An open letter to MacMillan House and allies of Bowdoin
The following letter regarding the Gender Bender party was written by several members of Gender Matters, with additional input from other students. The letter was emailed to members of Mac House on Wednesday, a couple hours before they announced their decision to change the theme of the party. We, as the authors of the letter, have chosen to publish in order to bring our side of this discussion to the general public, as we feel understanding our reasoning and intentions will help guide dialogue moving forward. We look forward to being able to have productive and meaningful conversations with the members of Mac and other students more broadly in the future.
To the people of Mac House,
This is a letter written collaboratively by members of Gender Matters and other concerned students. We would like to be very clear and up front here: we are telling you that you must change the theme of the party. This is not a debate. This is us, as trans/nonbinary/genderqueer identified students telling you that this party theme makes us profoundly uncomfortable, and invalidates our very identities. To borrow a quote from your statement on Facebook, “We recognize that true allyship means listening to and acting upon the concerns of queer students on campus.” So now it’s time to listen and act.
Much of our discomfort revolves around the manner in which this party was planned. We understand that your party planners met with BQSA [Bowdoin Queer Straight Alliance] about a month ago to discuss how this party might impact and be perceived by the trans community. Some members of BQSA have expressed that they voiced many concerns at this meeting, and were promised that the party would proceed after a more involved public discussion which never came to fruition, until you as a house hastily organized a discussion for tomorrow and asked for concerned students’ attendance. I know many of us will not be attending this discussion for a number of reasons; the last minute organization means that many of us already had plans at that time, and furthermore, attending such a discussion as a trans person is, plainly put, blatant tokenization. None of us wish to speak on behalf of the whole community, but even speaking to our own concerns in a public forum is a stressful and deeply personal experience.
Of course, the crux of this situation lies in why such a party would be detrimental to the trans community in the first place. None of us are professional educators, and there already exist numerous resources which would help to explain why this is an inappropriate party theme (or at least, an inappropriate “straight” party theme), but to sum it up in a few words: parties are environments where people don costumes and personas for the purpose of levity and comedy. By appropriating trans identities as a party theme, you are very clearly making a statement that these identities are costumes and not the actual lived experiences of members of our community. Gender is a social construct, yes, but mere recognition of this fact does not give license to turn it into a punchline. If this party really were, as your Facebook statement postulated, an attempt to create discussion and disrupt gender norms, we should have been involved in the planning, and we can guarantee that we would not have chosen a party as the stage for this discussion.
Indeed, parties like the one you are planning to host do not disrupt the gender norm, but are in fact integral in enforcing it. By restricting the visibility of non-normative gender expression to a party, you are making a statement that this expression is essentially unusual. Party themes are, by nature, supposed to be extraordinary.
We understand that members of your house have their own opinions and have been considering many of these same points, but you must understand that regardless of intention, this party has made us uncomfortable and that by continuing through with this theme you are directly invalidating us and our experiences as trans and queer identified students. The way you’ve presented the party conflates gender identity and expression with dressing up in a costume, which perpetuates alienation, tokenization and erasure of trans identities.
However, having said all this, we appreciate (based on the many emails and Facebook posts exchanged on Wednesday) that you do care about these issues. We would be happy to work with you some time next semester to organize an event which would achieve the goals you claim to be striving for with this party, but we would like to be much more heavily involved in its production. Public discussion surrounding this issue is important and necessary, but a party is far from the correct venue for this discussion.
Sincerely,Paul Cheng ’17, Rose Etzel ’19, Ari Mehrberg ’20, and Jamie Weisbach ’16(Members of Gender Matters)