Queer History at Swarthmore College

Copyright (c) by Dina Mazina and Rebecca DiBrienza, 2008. All rights reserved.

Swarthmore College, located in the Philadelphia suburbs, has a long history of liberal politics and social action. Founded by members of the Religious Society of Friends in the 1860s, Swarthmore, unlike its cousins Bryn Mawr and Haverford, followed in the Quaker tradition of coed education. Today the school has a prominent queer scene and fondly looks back on its LGBT history. In March of 2007, Swarthmore student Lauren Stokes wrote a detailed article on the college’s queer history that ran in the Swarthmore Daily Gazette, an online publication.

Richard Sager ’74 and Pieter Judson ’78 describe 1970s Swarthmore as a difficult place to come out, partly due to the weight that the homosexual identity carried. Queer organizations that existed, such as one called the “Gay Liberation,” were underground, private, and met off campus. They did not exist to raise awareness or draw in new members, but their role was mostly to support their own community. Despite the lack of visibility, Judson recalls “a sense of radical questioning potential in queer identity.” Lesbian students found support in feminist organizations, but remained separated from much of the campus life. Queer activists at Swarthmore became more public in the 1980s, partly in response to the rising AIDS crisis. Two queer campus organizations were formed at this time, the Gay and Lesbian Union and the Bisexual and Questioning Circle. The two merged in 1986. LGBT students fought for visibility and acknowledgement on campus. One 1985 action demanded an addition to the college’s non-discriminatory statement that would protect students from discrimination based on "sexual orientation and affectional preference." Despite reservations from some students, the clause was added in 1986.

The LGBT groups did significant work on raising AIDS awareness, which gained prominence as a campus issue when popular German professor Eugene Weber died from complications related to the disease. Despite the queer associations that surrounded AIDS at the time, at Swarthmore it became a unifying issue for both gay and straight students.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s queer issues were significantly more visible in all aspects of the Swarthmore experience. Alternative Sexualities Integrated at Swarthmore was founded in 1989. It was replaced by Action Lesbigay in 1991 and by Lesbian Bisexual Gay Alliance in 1992, which went on to be a founding group in the Intercultural Center. Queer faculty members became more visible on campus, and courses on gender and sexuality started to be offered.

Thanks to funding from Richard Sager, Swarthmore has been able to organize the Sager Symposium, a week of events to raise awareness about queer issues. The Symposium began in the late 80s and continues to be a major event on Swarthmore’s campus to this day. Previous topics have included Gay and Lesbian Studies in Academia, AIDS and the AIDS Quilt, and LGBT Identities in Popular Media.


All quotes and information taken from Stokes, Lauren. "Queer history of Swarthmore." The Daily Gazette, March 22, 2007. http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/org/daily/2007/03/22/queer-history-of-swarthmore/