“I’m not sure I would have been able to have that kind of rapid acceptance of myself as I did if I hadn’t had that community-driven chalking experience.”
Shortly after posting the most recent installment in Wesleying’s multipart retrospective on the Chalking Moratorium, an interview with Claire Potter, I read an essay by Dan Abromowitz, a friend of a friend (dare I say friend?) who goes to Princeton. Abromowitz’s piece is titled “Physical Princeton,” and reading it I realized more vividly than before that campus debates over free speech, public space, and personal expression on university property extend well beyond Wesleyan’s borders.
Not that there’s ever been much of a chalking culture at Princeton. Abromowitz can only recall a few instances, but they stuck with him long after their whitewashing. The practice has been labelled vandalism. “But chalk isn’t vandalism,” Abromowitz responds. “It’s the very mildest attempt at staking out a bit of temporal space for yourself outside of closed doors at an institution that cannot survive as such if you pass through it like anything more violent than a breeze. A university that rejects even that gesture is one that would very much like for its students not to really exist, one that operates essentially mechanically, as a series of abstract investments and returns, rather than a space unto itself.”
I reference this essay here because
Dan Abromowitz told me to it fits well, I think, with the perspective of Nicholas Myers ’05, a Wesleyan alum who was closely involved in chalking with the queer community in 2002. Myers recalls chalking as a formative and empowering part of his queer identity. It was also a means of reclaiming space, carving a niche for himself on a campus where “queer visibility” was not an impossibility. Chalking the night before National Coming Out Day was “‘one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had,” Myers told the New York Times in 2002. “I’m not sure I would have been able to have that kind of rapid acceptance of myself as I did if I hadn’t had that community-driven chalking experience,” Myers told me over the phone ten years later.
When you arrived at Wesleyan in 2001, how would you characterize the student body’s relationship with chalking?
It was a cherished tradition, really. I came to Wesleyan because of how I had interacted with the student body during my initial interview and then my visit afterwards. It was one of the big points that drew me to Wesleyan originally. The fact that there was this kind of openness and more radical way to express yourself was really, really cool. I came from a small private school that had very little diversity.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Seattle. I went to a small private school in a very a-diverse neighborhood here. One of the big draws to Wesleyan was that there was a really big queer community, a really active queer community, and I felt like it’d be a very safe space for me to go, especially going through the whole coming out process.
What was the relationship between the queer community on campus and chalking?
We did it three times a year, I think, back then—for prefrosh weekend in October or late September, and we did it in the spring, and I think for Homecoming, if I remember correctly. And it was honestly the biggest kind of party, like, we’re all gonna get together as a community and rally behind each other and support each other in this kind of push for, I guess, visibility and acceptance.
Obviously the queer community has always been really visible at Wesleyan, but chalking more than anything would get people to open up and have a dialogue about queerness and increasing awareness that we’re here and we don’t necessarily fit into these gender norms that are so ingrained in society. And it was safe because it was at school and we knew we had supportive peers and we wanted to push that upon people that were looking at Wesleyan to enforce that that was the kind of community that Wesleyan was at the time. And I’m sure it still is.
What other groups on campus made significant use of chalking?
Chalking was, as I recall, a primarily queer alliance . . . I don’t think anyone used it more than we did. But in addition to queer chalking—I’m not sure what the clubs were called, but math and science would chalk equations just to kind of increase the awareness that Wesleyan wasn’t just a social sciences/women studies/queer studies/liberal arts kind of place, because NSM majors were, in my time, kind of underrepresented. Maybe that’s just who was vocal and who wasn’t as vocal in the Wesleyan community at the time, but when I was at Wesleyan, the most vocal people were those who were in social sciences, in activist groups. I know USLAC was really active with chalking…
Can you explain what USLAC refers to?
The United Students Labor Action Committee. It was essentially a group that were advocates for the Aramark workers on campus. Is Aramark still the food provider at Wesleyan?
No, we switched to Bon Appetit.
Okay, so times have changed. [laughs] When I was on campus, I worked for Weshop as my work-study and I visited Wesleyan this past February and there were still some of the same workers that I worked with when I was there. So maybe Weshop is a different entity.
Can you describe some of the events leading up to Doug Bennet’s moratorium in October of 2002?
The biggest deal was that the administration was concerned with some of the radical things that were being written, that they’d be off-putting to either [prospective] students and/or parents. There was active discontent about it with some of the members of the administration, but there was never any real push back at least during my first two years. It was just kind of accepted as the tradition that we had and there wasn’t any major interference with it until that fall of 2002, when Doug Bennet put a moratorium on it.
