In or out of Hardy House, queer students forge their own ways

With new legislation in favor of same-sex marriage cropping up in states across the country and the debates sparked by Proposition 8 nowhere near their close, Queer Pride Days at the College took on an added level of relevance for the community over the past week and a half. However, on a campus where wounds of bias incidents are still unhealed, sensitivity and discord still surround issues of queer identity on campus. The varying experiences and outlooks of students, faculty and staff bear testament both to the diversity of the College and to the lack of consensus in any aspect of queer life at Williams.

An organization under the umbrella of the Minority Coalition (MinCo), the Queer Student Union (QSU) operates under student leadership and the advisement of Queer Life Coordinator (QLC) Justin Adkins. “The QSU is a student group that offers a dedicated place for LGBT students to meet and create queer student community,” Adkins said. While the QSU is know by the majority of campus for throwing social events like Hardy Parties and the biannual Queer Bash, current chair Johannes Wilson ’11 said the organization is trying to broaden its focus. “This year we’re trying to lose our reputation as being only social by increasing activism,” he said, citing the Claiming Williams forum on queer life that the QSU organized as an example.

“The QSU is capable of doing many things, and it should be doing more,” Wilson said. “I think at the moment it’s really mostly for people who strongly identify as queer and for people who are already out. It’s not necessarily for people who are coming out on campus, but I want it to be more of a haven, for people to come to for help or support.”

Jack Wadden ’11, a QSU board member, echoed Wilson’s hope for an expansion of the organization’s role. “I feel like the QSU serves a really great but very specific purpose,” he said. “We bring programming and try to create a safe space for out and questioning students on campus, but for those people still in the closet, we can only do so much.” He added that his position on the board – political education coordinator – was created to increase activism and outreach from the organization.

Casey Lyons ’11, also active in the QSU, said that the organization is not fulfilling its purpose to the fullest. “I definitely think it’s not a group that currently all queer students on campus are comfortable with,” she said. “It’s failed to be a meeting spot.”

However, some queer students not involved in the QSU see its problems running much deeper. “I often find that the QSU in general is very sexual in a lot of things that they do,” said Kevin Wandrei ’11, referring to events like Queer Bash where porn is shown and students are encouraged to dress scantily. “They seem to be a community that I’m not really a part of – they’re very activist, sometimes very sexual, very liberal, and that just isn’t me.”

A sophomore who wished to remain anonymous offered a similar critique of some of the QSU’s programming. “I feel like oftentimes the events that are publicized are somewhat mocking of gay stereotypes,” he said. “Rather than creating an understanding, they’re poking fun.”

Other students’ criticisms hinged more generally on the sentiment that, while the QSU is valuable for students who are out and for whom sexuality is a major part of their identity, the group has less relevance for those who have worked out their issues with sexuality on different terms. “I feel like the eventual goal of the QSU should be to no longer have to exist,” said a member of the women’s crew team who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s great to have a haven for the people who want support, but I’m not someone who wants to make sexuality the main facet of my identity.”

When considering the possibility of a QSU inclusive of a much wider swath of the queer community at Williams, several students expressed skepticism. “It’s one of those things that in theory would be great, but I couldn’t really see it in practice,” said Kenny Yim ’09. “There’s no way to really cater to everyone’s needs, since the gay population is just as diverse as any. It would be great if we could, but I find it hard to envision how.”

Wadden acknowledged that the QSU’s reach will always be limited by social pressures as well. “Because sexuality is such a private thing and such a hard issue, a lot of people who might identify as queer on campus might not come to our events,” he said. “Some people in the process of coming out don’t want to associate with us – those are things we can’t get around.”

