In December of 2013, Davidson College made national news when the Huffington Post published an article about disagreements surrounding the College’s policy regarding students hanging flags from their dorm room windows. According to the article, Dean Jason Shaffer, the Director of the Residence Life Office at the time that this article was published, sparked controversy when he informed Max Feinstein, a queer student, that he needed to remove the rainbow pride flag in his window as “a bystander may mistake [it]….as representative of the values of all the inhabitants of the dorm.”1Meredith Bennett-Smith, “Show of Solidarity For Gay Davidson College Student Prohibited From Flying Rainbow Pride Flag,” Huffington Post, December 16, 2013, accessed August 23, 2020, https://www.huffpost.com /entry/gay-davidson-college-student-rainbow-flag_n_4434917. When we use the term “queer” in this essay, we mean people of sexual and gender identities diverging from the cisgender and heterosexual identities frequently deemed normative. Reflecting on the history of sexuality in the United States, students whose identities, desires, and self-definitions might fit under the umbrella of queerness today would have used other terms, including homosexual and gay, in the past.2Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (London: Icon Books, 2016).
Many students protested Dean Shaffer’s statement by hanging rainbow flags out of their own windows (shown below). This included students who Feinstein initially thought “didn’t care” about or recognize the queer community at Davidson College. As a result, these students helped thwart Davidson College’s efforts to disassociate queerness from its visible brand as an elite institution that educates and graduates students who excel at socially acceptable standards of academic and athletic achievement. These otherwise mainstream students acted in solidarity with students who eschew gender binaries and heterosexual norms; together, they increased the visibility of queerness within the physical landscape of the institution.3 Bennett-Smith; Local News: Campus Debates LGBT Student Life, Flag Policy, January 27, 2013, Homosexuality at Davidsoniana File, Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
In an attempt to avoid publicly endorsing the message of the rainbow flag and pride in non-heterosexual identities, Dean Shaffer’s response to Feinstein’s flag sparked a renewed interest among the student body in discussing the experiences of queer students on Davidson’s campus.6Previously, discussions about the experience of being a queer student at Davidson College took the form of anonymous postings in the Davidsonian and events organized by FLAG (Friends of Lesbians and Gays), an organization formed in 1991. For more information on FLAG, read “Presbyterian Heritage and Queerness.” Such a direct movement towards imprinting queerness onto the public appearance of the campus sparked conversations among students, faculty, and staff, especially in the form of “talkback” events, about the meaning of queer “visibility” that would extend beyond the initial controversy. By analyzing the actions of queer Davidson students advocating for equity, inclusion, and visibility, we can critically evaluate how queer students have been remembered and preserved in the college archives.
Queer “Visibility” and Campus Organizing
Though many scholars, including Mary L. Gray, Rosemary Hennessey, and Lisa Duggan, have presented different definitions of queer “visibility,” many emphasize that demands for increased “visibility” do not just refer to a desire to be recognized as existing. Rather, queer people who call for “visibility” want their non-heterosexual identities to be recognized as possible, natural, and normal in their communities, which have often rendered them invisible.7 Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009), 1-35. According to queer theorist Mary L. Gray, queer organizers in rural areas (such as Davidson College and as opposed to specific urban neighborhoods that serve as magnets for queer people) have often strategically heightened their visibility when organizing for their rights and nurturing a sense of belonging. By creating coalitions with other queer people and heteronormative allies, and taking up or marking physical space within communities that have failed to recognize their existence, rural queers initiate larger conversations about equity and liberation. In this sense, a pride flag isn’t a decoration; it marks queer presence and a challenge to those who would deny it.8Gray, 165-177; José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
Calls for visibility and inclusion in the physical aesthetic of Davidson College are prevalent in the college’s archival records of queer students. When discussing flag policy in 2013, students engaged broader conversations on representation and meaning. This included several students who hung the Confederate flag from their windows in response to the controversy over the pride flag. In the Huffington Post article shown above, Feinstein compared the removal of his rainbow flag to the promotion of ideologies represented by the Confederate flag, a symbol historically used to uphold patriarchal, and therefore anti-queer, white supremacy.9Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 1-16. Feinstein feared that the College, rather than addressing its white supremacist heritage and the meaning of Confederate symbols, would deny all students the ability to hang a flag from their dorm window and publicly alter the physical image of Davidson’s campus. Feinstein expressed concern about a universal flag-ban that falsely equated the rainbow and Confederate flags. He argued that “the person who hung the Confederate flag [would receive] exactly what he/she wanted,” the continued removal of pride flags on campus, while “the LGBTQ community is relegated again to the shadows of campus culture” and made invisible.10Bennett-Smith.
