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- 1 media/Screen Shot 2018-12-07 at 3.34.31 PM.png 2018-09-14T19:58:43+00:00 Jennifer Wellnitz b1353a4226a5e86c637092dbc39bd947bb78b1cd BCD (Behind Closed Doors) 12 plain 2019-04-23T01:10:31+00:00 Mary A Armstrong 41061fcf0da5c46170ab7fce619c80dcde461b93
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Moving forward a bit in time, the 1980s ushered in many small waves of change that culminated in large impacts.
After being named the most homophobic college in the country by the 1992 Princeton Review, the next twenty years saw the creation of the Friends of Lesbians and Gays organization (the first iteration of what is now known as QuEST), the change in institutional policy to include same-sex partners in receiving marriage benefits offered by the college, Riley Temple being elected to the Board of Trustees, and the initiation of Safe Zone Training to educate students and faculty on the plights faced by those in the queer community and to make campus a more inclusive and welcoming space (Lassiter, "Black Manifesto to QuEST Manifesto" 11).
However, running linear to the multitude of institutional changes were the experiences of Black queer people, including professors, on campus. The year 1987 saw the hiring of Bryan Washington, a self identifying Black gay man, to the English department. Knowing each other as the two only gay professors, Washington and Lynn Van Dyke built a friendship and support system for each other in the English Department. Van Dyke recalls in her Queer Archives interview that she:
worried about him. Because he was one of very few African American faculties, certainly the only one in the English department, students expected him primarily to identify racially, right? And [she did not] think he tried to be closeted, but he did hide certain patterns of behavior that people could probably pick up as being non-heterosexual. [20:05-20:35].
Although Washington made some level of attempt to shelter his sexuality, Van Dyke also recalls when “a few students started to get signals from him, and they would come into his office -- guys -- [...] and come out to him, and want support from him, [she thought] he felt pulled in lots of different directions” [21:26 -21:38].
Whether known as gay or not, Washington found himself in spaces where because he was one of the only and sometimes the only form of representation for Black students, queer students, and queer Black students, he was expected to fulfill leadership and advising roles in activism on campus. This positionality, especially when exploited by the campus, when “he was always being put on committees,” created the weight of minority tax for Washington, as well as “another faculty member on campus for whom [Van Dyke recalls thinking] [00:29:00] the relationship between [their] African American identity and the relationship between being gay was a problem” [22:06-22:08, 28:52- 29:12].
This question of whether or not to reveal one’s sexual identity and the struggle of inhabiting both identities on this campus was faced not only by professors, but by students as well. Moving forward again in history, the early 2000’s also saw a surge in acceptance of queer identities on campus. QuEST (then known as Questioning Established Sexual Taboos but later renamed simply to Quest without acronym) sponsored a highly attended “Gay? Fine By Me Rally” on the quad, the course Sexuality Studies, the first of its kind at Lafayette, was taught for the first time, and Lafayette hosted its first Queer Prom for all students in the Lehigh Valley Area (Lassiter 11,12).
Interestingly enough, in 2011 “The QuEST executive board [was] comprised of only persons of the African Diaspora with the exception of one person; among [that] board [was] the first Latino President,” and in 2012 “QuEST [had] its first female, Black President” (Lassiter 11). These structural and institutional wins are necessary to be mentioned. However, Lafayette was not yet a safe haven for queer Black students. Stacey Ann Pearson ‘15 speaks of this in her Queer Archives interview,noting how it was exactly the hypervisibility of queer and queer Black students that was being championed as progress that prevented her from coming out. Whereas for Riley Temple the campus operated with a cultural ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, in Pearson’s experience many more students were openly vocal about their sexual and gender identities. However, in both moments in history there was still a negative connotation associated with being a part of the community, and for Pearson the level of vocality and spotlight that other queer students were stepping into was neither welcoming or safe.
While the “Quest members and the board members, they had reached such a level of comfort that they didn’t really see” the fears that plagued those that were still in the closet, Pearson recalls campus in 2011 being “a hostile environment” [20:05-20:15, 30:23-30:25]. Whether it was because of the use of outright derogatory language that she heard on her first weekend on the quad or the consistent distance made between straight students and those who were queer, it was certainly a bold choice to be out and proud at Lafayette. However, Pearson knew that there had to be others like her, closeted and in need of support, so, along with the help of the then head of Gender & Sexuality Programming Gene Kelly and her friend Kristen Berger, they “put together BCD [Behind Closed Doors],” a safe and confidential space welcoming those who were questioning their sexuality and gender identity [17:00].
