Queer Life at Dickinson Needs to Change (Again)

As my time at Dickinson comes to an end, I’m left with a lot of big feelings about queer/trans life on campus. I’m joyful and sad. I’m a super senior (aka, I started in Fall 2018 and took a year off) so I’ve seen a lot in my time. Before I graduate, I feel a responsibility to record the history I’ve witnessed and impart some advice. What I’ve recorded here has been shaped by my friend groups and found families. I speak on behalf of no one but myself. I am a white, fat, trans, disabled person — my experiences are absolutely specific to my identities. 

Dickinson was a very different place in 2018. Above all, I’d like people to know just how much Dickinson’s student culture has shifted. Our visibility and safety has made leaps and bounds. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say there was, maybe max, 10 people with different hair colors a few years ago. I love that our campus is now full of gender nonconforming fashion. Sometimes it may feel like this school is old-fashioned, but just know that change can happen fast. 

In 2018, the queer student group was a social club called Spectrum. They hosted events like Queer Prom and produced student drag shows. They also had a reputation for being a very white cis gay male dominated group. 

When my friends and I joined the Spectrum exec board, our focus shifted towards politics. At this point, there were few gender neutral restrooms on campus. The political atmosphere on campus was tense, and there was a general feeling of fed-up-ness. Following the 2016 election, conservatives were emboldened on campus to harass and intimidate people. There were continuing conversations about the blackface incident of 2017 and growing criticism of the Ensign administration. Between 2018 and 2020, it felt like a boiling over of frustration. 

Through a vote, we changed our name to Queer Student Union, with the goal of being explicit about our radical political goals. Our commitment to radical politics was put to the test during the 2020 Title IX Protests on campus, when we occupied a specific area of the HUB. The story of Queer Student Union and the Title IX Protests is too long (and painful) to share in its entirety here, but I want to name how important this event was for queer and trans politics on campus at the time. These protests mobilized many queer and trans survivors to demand justice and visibility at Dickinson. 

After the beginning of COVID, QSU’s mission changed once again to being a social club. The pain and fatigue was strong, and the group’s focus needed a change again. As the school tried to push “back to normal” we checked in with each other and prioritized COVID safety. We navigated how to host meetings in solidarity with friend groups and buildings that experienced outbreaks. 

Like many student organizations, QSU eventually burnt out. I think the Title IX protests jaded many of us about campus politics. There were recurring questions about the relationship between the Office of LGBTQ+ Services and QSU. While the goal was to be a grass-roots, radical counterpart to the office, I think we failed to follow through on that promise. We also didn’t challenge the embedded segregation and pervasive whiteness of campus queer/trans life. 

The ongoing trauma of the COVID pandemic and Dickinson’s failure to provide basic resources was the final nail in the coffin. I am sad about QSU’s short life as a radical queer organization — we tried our best, but there were many factors that led to organizational collapse.

We lost a lot of knowledge and potential for mentorship when the Class of 2022 graduated, something that was central to past radical movements. As student-led organizing has winded down, Dickinson-sponsored offices and departments have stepped in. There has been great work done by queer and trans faculty, staff and student employees. The push for gender neutral restrooms and preferred name/pronouns has been largely thanks to their efforts. 

But this work is insultingly underpaid. The Office of Inclusion and Equity has the same flaws most non-profits do; it exploits the enthusiasm and drive of students (and staff) to avoid paying fair wages. Queer and trans students want to feel safe and welcome on campus, and we want this so badly we’re willing to be paid pennies. 

Not only is this an unfair situation for students, I believe this “non-profit-ization” of queer life on campus has fundamentally harmed our ability to politically organize. How are queer and trans students supposed to challenge Dickinson when our jobs are on the line? What potentials for change do we lose when we turn our radical politics into a 9 to 5? We have surrendered our autonomy as queer and trans students to the school, and now almost all of our social and political life is mediated through Dickinson as an institution. 

I have two specific pieces of advice. One, keep queer/trans student organizations separate from the Office of Inclusion and Equity. There are a lot of dedicated students who may be interested in being leaders in both (believe me, I was one of them!) but this overlap will repeat issues we had in the past. 

And second, I think trans students deserve their own organization. Trans politics on this campus and in the country are at a boiling point. The painful truth is cis (queer) people will not go out of their way to help us. A trans student organization is well within the realm of possibility, and y’all have enough interested people to pull it off. 

It’s taken me a while to accept things at Dickinson will never return to the way they were pre-2020. What worked for QSU, Spectrum and all the organizations before us may not be suitable for this moment anymore. In 2023, we’re tired. We’re traumatized and scared and on edge about the world in a new way. 

I don’t have a magic solution for the pain and frustration I see in my friends, but I do know one thing: there needs to be reckoning among queer and trans people on campus. We need to think seriously about what our priorities are and who should be responsible for what. 

What are the gaps that aren’t being addressed? There are a number of issues at Dickinson — food access, poor wages, the increasing presence of police on campus, lack of COVID care and prevention just to name a few! These issues are important for queer and trans students.

 I urge my friends to think critically about the power structures of Dickinson and consider what change they would like to see before they leave. I don’t know what the future will bring for Dickinson, but I’m confident that queer and trans life will continue to change and grow.