November 20, 2009

Every Duke Gay Should Know #2: The Gothic Queers

For this week's post, I decided to post a Chronicle article from 1997. The undergraduate LGBTQA organization at the time was called the Gothic Queers...and they too had a little bridge incident. It is important to know where we have been...to know where we are going!

Gothic Queers charge censorship
By Devin Gordon
October 10, 1997

Blotted out by intermittent scads of white paint, colorful slogans on the East Campus bridge celebrating homosexuality and National Coming Out Week have been systematically removed from the view of passersby during the past two days. An unnamed official at the University's Department of Facilities Management, which ordered the whitewashing, considered the messages offensive. The gay community-outraged and upset-has called it censorship.

"We were all shocked to discover that there's a speech code at Duke," said John Howard, director of the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life. "We were appalled to learn that it's administered by Facilities Management." As part of the National Coming Out Week festivities, dozens of members of the University's homosexual community gathered earlier this week to paint the East Campus Bridge pink and decorate it with slogans of queer pride.

But during a scheduled street-cleaning project Wednesday afternoon, a crew of facilities management workers obscured a considerable number of the messages with white paint.

In a statement to The Chronicle Thursday evening on behalf of the senior administration, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask said the whitewashing was performed, in part, to delete offensive words and phrases that had been painted on or near the work by the gay community. Facilities management officials, he explained, ordered the deletions in accordance with its long-standing policy against "vulgar or obscene graffiti... placed on Duke campus."

"Some of these [deletions] were obscene and, consistent with the past policy, should have been painted over by facilities staff," Trask said in the statement. "Most, however, were statements which reflected the world view of gays and lesbians and were consistent with their right to free expression. The removal of these statements was an error in judgment that cannot be condoned. The facilities department has been instructed to be more circumspect in future decisions to paint over language at the underpass."

Sgt. Sara-Jane Raines, the Duke University Police Department's minority liaison, said she investigated a complaint that LGBT Center officials filed about the repainting. Prior to the actions of facilities management, she asserted, the bridge contained little or no anti-gay graffiti and no patently offensive language that would have justified the whitewashing.

"I did not see any profanity, I did not see any swear words, I did not see any obscene language of any kind," Raines said. "The things that I know were painted over-one of them was a quote by e e cummings. And the word 'queer' was painted over pretty regularly."

Jerry Black, director of facilities management, could not be reached for comment. But Howard said that Black has agreed to meet next Thursday with him as well as with Campus Community Development Dean Maureen Cullins and her staff. Despite agreeing Wednesday afternoon to meet with administrators, Black still authorized facilities management workers yesterday to continue the whitewashing effort from the morning into the afternoon, Howard said. He added that the individual at facilities management who allegedly made the initial order oversaw yesterday's project.

Ben Reese, assistant vice president for cross-cultural relations in the Office of Institutional Equity, visited the bridge yesterday afternoon in an attempt to sort out what had been painted over and why.

"See," he said, pointing to a whited-out word, "if that just said 'queer,' there's no reason to paint over that. Not only is 'queer' an acceptable term, but it's also, as we should know, often a term of pride."

Most of the painted-over material had been completely obscured, however, making it difficult to discern how it had originally read and whether it was appropriately censored: Rumors have been circulating that some anti-gay statements were added to the wall later in the week and then whitewashed away.

"At a university," Reese said, "we have a responsibility to be vigilant about hate speech, hate language, offensive utterances. But at the same time, we have to be careful not to stifle statements of self-identification."

The six leaders of Gothic Queers, the University's undergraduate homosexual organization, wrote in a letter to the editor of The Chronicle that they were disgusted with the conduct of the facilities management department.

"Gothic Queers considers [the department's] actions evidence of discrimination and censorship," they wrote. "Moreover, such actions are a flagrant dismissal of our basic civil rights. Gothic Queers expects the University to review [the department's] bridge censorial policies to ensure that all groups on campus are treated equally." During conversations with Black, Howard said he learned that facilities management has the authority to erase any material on campus property that it deems "offensive and profane."

"They say they do this regularly, but there is no written policy," he said. "So what we want to know is, where do they get the authority to determine what's offensive?... We're already discovering that this unwritten policy is selectively applied. That
suggests discrimination."

Janet Dickerson, vice president for student affairs, said she investigated the Department of Facilities Management's policy and discovered that it does maintain a list of words that are "always painted over." She said Maureen Cullins attempted to secure a copy of the list but was denied access.

To avoid such situations in the future, John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs said that facilities management officials have been instructed to forward obscenity concerns to upper-lever administrators before taking action.

Yesterday afternoon, however, the bridge stood as a pock-marked collage of pink, black and white, with several messages interrupted and rendered incomprehensible. In a move designed to restore their tarnished celebration of identity, members of the gay community gathered to repaint the bridge last night at 10:30 p.m. Earlier in the day, the LGBT e-mail newsgroup was awash with messages berating the University's conduct and calling friends to action; at least three people sent letters to President Nan Keohane demanding a public apology.

"This is an act of censorship which violates free speech rights and an act of discrimination which violates the University's anti-discrimination statement," wrote John Clum, professor of English and drama, in a letter to Keohane. "I assure you, many of us on the faculty are as angered at this as the students. It is another sign of the administration's mixed message on gay and lesbian issues."

Meegan White, a sixth-year graduate student in the philosophy department, agreed with Clum's appraisal of the situation.

"What I'm most troubled by is the silencing of students during a rare political moment," she said. "This is an act of silencing gay students on campus, so I think the University is going to have a long way to go to mend relations with the gay community."

White also implicated the Campus Police officers who did nothing to stop or even question the facilities management workers who were whitewashing the bridge. "Safety," she said, "is not just physical safety-it's safety to be who you are." Lew Wardell, assistant director of Campus Police, said the officers were behaving appropriately by neither aiding nor impeding the workers. Campus Police will only paint over something, he said, if it contains some form of physical threat to a person or group; in general, he explained, the Facilities Management Department has the authority to make the decisions in most cases.

Wardell added that the bridge-painting tradition during National Coming Out Week has encountered such controversies in the past, though not for several years. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is also embroiled in a censorship controversy pertaining to National Coming Out Week, according to an LGBT Center press release. Grounds crews at UM removed flyers and chalkings that promoted gay-pride activities earlier this week-actions that LGBT students there contend are violations of UM's non-discrimination policy.

2 comments:

  1. Viviana, this is amazing, thank you so much for sharing it. It's really interesting to see how far we've come, and how far we still have to go. Also fascinating to see the comments from administrator who are still here, like Tallman Trask and Ben Reese.

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  2. My name is Silas Holland (T01) and I just linked to this blog from Janie's DukeLAN update. It is so great to see all this active and fabulous queer activity at Duke! I was part of that painting and repainting in 1997 - the event really galvanized the community and made us much stronger.

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