Austen Crowder

The Bench: A story about Wabash College's gay community

Filed By Austen Crowder | September 29, 2009 7:45 PM | comments

Filed in: Living

A friend of mine from Wabash once summed up the gay experience at Wabash with a single shirt. He distributed it to all his friends, who wore the shirt with a proud sense of irony. The joke, in plain white text: "Why do gay men go to Wabash?" The punchline, on the back: "Plenty of closet space."

As a college, Wabash fills a unique niche. It is one of only two all-male colleges left in the entire country, and the only all-male college that doesn't have a sister school. It's students overwhelmingly lean Republican, to the point that a conservative periodical has been able to woo big-name pundits like Ann Coulter thanks to donations from prominent alumni. (Summary of Coulter's speech: yawn.) Over 50% of its campus population lives in fraternities, and that is after a drastic downturn in rush rates. Classroom conversations on women's rights and LGBT issues sometimes uncovered students' deep-rooted prejudices, misogyny, and homophobia.

This isn't to say that Wabash was a terrible school - it is always featured in "best college" lists, and for good reason - but as far as campus climate for gay people it certainly has a lot of closet space. It's hard for a school deeply rooted in tradition to reconcile homosexuality with the American tradition of boys becoming men. However, even in this sometimes hostile environment there was room for a positive, strong gay community.

Senior Bench.jpg

Which brings me to the Bench, actually.

To paraphrase: the senior bench is a long-standing tradition at Wabash College. Only seniors may sit on the bench, though this isn't exactly the purpose of the icon. Fraternities and other organizations will spend nights painting the bench with their organization colors. The trick is that any organization can paint over any other organization's work, unless the organization guards the bench. This is usually a pretty light-hearted rivalry, as fraternities, campus organizations, and independent dorm halls will organize bench painting nights to give everyone a chance to mingle and enjoy the cool night air.

It was with this in mind that Wabash's LGBT organization, ShOUT, decided to paint the bench. What could go wrong, right? We rounded up a bunch of students, faculty, and friends and set up for the night. The Bench looked great; we spent all night painting a nice rainbow pattern on it, and a plea for equality. Everyone had a great time sharing the night. When dawn came we left the Bench alone for five minutes. By "the rules" the bench could not be painted again until the next night.

We came back to find black latex paint tossed over the whole thing.

There was no attempt at painting over the message. No "fags go home" message scrawled in hurried brush, no fraternity markings claiming the bench for the Betas, or the TKEs, or anybody. Black paint scrawled over the bench, thrown out of spite and hate. (Rather ungentlemanly behavior, I thought, but that was a different issue entirely.)

This story doesn't end with bigotry. We wouldn't let it end on bigotry. So, in flippant disregard to "the rules" of the Bench - if bigots could ignore the rules, why not us? - we set up camp at the bench after the day's classes, brushes in hand, and proceeded to repaint the bench in broad daylight. Instead of being bullied off a platform, we stood up and turned the situation into a community event. Faculty came over, wanting to help. Students passing by would stop and chat with us. When we finished painting we set up a 'round-the-clock guard for the bench, making sure that the message was clear: "its our bench too." The bench stayed that way for a full week.

Was life at Wabash perfect for gay people? No. But people made the best of it. That was really the take-away of Wabash life for gay men: make the best of a campus culture immersed in traditional views of what is and is not male. From what I hear, things have relaxed a bit: other than the usual, petty "tear down posters from gay groups" reactions around campus people are mostly okay with gay people. Furthermore, attempts to bring LGBT-friendly speakers to campus are on the rise, Andrea James gave a talk at the college recently, so that's something.

Notice that I skipped the more obvious "what's it like to be trans at Wabash?" The answer is simple: trans folk at Wabash are nonexistent. If one does exist on campus - hypothetically speaking, of course! - they usually remain a closet case, or choose not to act on their desires. (After all, transition would get someone kicked out of school!) I remember discussing my gender identity crisis with the school therapist on two separate occasions, and both times getting a calm dismissal from the therapist.

I would even be surprised to hear of a trans-male attending Wabash, but I'm willing to eat my hat if someone can provide me some info to the contrary.

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Wasbash has also given us a couple of closet case Republican politicians too!

It also gave us two trans activists, one of whom is a Bilerico contributor. ;) (What can I say? When it comes to Wabash I find its best to focus on the good things.)