Although administration seemed to be in full support of the burgeoning queer community, Pearson recalls that they faced a multitude of institutional and funding challenges. The counseling center in particular was not a safe space for queer Black students, and they argued that BCD should not be in operation because it was not a counseling group with proper training to help students. Knowing how needed the group was, in response Pearson said “well, okay, so we may not have training to help these students, and you have training to help these students, but you aren’t reaching these students. So it doesn’t matter if you have training or not. If you don’t reach the students, then that makes it a moot point” [18:30-18:43]. Seeing and feeling the effects of an institution not understanding or being able to serve the needs of marginalized students, this conflict only reinforced the need for BCD to be created with students needing the space to discuss and explore their sexuality without the institutional heteronormative gaze.
On a more personal level, Pearson struggled with coming to terms with her sexuality throughout almost her entire college journey. She did not begin work on BCD until her senior year, and spent the three previous years deep in the closet. This was due, in large part, to her Christian and Jamaican background, as well as her position in the Black community as a mature personality that many went to for advice. Even after starting to come out to close friends, there was still a level of anxiety produced when her Blackness and queerness coexisted in the same space, even if only temporarily. In recalling a moment, presumably in the student center, Pearson states:
Or, oh my God, I see my other Caribbean friends. I can’t go to Quest tonight. Because they’re standing with me and they’re talking, and I told them I had a meeting and now it’s time to go to the meeting, and they’re going to ask me, where are you going? [16:23-16:34].
Pearson acknowledged that “It was tough. And I know that there are other persons here that [were] going through that and especially in the Black American and Black Caribbean communities” [37:25-37:20]. This space of anxiety, of hypervisibility turned silence, of fearing that one or both identities will cause tension with the other, is something experienced by queer Black professors and students alike over the course of 50 years at Lafayette. BCD provided for a secret meeting space which allowed for students to actively work against hypervisibility and feel safe in their chosen silence. Alternatively, Quest was equally as powerful as it was a space for people to step into hypervisibility and actively work against forced silence, while also being a beacon of light for those who were not ready to openly self-identify but could “sit down far away, [and] still keep [their] eye on” what could be their future [58:23-58:28].
As Lafayette is a large community made up of smaller communities, the individual connections and smaller-scale communications play a huge role in how campus climate is developed and communicated. Peers learn from one another what is or is not acceptable while also creating spaces for one another to explore their identities and grow. For some, like Leah Wasacz, ‘16, this peer-to-peer exchange has overall positive implications for their own self-growth while for others, like Stacey-Ann Pearson, ‘15, this exchange has silencing effects.
For Wasacz, coming out to her friends first as bisexual and then as a trans woman created a space for her peers to feel comfortable and to learn from one another. She tells how when she first came out, many of her friends responded by coming out as bisexual. Her coming to terms with her own identity made space for other students to do the same and allowed for this sharing of information based on experience. She made it acceptable for her friends not to identify as heterosexual and created a climate within her own social circles of inclusivity and acceptance. This also created a climate of sharing experiences. Wasacz explains how once she and her friends came out to each other, they were able to ask questions and learn from one another how to relate to their identity. Her coming out also opened up conversations with cis female friends about how to present as a woman and “processing feminine identity.” Within this smaller community of Lafayette, a climate of learning, understanding, and sharing was created.
While sharing experiences of queer people at rallies and official events registered with the school are instrumental in providing institutional recognition and validation of these identities, the real growth and power comes from the small interactions people have with one another in class, in the dining hall or working on homework.This was also apparent in Leah’s story about a Writing Associate (WA) staff meeting in which Professor Tatu announced Leah’s pronouns and supported her. Just his acknowledgement of her identity sent the message to the WA staff that she existed, that she mattered, and that she would be respected. It also, in a way, validated trans identity at a higher institutional level and sent the message, to WA staff at the very least, that queer-identified people exist on this campus and contribute to the College.
Leah’s story illustrates a snowball effect of coming out, in that her coming out as trans made space for other queer people to come out and for queer and non-queer individuals to have conversations with one another about gender, sexuality, and identity. Stacey-Ann Pearson, ‘15, had a different experience in her interactions with other students regarding LGBTQ+ identities. She begins talking about her experience at Lafayette with a conversation about “some obnoxious lesbian” and how hearing her peers talk in such a disgusted way about lesbians sent her right back into the closet. Her peers were sending a very clear message that this was not acceptable and if she wanted to belong on campus, she couldn’t be gay. Interactions such as these are powerful, as Pearson remained in the closet for two years. A climate of intolerance and shame was communicated to her very quickly and effectively through her peers.
