Defining Queer Activism at Amherst College

A Letter to the Editors article in the recent Indicator questioned the level of activism among Amherst College Pride Alliance members. As the current Co-­Chair of Pride Alliance, I have thought a great deal about the very definition of the word ‘activism’ since reading the article before winter break. Is political activism the only kind of activism? Must I create change on a statewide, national or global scale to be labeled an activist?

In the article, Cassandra Hradil ‘17 argued that Pride Alliance lacked a politically activist culture. She mentioned how it was difficult to get Pride Alliance members to sign up for her remote phone banking campaign initiative for marriage equality during a joint Pride meeting between Amherst and UMass this past October:

“At the meeting, I passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteer recruitment, and in a room of fifty or so LGBT+ people and their allies, I got it back with exactly one signature.”

I understand why any first-­year student could get a negative impression about activism among Pride’s members as a result of this experience. However, in response, I would say that the overall activist character of Pride Alliance members cannot be determined by the lack of interest in one particular marriage equality initiative during one semester. Queer activism can and should take many forms beyond the cause for marriage equality.

Pride Alliance may not be activist in a political sense beyond Amherst College, but I strongly believe its members have proven themselves as activists. Last year, many members, including myself, worked diligently with the administration to give the “Rainbow Room” the professional title of the “Queer Resource Center” (colloquially known as the QRC) in addition to student staff workers and a full-time resource center director. At the end of this month, with funding from numerous Amherst College departments and organizations, student leaders of the QRC and Pride Alliances of both Amherst and UMass will travel to Houston, Texas for The National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change to learn from other queer activists, organizers, and leaders throughout the country. While those attending the conference are not fighting for marriage equality or other rights directly or specifically, they are nonetheless developing crucial skills for future activism. Furthermore, just as they did last year, members of Pride Alliance will likely facilitate workshops and presentations at the upcoming Five College Queer, Gender, and Sexuality Conference at Hampshire College in early March.

Direct political activism has historically never been the core of Pride Alliance’s mission. Educational work, a kind of indirect political activism, can still shape the political atmosphere of a community. Pride Alliance was designed to bring support, visibility, and community to the diverse population of queer students at Amherst. It is a group dedicated to supporting queer Amherst students and connecting them with other queer students, staff, faculty, and alumni. The group provides incredibly essential services for the Amherst community, such as inviting LGBTQ speakers and performers to campus as well as spreading knowledge about and for the queer community. Furthermore, Pride Alliance builds bridges between communities by collaborating with other affinity groups on campus such as the Black Student Union and the Amherst Christian Fellowship. Considering these initiatives, I consider Pride Alliance to be executing an important brand of queer activism. Such institutional progress is just as admirable as progress toward national change. Campus activism is just as important as national activism because the target of institution-­oriented activism affects the structures that we experience on a daily basis.

Political activism can be very tricky to facilitate through an affinity group consisting of people with so many different political priorities and cultural backgrounds. However, Pride Alliance provides a network of support for several LGBTQ students from first­-years to seniors. During my first-year at Amherst, when I was first coming to terms with my own identity as a gay man, I personally felt a need for a supportive community of students with similar experiences, not for someone to engage me in political activism.

I recommend keeping political activism separate from Pride Alliance’s objectives. I think a new pro-­queer student group with an explicit political agenda beyond support and community­-building might be better suited for the task. (Right now, while a couple of informal LGBTQ social groups exist on campus, Pride Alliance is the only visible and active LGBTQ student group on campus that is registered with AAS.)

Although lacking a politically activist agenda, Pride Alliance should still be recognized as more than simply a social resource for queer students. Pride Alliance’s work signals to the Amherst community that all sexual and gender identities are respected and celebrated on our campus. As a member of the Pride E­-Board for multiple semesters, I have increasingly witnessed how the entire student body benefits from the Amherst College Pride Alliance and the Queer Resource Center. These resources offer a variety of programming and support for LGBTQ students as well as for allies with close queer friends and family members. For example, this past semester, I remember one friend who sought guidance to support her teenage sister and decided to attend a Queer Talk, a weekly discussion in the QRC about queer identity and student life hosted by counseling center staff.

I imagine queer student activism as intentionally working for the LGBTQ community in whatever way fosters positive change. Of course, it could mean national political engagement and advocacy. It could also simply mean working toward change, visibility, support and administrative accountability at the institutional level of a college campus. I think these two realms of activism are equally important and mutually dependent. There is no hierarchy. We have a duty to work toward a better nation and society, but we also have a duty to work toward a better Amherst. Before going out into the world, we need to leave Amherst better than when we first arrived.

What are you doing?