Student Life: The Missing “T” from Davidson’s LGB Student Organizations
The legacy of transgender students at Davidson, as in many other contexts, is characterized by implicit and explicit exclusion. This manifests in archival documents on student organizations; broadly, these documents contain little mention of gender variant identity. This exclusion is also illustrated by missing portions of documents from the archives that leave questions regarding the recording and choice of preservation of materials addressing gender and sexuality.
Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FLAG)
The first student organization that was created at Davidson to support students of the LGBTQ+ community was FLAG, also known as the Friends of Lesbians and Gays. FLAG was created in 1991 after intense bullying of an openly gay student, including “death threats left on [his] telephone answering machine…and several students throwing food at the individual who was openly gay while he was eating with his friends in the Commons” (Davidsonian Article, 1991). No documents about the creation of or detailing events held by FLAG mention gender as a minority identity at all, solely focusing on lesbian and gay identity. FLAG was explicitly run by students who were allies of the LGBTQ+ community, something which complicates our understanding of the presence of queer and trans students at Davidson during this time period. This is because, as an organization that was known to be run by allies, FLAG could provide a safe space for students to participate in queer community if they were not out of the closet. On the other hand, its existence could represent a potential for cisgender and heterosexual students to take up disproportionate space on campus via claiming allyship.
FLAG ran from 1991 to 1999, and during this time one of their biggest recurring events that was documented was the annual fashion show (1994-1999). The fashion show officially ended in 1999, after heavy criticism by students who were both LGBTQ+ and allies of the community. Those who supported the fashion show said that it raised a large amount of money for charity, and furthered the visibility of gays and lesbians on campus. However, criticisms of the fashion show were also prevalent; a Davidsonian article from 1999 reports criticisms of FLAG’s fashion show, which predominantly came from Libertas’ November 1999 feature on sexuality.
Critics cite “that the event is essentially heterosexual in nature, acted out by heterosexuals for heterosexuals. That is, its content, often highly creative and consistently entertaining, does little for promoting a discussion of gay and lesbian issues. Opponents of FLAG sponsorship of the event made pointedly clear that they did not oppose the fashion show itself, only FLAG’s association with it.” (Davidsonian 1999). While a fashion show is the most public event that involved subverting gender performance, it had little to do with actual transgender students or the trans community.
Bisexuals, Gays, and Lesbians at Davidson (BGLAD)
In 2001, FLAG officially changed its name to BGLAD, also known as Bisexuals, Gays, and Lesbians at Davidson. This was an important shift away from being for friends of the LGBTQ+ community, and as Alexia Boehmler ‘02 cited, “‘[BGLAD was] not just Friends of Lesbians and Gays. [They were a] group of people for all sexual preferences; being friends is secondary.’ The club hoped to become more of a support group and gathering space for people of various sexual preferences.” (Davidsonian 2001). This shift towards an student organization that was actively for bisexuals, gays, and lesbians still excluded any mention of transgender or gender nonconforming students. Until the mid 2000s, student organizations at Davidson focused exclusively on bisexual, gay, and lesbian students.
Davidson College Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)
The Davidson College Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) was also founded in the fall semester of 2001. The organization was intended to be a “safe space for those of diverse gender identity...and those questioning their sexuality and gender,” according to its constitution (Drew, 2001). However, the rest of the Davidsonian article announcing its debut focuses only on queer sexuality, and most specifically gay and lesbian identity (Drew, 2001). This trend of transgender identity being simply the “T” in an acronym spans across the archival history of the GSA. The rare mention of transgender identity relates more often to movie showings than to meaningful programming or events for transgender students, and frequently contains labels such as “transgendered” or “transsexual” (S. Hotchkiss, personal communication, October 3, 2005; S. Hotchkiss, personal communication, March 8, 2006). The most significant event focusing on transgender identity was an event featuring Rev. Elisa Elrod as a speaker on “issues facing the transgender community” (Davidson College GSA, personal communication, February 12, 2007). In addition, despite a relative lack of inclusion, some action by the GSA resulted in positive change in the campus environment for trans students, such as the addition of gender identity to a campus non-discrimination policy (Davidson College GSA, personal communication, January 28, 2007).
