’Blending in’ or out: QSU and the mainstream

The queer population of Williams cannot be said to exist as a single, cohesive “community.” “Queer” is an umbrella term adopted by the Queer Student Union (QSU) to describe people of all non-heterosexual sexual orientations. Indeed, this very diversity inhibits the formation of a unified community. Joe Hutchinson ’06 described the queer community as “a whole big spectrum [with] many places where people can fall.” Though lesbians and bisexuals, for example, may not have very much in common, they are “all in one big group together,” said Adrienne Ellman ’03, co-leader of the QSU.

Moreover, many queer students emphasize that sexual orientation is only one aspect of their personality, which cannot alone define who they are. Steven Collingsworth, assistant director at the Multicultural Center and coordinator for queer issues, commented on the diversity of the group: “It is very difficult to create a cohesive community based on one characteristic.”

The general perception on campus places queers into two schools of thought: those who are “activist” and those who like to “blend in” with the rest of the student body. In “The Rainbow Valley,” a movie made by Annie Moore ’04 and Eliza Segell ’04 that looks at queer issues at Williams, Mike Henry ’04 said, “There are two distinct gay communities.” One of these, he said, centers on the QSU and “tends to be more radical. . .hyper-sexualized. . .very ‘activisty.’”

Even the leaders of the QSU would not define its membership as a community, however. According to Moore, co-leader of the group, “The QSU is a community for an hour at 10 o’clock on Tuesdays.” Though meetings can afford opportunities to meet new people, most members do not interact outside of meetings. Moreover, membership of the group constantly fluctuates; Ellman described having to “do names” every few meetings since “different people tend to come and go in addition to regular attendees.”

A large, undefined queer population is able to exist outside the QSU due to the outwardly invisible nature of sexual orientation. “Being queer is not like being black,” Ellman said. “If you’re black, you can’t really hide that you’re black, but if you’re gay, it’s a much more sensitive issue.” Unlike racial minorities, queers can blend in on campus, and Hutchinson claims that the majority does. Moore agrees: “I think the majority of queers at Williams just want to blend in, and that’s a really hard statement to make because I don’t know how many queers there are because they’re all blending in.”

Hutchinson challenges the delineation between “out” and “closeted.” There is a spectrum of public visibility, and where individual students fall on that spectrum, he said, depends on their individual comfort level; while some people choose to make their queer identity known to the campus, others will only reveal it to their close friends or in certain situations, he said.

“For various reasons you will not find the entire queer community at a QSU meeting,” Collingsworth said. “Some think of themselves not as ‘gay’ or ‘queer,’ but as someone who just happens to sometimes enjoy sex with a member of the same sex.” One anonymous speaker in “The Rainbow Valley” concurs: “A gay identity doesn’t have to be your only identity, and that’s what I don’t like about some people here. . .It can become so overwhelming that it becomes the only thing that people know about.”

The prevailing attitude at Williams is perceived as one directed at assimilation, both for heterosexual and for queer students. “The best way of getting along is to not make any waves,” said Michael Fluellen ’03 in “The Rainbow Valley.” “Williams accepts students like that, who aren’t going to make any waves, aren’t going to be radically different from the brochure they hand out.”

Some more active queers object to the passive role some of their peers tend to choose. Many QSU members expressed the opinion that to be gay is by its very nature to be political; when a student holds hands with or kisses someone of the same sex, he or she is necessarily engaging in a political act. According to Moore, some queers are happy “acting straight” and do not wish to be active on campus as long as their friends are comfortable with their sexuality. “That aspect personally bothers me,” she said, “because I think it’s kind of selfish.”

It is harder, Moore acknowledges, for queers to put themselves out there and let everyone know that they are queer, but by doing this, they are actually trying to help people rather than “just get through Williams.” According to Ellman, many queers who are uncomfortable with being active on campus, claiming they are “just not political,” are in fact “uncomfortable with that because they’re not comfortable with their sexuality.”

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. “I don’t think that anyone should ever be compelled to put themselves out there,” said Hutchinson, “because it’s an individual decision of how exposed you want to feel or how much of your personal life you want to put out there.”