Other support structures

Beyond the QSU, students pointed to several other avenues for support for queer students on campus. Students and faculty alike named Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, as a valuable resource for help with issues surrounding coming out and reconciling sexuality with spirituality. “In any given year I meet at least two or three students out of the blue who want to sit down and talk about how to make peace with what they are discovering as their sexual orientation in the context of their religious understanding,” Spalding said. “I do have a particular point of view about those questions, but my job is to be as objective and helpful as I can be to all students regardless of whether their points of view match mine or not. Occasionally I do refer a student to someone who I suspect can be more helpful to them than I can.”

Spalding added that, despite any preconceived notions of a religious figure’s role on campus, he sees sexuality as an unavoidable and important part of every student’s experience at Williams. “My personal view theologically is that sexuality is one of God’s many gifts to us, though, like all gifts, it must be used responsibly,” he said. “I see sexuality – regardless of orientation – as yet another lens we can use as we reflect on the deep purpose and meaning of our lives.” Spalding added that the Chaplains’ Office is “underutilized” in general by the queer community.

Students within the QSU also pointed to Adkins as a major source of support. “The QLC is an incredible resource that I take advantage of a lot – I talk to Justin almost every day,” Wadden said. Nancy Roseman, professor of biology and former Dean of the College, said she saw the QLC position as indicative of the College’s commitment to and awareness of queer issues on campus, and that it sent a positive signal to prospective students for whom issues of sexuality are important.

Adkins described his position as “a tie between various queer groups on campus and as a position set up to keep the College up-to-date on the changing LGBT landscape and accountable to be fully embracing of our LGBT students, staff and faculty.”

“I’m really glad that the College rescued the QLC position from what could have been an untimely demise,” Spalding said, referring to recent restructurings of the Office of Campus Life and the Multicultural Center (MCC) as well as budget-cut considerations. “I hope that everyone realizes that the fact the position didn’t get eliminated represents how strong the commitment is.”

However, Chelsea Luttrell ’11 expressed concern with the fact that the position was only part-time. “The QLC could do so much more if the position wasn’t being minimized by the College,” she said.

Adkins and Luttrell both said that a next step for the administration should be to implement diversity training for staff about LGBT-related issues, and that this work could be done by the QLC given proper resources. “The staff need to know more, because there are people who don’t know that you can be harassed just as much on the basis of sexual orientation as on gender,” Luttrell said. “The College needs to provide more information, needs to have targeted training.”

For Chris Waters, professor and chair of history, the major way he interacts with queer students on campus and deals with queer-related issues more generally is when students seek him out for advice or help in difficult situations involving sexuality. He also serves as the chair of the Dively Committee, a committee funded by a gay alumnus that sponsors queer-related programming every year.

However, for students who do not rely on administrative means of support, turning to friends and other closer social groups is often the best option. “I’ve found support on a personal level with friends and in my entry,” said Stephanie Brooks ’10, a Junior Advisor (JA) and member of women’s rugby. “Those avenues are easier.”

Queer in context

In settings where sexual identity is not in the spotlight, students reported discomfort and occasional discrimination, but overall said that their sexuality was either accepted or not an issue. Wadden, a member of the men’s crew team, said he takes an active role in making his team a safe place for himself. “If you don’t speak up, then things do happen, especially with sports,” he said. “I am lucky that I’m on a sports team with guys who really respect me and try to think twice about using bad words. I feel like if there wasn’t a voice out there then those things would happen a lot more.”

“Every single day it’s a struggle [to reconcile my identity with my sport],” Wadden added. “It’s not anything in particular, but just the atmosphere of the stereotype of the male athlete on campus: that in order to be good at sports you have to be a man. If you identify as gay, you can’t identify as male, and it takes something away from your ability to perform. There’s an association with sexuality and performance.”

Evan Weintraub ’09, who used to be a member of the crew team as well, said that he didn’t identify with the athletic culture of his team. “I wasn’t super comfortable talking about it – as a frosh I wasn’t telling upperclassmen I was gay.” However, he said that as he got to know his teammates better, it ceased to be an issue.

The member of women’s crew said she has also found in her team an accepting environment. “They all know and don’t care,” she said. “Women’s crew is obviously different from guy’s lacrosse, though.”