After the immediate removal of Feinstein’s flag, the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), a queer student group established in 2003, hosted a talkback between students, faculty, and staff to discuss “how to increase visibility of LGBTQIA” campus group and students.11Local News: Show of Solidarity for Gay Davidson College Student Prohibited From Flying Rainbow Pride Flag, December 16, 2013, Homosexuality at Davidsoniana File, Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC. Several students provided suggestions on how queer students could be more visible, supported, and empowered by the larger campus community, including creating an LGBTQ+ “safe space” on campus, revising tour-guide procedures to make queerness a more open part of the discussions prospective students would have about Davidson College, and even creating an art installation of queer presence and support on campus. Dylan Goodman, a member of the class of 2016, summarized the talkback: “We need to make sexual diversity a part of Davidson’s identity.12Sophia Guevara, “Talkback Focuses on Campus LGBTQIA Visibility,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), January 19, 2014, 1.
The conversation surrounding the flag incident quickly evolved from a matter of one queer student expressing his identity to that of queer students collectively being recognized as important and valued members of the college community. Queer students and allies alike stood in solidarity with Feinstein to take up space, represented by the hanging of many rainbow flags from dorm windows. By organizing, attending, and participating in talkbacks such as the aforementioned GSA event, students championed the idea that queer students could, and should, be recognized and affirmed publicly by Davidson College. Queer students and allies asserted the right for queer stories to be heard, addressed, and acknowledged. Their calls for visibility, when examined closely, are calls for inclusion in the identity and history of an institution that, for more than a century, failed to record even minimal acknowledgment of queerness in its archival record.
Visibility, Community, and Institutional Identity
Queer organizing and advocacy that centers visibility is not without scholarly critique. Rosemary Hennessey and Lisa Duggan have argued that the visibility politics utilized by many mainstream movements for the rights of queer people have dangerously led into moments of cultural assimilation and a desire for queer people to be recognized as respectable deviants while still upholding heterosexuality as the norm.13Lisa Duggan, “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,” in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, ed. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 175-194; Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018). Even students who took issue with events that made visible expressions of queerness, such as the editors of the 1998 edition of student publication Libertas, which described fashion shows put on by FLAG (the prominent GLBTQ student group at Davidson College before GSA) as unimpactful and voyeuristic, recognized widespread feelings of invisibility as harmful to queer students and an urgent matter demanding redress.14“Why Did We Have to Stage this Picture?” Libertas (Davidson, NC), January 19, 1998, 5-8.
As we elevate the activism and coalition-building between queer students and other community members and their calls for increased visibility, we must be cognizant of the limits of what can be known about that past. That the best-preserved elements of queer activism on Davidson’s campus center the notion of visibility does not indicate that other, perhaps more radical calls for justice and liberation, did not exist during the period discussed here, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For example, during this same period, queer people on other campuses organized for access to queer-affirming sexual education, counseling services, housing, and health care; the creation of academic units centering Queer Studies; and the hiring and tenuring of openly queer faculty. Many of these initiatives sought to fundamentally change institutional structures rather than include a previously marginalized group within them. Did queer students then attending Davidson College also care about these things?
The archives are silent, but this lack of documentation of more radical calls for institutional transformation underscores the limitations of relying primarily on college-sanctioned written material and the importance of preserving personal papers and non-written archival evidence including photographs and oral histories. Until the latter decades of the twentieth century, college archives existed to maintain records created by the institution rather than document the range of student experiences. For this reason, the perspectives of whole groups are silenced or obscured. Davidsonian articles, one of the few sources documenting student experiences, often have filtered queer voices through the words of straight writers and editors. The result has been a loss of nuance. For example, the Davidsonian reduced the 2013 flag debate to an “anti-queer” versus “pro-queer” debate. Personal papers, including objects like flags and candid photographs of student life, and oral histories enable a more complex understanding of the past, and along with institutional records, their collection and preservation should be a priority of college archives. Oral histories with marginalized groups are particularly important. According to scholars Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio Roque Rodriguez, oral histories that allow queer folks to tell their own stories of queerness, identity, and belonging do the necessary work of “disrupt[ing[ historical paradigms that do not or will not acknowledge the existence of bodies, genders, and desires invisible to previous historical traditions.” Oral histories, then, are necessary archival materials towards to goal of increasing and understanding queer visibility on-campus and within the archives.15 Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque Rodriguez, Bodies of Evidence: the Practice of Queer Oral History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5.
Queer students’ activism for visibility at Davidson College and claiming of both physical and archival space corrects past presentations of the student body as uniformly cisgender and heterosexual. Open queerness is now part of Davidson’s brand, and the collection and creation of records documenting the experiences of Davidson alum who identify as GLBTQ would further foster the well-being of queer students here today and those who will attend Davidson College in the future. In this way, inclusive archives can support the work done by queer students who, despite seeing very little of themselves in the College’s history and aesthetic, insisted on being visibly represented as integral, historically relevant stakeholders in the identity of the institution that is Davidson College.