion and community development, agreed, saying that she hoped the administration could be proactive as opposed to reactive.

“I think usually we wait for these kinds of incidents and then we tend to have the one dialogue, the one discussion, the one collection,” she said. “True meaningful transformation, for us to actually reflect on our value systems and to figure out and to grow as individuals in our own identity and to have empathy for others, requires sustained dialogue.”

Still, not all students thought that the chalkings were malevolent or needed to be addressed. Indeed, Daniel Paz ’16 said that he thought the reaction was overblown.

“I only wish that Swarthmore students would not feel the need to be so easily victimized or readily offended by opposing viewpoints,” he said. “Swarthmore ought to be a community that celebrates diversity of thought and opinion, not only of sexual orientation.”

But Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, a co-chair of SQU, disagreed that this was just a matter of hurt feelings.

“I think it is important to keep this stuff in context,” Ali-Virani said. “A whole spate of issues that we want to believe don’t happen here do … It would be cool if this could become a point at which a lot of people could begin to shed that Swarthmore exceptionalism a little bit and admit the problem and start dealing with the problem.”

Many students, including Peter Amadeo ’15, echoed this sentiment.

“It’s this general trend of homophobic things being written, people saying that it’s not or it couldn’t be the Swarthmore community because we’re just so past that idea of homophobia and queerphobia and cissexism and all those things,” Amadeo said. “And then when it happens, we ignore it and we pretend that … it was an isolated incident. There are so many excuses rather than just addressing it.” Amadeo cited events during the spring of 2012 and the spring of 2013 as times of violence towards the queer community that were attributed to people from places like the Swarthmore Borough.

Indeed, most members of SQU were unsurprised by the counter-chalkings, even if they weren’t necessarily expecting them. Priya Dieterich ’18, a member of SQU, said that prior to the chalkings, the group went through a history of chalking and the past negative responses toward queer students in the community.

“That was really surprising, and how recently that had happened was really surprising, so I guess when it happened this morning it was a little less surprising but still very disappointing and upsetting,” she said.

Amit Schwalb ’17, another SQU member, felt similarly.

“I don’t think I expected there to be this weird retaliation thing, but I also wasn’t surprised when it did happen,” he said. “I’m kind of desensitized to it — I was bullied a lot in high school for being queer, so I was like, ‘Oh, people are calling me names, same old shit.’”

Amadeo said that for him, seeing the messages still came as a shock.

“I forget that people actually think that way and feel that that needs to be like heard as if it’s not heard enough already,” he said. “They feel the need to be like ‘I know all these people are really happy being queer and stuff, but I need to stop that’, or like ‘I need to present why I disagree with that’ when in reality there are so many media outlets that show why straight and cis people disagree with it. It’s everywhere.”

One of the main points of their chalkings, said members of SQU, was to increase queer visibility on campus for those who did not interact with the queer community or were uneducated about the queer community. Dieterich said she thought the chalking was successful in that sense.

“It’s to make queer visibility higher and to force people who have a privilege of not thinking about it to think about it, and in that way I think that it’s entirely effective,” she said. But according to Dieterich, this visibility comes with its own set of risks.

“I think the other point of queer chalking is to make this a safer and more welcoming place for people who aren’t comfortable with their sexuality and obviously [the counter-chalking] negates that effort, so that’s upsetting,” she said.

Schwalb added that in general, queer and trans people lack agency in the world.

“I think chalking is, in a very real way, this pretty loud and up-front and very self-governed way of claiming a space and claiming an identity and being really unapologetic about that, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that people would react to that negatively,” he said.

Writing messages that may not be palatable to some members of the community has resulted in backlash in the past. A chalking that received a particular amount of attention last year said, “Sucking dick is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Amadeo said that although he agrees with the sexual liberation that the chalking was intended to convey, this particular message may have been triggering to some.

Jackson Hart ’17 also found that particular chalking to trigger thoughts of violence for him. He also perceived a sense of aggression and anger behind the language that he did not believe was productive.

“It’s violent and it makes me a little uncomfortable with someone equating being gay with ‘I like sucking dick.’ It’s mostly just the wording, the way that it’s presented is like it’s like trying to start something. It’s very provocative,” he said. “I also understand that there’s free speech, people can say whatever they want, it can be inflammatory, just personally I like the sidewalk better when it doesn’t say ‘sucking dick’ on it.”

Dieterich said that many negative responses were not as much anti-queer as anti-chalking because of its public nature.

“They’re like, you can have gay pride without shoving this down my throat,” she said. “Which I think is ridiculous; basically, living in this world at all is having heterosexuality shoved down your throat. If this is the only time when something different is shoved down your throat, then that’s okay.”

Paz, however, said that personally, he found both sets of chalkings to be “silly.”

“In my own personal experience, as a homosexual I might add, I was not particularly offended by the counter-chalkings,” he said.  “Finding pride in your ability to procreate is so juvenile.”

But he added that he also found the SQU chalkings to be underwhelming. “I was also not inspired by the SQU chalkings,” he said. “They’re not edgy enough.”

Most of the chalkings this year did not contain the explicit language that some found offensive in the past. The majority of chalkings contained messages like “Gay = OK,” “Your librarian is queer,” “Queerness betters me” and “Have you hugged a queer person today?”

Still, Amadeo expressed frustration with the administration’s responses after events like the anti-queer counter-chalking.

“We’ve had workshops before … about consent, and then we’ve had workshops on diversity and these have all been student-organized, but why doesn’t the administration organize them when it’s their job to create a more diverse and inclusive community and they see aspects time and time again of people failing to be diverse and inclusive?” he said. “It’s not our job to fix everyone here.”

Ali-Virani also felt that past and current administrative reactions had been less than satisfying, although she was happy with the support from the Intercultural Center. However, she also felt that the administration faced limitations on what could be accomplished.

“I think the route [the administration takes] often centers around … a type of dialogue that puts everyone’s voices on an equal plane regardless of how educated they are, how invested they are in the issue, whether or not the problem actually affects them personally, whether or not their voices have been historically marginalized — and so I don’t find that helpful,” she said.

But Paz strongly disagreed. Indeed, he said that the contrast between the two chalkings was intellectually laudable. “I celebrate both the SQU chalkings and the counter-chalkings,” he said. “I believe it’s always important to be presented with a diversity of opinions. Anyone who feels they need to share something should be allowed to say or share whatever they want regardless of the speech’s content.”

Rodriguez, however, said that the school needed to pay attention to privilege.

“You can’t say that it’s just neutral and every voice is equal because then you’re denying the power dynamic inherent to certain situations,” she said. “You have to be able to challenge people, and yet … you have to do it in a sensitive and empathic way enough that respects where they are.”

But on the whole, Rodriguez felt that the college has a lot of work to do to reconcile its differences and come to a solution together.

“The community is really angry and they’re right to be angry,” said Rodriguez. “People’s humanity is called into question by some of these counter-chalkings.”

Rodriguez described plans for holistic diversity education going forward, including thoughts about incorporating an experiential diversity class into the curriculum with a similar approach to PE credits and the consideration of Intergroup Dialogue, an integrated social justice-oriented program for credit which educates students from a diverse array of backgrounds that many schools have adopted.

“Swarthmore is evolving and striving to redefine itself in important ways,” she said.

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