By Sarah Nicell || News Editor
After one and a half years of research, interviewing, filming, editing, and digging through decades of archives, PJ Howard ‘21 finally released the largest documentation of queerness F&M has ever seen: You Are Not Alone: A Closeted History of Franklin & Marshall College. The documentary investigates the college’s LGBTQ+ history as far back as the 1960s, with references to both institutional support systems and challenges, as well as de facto ones, leading up to the present day. Now, with the film finally released, I had the opportunity to speak with PJ. In the nature of these anarchic times, we chatted via Zoom.
It was Fall 2019 when PJ initially got the idea to investigate F&M’s queer history through film The setting, unsurprisingly, was the Alice Drum Women’s Center, which became a safe haven for queer students in the age of Chelsea Reimann, dual Director of the Alice Drum Women’s Center and LGBTQ+ Student Life. Howard discussed a former queer activist group (QAG) at the college that has since been mostly forgotten by present students, despite their massive push for gender-neutral bathrooms and other queer-designated spaces. PJ also recounts putting up a sign on the Protest Tree regarding a lack of pride flags on F&M’s campus until 2015, a landmark year for LGBTQ+ rights with the Obergefell v. Hodges case. They discussed how the rapid turnover of students every four years is the main factor preventing long-lasting LGBTQ+ change and knowledge in our student body of F&M’s queer history.
Because there is no general knowledge of how many queer alumni the college has, PJ asked Reimann about the queer alumni network, which led to their attainment of a detailed document containing useful people and events for some of their questions. All of this information remained unused until 2020 when quarantine provided the perfect opportunity for Howard to explore a meaningful final undergraduate project. What could be better than combining queer research, interviews, and film at a centuries-old college? It turned out that PJ had hit a treasure trove of knowledge no one else knew, and so went the journey toward uncovering F&M’s very closeted history.
Delving into the college’s LGBTQ+ backstory turned out to be a lot for one person, as PJ quickly found out.
“It was all about the journey. I thought I knew a lot coming into it, but then I found out I knew very little,” PJ admitted. “I was still surprised in how people still managed to find queer community in times where it was known implicitly that you just don’t talk about this kind of thing.”
Such surprises included the queer destination that was the Shadek-Fackenthal Library bathroom in the 1960s, a site for gay Lancaster civilians, students, and professors alike, which spurs some ethical questions. Another example was the Dodge Family in the 1970s, a predominantly queer party group made up of members of the Green Room Theater Club, which PJ noted featured a “real camaraderie” among gay men with shared struggles.
Looking through countless archives (including a large collection of old articles from The College Reporter), interviewing several queer people from multiple generations, editing twenty hours of footage (and Zoom footage, at that)—from an outside perspective, it seems like a great deal to navigate. This does not even take into account the information PJ knew and could not fully incorporate due to interviewer-interviewee consent, such as the rapid rise and subsequent fall of SHADES, a BIPOC queer group on campus. SHADES was rumored to have returned this academic year, though this information cannot be confirmed.
“The further you go back in F&M’s history, the whiter it gets,” PJ noted, a telling phrase for such a complicated college history, one that made intersectionality in this project difficult. “I flop back and forth on blaming F&M’s historical exclusion and my capabilities [for a lack of sufficient BIPOC representation in the film]. Maybe it’s a mix of both. I never reached out to the African American Alumni Council or BSU, for example, in regards to notable queer alumni I should contact. It did not cross my mind until just now, which is a huge oversight.”
While PJ made attempts to find students and alumni that showcased proper representation in the documentary, such as sending emails out to the LGBTQ Alumni Association, contacting several Facebook groups, and asking other interviewees and contacts for suggestions, the combination of privacy concerns and F&M’s historical background severely prevented PJ’s attempts at greater intersectionality in the film.
Including minority voices at such a historically white institution, as well as attempting to find a balance between respecting privacy and excluding entire sections of history, added additional struggles to the production of the film. Regardless of the obstacles to obtaining information and ensuring representation, PJ feels they were successful in portraying F&M’s queer scene across several decades.
For the future, PJ hopes next fall will bring a proper film and archival exhibition of their work and other documents depicting queer history at F&M. Most importantly, though, they ask for a shift in rhetoric in the campus community.
“Alumni have this impression that everything is perfect now, meaning that we talk about queerness,” PJ explained. “However, just because people talk about it, does not mean queer people are receiving the support they need. We are not 100% there yet. Any protections made need to be long-lasting and permanent… What would happen, for example, if we no longer had a Chelsea or Professor Day?”
I ask myself these same questions, as queer protections at F&M seem to be guarded by a passionate few. What happens when these wonderful people move on? Without acknowledging our pasts, and without those who remember, how can we protect our futures?
PJ emphasized the need to protect queer BIPOC, as well as all trans communities at F&M, as these folks are being legislated “out of existence in multiple states,” which could potentially include students’ home territories. Protections must be put in place regarding “housing, inclusion in queer spaces, and being able to hold exclusive spaces to discuss vital issues among the community,” like SHADES. Furthermore, the Wellness Center must have a fluent understanding of queer healthcare, as PJ notes that “some staff did not know what PrEP (an HIV-prevention medication) was.” It is also imperative that our medical staff know about Hormone Replacement Therapy. These moves are essential for the institution as a whole to be a significant support system for trans students as they pursue their transition journeys.
I believe that PJ’s documentary will help us remember what came before us, what is important, and how we may see ourselves moving forward. To learn about F&M’s queer history, click the link below (please do it; it’s really, really, really good. Otherwise, I would never write an article right before Finals Week):
Sarah Nicell is a sophomore and the News Editor for The College Reporter. Their email is email@example.com.