Following criticism expressed on social media, as well as an email sent by concerned students, MacMillan House decided to change the theme of its Gender Bender campus-wide party that had been originally planned for tonight. The House also held a discussion yesterday about the event. 

Members of the House began planning the party before Thanksgiving vacation with the goal of creating discussion about gender identity outside of a typical setting. 

“One of the attractive things about hosting a campus-wide was that it engages a greater range of people and a more diverse group of individuals,” said Conor Belfield ’19, MacMillan House president. “There was never a time when we were just like, ‘This would be funny.’ There was always a clearly stated goal to bring greater conversation to the topic of gender identity.”

According to Belfield, many House members were initially skeptical of the idea, so they decided to consult Director of the Resource for Sexual and Gender Diversity Kate Stern for advice. Stern referred the House to Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA).

Rose Etzel ’19, a member of BQSA and Gender Matters, a discussion group and supportive space for trans/genderqueer/non-binary-identified students with about seven active members, said that many students in BQSA were also not comfortable with the theme of the campus-wide. The group ultimately agreed to it on the condition that the House host a panel prior to the party to discuss the event. However, not enough people wanted to speak on the panel, and it was cancelled. Despite the panel’s cancellation, the House continued with the party idea. 

A Facebook event for the party was created on Tuesday, and posters featuring cross-dressed House members were hung up around campus the following day. 

Soon after, a number of students took to Facebook to express their frustrations and concerns about the event. While many recognized MacMillan’s good intentions, they found the setting of the event—a campus-wide party—to be problematic. 

“My concerns were that as a party theme, it’s not cognisant of the history of how trans people are perceived and how gender nonconformity is perceived,” said Paul Cheng ’17, a member of BQSA and Gender Matters. “Exhibiting those things in the setting of party, even if I know their goals were good, to create a discussion or create visibility for these things, makes it feel more insulting than anything honestly.” 

One other criticism of the event was that the House did not partner with Gender Matters. Belfield said that in hindsight, this was one of many major mistakes the House made.   

“I am very disappointed in us, as a House, that we were not able to find [Gender Matters] and communicate with them, because we wanted to. If we had [had] that conversation, we could’ve done something different,” Belfield said. “I was trying to be an ally and I think a lot of other people were. And we messed up.”

Members of Gender Matters and other concerned students sent an email to MacMillan House Wednesday night explaining their objections to the party and demanding that the theme be changed.

As a result of the backlash, the House planned a new event, “Continue the Discussion: Is the Gender Bender a Positive Event?” to listen to criticism of the event and create conversation in a public manner. However, there were mixed responses leading up to the event. 

“I’m very happy with the discussion that has been coming,” said Etzel. “At the heart of it, I don’t think [the party] should have happened in the first place, but [MacMillan] made the best of a sticky situation, and I’m very happy with how receptive they’ve been. I think that ultimately it’s good that this conversation is happening.” 

“Our plan for the most part is to shut up and listen to people, since we know we’ve hurt people,” said Belfield. “We also do recognize this discussion is inherently flawed. In Gender Matters’ letter to us, they said many of them will not be attending since they do not feel comfortable and do not want to be tokenized. That was never our intent. We have no desire to force people to come and talk about how they’re feeling. We just want to give the space to those who wanted it.” 

The meeting took place last night and roughly 30 students attended. MacMillan House started the event by issuing an apology before opening the space for discussion. Topics covered included the role of College Houses as safe spaces on campus and whether Facebook is an appropriate medium for this type of discussion. 

Shu-Shu Hsia ’19, who was first to post in the campus-wide Facebook event, believes that conversation through social media was a good way to discuss the issue. 

“I feel like talking about it online was a pretty effective way, which is why I don’t feel like [MacMillan House members] were being genuine when they say that wanted a discussion to take place,” Hsia said. “Immediately, when we started to say that we weren’t comfortable with the idea, they were trying to funnel the discussion into private emails. I don’t know why everyone is so against talking online. This is the most powerful communication tool we’ve ever had.” 

Moving forward, Etzel said that Gender Matters and BQSA are looking for ways to continue the conversation beyond this event. One idea they have is to create a poster series next semester that combats the conflation of gender identity, gender expression and gender performance.