On the Campus - June 10, 1998

Past editions of On the Campus, Online

Fund for Reunion
Improving the quality of life for gay and lesbian students and alumni


For many alumni, the end of May is all about coming back. The major purpose of Reunions, of course, is to see who else has returned and to catch up with old friends and classmates. Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, are the absences -- reminders that leaving Princeton also means going separate ways.
Princeton's lesbian, gay, and bisexual alumni know what it means to go separate ways. Despite the maxim that there is no single "gay experience" at Princeton or in life, membership in different communities is an issue that "LGB" people probably face more than their straight friends or classmates. Returning to Old Nassau, then, is a decision that LGB alumni may agonize over more than others. As president of the the LGB alumni organization, Fund for Reunion (FFR), Shawn Cowls '87 hopes to make these decisions easier.
The FFR, now in its 13th year, is an independent, nonprofit organization that aims to improve the quality of life for gay and lesbian students and alumni, including an effort to make the atmosphere of Reunions more welcoming. This usually means planning activities that shatter the stereotypical, alcohol-centered impression of Reunions, which discourages many alumni from coming back. This year, LGB activities included a gathering in Murray-Dodge Café and a lecture entitled "Teaching Gay and Lesbian Notions at the End of the 20th Century." These types of events -- low-key entertainment and panel discussions -- have become increasigly popular in the last few years, in response to a general demand for more diverse activities off Prospect Avenue. In the case of LGB alumni in particular, Cowls says, the goal is to make Reunions "a more positive experience for them, and to create places for them to be 'out' if not with their classmates."
FFR was founded, Cowls says, to provide a means for alumni to donate money for gay and lesbian affairs and activities. As a former president of the gay and lesbian students' association, Cowls also recalled his frustration at the lack of communication between gay students and alumni, and sees the group as a way for gay alumni to provide support to the campus group Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Alliance (LGBA).
However, others in the university community questioned the formation of the FFR, deeming it unnecessary. Until recently, said Cowls, the university "didn't feel a need for an alumni group to be founded on anything other than geography." Through its work with alumni and students, he added, FFR hopes that "it will no longer be possible to maintain the fiction that gay alumni are few or even nonexistent."
Cowls remembers Princeton's atmosphere being "pretty bleak" to a gay undergraduate. "The university did little to acknowledge the existence of gay and lesbian students," he said, recalling the Counseling Center's official policy to prescribe "treatment" for students questioning their sexual orientation. Although Princeton adopted a formal nondiscrimination statement in 1985, Cowls and others worked hard to translate what was stated "on paper" into official policy. This included lobbying for an administrative LGB coordinator, as well as for the recognition of domestic gay partnerships in graduate-student housing.
The most recent voice for the LGBA is Tomás Amorim '99, who stepped down as president at the end of this year. Amorim has a much more positive impression of gay life at Princeton than his predecessor Cowls: "I would say that the overwhelming majority of this campus has an openly gay friend, family member, teacher, co-worker, and/or acquaintance. At a personal level most people by now are OK with their gay peers." As a result of this increased acceptance of gay people, Amorim said, the group has abandoned its strategy of pure activism ("We're here; we're queer; get used to it!") to work towards a "post-Ellen reality." This entails a greater focus on community-building, including re-examining what it means to be part of a community in order to be more inclusive and more supportive.
One way the LGBA hopes to realize this goal is through curriculum changes. Amorim is a member of the Presidential Task Force for LGB Concerns, which works continually to introduce more courses concerning sexual orientation and gender issues. Student demand for these courses is high, says Amorim. One recent course was Professor Christine Stansell '71's fall-term seminar, entitled "Sex and Sexuality: Bodies, Desires, and Modern Times" [see the February 11 PAW], and others will be offered next year. These classes have generally been taught by visiting professors through the Department of Women's Studies, but the LGBA hopes to eventually create a permanent home for them in a Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies.
The group's annual activities include Gay Awareness Week in October, a "Queer Articulations Film and Video Festival" in the spring, and Gay Pride Week in April. Also in April, the LGBA hosted the second annual Ivy League Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Allied Conference, which provided an opportunity for leaders of gay student groups to compare strategies and experiences. Princeton's LGBA incorporates straight "allies" along with gay and lesbian students, and currently has more than 300 people on its mailing list.
The administration, says Amorim, has been very supportive of the gay community. The university now recognizes gay domestic partnerships for faculty, staff, and graduate students, for which Cowls lobbied unsuccessfully 11 years ago. The LGB coordinator position, which Cowls also promoted, is now in its ninth year. The part-time position, filled on a yearly basis by a young college graduate, was originally created under the direction of Dean of Religious Life Sue Anne Steffey Morrow, and was incorporated into the Office of Student Life in 1993. Gaining administrative support made a "tremendous difference" for the LGBA, says Morrow. The first LGB intern helped organize Princeton's first Gay Jeans Day -- in which members of the community are encouraged to wear jeans to support gay civil rights -- as part of the first Gay Awareness Week.
Gay Jeans Day was considered "totally radical, and created a terrible amount of tension on campus. For the first two or three years, the events were held in suspicion and question" by the students, Morrow recalls, the campus has become far more tolerant. Instances of homophobia still crop up -- LGBA's flyers have been torn down or defaced, and gay students have also received harassing phone and e-mail messages -- but Amorim considers these to be exceptions to the usual atmosphere of acceptance.
Cowls also recalls finding acceptance among many of his peers, but he came to doubt their sincerity. Students would often forge friendships with him in order to make a social or political statement about their tolerance for gay people, he recalls. And especially during the height of the AIDS epidemic, he was often sought out as the spokesman for gay people everywhere.
"Princeton always wants to appear liberal, even when it isn't," he said, hinting at the same sort of duality that allowed the university to profess nondiscrimination "on paper" but often to deny parity in practice. This duality between a professed acceptance of gay people and true openmindedness was also seen in the controversy over the marriage by Morrow of two gay men in the Princeton Chapel last spring.
Princeton's gay community has come a long way since the gay students' association was founded 26 years ago; the change is evident even comparing the experiences of two of its presidents just 11 years apart. Cowls finds that "it's always a challenge to show [gay alumni] that things are changing," and to convince them to return and "reune" at a place that did not officially accept them while they were here.

