The Queer Resource Center (QRC) celebrated Gaypril this year with more events than ever before—over 30 performances, lectures, discussions, socials, parties and the like, all highlighting queer issues, broadly defined. The broad definition of what a “queer issue” looks like is important to the staff at the QRC; the lives of LGBTQQIA people are as diverse as the acronym is long—and far beyond that—and the staff strives to provide programming that speaks to the many different life experiences of the students, faculty and staff of the Claremont Colleges.
Perhaps our most visible event in a month dedicated to visibility is our Gaypril kickoff during which we paint Walker Wall rainbow-colored. This year, we decided as a staff not to paint over the 17 figures painted in black in the center of the wall, which commemorate the 17 Pomona workers who lost their jobs Dec. 1. In the past, we have chosen to paint the entire wall rainbow as a way to promote visibility for a community that is so often made invisible. We usually only leave up advertisements for events that have not yet happened or anything that has not been up for at least 24 hours—the informal Walker Wall courtesy period.
We knew that whether we painted over the figures or not, it would be interpreted as a political statement. We had to make a choice. The official rationale the staff decided on was that 17 members of our community lost their jobs, and it was important to respect how deeply this event impacted their lives and how deeply it impacted the 5C community. We even chose to paint over the “17 12/1” so as not to tie our decision to leave the figures up to any other group on campus. We wanted to distance ourselves from the politics of “taking a side.”
There is often an expectation for resource centers not to “be political” or “take sides.” Not only do folks from the administrations of the colleges or from the larger 5C community have this expectation for the resource centers, but I have seen resource center staff members, ourselves included, put this pressure on ourselves as well. We don’t want to alienate people, we say. We don’t want to make people feel unwelcome in our space and at our events. We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, and politics make people feel uncomfortable.
What we must always remind ourselves is that the very existence of the QRC is political. The QRC is the figurative rainbow wall that is present throughout the year—a space that asserts the value of LGBTQQIA community members by providing resources to support them, putting on educational events to enrich their experiences here and advocating for queer issues. This is why we supported the decision not to paint over the 17 figures. No matter what we say, no matter how hard we try—this was still a political act. The realm of the “political” can and should be as broadly defined as that of “queer issues.”
The reason the two of us, as Zach and Sarah, not as the QRC, supported the political decision not to paint over the figures was because workers’ issues are queer issues. Queer issues do not start and end with acceptance into the military and acceptance into marriage. Economic justice, environmental justice, immigrants’ issues, workers’ issues, racial justice, feminism—all of the issues these movements work with are “queer issues.” Not only are there LGBTQQIA leaders in each and every one of these movements, not only are there LGBTQQIA people whose lives are deeply affected by this work, but sexuality and gender are inseparable from all of them. Can we really think about immigration without thinking about the history of painting immigrants as sexual deviants? Can we really fight for workers’ rights without thinking about the power dynamics that lead to the pervasive abuse of queer, trans and gender nonconforming workers? To answer our rhetorical questions: “No.”
At the same time, we chose to paint over the words and images commemorating Dean Suffren from the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA) and Dean Kelly from the Office of Institutional Diversity at Harvey Mudd College, who lost their jobs earlier in the academic year. The 17 figures had been painted for relatively recent events and several QRC staff members had been involved in solidarity efforts with the 17 workers who lost their jobs, factors that certainly played a role in our decision not to paint over them. On the other hand, our conversation about the OBSA memorial lacked the same careful consideration. We talked about sending an e-mail to folks involved with OBSA in order to work out how to proceed, but due to miscommunication, the e-mail never ended up being written.
Many community members were upset that the memorial was painted over and for that we, and the rest of the QRC staff, apologize. No, we did not intend to make anyone upset. No, we did not intend to erase an event that caused a lot of community members’ pain. But we did. Intentions are beside the point. We apologize for our actions.
Painting over OBSA’s memorial has as many political implications as choosing not to paint over the 17 figures. The failure to communicate with OBSA represents a failure to do the outreach necessary to fight for “queer issues” in the broad sense, i.e., a failure to truly examine the ways categories like “black community” and “queer community” intersect at the 5Cs. One publicly visible critique—“Queer? Yes. Anti-racist? No.”—written in chalk on the ground outside the QRC, sees this sort of failure as indicative of the structure of the QRC as an institution. While this critique erases much of the hard work of people associated with the QRC—queer people of color and their allies—it also highlights the nature of anti-racism as an active position toward combating racism, not a passively held identity based around “not seeming racist.” The QRC staff strives to make our work anti-racist, but we recognize that we do not always succeed. No matter our intentions, our actions still have the power to make people feel safe or unsafe, supported by the community or excluded from it.
As the result of a conversation between the administrative staff of the two resource centers, students associated with the QRC and OBSA will be repainting the memorial together in the near future. QRC staff will assist in the painting to show our sincere regret that this situation occurred and to demonstrate our commitment to further conversation and collaboration between the QRC and OBSA. If we are not taking active positions to support other members of our communities, we risk making them feel unsafe and excluded. And when we mess up, get passive and hurt others, we must not make excuses and hide from our actions. We need to own our mistakes, apologize for them and look to how we can take an active position that brings us closer together. We hope our actions from here on out demonstrate our commitment to this principle.