When New York City's drag queen sensation Manila Luzon arrives on campus next Friday as the star host of the drag ball, what kind of campus will greet her? The ball will be one of the most high-profile Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA)-organized parties on campus in recent memory. With its celebrated cross-dressing host and conspicuous location in Jack Magee's Pub, the ball might not have taken place even a few years ago.
Is Bowdoin a more queer-friendly college than it used to be? Certainly much has changed since the 1950s when a student was expelled for "lascivious carriage," an anachronistic legal term referring to queer sexual behavior. In the 1970s, faculty members who were not seen cavorting with members of the opposite sex were suspect. And Bowdoin kept mum about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, never publicly recognizing its faculty and students who had died of the disease with an AIDS quilt, as schools like Swarthmore and Connecticut College did.
Today, some students and faculty say that queer life at the College is thriving and healthier than it ever has been. Others are critical about a lack of queer activism or note that various forms of homophobia persist.
"In terms of what we can be doing, and what we should be doing, Bowdoin doesn't come close to the phrase 'queer-friendly,'" said Isa Abney '11, who graduated last year.
Antonio Watson, a senior, disagrees. "To me, we are at a really accepting campus," he said.
"I knew that the LGBT population was small," said Jordan Lantz, a first year, "But I think that Bowdoin definitely makes up for that with open-mindedness and willingness to create a safe space."
What is certain, however, is that the views on the College's queer life are as varied as its students, and attitudes toward queerdom on campus are always in flux.
Homophobia at Bowdoin
Instances of blatant homophobia are rare at Bowdoin, where discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity have been on the College's antidiscrimination policy since the late 1980s. But homophobia persists despite the College's insistence on tolerance.
Last year, a group of Brunswick residents infamously yelled anti-gay obscenities from moving cars at straight and queer students alike.
In another incident, the words "F-g n---er" were maliciously written on a Coles Tower apartment door last March, prompting BQSA to organize a lesbian gay bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) panel to discuss the issue.
When Watson wore a shirt that said "Legalize Gay" into Brunswick on evening, a group of male Brunswick residents disparagingly called him a queer.
According to Watson, many hate incidents go unreported.
"I don't think that a lot of people talk about it," he said. "When it happens people just get really afraid and stressed out...Maybe they report it to the administration, or maybe they tell a couple of friends about it, but it doesn't really get huge attention."
Senior Lucia Cowles said that during her first year on the Frisbee team, team members were expected to hook up with teammates of the opposite gender, a deeply uncomfortable situation for someone who does not identify as straight.
"That was actually a really heteronormative experience for me," she said. "I felt very pressured by older women on the team to be hooking up with guys...That was never said overtly, but I felt that as a pressure."
Though the assumption on the Frisbee team was that teammates were straight that year, Cowles also pointed that the team dynamic has "importantly shifted."
Several students said the fact that straight students often relate to queer students at Bowdoin on uncertain terms reveals an ignorance of queer issues, even if those students do not act in a way that is hateful.
Junior Bordwin said that being "tokenized" as the "gay friend" happens more at Bowdoin than other schools due to the small size of the queer population.
"I think a lot of people think they're really gay-friendly, and maybe in intentions they are," said Bordwin, "but they don't know enough about queer issues...to really be queer-friendly."
Cowles said she was at a party when a male student approached her on the dance floor and said, "I just want you to know that I so support gay marriage."
"I had short hair it was one of those things. I was like, really?" she said. "You know, I'm not really thinking about marriage at this moment. So I've definitely encountered that awkwardness and people don't really know how to approach me."
Despite occasional instances of homophobia, Watson does not think it is pervasive at Bowdoin.
"I don't think there are huge institutional forms of homophobia," he said.
Lantz, the first year, agreed, saying that he had not encountered homophobia since he arrived at Bowdoin in August.
"Just inherently, Bowdoin has this great air of equality," he said.
But students who have limited experiences dealing with out-queer people at home or on campus often lack the experience and vocabulary to see eye-to-eye with queer students at Bowdoin.
"I'd say that vocabulary is a huge thing," said Bordwin. Of his "bro-y" friends, Bordwin said, "none of them have the vocabulary to talk about these things."
"At the same time," he continued, "maybe I don't have the same vocabulary that they do to have conversations with them about things they're interested in."
