"Queer Histories of Swarthmore" to Mark and Inform Sesquicentennial

By Ryan Dougherty
Assistant Professor of History Farid Azfar
Call it a "trans-generational reckoning with the past," says Assistant Professor of History Farid Azfar, who organized the event.

As a student, Lauren Stokes '09 toiled on articles about Swarthmore's queer history with no assurance they would be read.

"At that point, I wasn't sure if anyone would care," she says. "Everything feels like a private obsession when you're spending hours in front of the microfilm machine in McCabe [Library]."

But her work did find an audience, and Stokes returns Friday to participate in "Queer Histories of Swarthmore: A Panel Discussion," a collection of community members' perspectives to help mark the College's Sesquicentennial.

"It's enormously gratifying," says Stokes, a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history and a co-director of the oral history project Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles: A History of LGBTQ Life at the University of Chicago. 

"I expect for the event to raise fresh perspectives on [Swarthmore's queer history]," she says.  "Not just in sharing LGBTQ experiences, but in considering new ways to narrate the institutional past."

Moderated by Pieter Judson '78, Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations at Swarthmore and editor of the Austrian History Yearbook, the panel will frame its experiences with the College through the conceptual prism of queer history. It will also examine how Swarthmore can recast its institutional history to represent the struggles of its queer students, staff, and faculty.

Call it a "trans-generational reckoning with the past," says Farid Azfar, assistant professor of history, who organized the public forum in response to interest from the community. The hope of Azfar and the panelists is for the event to raise questions and spark an ongoing dialogue, incorporating more voices.

"There's no single meaning that Swarthmore has to queer people, or vice versa," says panelist Timothy Stewart-Winter '01, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark. "My take reflects my own perspective as a cisgender white male, and also as a historian."

For Judson, tying the event to the sesquicentennial provides the opportunity "to make queer legacies an integral part of Swarthmore's official history," he says. It's also a chance to dispel any notions of the school's queer-friendly reputation having been easily or quickly earned.

"We need to remember that this is a recent development that a lot of hard-working individuals, and not self-defined queer people alone, made happen," Judson says. "This is an opportunity to reflect on the work done by Swarthmore faculty, students, and staff over the years to transform the community and especially the curriculum to make queer issues, approaches, methodologies, and concerns more explicit in the questions we ask, the texts we analyze, and the pedagogies we develop."

Adds panelist Nayan Shah '88, professor of American studies and ethnicity and chair of history for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences: "It's an opportunity to share subversive, submerged, and provocative histories and experiences that defy and challenge expectations, inspiring further discovery and imagining."

Shah notes that the College held its first Sager Symposium, "an important inauguration for LGBT studies on campus," which is now known as the Queer and Trans Conference, in 1989. It coincided with the school's 125th anniversary but was not directly linked.

"Swarthmore has made some journey, then, in promoting 'Queer Histories of Swarthmore' as part of its sesquicentennial," Shah says.

Still, it's important to balance self-congratulation with self-criticism, says panelist Ali Roseberry-Polier '14, a history and gender and sexuality studies major from New York City who wrote her thesis on gay and lesbian organizing at Swarthmore in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"I believe it is imperative that we study the hard parts of our history and listen to the voices that are typically at the margins to better understand our College as a whole, both its history and present day," she says.

To read more coverage of the Queer Histories of Swarthmore event, look for a story in the July Bulletin.