The Campus Closet |
Ed outside his Founders office.
Gay Life at Haverford, or the Virtues and Limitations of the Shoulder Check
by Ed Sikov '78
The Haverford Shoulder Check is still as essential a feature of life at the college as it was when I was a student in the 1970s. What? You haven't heard of the Shoulder Check? Come on! You probably did it hundreds of times -- and you didn't think twice about it. The Shoulder Check occurs when you see somebody come out of somebody else's room on a Sunday morning and you rush to the Dining Center to tell all your friends; just before blurting it out, you take a quick glance over your shoulder to make sure the people whose private lives you're publicizing aren't standing right behind you.
At a small, intimate place like Haverford, the Shoulder Check is a vital skill to master. But while being a checker is always fun, it's usually a big drag to be the one who's checked. In fact, I'd go so far as to claim that the Haverford Shoulder Check has kept more gay men and lesbians in the closet for the four years they spend in the community than any overt acts of hate or intolerance could possibly achieve. Since everyone pretty much knows everyone else at Haverford, lesbian and gay students run the risk of being outed the minute they leave somebody's room after what may well be their first sexual experience. That's a lot of pressure for young men and women who are just coming to terms with themselves. For many 'Fords, it may be easier just to stay celibate until graduation.
I'm a visiting prof at Haverford now, but in the fall of 1975, I was just one more geeky sophomore, as lonely and sexually maladjusted as the next kid, except for one thing. Like Esther in the Purim story, I was a queen with a secret. (As the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has so cleverly pointed out, it was by outing herself -- even her own husband didn't know she was Jewish! -- that Esther saved her people from annihilation.) And I wasn't alone. Many of us kept our little secret strictly to ourselves. Still, on a dreary autumn Tuesday in 1975, I found my way to morning Collection in Stokes Auditorium, where my friend and classmate Steven Rosen was announcing the formation of Haverford's first openly gay student group -- the Gay People's Alliance.
It was a spectacle both inspiring and terrifying. It took a lot of courage for Steve, an underclassman, to stand up in front of the whole school and talk about why such a group was forming -- especially when a couple of less-than-friendly students began to nail him mercilessly about his own personal life. Steve and the other members of GPA nevertheless endured the ill will, and the Alliance thrived. In fact, GPA quickly became widely respected for its rocking dance parties, by far the best on campus. Leave aside the group's politics (which were admirable); those dances made the small gay subcommunity hundreds of friends.
Now that I'm older, I can see that the hostility of some mean-spirited students and faculty members simply gave me a handy excuse to deny my own nature; it took time for me to stop playing the mute victim. But in the 1970s, the animosity that members of GPA faced whenever their signs were defaced and certain friends stopped speaking to them and certain professors told them that they suffered from a psychiatric disorder -- that animosity was real, and it was more than enough to convince me to keep my secret for all four years of college. It was one of the ways in which Haverford's very intimacy worked against itself; I just didn't think I could handle that kind of abuse at such close-range. The near-total absence of openly gay professors, the not-infrequent stories of lost friendships and snide remarks, the Shoulder Check -- all of this helped keep me in the closet until after graduation, whereupon I moved to the largest city in the country, enrolled as one of several thousand grad students at a huge university, and came out, all in a matter of two months.
Haverford seems like a more accepting place now, at least on the surface. There are two gay student groups on campus (BGALA, a social and support group, and inQueery, a political activist group). In coordination with Bryn Mawr, which has an active lesbian population, students can piece together enough courses to form an independent concentration in Gay and Lesbian Studies (courses like "Queer Theory/Queer Literature" and "Almodovar y sus chicas: Gay Cinema and Cultural Transformation"). And there are more openly gay professors at Haverford now, including one flaming loudmouth with a chip on his shoulder. (Me.)
Still, gay and lesbian students tell me that they don't enjoy the same degree of institutional support that other minority students do. The Office of Multicultural Affairs deals almost entirely with racial, ethnic, and religious concerns, leaving gay men and lesbians feeling that they're on their own. Psych Services runs a coming-out group whenever students take the initiative to organize it, but the fact that the college's outreach is primarily psychological in nature itself speaks volumes. The meeting space given to gay students is a flood-prone basement room in Jones; that the college vetoed plans for space in the Campus Center still rankles. And the Shoulder Check reigns. As long as everybody in our community knows everybody else's business and talks about it behind their backs -- a situation that is unlikely to change any time too soon -- students with secrets will continue to have a tough time at Haverford.