Watson said that he could understand the more quotidian instances of ignorance on the part of Bowdoin's straight population.
"I try to personally keep in mind that not everyone's been through the same experiences, not everyone's been around someone who's gay," said Watson.
BQSA—the College's primary campus group for queer students, students questioning their sexuality, and straight supporters—has played an increasingly active role in promoting awareness for queer life on campus.
Last year, BQSA presidents Bordwin and Watson sought to focus the group's meetings on promoting a sense of community among Bowdoin's queer students. They organized queer-themed social house parties, film screenings, Coming Out Week, and Yellow Shirt Day, all designed to promote solidarity among Bowdoin's queer population and acceptance among students who identify as straight.
BQSA has sought to involve the College's queer students more in Date Week, as well as make Consent is Sexy Week more queer-encompassing.
"There are a large number of students who are really committed to making queer-friendly programming on campus," said Watson.
Some students, however, seek alternate queer forums on campus. Cowles explained that she has been frustrated by BQSA in the past, citing as one example an administrator's presence at weekly meetings, that made it difficult for queer students to talk about sex.
"I get frustrated by this sanitizing political atmosphere that can be around BQSA. When you're talking about a queer holistic experience, you're also talking about their sex lives, or their lack of sex lives, or their difficulties with their body."
Abney, who was committed to supporting queer life at Bowdoin before he graduated, was also critical of BQSA for what he called a lack of activism and the group's insular attitude.
"A sense of passion and urgency just wasn't there for them," he said. "I think they claim to be the queer voice on campus, but what they actually do, I have not understood."
Abney's dissatisfaction spurred him to team up with George Aumoithe '11 during the spring of his first year at Bowdoin to found Q Magazine. The pair hoped the magazine would fill a void in the discussion of queer issues on campus, using forms ranging from photography to essays to address the challenges that queer students faced on campus, as well as celebrate queer life at Bowdoin.
"Things like how to deal with being gay and three of your roommates are jock bros, those kinds of questions or issues were never discussed," said Abney.
Abney and Aumoithe applied for funding from the Student Activities Funding Committee as well as a charter for Q from Bowdoin Student Government but were turned down, an instance that Abney claims was evident of latent homophobia on campus.
Student government and the Student Activities Funding Committee did not fund Q, said Abney, "because there was already one gay group on campus and they didn't see the need for having more than just one queer organization on campus."
It took Abney and Aumoithe two years to receive funding for Q, though in the meantime, they published a collection of essays, stories, poems and photographs through BQSA.
"In my opinion, the only reason why we got funding for Q was that I knew the vice president of the chartering organization," Abney said.
Gender-neutral housing became a hotly disputed topic on campus in the fall 2009, when it was proposed at the initiative of a group of students that included Abney and Aumoithe. The proponents of gender-neutral housing argued that mandatory same-sex housing was biased against gay and transgender students who might feel more comfortable living with students of the opposite sex.
"I could live off campus in whatever setup I wanted to, and just because I have that freedom, it means I should have the exact same freedom on campus," said Bordwin.
Under the old system, housing applicants who wanted to live with students of a different sex had to receive specific permission from the Director of Residential Life before the beginning of the lottery process, a policy that the plan's proponents said was biased against queer students.
"Students felt like they had to inherently out themselves to the director of ResLife," said Kate Stern, the director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. "There was a perception that you had to out yourself to someone you might know and may not feel comfortable around."
With the introduction of the new policy in February 2010, students of different sexes could apply in blocks or live together in doubles as a part of the regular lottery process. According to Stern, changing the policy was an important step forward for queer students.
But according to Abney, there was more than a little hemming and hawing among administrators at the time that the policy was first proposed in 2009.
"Tim Foster's response was basically like, 'I don't think Bowdoin's ready for it yet,'" said Abney. Foster, the dean of student affairs, declined to comment for this story.
Many peer schools instated gender-neutral housing policies long before Bowdoin.
According to a study by the National Student Gender Blind Campaign, Wesleyan adopted a gender-neutral housing policy in the 1990s (it flirted with gender-neutral first year dorms in 2003), Haverford introduced similar housing options in 2000, Swarthmore followed in 2001, and Brown and Oberlin in 2004.
"Bowdoin tends to be very reactive," said Abney. "They wait to see what Middlebury and Swarthmore and Yale are doing before they actually take the steps themselves."