One first-year agreed that the ability to blend in is a good thing. “Being queer is just one aspect of who a person is; queers should not feel the need to isolate themselves because of their sexuality,” she said. Some students believe queers should try to blend in on campus. If queers want to be accepted on campus and treated like every one else, said Oren Cass ’05, Online Editor at the Record, in “The Rainbow Valley,” “the last thing to do is to go out and do something that I know will get [you] treated differently.”

Hutchinson disagreed with Cass, and said he believes there is no one rule that should govern the behavior of all queers. “You are who you are,” he advised. “Don’t feel pressured to act a certain way.” That, he says, applies also to queers who do not come put publicly because they are afraid of being associated with the QSU. “I’ve heard this a lot. People want to come out, but somehow they use the QSU as an excuse. . .That’s baloney.”

Hutchinson also described the QSU as an inclusive group, open to all students, including heterosexuals. “Really anyone is welcome: Anyone who is interested in queer issues, you don’t even have to be queer,” he said.

This is not always how it is perceived, however. “My biggest problem with the QSU,” Maria Lapetina ’04 said, “is that it seems like a closed organization. . .It does not seem open to heterosexuals.” When one of her friends attended a meeting, Lapetina said, “people immediately questioned her sexuality.”

The range of queers who attend QSU meetings makes it difficult for the group to have a single function, Ellman said. “The QSU has to serve so many different functions: it has to be the coming-out group that reaches out to all those freshmen that come here and they’re not sure; it has to be the group that reaches out to people who are in the closet, so to speak and it has to be the group that is there for people who have been out for years and want a place where they can be active.”

Both Moore and Ellman have come to the conclusion that the QSU cannot play all of these roles at once. They are in the process of setting up a second group that will deal with coming out issues and serve a more social function, leaving the QSU to act as a more political body.

There is a disconnect between how people outside the QSU – both queer and straight – view the QSU, and how it is perceived by its own members. Those outside the group tend to see it as a radical organization, characterized by biannual events such as Queer Bash and the chalkings, which often involve highly sexual and sometimes obscene language and imagery.

Often, these activities are the only aspects of the QSU that are visible to the campus community. “I notice them most …during the chalkings each year,” Lapetina said.

Activities like Queer Bash and chalking lead some queers to accuse the QSU of casting an unfavorable light on the queer population at Williams. In a Record op-ed last fall, Dan Ohnemus ’04 complained of “the reduction of homosexuality to sex and matters of the bedroom” (“Queer Bash perpetuates stereotype,” 10/22/02). “I find it disturbing that such an intrinsic part of my life has been reduced to little more than sexual fantasies and bedroom fetishes,” he said.

In recent years, “obscene” chalkings have been “extremely unhelpful, as they only polarized opinions, and created tensions between the QSU and the rest of the student body,” Nate Winstanley ’04 said.

This view is supported by the reactions of straight students to obscene chalkings. Offensive chalkings “do nothing but create bad feelings towards the queer community,” said Heather Poole ’03.

Moreover, some feel that queers are extended greater leeway in this regard that heterosexuals would be. “If a heterosexual individual wrote the same chalkings,” said Poole, “then there would be significant backlash and consequences in the community.”

QSU members, however, take issue with the idea that their activities are radical, especially compared to “what’s out there.” “The QSU is definitely more political,” said Ellman, “but it’s all relative. . .We’re not radical, no one’s radical on this campus.”

Said Moore, “Our political activism that we do is so minimal. . .The only political things we do are chalkings, basically. Queer Bash is a party; I wouldn’t call that political.”

“It’s funny how no matter where you are on the spectrum, left, right, how radical you are, someone’s always going to think you’re radical. Especially if you’re in a group that’s not mainstream,” Alex Golden ’04 said.

Many QSU members also emphasize the conservative nature of the group. Speaking of the QSU in “The Rainbow Valley,” Fluellen said, “They’re very conservative queers in a way. They’re very much a group that is centered on trying to be like the rest of Williams, or. . .a lot of the members are.”

“No one is flaming at Williams,” said Moore.

She and Katie Kent ’88, professor of English, agree that this is a problem. Kent commented in “The Rainbow Valley,” “One value of being confrontational and kind of out there is that you really widen the spectrum between the norm and the extreme. And even if everyone doesn’t identify with the extreme, it allows for a much wider range of experience and conversation in between.”

“I think activism should be both appealing or assimilationist and radical, and that both things are necessary,” said Andra Hibbert ’05 in “The Rainbow Valley.”

