In response to a number of controversial Queer Pride Week chalkings, the administration decided last week to have Buildings and Grounds (B&G) remove the messages that it deemed void of certain content or in violation of College guidelines. The action taken by Nancy Roseman, dean of the College, on behalf of the College, has caused anger among some individuals and relief on the part of others, including faculty, staff, students and townspeople.
The Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Union (BGLTU) board organizes chalkings twice a year: once during Coming Out Days in the fall and also during Pride Days in the spring. The spring chalkings are part of a national queer pride week; they are not specifically meant to coincide with Parents’ Weekend or the influx of prospective students who are on campus.
According to Annie Moore ’04, co-coordinator of the chalkings, the erased messages included, “Do you like anal sex as much as I do?” and, “Don’t censor my c–k.”
College regulations do not specify guidelines for chalkings beyond the actual surfaces that the writing may be done on. According to Dave Boyer, associate director of Security, the College prohibits chalking on any vertical surface of College property or on any surface where rain cannot naturally wash away the chalkings, such as under overhangs. Chalkings may also not be done on town property.
The spring chalkings were drawn within the bounds of the College’s guidelines, except for a few instances of chalking on town property. The messages only became an issue, however, when Security and other administrative offices began receiving complaints from students, faculty and staff about the offensive content of the chalkings.
Roseman only noticed offensive chalking when she happened to look out her office window. “I. . .saw chalking on the sidewalk that can only be described as being of the bathroom wall variety and had zero content in terms of queer issue[s],” Roseman said.
“I consulted with some deans [and] one of the deans talked to the BGLTU co-presidents and they didn’t seem to have a strong negative reaction to what we were thinking of doing,” Roseman said.
Roseman told B&G to err on the side of caution when erasing the messages. “I discussed [removal] criteria with one of the other deans and we tried to make it as explicit as we could to B&G that they were only to erase the chalkings that without question had no content in terms of queer issues,” Roseman said. She also said that she knew of only two or three chalkings that were in the “eighth grade body part humor realm” and that she was uncertain as to whether the messages were even chalked by a BGLTU member.
According to Roseman, only two or three messages were erased. There were also messages removed from town property, where chalking is not allowed.
However, the question of content and relevance is a subjective determination.
“This year, [the chalkings] that [the administration] found erasable were both ‘obscene and not related’ to the cause,” Moore said. “We would counter that when a gay man writes ‘Do you like anal sex as much as I do?’ he shouldn’t have to reference his sexuality in order to not be censored,” Moore said.
Moore added that Kerry Christensen, associate dean for academic programs, suggested that if “and I’m a gay man” had been added to the end of the chalking, it would have passed B&G inspection.
“We write not to make people who don’t like gays feel the gay love, we write to spark thought and discussion, which I assure you would not happen if we referred only to ‘gay love’ and ‘queer pride.’
“[The chalkings are] intended to be controversial and maybe offend some people,” Moore said, noting that the messages written at Williams would appear “tame” compared to chalkings on other college campuses.
Boyer agreed with Christensen’s suggestion. “We try to leave everything that pertains to queer issues, but when there’s graphic pictures of body parts [that don’t seem relevant], we remove them,” Boyer said.
Boyer said that some of the problems with the chalking may have been avoided if either the students or Security had initiated a discussion between the two groups. Until about three years ago, Boyer said, the BGLTU used to meet with Security to discuss the parameters of the chalking.
Boyer stressed that Security never established any rules other than which surfaces chalking could be done on, although often Security would mention the public setting in which the chalking was being done. For example, Boyer said, the College is surrounded by churches and is also fairly open to the public. Children also often use College property for recreation, Boyer said, which is a guideline he suggested B&G use when determining which messages were appropriate.
Roseman said that she hopes to have a conversation with interested members of the community about the issue of erasing messages. “I would be grateful for such a dialogue and some guidance, as no doubt I will be confronted with this issue again,” Roseman said.
“For example, if someone stands in the middle of Baxter lawn yelling profanity or making lewd comments, is that okay?” Roseman said. “Obviously, someone standing there making statements that are politically provocative or are some kind of opinion is not only permitted but encouraged and desirable at an educational institution. So where is the line in terms of free speech?”
“I don’t like being in a position of determining what is appropriate and what is not,” Boyer said. “The fact is the campus is open to the public. . .that causes problems and benefits,” he said.
The other co-coordinator of the BGLTU, who declined to be identified, said that both the Dean’s Office and the BGLTU have probably blown the entire issue out of proportion.
Speaking from her own personal perspective, she said, “Honestly, I love the Dean’s Office. They might have made the wrong decision, but it is their decision to make, and I just trust that they made the right decision,” she said.
She did note, though, that she thought the Dean’s Office had reacted impulsively to the chalking, something that she and Moore did not want to do in responding to the deans’ actions.
As for the offensive messages, she said, “We can’t hold everyone’s hand while they chalk. We just expect good stuff from them.”
“We will continue to chalk… and depending on the people in the group and our given mood, they will continue to offend people. That’s how it goes,” said Moore.