Middlebury, however, has not yet adopted a gender-neutral housing policy, and Yale's policy is still more restrictive than Bowdoin's.
Bowdoin continues to place restrictions on gender-neutral housing. One-room triples remain restricted to students of the same gender, and students taking part in the quads lottery must maintain a 2/2 gender ratio.
In addition, all first year students live with students of the same sex, regardless of their preference.
During his first year, Bordwin was able to block with three girls on his social house application without receiving special permission from Res Life. But when he got into MacMillan House and participated in the in-house lottery, a Res Life representative told him he couldn't live in the same room with someone of the different gender.
"My feeling about gender neutral housing is that they made the process way too bureaucratic and made so many limitations on it that were unnecessary," said Bordwin.
Even if problems persist, there is a general consensus in the Bowdoin community that queer students have become a much more visible part of campus life in recent years.
"Hearing from people that graduated two years ago, when they were freshman, there was nothing," said Bordwin "No community whatsoever, it was very underground."
According to Watson, queer students are more comfortable hosting visible parties on campus and openly discussing sexuality than ever before.
"Since I got here freshman year, the queer community has moved from the shadows into the spotlight," said Watson. "We're not really in a place right now where we're going to hide."
BQSA has been particularly successful in planning events on campus this year, Watson said. Bowdoin hosted the third annual New England Small College Queer Summit in November, bringing 140 students from eight colleges to campus and filling Kresge Auditorium close to its 260-person capacity.
Next month's "Gaypril" will not only bring the famous drag personality Manila Luzon (she was the runner-up on the third season of RuPaul's Drag Race), but also include film screenings and observation of the Day of Silence to protest anti-LGBT harassment as part of its schedule.
"This is going to be the biggest Gaypril we've had in my four years at Bowdoin," said Watson.
The number of out queer students has increased in recent years. This year's first year class has more out students than in previous years.
Stern, the director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, said that when she arrived at Bowdoin in 2008, there were four students at Bowdoin trained to give queer support, and now there are 50 students trained as OutPeers.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn said that despite the growing queer population at Bowdoin, the admissions office has not specifically changed its strategies to attract more queer students.
"If the results of our entering class are different from three years ago, it doesn't surprise me, but I wouldn't point to anything we're doing to be more sensitive to students," he said.
Bordwin said that Bowdoin is "lagging behind other institutions that are much more progressive" in bringing queer and queer-friendly high school students to the College.
Information sessions for prospective students are currently lacking discussions which deal with gender and sexual diversity on campus, said Bordwin.
If campus tours visited the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, or if the building had a large rainbow flag, high school students might think of Bowdoin as a more queer-friendly school, Bordwin suggested.
Younger students are outing themselves in increasing numbers. Jordan Lantz said that having candid conversations with his straight first year roommates made him feel comfortable when he arrived on campus in the fall.
"It made me feel like I had a place at Bowdoin," he said.
Despite the developments in recent years, Bowdoin's atmosphere can create a lasting unfavorable impression on its former students.
"Would I ever to this day call Bowdoin queer-friendly?" said Abney, who graduated last year. "No."
Cowles, who will graduate soon, said that identifying as queer at Bowdoin continues to be difficult.
"In the student body here, I think, there's still an anxiety about outing yourself," she said.
Cowles said that while interest in queer issues is prevalent on campus, students still feel the need to hide their curiosity, and that being queer at Bowdoin often means being surreptitious.
When Cowles helped distribute Q magazine in Smith Union last years, hardly any copies were picked up from the public display table in front of the C-Store.
But she found that when she left copies in less visible places around the Union, students quickly took them.
"There's a lot of curiosity about" queer issues said Cowles, "but clandestine."
There's hope among queer leaders that the school will continue to become more welcoming.
"Do I think Bowdoin can change? Absolutely," said Abney.
"What's the next frontier?" said Cowles. "It's having people who are straight desiring to go to a gay party."
When Manila Luzon comes for the drag ball next week, Watson hopes that all kinds of students—straight students as well as queer—will partake in a dazzling procession of drag queens and drag kings, mustachioed women and men donning dresses.
Perhaps Manila, the sequined queen of drag queens, will reign over a Bowdoin that has reached the next frontier, at least for one night.