“Biddy Martin lied to me.” If I wanted to be inflammatory, that’s how I’d characterize queer life at this college, but the truth is, Amherst these days is actually a pretty good place to be gay.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. As recently as the 1990s, queer students on this campus faced open harassment, discrimination and death threats. Someone carved a call for suicide into a gay student’s door. Another group went for something a little more highbrow and sent their death threat through campus mail. A highlight reel of Amherst’s greatest homophobia hits of the 90s would also have to feature “The Crossett Incident” wherein a group of young males decided to show their support for a gathering of queer students in a Crossett suite by pounding on the door and attempting to break in while chanting “Fags! Fags! Fags!”
Like many Amherst scandals, the incident brought both athletics and fraternities under close scrutiny: most of the witness-identified students were allegedly members of both a varsity team and the underground fraternity TD. In the end, the administration punished no one, though a single student penned an apology for The Student. Still, despite any institutional retribution, that night was in many ways a turning point for this campus. For the first time ever members of our community, both gay and straight, refused to let the climate of open homophobia fester any longer.
Students rallied in the Octagon. Scathing editorials appeared in the student newspaper and magazine. People created posters identifying the homophobic students. When the posters got torn down, they slapped stickers onto light poles all over campus. The queer students involved in the incident received threatening phone calls from the perpetrators’ parents on a regular basis. These parents assumed all this troublemaking was coming from the victims alone, but in reality it was the greater Amherst community that had stepped up in outrage to defend the queer students on campus.
This is the most recent major incident of homophobia at Amherst College. The queer history of this place is long and filled with painful defeats, but small victories like this still exist. Anyone who is interested can check out Class of 2002 Eric Thalasinos’ thesis, “The Gay History of Amherst College.”
These days, the Amherst ghost of homophobia past is just that, a ghost. And like a ghost, though it no longer gets to openly eat at Val, or play on a sports team or use Moodle, it still haunts us from time to time. Like when friends report being called “fags” on Route 9, or finding deliberately sabotaged gay educational materials in Mo Pratt or getting spit on at UMass. The hatred faced by members of our community, sometimes here and often at home, is still very real.
But we aren’t a community of victims. We’re a global community that includes members of every gender, race, nationality, socioeconomic class and religion. Yes, we grow together through the pain of shared suffering, but in the end it’s our pride that makes us truly strong.
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that Pride Alliance has become one of the most active student groups on campus over the past two semesters. Our meetings are bigger. We have major events multiple times a month. We’ve managed to bring 10 speakers to campus, host eight film screenings, and distribute 600 t-shirts. We had a formal World Aids Day banquet, a “Gender Your Cookie” event, a National Coming Out Day celebration, a Queer Valentine’s shindig, a DIY sex toys workshop, a BBQueer, Queer Talk with Doctor Deb and Doctor Darien, two Gay Amherst Parties and a queer prom. For the first time ever we celebrated Queer History Month in October and Trans Awareness Week in November. For the first time ever, Amherst students presented at the Five College Queer Gender and Sexuality Conference. For the first time ever we’ll be honoring our graduating seniors at Lavender Graduation, a formal event with a keynote speaker. Our leadership over the two past semesters has included first-years, allies, varsity athletes, members of the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee and Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect. The queer community at Amherst is large, diverse and constantly changing.
So where do we go from here? We’ve achieved a level of meaningful, intentional visibility on campus – what do we do next? I don’t know. As someone now stepping out of a leadership role, it would be easy to offer some vague “keep up the good fight!” kind of pronouncement, but I’m not entirely comfortable with that. Like any community that must perpetually advocate for itself, we must be constantly vigilant.
To be concrete, though, I would emphasize two things going forward. The first has to do with queer leadership. Many queer students aren’t active in Pride Alliance. Some say they don’t need a “support group for their identity.” Others come to all kinds of events, but stay way from weekly meetings. Many don’t have the privilege of being openly out and active because they can’t risk being found out back home. But for those of us who can be open, I think it’s extremely important that we offer ourselves as evidence of older queer students to the incoming freshmen, even if that means only coming to the first few meetings. The global queer community struggles terribly with creating a shared history. Most of us don’t have a little lesbian grandma who can tell us stories of the good old days. What I mean is, for us to forge an enduring sense of community we have to connect with each other across the class year gap. If you feel comfortable in your identity, you can do a lot to help someone younger who may really be suffering.
Secondly, it’s time for the administration to afford the Rainbow Room the resources and physical space that the Center for Community Engagement, Multicultural Resource Center and the Women and Gender Center receive. Students come to the gay dungeon in the basement of Morrow everyday to access resources. We’ve had nearly fifty students at weekly meetings. Angie Tissi, our newcomer Coordinator of LGBTQQIAA Student Support and Services has been incredible, really, completely unbelievable as our group’s advisor, but she’s already doing the work of easily three to five people. It’s time for the administration to realize that failing to recognize the Rainbow Room as a resource center is an immense disservice to the entire Amherst community.
All in all, though, this has been an excellent year for queer life on campus. There’s still work to be done, but I have faith that our young leadership will Amherst an even gayer place next year.