Margaret McFadden on queer studies, cautious optimism and The Simpsons



When President William Adams commissioned a task force on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues in 2002, the panel renamed itself the Queer Task Force and issued a report last year. In an interview Margaret McFadden (American studies), a member of the task force considered the College's response to the report.

What do you think of the responses to the Queer Task Force report?
My general view is positive. The senior staff seems to have taken the report seriously and tried to respond to it thoughtfully. We didn't expect, necessarily, that they would follow all of our recommendations. . . . While not much change is clearly visible yet, I think some concrete things are in process and, when they are in place, will make a difference. I am optimistic that those who have committed to making changes will do so; the responses seem genuine.

Are you surprised by that?
Not really. We knew when we did this report that we were taking a risk, that the administration could say, "This is very interesting, thank you very much," and put it on a shelf. And we would have done all that work to no effect. But that didn't seem like much of a risk, because we believed that the president's invitation to do this work was sincere. I think the response demonstrates that he was.

But of course we're disappointed about the queer studies [faculty] position. I recognize that it's expensive, that there are lots of important competing priorities, and that it's not a good time financially. We really did believe as a group, and I think it's a more widely shared view, that getting queer studies into the curriculum might be the single most important change we could make to improve the climate on campus. It's great that the proposed position made the list of top priorities. Our problem is we never quite make it to the top of the list, despite clear student demand and the benefits such a position could offer to the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program.

I think it's important to note that what we need is to make structural change, to put in place programs or staff or services or ongoing events that aren't dependent on the efforts of a few volunteers or that can simply disappear if a certain student graduates or a faculty member can't teach a given course one year.

So do you think things are better here for the gay/lesbian members of the Colby community?
It's hard to be concrete about that, but probably yes. I think there was a lot of energy around this issue last year that got people thinking and talking and started to create more awareness and sensitivity that has persisted. It turned out there was more quiet support and that there were more "allies" than I think a lot of the GLBT community was aware of. One sees a lot of rainbow ribbons and Project Ally buttons on backpacks this year. That sort of small thing marks a change for the better in the vibe on campus, I think. And in a variety of locations, I see some incremental changes that all contribute to a sense of moving forward.

Can you cite any examples?
Reorganization of the dean's office [student affairs] to have Cecilia Stanton leading the office of multicultural affairs has made a very positive difference already. Although GLBT issues are only a part of their charge, I think they're doing a terrific job and the students have responded enthusiastically to their initiatives. A few academic departments hired new faculty members who have expertise in queer studies, as well as in other fields, so there are a couple of new QS courses. Also, a few continuing faculty members have offered new courses with substantial QS material, so students have, at least this semester, more choices than usual if they want to study in this field.

Any more tangible ways to describe how "the vibe" has changed?
This has been a pretty low-key year for GLBT activism, so maybe the absence of obvious backlash can be attributed to that fact. But there's also more visibility of things aimed at queer students, just as a normal part of the scene. There are signs and flyers about events that stay posted. Posse One did wonderful chalkings to celebrate National Coming Out Day, and there was no visible negative response. The Colby Republicans brought a conservative speaker who supports same-sex marriage to discuss the issue. Everyone just seems to have gotten used to more GLBT visibility. In the end, I think that's a good thing. Maybe every Pride Week won't have to be a big drama.

I'm reminded of a great scene in an episode of The Simpsons. Homer is awakened from his nap by sound of a gay pride parade. The whole family goes to look. The marchers are chanting, "We're here; we're queer. Get used to it." Lisa says, "We are used to it. You were here last year." That's kind of where we are at this moment. That's certainly reason for optimism, but my more cautious self worries that that's only because the visibility has not been particularly political or controversial. It might turn out to be a kind of uneasy calm, but for now things seem to be moving in the right direction.