For the first time in the College’s history, students are studying during a summer semester, making this a momentous first as we celebrate Pride Month on campus. We are, however, four days into June, and we’ve heard little talk from student organizations, faculty, or the College about events to mark the occasion. In the town of Oberlin, there is a similar void of broadly-advertised Pride programming. While students are sure to observe the occasion on their own, it seems like a waste that this unique confluence of events will happen without official recognition.
Oberlin can definitely be a great place to be queer. Just looking around campus, one can appreciate the unique gender expression in clothing choices. Many beloved professors identify as LGBTQ+, or make their classes a safe space for queer Obies to express themselves, and there are several LGBTQ+-oriented class offerings. In various social circles, it is arguably trendy to be queer, and Oberlin hookup culture is broadly unbound by heteronormative standards. At first glance, the town reflects this as well, with Pride merch prominently displayed at Ratsy’s, and a Pride flag proudly fluttering on the edge of Tappan Square. Oberlin is home to one of 13 U.S. chapters of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an organization dedicated to fighting the spread of AIDS/HIV. As a small town, Oberlin stands out on this list — most other locations are in major progressive hubs like New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.
Even though a lot of Obies openly identify as LGBTQ+, the breadth of experiences and levels of security vary greatly across individuals. For queer Obies who others presume are straight, or who come from accepting communities, it can be easy to take Oberlin for granted as a safe space. For some queer students, though, Oberlin is the first place where they have been able to live authentically and be proud. For more visibly queer-presenting students — particuarly POC and trans students — it is not so easy to forget how fortunate we are to have our rural gay oasis. As students travel further away from campus, they are conscious of their security progressively decreasing as the environment becomes increasingly intolerant. After all, many are aware that nationwide, violent hate crimes against Black trans people in particular are increasing at alarming rates.
In a world so unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ identities and expression, it is all the more important to celebrate the acceptance queer people recieve in Oberlin. This Editorial Board believes that the social advancements made here and in this country came largely as a result of the efforts made by our predecessors. People like Black butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie, Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, and Latina trans activist Sylvia Rivera laid the groundwork for Pride Month at the New York Stonewall riots in June 1969, which marked the beginning of the modern era of LGBTQ+ activism and advancement. As we enjoy the first Oberlin College Pride, it is important to remember who fought for the acceptance and opportunities we relish in as queer Obies today. We should be proud, and party hard in the name of those who came before us.
Living with this rich history, on a campus known for its brilliant traditions in support of LGBTQ+ identities, a lackluster Pride Month is all the more disconcerting, but still not surprising. Despite Oberlin’s undeniably welcoming environment to LGBTQ+ people, there is little in the way of institutionalized recognition. Add to this the fact that most LGBTQ+ related student organizations and clubs on campus have not been active in the past couple of years, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
A prime example of this is that every few years Drag Ball — one of Oberlin’s most recognizable traditions and a notable safe space for queer Obies— does not occur. Drag Ball is dependent on student organizing to happen annually, but institutional memory begins to strain when the event periodically falls through the cracks. Faculty and administrators, however, have seen Oberlin through the years, and a definitive way in which the institution can support the event is by dedicating funds and facilitating student interest through panels, working groups, or an assigned faculty advisor. In turn, students will both know about and want to get involved in these processes, making the endeavor a two way street with constant mutual accountability. This event should remain as a safe space for queer Obies, particuarly our Black and Latine trans students who uphold the foundations of the drag ball tradition.
In the meantime, faculty and administrators could work with students during Pride Month to plan campus-wide events and panels, or invite speakers for discussions about LGBTQ+ history and activism. We might be late to start the process, but that doesn’t mean that this opportunity is completely lost. If anything, we should be inspired by a sense of urgency in bringing the potential energy of this month to the fore. The opportunity to set an exciting precedent sits right in front of us; it would be a mistake not to embrace it with every resource available. The work doesn’t stop there — Oberlin can pave a definite future for the celebration of Pride Month on campus by shifting it to October, a move already undertaken by several other college towns. As a college, we need to lean into our identity, instead of taking it for granted. Our choices now will impact Obies generations down the line, and it is our responsibility to do our best not just for our own sake, but for everyone who has, or will, call Oberlin home.