There was very little interaction between the administration and the student body about it. We knew they didn’t like, but they didn’t do anything to try and stop us. It was essentially a First Amendment issue. If people were turned off by the queer chalking, we felt like maybe Wesleyan wasn’t the right place for them. It was a kind of litmus test for whether or not you’d be a good addition to the Wesleyan community.
Were there any specific incidents that brought about the administrative attention in 2002? Did it seem to come out of the blue?
It was kind of a blindside, actually. Back then, it was really just accepted as a part of Wesleyan culture. It’s just something we did, and queer and non-queer students alike took part in it. And it was kind of a party. It was a fun thing that we did each semester. Personally, I wasn’t super active in the queer community. I was a member of Queer Alliance and all that, and I went to meetings and stuff. But there was certainly no indication to me that there was this moratorium planned before it happened.
What was the campus reaction to the moratorium? What was your role in it?[laughs] Honestly, when I was at Wesleyan, I participated in so many different protests and stuff like that that I may be getting my events confused, but I know that at midnight or 2 A.M. outside the president’s house, we banged pots and pans, burned a Wesleyan flag on his doorstep, just were kind of universally really pissed off that this happened without any sort of prior warning.
But the same thing would have happened if there had been a prior warning. We were all kind of shit-starters and not really willing to give up any of that freedom that we acquired by coming to a place like Wesleyan. That was such a universal safe space. That kind of moratorium to us felt like we were being whitewashed, thrown under the table. Having a very substantive, formative part of our identity at Wesleyan and being asked to give that up was a slap in the face. So we reacted and kind of refused to acknowledge the moratorium.
According to the Argus, about 40 students marched into Doug Bennet’s office hours in South College to protest the moratorium. Were you one of them?
Oh, right! I wasn’t one of those. I had an exam. [laughs]
Do you remember any other memorable protests?
I was concerned about it. When I talked to the reporter from the New York Times, the Queer Alliance had sent out a message to all its members and the New York Times was requesting to talk to a student that was—the way they rephrased was a “normal” queer student, so someone who didn’t necessarily have pink hair or dress in a provocative way. I was coming from kind of a middle-of-the-road Seattle household, and the only thing that changed for me when I came to Wesleyan was that I came out of the closet. They wanted to talk to someone who had more of a mainstream background. While I was involved in politics and protests and things like that, I didn’t radically change my behavior when I went to Wesleyan. I went to Queer Alliance meetings and participated and gave my time, but I don’t think I was as visible as some of the more radical members of the Queer Alliance. That’s how I got involved with the New York Times article.
But we protested a lot. A lot of the really significant things—like the walk-in to Doug Bennet’s office—I didn’t participate in, because I was on a lot of financial aid, I was taking a really significant amount of coursework, and I didn’t want to jeopardize any of that. If that makes any sense.
So how did that New York Times article come about? What made them want to cover this?
At the time, the New York Times was really, really interested in Wesleyan. This article came at the end of a slew of articles about Wesleyan that the New York Times was writing. They wrote about WestCo as the “naked dorm,” and they wrote about the naked parties, and they were really interested in Wesleyan as this collegiate center of counterculture and breeding these activist students into becoming really socially active, socially aware people.
The chalking article came at the end, and once the moratorium happened, they were really interested to see how it would affect Wesleyan culture overall. I think it did sort of start a course in Wesleyan culture towards more mainstream, liberal arts, New England college culture. From what I can tell, at least, about what Wesleyan’s like now.
How do you think the University has changed since you were on campus?
I didn’t go to my five-year reunion, but my friends who went have commented that—well, a lot of people in my year also looked at colleges like Williams, Amherst, Hamilton, whatever, and a lot of them have commented that it’s kind of become a little more mainstream. Personally I haven’t witnessed it and I don’t want to comment on something that I don’t have personal awareness of. But that seems to be the consensus of my friends who have visited and witnessed since we graduated.
The freshmen who came in when I was a senior just seemed to be a little less active on issues on campus. It’s hard to comment personally about it. I don’t want to undermine any of the things that hare happening at Wesleyan now. But the consensus among my friends from my graduating class is that it seems like it’s not as weird, quote unquote, anymore.
A lot of faculty became involved in the chalking debate as well. Were you aware of that?
One of the people I know was really involved was [former Professor of History and American Studies] Claire Potter. [Editor’s note: for an interview with Professor Potter about chalking, click here.] One of my best friends from Wesleyan had her as his thesis advisor. When I was a senior—I was abroad my entire junior year—I know that she was really pushing for a Queer Studies major.
You mentioned that you went to so many protests that you might be confusing them. What were some other major activist issues on campus when you were a student?
