“Established in 1837 by Presbyterians of North Carolina, Davidson is a liberal arts college dedicated to cultivating humane instincts and disciplined, creative minds.”1“History and Traditions,” Davidson College, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.davidson.edu/about.
Official histories of Davidson College, such as the quote above, pulled directly from Davidson College’s main webpage, emphasize the college’s Presbyterian origins when discussing the goals of the institution, rooting its values within a particular faith.2Ibid; Jan Blodgett and Ralph B. Levering, One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina (Davidson, NC: Davidson College Historical Society, 2012). Though Davidson College was founded by Presbyterians, with early leaders utilizing Presbyterian codes to define normative behavior and impose moral regulations on the town (for example, limiting the sale of alcohol), the College’s relationship with this faith has evolved.3Blodgett and Levering, 7-21; W.D., Blanks, “Corrective Church Discipline in the Presbyterian Churches of the Nineteenth Century South,” Journal of Presbyterian History Vol. 44, No. 2 (June 1996). This relationship between Davidson College and Presbyterian moral values came into question following the intensification of the AIDS epidemic in North Carolina during the mid-to-late 1980s.4Stephen Inrig, “Introduction in a Place So Ordinary: The Problem of AIDS in North Carolina and the American South,” in North Carolina and the Problem of AIDS: Advocacy, Politics, and Race in the South (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 1-12. During this time, heterosexual people became more aware of the queer folks in their communities, not because of a sudden recognition of the humanity of queer people, but rather because they perceived them, particularly gay men, as sexually immoral and a threat to public health.5Karen J. Leong, Andrea Smith, and Laura Westengard, “MONSTROSITY: Melancholia, Cannibalism, and HIV/AIDS,” in Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 99-140. As recent as 2017, a working group tasked with reflecting on the College’s relationship with the Reformed Protestant Tradition and Presbyterianism released a report that posed the following question as one of its primary challenges: “In light of the broader climate, how can the College publicly affirm that its inclusive, humane, social-justice oriented vision is rooted in its Presbyterian heritage and identity?”6Report of Reformed Tradition Working Group (Davidson, NC: Davidson College, 2017), 10. The task, then, was to identify ways in which Davidson’s Presbyterian roots fostered a spirit of social justice on campus.
In this essay, we examine the intersections between Davidson’s emphasis on “humane instincts” associated with Presbyterian values and the presence (and, sometimes, lack thereof) of queer community members in the college’s official histories. In doing so, we critically interrogate the exclusions that accompany the sense of tradition and community that some groups associated with Davidson derive from Davidson’s Presbyterian identity and heritage.
Queer Organizing and FLAG
Queer students are absent from most archival documents that record the earliest histories of Davidson College. 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 that might fit under the umbrella of queerness today would have used other terms, including homosexual and gay, in the past.7Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Queer: A Graphic History (London: Icon Books, 2016). Many words used commonly among students at schools like Davidson College were, and continue to be, pejoratives (derogatory terms) and therefore unlikely to have been recorded in official college records. Likewise, behaviors associated with queer students were often suppressed or denied by religious and educational leaders. Because of this lack of recognition of diverse expressions of gender and sexual identity by those empowered to record the histories of institutions like Davidson College, institutional archives tend not to include evidence of same-sex desire and non-normative gender expression until the late twentieth century, and this evidence often appears in student publications before institutional records. Davidson College’s archives are typical in lacking information about this topic for most of the college’s existence, but we cannot assume that these gaps prove a straight past. In fact, an anonymous Davidsonian editorial published in 1986 (seen below) suggested that gay students comprised a large minority of students.8Anonymous, “The Silent Minority,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), February 7, 1986, 13. To continue challenging these archival silence, scholars researching queer histories seek out primary sources such as personal papers and memorabilia and conduct oral histories.
Some of the earliest discussions of queerness in Davidson’s archives reference to heterosexist violence and feelings of precarity experienced by queer individuals; peer pressure also helps explain archival silences. In the 1986 editorial referenced above and seen below, an anonymous gay Davidson student wrote that with “the current AIDS crisis and the accompanying cacophony of sick jokes and God’s wrath sermons…Davidson is the worst place on earth to come out.”9Anonymous, “The Silent Minority,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), February 7, 1986, 13. Only five years later, in 1991, a first-year student who came out as gay was severely harrassed, even receiving death threats from fellow students.10“Why Did We Have to Stage this Picture?” Libertas (Davidson, NC), January 19, 1998, 5-8.
Although these instances indicate an increase in heterosexist violence on campus following increased queer visibility during the AIDS crisis,11During the 1980’s, an sexually-transmitted virus disorder known HIV spread rapidly among queer communities in the United States, harming and killing many queer people as it eventually progressed to an autoimmune disease known as AIDS. This crisis led heterosexist politicians and leaders to condemn non-heterosexual lifestyles as the cause and vector of disease. this period also marked historic queer organizing among students at Davidson College. Amid the unfolding AIDS epidemic and movements for justice for people of color and women, queer students in the late twentieth century began organizing and speaking on their experiences of marginalization nationwide.12 “A Timeline of HIV and AIDS,” HIV.gov, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline; Inrig, 26-42; Jonathan Thomas Pryor, “Queer Leadership: An Exploration of LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education,” (PhD Diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2017), 22. Students at Columbia University established the first official student organization for gay students in 1967.13 Jim Burroway, “Columbia University Registers Nation’s First Gay Student Group,” [Emphasis Mine] – By Jim Burroway, the LGBT History Project, accessed August 10, 2020, http://jimburroway.com/history/columbia-u-registers-nations-first-gay-student-group/. In 1991, students founded Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or FLAG, the first pro-queer student organization to receive a charter from SGA. Unlike any student organization before it, FLAG members worked to “ensure that [Davidson’s] campus is a safe and comfortable place for every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation.”14 FLAG Brochure, undated, Homosexuality at Davidsoniana File, Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC. Though the founding of FLAG, in many ways a direct response to heterosexist violence on campus, represents a historic moment in queer organizing among Davidson students, we must not assume that FLAG represented the beginning of queerness at Davidson. Rather, documents like the 1986 editorial prove that queer students existed at Davidson, and found each other, even before they were officially recorded as an important community population within the documentary record.
