On Tuesday evening, the Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA) led a program in Daggett Lounge called “Allyship, A Campus Discussion.” Falling just two days before Yellow Shirt Day during OUTtober—a series of programming BQSA organizes to promote awareness of and allyship around the experiences of members of the Bowdoin community who identify as LGBTQIA+— this discussion brought a renewed level of thoughtfulness to a campus tradition.
“Yellow Shirt Day has been going on since 2005. And when we started out everyone knew what it was—now it’s just kind of this fixture, it’s tradition” said BQSA Vice President Rowan Eztel ’19. “This year we were thinking, OK, what can we do to bring [knowledge about being an ally] back into conversation? What can we do to better facilitate learning and the sharing of experiences?’”
The group of people at the discussion included both students—from a range of class years—and staff.
“I think it’s important for me to come to events—all kinds of events—to support students,” said Eduardo Pazos, director of religious and spiritual life, who attended the discussion. “This one was about being a good ally, and I want to learn to be a good ally.”
At the discussion, attendees sat at round tables. They were directed by BQSA officers to discuss with the other people at their table how they would respond to a series of scenarios involving harmful language, pronoun sharing and misgendering. The scenarios were typed out into a slideshow and projected onto a screen at the front of the room. Between scenarios, attendees would switch tables, allowing everyone to interact with as many other attendees as possible.
“We have scenarios that are real things that have happened at Bowdoin,” said BQSA Communications Officer Ari Mehrberg ’20. “Most people can probably think of a time in their life that they’ve been with their team or with a club or just with their friends, and someone makes a homophobic joke, or something like that. Things that are really real, and then talking about real things we can do.”
BQSA officers explained that the ideas for the scenarios came out of a discussion they had amongst themselves at a planning meeting, during which they all shared past experiences around discrimination.
“Someone would bring up a scenario, and we would all just kind of sit there and be like ‘I don’t know what I would do in that situation,’” said BQSA President Pauline Uneitis ’20. “We may all be affected by this kind of discrimination, but also sometimes we just don’t know how to help when someone else is.”
“Queer people can still learn to be allies and support each other,” Mehrberg agreed. “I think just because someone identifies as not straight or not cis doesn’t mean, first of all, that their experience is going to be the same as every other queer person, and, second of all, that they automatically know how to be a perfect ally, because I don’t.”
These ideas were reflected in the slideshow at the discussion, which included reminders that different people were approaching the event with different experiences, even if there were similarities in how they would describe certain aspects of their identities. Participants were encouraged both to share their prior knowledge and experiences and to reflect on and ask questions about what they might not know. Groups were challenged to discuss how their responses to a given scenario might vary based on the environment in which an incident occurred, particularly with respect to whether they knew there to be a queer person in the room, or another queer person in the room if they themselves identified as queer.
Given that Yellow Shirt Day has historically involved collaboration between BQSA and athletics—the Athletic Department purchases shirts for student athletes, who do not have to pay the $5 fee that many other students have to pay if they want to wear a shirt—BQSA officers initially planned for the discussion to be an event only for athletes and BQSA members. After further reflection, though, they decided to open the invitation to everyone.
“Everyone has access to the shirts, and everyone can learn more about what it means to be an ally,” Unietis said. “So we just opened it up to the whole campus.”
Between scenarios, the slideshow interspersed definitions of terms that participants could incorporate into their discussions, including “queer,” “gender expression” and “misgendering.” Questions were posed relative to each scenario, some of which sought to interrogate misconceptions attendees may have been exposed to, such as the idea of the existence of “obvious” pronouns.
“I was so impressed with how well thought-out [the event] was,” said Kate Stern, associate dean of students for diversity and inclusion and director of the Center for Sexuality, Women and Gender. “Whether you’re someone who thinks about this a lot or someone who doesn’t think about your role as an ally, I thought it reached out to people at all access points … I hope it’s replicated and taken to other groups.”
After the event, participants reported having felt that they had learned more about being an ally from attending.
“It’s often superficially explained and/or assumed what is appropriate or helpful for people to do as being an ally of a certain group. I really respect the idea that BQSA had that they want to reinvigorate this question of Yellow Shirt Day and what it means,” said Anna Martens ’20. “[The discussion] motivated me to be more brave in situations with my peers and stand up for the things that I knew were right but I didn’t really know how much or how I should do that.”
Some also raised concern that the event hadn’t been attended by more students. Around 15 were present.
“While it’s good to do things like Yellow Shirt Day once a year, there are other things you should be doing every day when something happens, and so I think it was good to have a conversation about that,” said Jordan Khoriaty ’21. “I wish more people had shown up.”
However, Etzel said the event’s ability to impact campus was not dependent on how many students attended.
“Even if not that many people show up, it’s still something that people see—there are posters all over campus,” they said. “No matter how many people show up to the events, it’s still awesome to see these things happening.”