You Are Not a Stranger Here (YANASH)
You Are Not a Stranger Here (YANASH) originally operated as a sub-organization of the Gay-Straight Alliance to provide a “safe, anonymous, confidential support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students” (Davidson College GSA, para. 3). Relatively little information is available in the archives on the organization’s programming, likely due to its confidential meetings.
Archival documents also include those reporting on student experience. Among the available sources are student experience self-studies by which the Committee of Student Experience addressed and surveyed students on multiple areas of campus life. The documents also include recommendations to improve student life at Davidson. These reports illustrated the same exclusion of transgender identities and students, using the term ‘gender’ to refer soley to the experiences of women on campus. This synonymous use of gender for women recurs throughout the documents regarding student experience. These sources name women as the only gender group of concern, further excluding and erasing the existence of other gender nonconforming or transgender students. Additional exclusion within the archive is represented by the complete absence of certain pages and sections of these reports, leaving gaps in page numberings. This makes it particularly difficult to understand the perspective of the committee and college during the time of these reports, and leaves questions as to whether these erasures were accidental or intentional.
While the report from the Self-Study Focus Committee on the Undergraduate Experience from 1994 does address concerns of gay/lesbian students, the report fails to mention any transgender students, thus erasing them from the archives and neglecting to their needs. The concerns of gay and lesbian students at Davidson were also grouped with those of students with learning/physical disabilities and international students by referring to them as “Special Student Populations.” This is problematic as each student population has different needs to be addressed. The report also considers how FLAG as an organization remained important to queer students as a safe space for those who could not come out. Overall, the term “gender” is used throughout these documents to mainly address women’s concerns, neglecting the needs of those of other gender identities (Self-study Focus Committee on the Undergraduate Experience, 1994).
The report from the 1995-96 school year also addresses gay, lesbian, and bisexual students by recognizing a lack of social outlets. The atmosphere on campus was categorized as “very oppressive” for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students with religious organizations and athletics being especially inhibiting and exceedingly poor (Davidson College Committee on the Student Experience, 1996). However, the report makes no concrete suggestions for how to improve these issues or make the campus more inclusive. Additionally, unlike the previous year’s study, this report categorizes all women’s issues into the gender section of the document, assuming that women are the only gender that requires defining.
These exclusions and erasures of transgender identities throughout the reporting of the committee of student experience make it difficult and nearly impossible to reconstruct the histories of transgender students at Davidson. Additionally, among the reporting of sexuality without specific reference to gender or trans identities, sexuality and gender are categorized as two distinct identity categories with differing sets of experiences. Disregarding the intersections and overlaps between gender and sexuality becomes much easier to do when those reported histories are sparse to begin with. With transgender students remaining largely unreported in the Davidson archives, and with clear evidence that the environment on the campus was harmful towards sexual and gender minorities, we are left with many questions regarding these intersections and how gender variance might have played a role in the spaces that might have exisited.
- Davidson College Gay-Straight Alliance [GSA]. gay straight alliance [Flyer]. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
- Davidson College Committee on the Student Experience (1996). Davidson College Self-Study 1995-96. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
- Davidson College Committee on the Undergraduate Experience (1994). Davidson College Self-Study 1994. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
- Drew, E. (2001, Oct. 3). Gay-Straight Alliance makes debut. The Davidsonian, 2.
- Gregory, Ann. BGLAD Comes Out. The Davidsonian.
- Stuntz, Jim (2001, Oct. 3). FLAG Abandons Fashion Show, The Davidsonian, 1.
Authors: Isabelle Kirkwood, Johanna Lagunas, Sanzari Aranyak, Sophie Sauer, GSS 360: Transgender Studies, Fall 2021.