Protestantism and the “Debate” over Queer Inclusion
Though many individuals in the local Presbyterian community were supportive towards queer students, some external community members (especially parents and alumni) who spoke out against FLAG did so citing Davidson’s Presbyterian heritage and identity.15 Rob Spach, interview by Isabel Padalecki, Davidson, NC, August 14, 2020. For example, a parent of a Davidson student expressed in a 1991 editorial published in the Davidsonian that “as a Christian I see homosexuality as a sin…some of the reasons for selecting Davidson..were its Christian heritage, honor code, and lack of such groups on campus.” This parent, among others, lamented paying their child’s student activity fee and indirectly supporting FLAG as an SGA-chartered student organization.16A Davidson Parent, “Parent Opposed to F.L.A.G.,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), November 11, 1991, 4. In making such a statement, this parent utilized their own Christian belief, as well as Davidson’s continued association with Presbyterianism, to justify the exclusion of queer student organizations on campus.
Additionally, in the 1994 and 1995 editions of the Davidson Journal, many alumni responded negatively to a student who called on the community to celebrate “157 years of homosexuality at Davidson” in reference to FLAG’s chartering. They pushed back against the idea that homosexuality had always existed at Davidson, citing strong Presbyterian values of the past as evidence to this end. One alum, who graduated in 1950, argued in an issue of the Davidson Journal (shown below) that “the 1950 Davidson always had a great reputation as an academic and Christian college….during my two years of required Bible courses, the 1950 Davidson taught me that homosexuality is an abomination.”17Dave Erwin, “Forum/Letters to Editor: FLAG,” Davidson Journal (Davidson, NC), Spring 1995, 4.
These alums and parents of students, among others, suggested that an embrace of or support for FLAG on Davidson’s campus represented a rift with its Christian heritage. The critics of FLAG discussed here, primarily alums and parents of Davidson College students, used their position as donors and stakeholders in the college’s reputation to mobilize anti-queer exclusion through the language of religiosity and tradition. By evoking religiosity as the primary lens through which change at Davidson should be viewed, they helped to construct a notion of community belonging that permitted and even depended on the exclusion of those who did not fit the heteronormative social codes of the Presbyterian church.
Power, Presbyterian Heritage, and Excellence in the College Archives
The social mores associated with Presbyterianism have influenced understandings of morality and normalized heteronormativity in Davidson since its founding.18 Blanks; Blodgett and Levering, 7-21.Although Davidson students have not been required to attend services at the college chapel since 1963, theological discussions of various forms of Presbyterianism continued to frame discussions of homosexuality in terms of acceptance or rejection into the early twenty-first century. For example, in November 2009, a Davidson student aligned with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (distinct from the PCUSA, to which Davidson is officially affiliated) objected to a college panel on Coming Out Day by stating that “when Davidson officially encourages homosexuality by supporting events such as National Coming Out Day celebrating, it is unwittingly encouraging its students to turn against the God who made them…to live and die under his wrath and curse.”19Michael Spangler, “Homosexuality Against Christian Tradition,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), November 4, 2009, 8. Other Davidson students, faculty, and staff refuted this interpretation; for example, in this same issue of the Davidsonian, another self-identified Presbyterian student stated the following: “The openness of the school…speaks volumes to the heritage of Davidson in the Presbyterian tradition…we can stand together to affirm homosexuals.”20amie Hofmeister, “Accepting GLBTQ’s Affirms Davidson’s Ideals,” Davidsonian (Davidson, NC), November 4, 2009, 8.
In 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA), through an affirmative vote of the majority of its Presbyteries, opened the ministry to partnered gay and lesbian people. (Notably, the first trans minister had served the church as early as the 1990s.)21“Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson, Profile,” LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/erin-swenson. In 2014, these Presbyteries voted to allow same-sex marriages at the discretion of ministers and sessions. This includes Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Anti-queer attitudes run counter to those expressed by current Presbyterian leadership in and around the college, who seek to provide safe spaces of reflection, faith, and belonging for queer students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members.22Rob Spach, interview by Isabel Padalecki, Davidson, NC, August 14, 2020.
As historians, we recognize that archival silences often reflect intentional suppression and exclusion rather than absence. To explain why there’s no information about openly queer students, we must interrogate the heterosexist biases at the root of Davidson College’s Presbyterian identity and how this shapes descriptions of students in college histories. By examining backlash against early queer organizing at Davidson College, including the instances of parental and alumni criticism of FLAG in the early-to-mid 1990s and debate over Coming Out Day in 2009, we see examples of how Presbyterianism has been weaponized by certain community stakeholders as a gatekeeping mechanism, promoting a heteronormative ideology that extends a sense of belonging in the Davidson community only to those who do not deviate from moralized heterosexuality.
As students collect oral histories with Davidson alum for the Gender and Sexuality Oral History Project, we document the existence of gay students at least as far back as the 1960s. Their presence and contributions, which are the subjects of other essays in this project, are worthy of noting as part of the humanely oriented and Presbyterian-identified institution of Davidson College. To write the history of Davidson College as straight because it is Christian is an act of violence; it is also inaccurate.