Queer Archives Project

Things Change

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].

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