For Brooks, the rugby team served as a safe space for her to come out. “I play rugby, which is a big stereotype, but it’s been a very comfortable environment,” she said. “I know it’s different for different sports, probably different based on gender too.”

As a JA, Brooks has tried to be as open as possible with her entry. “I do like talking about it, sharing my experience with freshmen,” she said. “You have to project the image that you are comfortable with it as a JA, and part of that is just being comfortable with yourself. I think if you’re not and you keep it hidden, you’re showing that something’s wrong with it.”

For Wilson, extracurricular pursuits have been the one area in which he has felt exclusion based on sexual orientation, as a member of Sankofa. “They’re not offensive or prejudiced, just sometimes I get the sense that we’re different,” he said. “It’s probably the only time that I’m around that many straight men. For some reason there is this heightened masculinity, and in spaces like that I feel less comfortable.”

Yim said he is the “only active and out” member the Chinese American Student Organization (CASO), and added that if anything, coming out made people feel more comfortable around him because they felt they knew him better.

Luttrell and Lyons both spoke of struggles to reconcile sexuality and spirituality on campus. “Probably the biggest things I’ve had problems with are issues of sexuality and religion, and struggling to find some church where I’m vaguely supported,” Luttrell said. “I haven’t really had a problem otherwise – I think most of my professors know, but it’s just not something that comes up.”

Members of the faculty reported that, while they felt somewhat removed from queer life on campus, they found both the faculty and the College as a whole to be largely accepting. “In most ways [my sexuality] is completely immaterial,” Waters said. “I presume most faculty know, but a lot of people probably don’t. It’s there; it is what it is.” Roseman offered a similar account. “In my academic discipline, it’s not even especially relevant,” she said.

Campus environment

In trying to characterize the campus as a whole as a safe or unsafe space, numerous discrepancies emerged. For Roseman, her time as dean affirmed her faith in Williams as an open and accepting environment. “As dean, my wife and I were always fully embraced by the Board [of Trustees] to a person,” Roseman said. “My sense of working with them for seven years, from the perspective of a lesbian, was that it was never an issue, but that it wasn’t ignored either. It made me proud of the institution, especially since those individuals are across the board in terms of when they graduated [from Williams.]”

She added that the appointment of openly gay people to senior staff positions “speaks for itself and reflects well on us as an institution.” Waters agreed. “I think the College in general is well meaning and it does a lot and it has a lot of people who really are concerned,” he said. “Having people in positions of high authority – I think that does a lot, but it’s hard to know exactly what. At a minimum, it sets the tone.”

Waters added that, at least in comparison with some other institutions, Williams is fairly progressive in its acceptance and valuation of queer issues. “I know many people in other institutions would kill to be in an environment that’s as open and tolerant as Williams,” he said.

However, despite this optimism on his part, Waters acknowledged the College is still far from where he thinks it needs to be. “I think that there are students here all the time who are dealing with subtle norms of homophobia on campus, and who don’t come forward to complain because they’re not really out,” he said. “If similar incidents happened with students of color, we would have another Stand With Us.”

“For most people I think this is a safe and comfortable space, but underneath there are still some nasty things going on,” Waters added.

Several students, particularly those involved in QSU, affirmed this. Luttrell said that while the College may be safe in some respects, there are still prevalent issues of offensive language and other manifestations of homophobia on campus. “While we are lucky that a lot of that is more or less just people who don’t quite comprehend the power of words, sometimes they are trying to attack people,” she said. “We’re also lucky that it’s never escalated, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that that would not be improbable.”

Andrew Triska ’11 expressed ambivalence about Williams’ acceptance of its queer students. “I’m sure many colleges have it worse – but I wouldn’t say it’s a cakewalk,” he said. “There are plenty of accepting people, but there’s a certain segment of the population that – to put it bluntly – won’t let you forget you’re a fag.”