USLAC was really big—the United Students Labor Activism Committee. Trying to get fair wages for Aramark workers on campus. Those were low-income workers. MoCon doesn’t exist anymore, which is sad but a fact of life. USLAC was the other really big one that was happening at the time. My freshman year there was a huge rally in support of Islamic students after 9/11. I was in a class with a Muslim girl from Indonesia. She went to New York for a weekend maybe three weeks after 9/11 and she was detained at Port Authority for a day and a half. I guess equal visible and understanding about different groups was a really huge deal. That’s more of what I experienced, but USLAC and fair wages for Aramark workers was definitely a huge deal all the time.
Any specific protests or boycotts you recall?
For USLAC, there were a lot of sit-ins in MoCon, sit-ins to try to help workers get equal pay or better pay. I think to help them get unionized, too, was a big deal because there was a big push-back from Aramark about unionization of workers.
Let’s talk about chalking again. How did the debate over the moratorium continue throughout that academic year? Did it ever resolve?
We just continued to chalk is what happened. There was no resolution that year about it. We just continued to chalk, and then the administration would be closing down sidewalks early in the morning. We would go out and chalk again in the middle of the day blocking sidewalks while tours were going through. The year after that, I was in Japan for the entire year. When I came back my senior year, it just somehow seemed to not be an issue anymore. It had somehow been swept under the rug.
Did you feel like the administration had succeeded in eradicated chalking from campus?
I think by that point his credibility as president was already going out the window. I think Michael Roth took over in, what, 2007? [Bennet] was pretty universally disliked by the student body and by a lot of the faculty also. I can’t say with statistical certainty that chalking contributed to his ousting, but I think it’s pretty likely that it was one of the big turning points in his career as president of Wesleyan. He made a lot of really unpopular decisions.
Does it seem strange to you that he would devote so much attention and drama to something like chalking, compared to all the other issues facing Wesleyan?
I just finished an MBA program, so coming from an East Asian Studies major to going to business school is kind of a big change. What I think was his deal was that the people who would not be taking advantage of Wesleyan’s need-blind policy were probably a little more on the conservative side of the spectrum. Ultimately, queer chalking that was like “Your granny’s a tranny” or “My dick is gonna be in your son’s mouth” was not going to be a turn-on for a rich parent to allow their kid to go to a school. Especially if they’re going to be paying full tuition without any financial aid.
I think ultimately it was a financial bottom line decision made by Doug Bennet. He wanted to attract more of the students of families that could pay for Wesleyan without having to take advantage of the need-blind financial aid policy. I think that was the main impetus behind his decision.
Was that how you understood it at the time or did you realize this in retrospect?
It’s definitely something I’ve realized in retrospect. I think in the moment, all of our thinking was, “Doug Bennet is a fucking homophobe, how dare he?” But now, as I look back with more knowledge about how businesses work—and, you know, higher education is a huge business—I think that was the reasoning behind the decision that he made.
Do you think it was successful in those terms?
At the time I think that Wesleyan was decreasing in ranking in publications like US News & World Report because they weren’t have the same alumni support that schools like Amherst and Williams were having, and alumni donation rate is a huge factor in determining those rankings. And like it or not, those rankings really influence a lot of students on where they’re applying to college.
What else do you think students should know about the chalking controversy?
I’m not really sure what students know and don’t know. For me, it’s a really formative part of my identity as a queer person. Coming from a place where there wasn’t much queer visibility to a place where there was essentially ultimate queer visibility. It helped me a lot in my development as a queer person and being able to be comfortable with myself as a queer person. I learned I could essentially give a big middle finger to people who didn’t necessarily accept me and still be cool with who I was. And I’m not sure I would have been able to have that kind of rapid acceptance of myself as I did if I hadn’t had that community-driven chalking experience. It was really, really uncomfortable at first, but it really pulled us together as a community on campus.
My perception is that when you look back on your Wes career, this was a pretty formative experience for you. Is that accurate?
Oh, absolutely. I live in Seattle, so there isn’t a huge Wes community here, but I still talk to my best friends from Wesleyan who I met, like, day one Orientation. We’re all in super different places, my life has changed a huge amount. If you asked me when I was at Wesleyan if I would get a Master’s in business, I’d say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” Super formative, extremely empowering to my identity as both an adult and as a gay man. I’ve changed a lot since then, and I’m forced to be a grown-up since I’m pushing 30 next year. But yeah, if I could turn back time, I would not change a thing about my undergraduate experience at Wesleyan.
Out of curiosity, what do you do now?
I finished my MBA from the University of Washington. I moved back to Seattle after I graduated, and then I lived in Korean doing educational consulting work. I taught for a year, and then I wrote curriculum for Samsung Corporation, English language wing, and then I moved back to the Seattle, worked for another two years for an international education company, went to business school, and now I’m working for a consulting firm that specializes in consumer packaged goods. My firm specializes in sustainability in organic foods. We try to help our clients expand their organic health and wellness offerings.