LGBTQ+ alumni, students reflect on history of struggle and activism

The College has seen an expansion of resources for LGBTQ+ students in recent years, but many alumni still remember a time when Dartmouth was “a pretty tough place to be gay.”

by Daniel Modesto | 10/8/21 5:15am

10-5-21-queermovements-nainabhalla
by Naina Bhalla / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2021 Homecoming special issue.

When Mike Lowenthal ’90 was an undergraduate, the campus culture was so unwelcoming to queer students that he questioned his decision to attend Dartmouth, wondering whether he should have gone to somewhere like Oberlin College, which was known for its “famously liberal” climate, instead.

“It was really a mixed bag full of conflicting feelings,” Lowenthal said. “On the one hand, it was a pretty tough place to be gay in the late ‘80s — there were very few queer students, or openly out students on campus. There was really only one out faculty member, there were no LGBT studies [or] courses, there was no affinity housing [and] there was a sort of overwhelmingly conservative atmosphere.”

Lowenthal recalled arriving on campus sometime after The Dartmouth Review had published details of a Gay Student Association meeting in 1984, which he said made being a queer student more “challenging.” In the publication, the Review outed several members by revealing personal information, including the names of two club officers. 

In the years since the GSA incident and as the U.S. has become more accepting of LGBTQ+ identities in general, Dartmouth has expanded resources for LGBTQ+ students in an effort to create a more inclusive campus. The College boasts the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, which, in addition to offering advising services and leadership development programs, provides queer students with resources and programming for Pride month. Fall of 2014 also saw Triangle House, a living learning community and LGBTQ+ affinity house, open to students. In 2021, Campus Pride, a non-profit LGBTQ advocacy group, gave Dartmouth a 4.5 star rating for LGBTQ+ inclusivity, good for the friendliest college in New Hampshire.

While Dartmouth has only created a support system for LGBTQ+ students in the last few decades, a queer movement on campus existed prior to these institutional efforts — one that relied heavily on student activism in order to accomplish its goals. Often times, homophobic incidents or attacks on the queer community spurred activism that created change.

Alec Scott ’89, who worked at The Dartmouth during his time as a student, recalled that the “mainstream of campus” didn’t have any spaces for LGBTQ+ students — noting that students who attended GSA meetings did so secretly, in light of the conservative campus climate. According to Scott, the hostility LGBTQ+ students faced when he was on campus was not directly from the administration, but rather from the Review and the fraternity system.

Scott recalled an incident where a gay friend of his rushed the now derecognized Beta Theta Phi, which was then widely considered “the football house.” According to Scott, upon seeing his face in a slideshow of those who had rushed, many of the fraternity brothers catcalled him.

Many queer students challenged the homophobic environment of campus, pushing the administration to make changes and using the outlets available to them to achieve their goals. Lowenthal recalled that in the years after the GSA incident, he and other students founded a queer newspaper called “In Your Face,” which he said was intended to give readers “a little sense of our spirit.” He said that in addition topushing back against homophobic incidents, the group’s  goals also included lobbying the College to expand its non-discrimination clause to include discrimination against sexual orientation.

“The CIA and the Defense Department were allowed to recruit on campus and back then — before the don’t ask, don't tell [policy], those institutions were explicitly homophobic and anti-gay in their hiring,” Lowenthal said. “So we were arguing [that] you can’t say that you’re for non-discrimination and then invite these discriminatory agencies and employers on the campus.”

Eventually, Lowenthal said the College issued a “strong” public letter to the Secretary of Defense asking the government to reconsider the policy.

John Brett ’00’s time at Dartmouth, as he describes it, was marked by a transition period, where students were looking for “social spaces on campus that we might claim as safer.” Through alumni donations and involvement — in addition to student activism — students gained resources at the College, including an LGBTQ+ contact and a resource room in Collis. 

He said that the changes in campus environment were largely reflective of the societal changes occuring in the United States at the time.

“The Dartmouth campus isn’t immune to broader social shifts and broader social change,” Brett said. “Within wider society, beyond campus, more and more people were coming out in the late 90’s, early 2000s, and that impacted who showed up on campus and the confidence that we had. The internet, of course, also played a significant role in people being able to affirm their identities — prior to arrival on campus or even on campus — [and] being able to find each other through a variety of queer platforms.”

Though Dartmouth began increasing the number of LGBTQ+ resources for students, incidents of homophobia continued to be reported. In one incident in 2011, homophobic graffiti was found on the ground floor of Fahey-McLane Residence Hall, according to Guillermo Rojas Fernandez ’13. Following the incident, Rojas Fernandez noted a lack of action by the College in addressing the hateful messages.

According to Fernandez, these events occurred at a time when it was still “really hard to be queer and trans at Dartmouth.” He recalled being in conversations with then-LGBTQ+ advisor Pam Meisner and then-Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson about creating an LGBTQ+ affinity house, which was promised every year, but still had not materialized by his senior year.

As he prepared for graduation, Rojas Fernandez said many queer and marginalized students’ frustration with the lack of administrative action reached a “boiling point” in the spring of 2013. He and other students staged a protest at the annual Dimensions show for prospective students that he said represented a “realistic picture of what it’s like to come to Dartmouth when you're [a] marginalized [student].”

The protest garnered significant national attention, and its effects were noted not only in a drop in the yield rate for the incoming Class of 2017 but also in the number of applicants for the Class of 2018 — which decreased by 14% the following year. Rojas Fernandez noted that soon after the Dimensions protest, the Board of Trustees approved the construction of Triangle House in September 2013.

Among current students, many say that the campus climate is welcoming towards queer folks. Justin Herrera ’24 said that he has found most of the Dartmouth community to be accepting, noting that there is a “bonding” that occurs between queer students which creates a sense of community. Ana Noriega ’24 said that she did not anticipate “how supportive [the Dartmouth community] was going to be,” adding that the College “[was] really good” at helping her during the early stages of her transition. Though new to the College, Emma Tsosie ’25 said that the Dartmouth community has been accepting so far — noting that the sharing of one’s pronouns was normalized and “pretty common.” 

However, all three students argued that intersectionality plays an important role in their experiences, and noted that it is difficult to be a queer person of color at the College. 

“There are some instances at Dartmouth where queer resources, queer classes [and] queer education will be centered around whiteness and the white gaze and white perspective — [which] makes it uncomfortable as a queer person of color to navigate,” Herrera said.

As a queer, Native student at Dartmouth, Tsosie recognizes how both identites have “a lot of history and weight behind them.” However, she believes that the experiences of queer students of color should be discussed more frequently.

“I think intersectionality is so important to talk about and not spoken about enough,” Tsosie said. “It's a huge topic that I think a lot of people aren't very educated on or don't really know much about — the experience of being a person of color and queer… and the sort of baggage that comes with [it].”

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