Paradise lost
Seniors face life beyond the courtyards and wonder what's next

by Kelley King '98

When the pillow sandwich failed to muffle the orchestra of pounding hammers and shouting men outside my Pyne Hall window one morning last week, I snapped open my blinds to get to the root of the ruckus. Through the rain-fogged window pane, I saw a courtyard dotted with figures in yellow slickers putting up the all too-familiar fence lines that, like spring tulips, seem to appear overnight when the first of May rolls around. April showers had given way to monsoons this year, and Princeton was enjoying its 12th-straight day of rain; but the stalwart grounds crew had faced tougher opposition to Reunions preparation than even El Niño and toiled through the rain and the thunder as if they were building the ark.
Illustration by Henry Payne '84

In a way, it did feel a bit like a means for our escape was being constructed, and the realization made me gulp. To seniors, the raising of the Reunions fencing signals the beginning to an end; or, as the more forward-looking among us might argue, an end that leads to a beginning. I also wondered if it was part of the administration's master plan to wean us. First it jolts us awake and then starts to shove us, kicking and screaming, out of the confines of the country club and into the world beyond.

The weaning process had actually begun two years ago at the close to our sophomore year, when our residential colleges hosted a farewell cookout, attended by such honorees as those resident advisers to whom we clinged freshman fall, and the Dean of the College, who gave us leave to slink our way out of Chem 203. In hindsight I realize that the charred veggie burgers and soggy sponge cake were less a special treat than a way of softening the blow. Soon to be bereft of assigned quarters and dining halls, even the painfully shy and staunchly anti-establishment were driven to choose their own living arrangements and explore the eating-club system. For the next two years we would be pushed to the fringe of campus, eating meals in the border territories of Prospect Row or subterranean Spelman Hall and living in dorms affectionately called "the Slums." No more would someone post flyers to remind us to mind our extension cords or to turn our clocks ahead.

At Princeton you spend half the time adjusting to choices someone made for you and the other half being forced to make your own choices, with minimal transition in between. Academics is a case in point: in freshman-year literature courses, we are presented with line 66 of Paradise Lost and instructed to write on the way in which Satan's use of the term "free will" marks him as a revolutionary. Before beginning our junior-year independent work, we are given a disarming invitation to enjoy a "wide range" in choosing a topic and a blank sheet of paper on which to justify it. Then, of course, there is the thesis, which makes any previous written assignment at Princeton seem as momentous as an essay on What I Did Over Summer Vacation. One friend, who is going into advertising, wonders if it is regressive to be coming off a 120-page exploration of Cold War politics to compose plugs for Chef Boyardee.

On the same day the Reunions fencing had appeared, my roommate and I trudged to Dillon Gym to see what the mandatory senior checkout was all about. The name of the event had brought to mind visions of relaxed, tanned students bearing luggage and room keys, like vacationers leaving a resort to catch a plane. But upon entering the gym, with its step-by-step stations, I was struck by a wave of déjà vu: the setup was an exact replica of freshman-year check-in. But instead of gangly 18-year-olds scratching their heads and self-consciously fixing their hair, the gym was populated by men and women whose swagger marked them as veterans of the system. After filling out a questionnaire that allowed me to unleash four years' worth of grace notes and grievances, I was handed my cap and gown, my beer jacket, and my yearbook. And then, without ceremony, I was sent on my way.

"Is that it?" I asked.

"That's it," said an anonymous woman.

My roommate and I walked back out into the rain, wondering what to do with our empty day. No more classes, no more commitments. We considered packing up some boxes, but thought it might get depressing. We decided it might be a good day to do some apartment hunting for next year, but we ended up giggling at the strangeness of it all. Surely there was no good, we agreed, in standing around getting wet. Ducking through a freshly planted fence that surrounded our dorm, we reminded each other that we'd be back around this time next year, everyone reunited with each other once again.

"So we beat on," wrote our very own F. Scott, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

After being cast out of Princeton, Kelley King will take a job as assistant editor at Philadelphia Magazine.