Pearson also talks about how she would hover around the Quest office and occasionally go to meetings, but it all felt too public and exposing for her. From her experience on that very first day at Lafayette, it was too much of a risk to be so open. This led her to create BCD, a space where people could be closeted and explore their identities safely.
Before BCD, Quest was really the only representation of queer life and the only “face” of an out queer community. Quest represented an out community that was ready to be visible on campus, rainbow flags blazing. For some, that was the only way to change campus climate and they were comfortable with that. For others, however, there needed to be a space within the larger Lafayette context that allowed them to safely learn about themselves and relate to the struggles and victories of other queer people. BCD provided that space while illustrating that the general Lafayette community was not ready to fully accept its queer members. If queer people could, however, find those small, informal networks of support through friends or organizations such as BCD or Quest, then the rest of campus, and the overall climate, would follow.
This page focuses on forms of community that are hidden to non-members, often to promote a sense of safety and security.
Due to the frankly dangerous nature of having an LGBTQ+ identity throughout American history, many groups of queer people do not have the luxury, nor the desire, to be publicly known. To discount groups that form and remain hidden out of necessity from the conversation of what makes a community simply due to their lack of presence in the consciousness of the larger institution would be a significant disservice to queer history. Though less evidence of such “Hidden Communities” exists through archival artifacts by their very nature, oral history lends itself as a particularly powerful tool to document such organizations and appreciate their larger purpose without compromising the safety of the members, nor fundamentally changing the purpose and structure of the community in question. For the purpose of this path, Hidden Communities will be defined as those communities which take significant steps to preserve the anonymity of their participants and possibly the existence of the group itself.
The most prominent example of this type of community in contemporary (2019) Lafayette is Behind Closed Doors, or BCD. BCD is a student run support group for members of the LGBTQ+ community at Lafayette, particularly focusing on closeted students. Stacy-Ann Pearson ‘15 was one of the two founders of the group, and her interview makes clear that BCD was necessary because the communities that did exist were often too public for closeted queer students to feel comfortable attending, leaving these students without any type of support: “we didn’t want to quiet the out community, because it was so important for that community to be out. But we do also have a very large community of closeted individuals.” Pearson further states, “We had days when only one person showed up and it was just Berger and myself and this other person. So we had to work through those times, but we knew that it was necessary. Because Berger and I both knew that for us, this would have been a space that we would have wanted when we were freshmen.” [time stamps] Finally, Leah Wasacz ‘16, a prominent member of the community and another interviewee of the site, states, “BCD, when I started going, was like half-Black, and Stacy is Jamaican, and we had international students there -- and Gay men, and Lesbians, and I was a trans person. It was so -- a microcosm of what Lafayette talks about when they talk about diversity,” expounding on the diversity and inclusiveness of BCD as a community available to all queer students on Lafayette’s campus [time stamp].
It is important to note that BCD doesn’t follow all of the conventions of a Hidden Community as defined here; in fact, the fact that we are able to talk about it so directly is an indication that the community is not quite so hidden. Specifically, BCD advertises its existence and has at least one member who is known as the contact person for people wanting to join the organization. Thus, in some ways, BCD behaves more like an Explicit Community than a Hidden one. However, it’s meeting times and locations are a secret to non-members and it is asked that members not reveal the identity of other members or anything brought up in discussion outside meetings. BCD essentially acts as a Hidden Community which has sacrificed some of its obfuscation to be more accessible to students who need it as a resource.
Perhaps a more accurate example of a Hidden Community is the Mattachine Society at Lafayette. This organization was mentioned in an interview with Professor Emerita Lynn Van Dyke, but no archival evidence has been found of its existence. Van Dyke comments,
...there’s a retired, now deceased, male faculty member that we got to know somewhat, who told us about the sort of Mattachine Society, kind of meetings of men in the pre-coed days. That there was a group of male, gay, male faculty members, who would meet off campus very quietly. I think this guy told us that there was a period -- maybe Ann will know about this -- there was a period during the ‘50s -- it would have been very early in his time -- when they felt they could be more open, you know, in their behavior at least, and then that closed down again. So, you know, there is a history that unfortunately the archives probably will never be able to get. [18:00-20:00]
Due to the nature of Hidden Communities, they are difficult to document. However, they serve an invaluable purpose for those who do not have the freedom to express their identities openly. Hidden Communities remain a pillar of queer communities at large.