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The Carletonian

After 15 years, GSC reflects on struggle for acceptance

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-4c0a21ad-e8d5-95a1-33b1-efb115f3dff7">When Matt Fikse ’87 was a student at Carleton, the group for LGBTQA+ students met in a secret location. Students in the group received a slip of paper in their mailboxes with the meeting time and location in order to protect their privacy.

In 2016, the LGBTQA+ community at Carleton no longer has to meet in secret, and the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. As part of the sesquicentennial weekend, a panel and reception was held on Saturday afternoon at Alumni Guest House to celebrate the anniversary.

“There was a lot of organizing on campus at Carleton between staff, students, faculty and alumni to make the Gender and Sexuality Center happen,” said Matthew Elfstrand ’16, a Gender and Sexuality Center Associate (GSCA) who spent the summer researching the history of the GSC and LGBTQA+ activism at Carleton.

The secret nature of the LGBTQA+ community continued into the early 90s. For instance, Lee Mauk ’63 would host a breakfast for LGBTQA+ alumni during reunion weekends, according to Mauk.

“The very first breakfasts were in Sevy Lounge, and it was clandestine,” Mauk said. “I noticed there were people standing outside that didn’t come in until there was nobody that was watching them, and then, they’d come into the room.”

In 1992, the Out After Carleton (OAC) alumni group formed during one of these breakfasts. Fikse was the keeper of the mailing list and coordinated the mailing of updates to keep people up to speed with what the group was doing.

“It was a scary time because people weren’t sure that they wanted to have their names on a mailing list,” Mauk said.

“There was a lot of concern about who’s going to keep this mailing list, who’s going to have access to it.”

According to Joan Higinbotham ’66 who worked for the college from 1995-2003 and was involved with the group, secrecy was a significant concern. She explained that one person on the mailing worked for the Foreign Service in another country, and received a mailing that was identifiably from OAC, which could have been a serious problem.

One of the first things OAC did was host an LGBT Reunion at Carleton in 1998 which was attended by approximately 200 alumni, according to Mauk. Alumni shared stories of the challenges they faced as LGBTQA+ students at Carleton. One man from the class of ’70 shared the story of how upon discovering his sexuality, the college expelled him, outed him to his parents, and sent him home, according to Fikse. Also during that reunion weekend, news came in of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student from the University of Wyoming.

“We were in the middle of a whole weekend of just extreme joy in being together but also suddenly the reminder of what was going on in the rest of the world,” Mauk said.

During the 1998 reunion, alumni discussed how to create a better environment for current and future Carleton students.

“Being Carleton people, we did not leave without a plan of action,” Higinbotham said. After talking with current students and faculty, alumni came to the conclusion that Carleton needed a staff person whose job it was to support LGBT students on campus.

In 1999, Kaaren Williamsen was hired as a part-time Area Director and part-time LGBT Advisor. She had an office in the chapel and served as an advisor to LGBT students. In 2001, Williamsen worked with the newly-formed LGBT Council and many other members of the Carleton community to found the GSC. Williamsen then became the full-time Director, and eight GSCAs were hired for that first year, according to Elfstrand and Fikse.

“The GSC was a big reason why I came to Carleton,” Eli Skinner ’16 said. “When I was applying to schools I was like, ‘This seems like a thing I might need,’ and that was as far as my thought process got on that topic. I think it’s a super great resource and I’m glad that it’s been here for 15 years, which is longer than, from my understanding, a lot of other schools’ similar centers have been around.”

While the GSC’s mission statement has not changed in 15 years, some aspects of its role on campus have, according to Elfstrand and Laura Haave, the current Director of the GSC and Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Sexual Violence Prevention.

According to Elfstrand, during the early part of its history, the GSC followed national trends by focusing more on raising visibility of LGBTQA+ individuals through events such as Pride. The GSC also hosted a discussion group for people who were considering coming out or were in the process of coming out.

“There used to be a lot of support and activism around LGBTQA+ identities, but now it seems like there’s less and less of a need,” Elfstrand said. “So we are more doing specific topics, and we have events that are about very specific things. We had an event this term that was about the intersection of disability, mental illness and sexuality.”

While people with LGBTQA+ identities are gaining more support and acceptance from mainstream society, not everyone is benefitting equally.

“I think we’re finding that especially the most privileged members of the LGBTQA+ community, especially white, cisgender men, are in less and less need of support, especially if they’re from upper-class backgrounds and liberal families,” Elfstrand said. “For the most part society is not erasing and marginalizing that demographic, that I’m a part of, as much as it used to. We still find that queer and trans people of color are very much pushed to the margins, and we need to think about how class and gender and sexuality intersect.”

One example of this emphasis on the intersectionality of marginalized identities is choosing race as the theme for this year’s Rainbow Retreat, an annual retreat for LGBTQA+ students, faculty, and staff that takes place during winter term.

Another shift that the GSC has undergone since it was founded is more emphasis on sexual violence prevention. In 2008, Haave came to Carleton to give a training for the GSCAs about sexual violence prevention.

“That year was the year that Kaaren Williamsen was really intentionally trying to move from the GSC mostly being an LGBT resource center to integrating more about healthy sexuality and sexual violence prevention,” Haave said.

More recently, the GSC has been offering the Green Dot training, which empowers individuals to take action to combat power-based personal violence. The GSC is also trying to reach out to faculty and staff to help them support students in creating a healthy community. The GSC recently offered a one-hour overview of the Green Dot training for faculty, and in less than 24 hours the cap of 30 people was reached, according to Haave. The GSC also went to the faculty retreat this year and held well-attended sessions about creating inclusive classroom spaces for LGBTQA+ students, according to Haave.

For most of its history, the GSC was located in the basement of Scoville, along with the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL). Over spring break of 2016, it moved to its temporary location, Clader House, where it will probably stay at least through this school year, according to Haave. Admissions and Financial Aid will be moving into Scoville, so the GSC will have a new location in the future.

Haave says she hears conflicting opinions from students about where the new GSC location should be. She explained that some students feel that the GSC should be centrally located, while some students like the physical separation from the rest of campus.

“Is there some compromise? Can we be centrally located but still in a place that gives people a sense of having their own space?” Haave said.

According to Haave, students also liked that the GSC and OIIL used to be right next to each other, and she hopes that they will eventually be near each other again.

“People liked that the GSC and OIIL weren’t physically separated because I feel like people often feel like they are compelled to prioritize one identity in one space and one identity in another, but they can’t ever be whole people,” Haave said. “So I would love to see us back near OIIL again.”

These discussions are a far cry from the secrecy and fear of previous decades, according to Mauk.

“When I was at Carleton from ’59 to ’63, there was nothing going on about [support for students who were] LGBT,” Mauk said. “I honestly thought I was probably the only person here who was gay.”

How does it feel to come back to Carleton to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the GSC?

“It’s pretty wonderful,” Mauk said.

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