Moore labeled the conservative nature of the queer population as a self-perpetuating phenomenon: “Williams doesn’t attract people who are gay. There are very few people who came to Williams as openly, political gay people who did a lot of activism in high school…The people we get here are very inexperienced gays, politically.”

The QSU defends its more controversial activities, arguing that its goal is to raise awareness of queer issues on campus. Though most students realize that sexuality could be an issue, argued Golden, most “sweep it under the rug and not deal with it.”

Indeed, many straight students concur that sexuality is a non-issue. “I feel that being queer really isn’t that big of a deal,” said Poole.

“Right now our main focus is educating people and making them more aware. It’s really hard to unite on some issue if there isn’t an issue happening. When chalkings happen and the whole campus gets up in arms, that’s great, that’s what we love because suddenly there’s something to talk about,” Moore said.

Hutchinson was quick to point out that the QSU can speak only for its members and is “not necessarily the voice of all the queer people on campus.” In that regard, he argued, the QSU is no different from any other group, like Vista or the Black Student Union: “what they do can never be construed as representing everyone.” The problem, he said, is that “people are so quick to see small groups of people and want to apply them to everyone. . .I don’t think it’s even fair for the members of the QSU to have to represent everyone.”

Despite the good intentions of the QSU, however, some students believe that it fails to achieve its goals. “The chalkings’ goals of destroying myths and fostering awareness were completely overshadowed by their crude and offensive language,” Ohnemus said. Rather than provoking controversy, Winstanley argued, the QSU ought to foster a supportive community for students struggling with coming out in such a limited small-town environment. “I personally think that the best kind of activism is being open with straight friends, so that they have a face behind the cause,” he said.

Though most students believe that Williams is a comfortable place for queers to be, and have experienced no overt homophobia on campus, Rory Kramer ’03 has “witnessed and experienced many things that can be seen as homophobic here: the constant, unthoughtful use of the terms ‘gay’ and ‘fag’ as synonyms for ‘bad’ and ‘loser.’”

Said Hibbert, “I think closeted homophobia is very, very dangerous because it’s like a corked bottle and it’s going to blow, and I think we saw it blow a little bit last year with the chalkings, and more with the ‘I hate queers’ forums [on WSO].”

Henry agreed with this view: “There is almost no overt homophobia on this campus. . .[However,] there are no doubt students that have homophobic beliefs but keep them to themselves for the most part because they feel pressure to be politically correct.” Most queers seem to believe that the majority of Williams students are truly tolerant, and that much of the social discomfort felt by queers comes from their own insecurities and the social stigmas that they bring with them from their hometowns.

Others believe the problem is not so much one of homophobia, but of heterosexism. “Homophobia (fear or hatred of homosexuals) is much more direct and easier to tackle,” Henry said. “Heterosexisim [the belief that heterosexuality is inherently superior to homosexuality] is much more about the social structure and harder to get a grip on.”

Henry described how queers can be excluded from the mainstream community by heterosexism. “Groups of guys tend to bond around the fact that they like girls and their sexuality and how far they got in their sexuality and talking about that. That’s something that gays are automatically excluded from,” he said. Thus, he feels that while Williams is a tolerant community, it is not an accepting one.

There is a “strong underground gay community,” claimed Ellman, and a large amount of gay hooking up. The existence of such a community may indicate that Williams is not a comfortable place for queers to be. One possible indicator of discomfort on campus is the reluctance of some queer students to release their names to Moore and Segell for the purpose of their video, as well as in the context of this article. One first-year who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I suppose I just don’t want to be thought of first as gay, and then as a person, which I think can happen as a result of people learning that I’m not straight from the Record rather than me telling them once I know and trust them.”

The consensus, though, is that Williams provides a safe, comfortable environment for queers. Collingsworth, who is in touch with several queer alums, said, “Students sometimes discover that leaving a place that can feel as comfortable as Williams and where their coming out presented a situation where sexual orientation can be just one facet of their identity and then find themselves in a community that chooses to define them solely based on their sexual orientation can be quite uncomfortable.”

Though there may not be one cohesive queer community on campus, Collingsworth believes that “there is a community that would come together should something tragic happen.”

Comparing the queer population to a family, he said, “Like any family, we squabble, we fight, we separate and go our own ways, but should something threaten any member of the family, we tend to circle the wagons.”