Facing a diminished membership, low community participation and the absence of members willing to serve as co-chairs for next year’s organization, the leadership of the Middlebury Open Queer Alliance (MOQA) has announced its intention to pursue the formal disbandment of the College’s only student-run lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) group.
On Monday May 6, Emma Ashby ’13, Petr Knor ’15 and Ada Santiago ’14, the three MOQA co-chairs, sent an email to members of the LGBTQ student organization informing all that the group would be disbanded. The decision came following a vote during the organization’s weekly Sunday meeting, which drew a crowd of only five students — the organization’s three co-chairs and two group members.
“We have been talking about this on and off all year,” said Ashby, explaining that the leadership decided to finally disband in the face of “very sparing” participation and attendance at the organization’s Gaypril events.
“We brought an amazing speaker, Lesléa Newman, who has been a part of LGBTQ history — and which cost the school $1,500 — and only six people attended.” Ashby also pointed to low participation at the organization’s “Queer European” panel, a presentation on “downlow culture,” a workshop on HIV/AIDS as well as one of the group’s social events, an afternoon “BBQueer”.
“In addition,” she continued, “no one has stepped up to serve as the co-president of the organization for next fall. We just haven’t gotten enough support … Things have gotten really ridiculous.”
While sympathetic to student frustration, Dean of the College Shirley Collado expressed apprehension about the organization’s decision.
“I completely respect the decision that these students feel that they have to make, but I am concerned that we would not have a student organization to support incoming students,” she said.
Collado also wondered whether students had pursued all available channels before making the decision to disband.
“If they were open to engaging in a critical conversation with members of the queer community to get at how to alleviate some of the issues or answer the questions, then that might be a step before saying that they’re giving up,” she said.
As the College’s only student LGBTQ organization, MOQA is a group that seeks to fulfill the social, academic and political desires of students across all four years. For many underclassmen, the group serves as a safe space for conversation of identity and sexuality. Yet for others, a wholly different sort of space, one that is more social, academic or political is desired.
In March, the organization’s co-chairs asked their membership to complete a survey ranking in order of preference the types of events that they would like to see facilitated by the co-chairs. Of the survey’s 24 respondents, members were nearly evenly split across all activities — parties, performances, academic talks, panels and activism.
Though uncertain as to the cause of the low turnout for events and diminished member participation, Ashby offered a number of hypotheses.
“It’s sort of hard to get people to organize unless they are either very strongly for or very strongly against something. Of course, there is homophobia in pockets on the community, but for the most part people are very liberal. It’s hard because there aren’t really tangible things to organize against,” she said, alluding to the difference between generating enthusiasm for MOQA and a group like Divest for Our Future.
Ashby also suggested that MOQA faces a unique challenge in developing community around a sexual identity. “Many people just organize their own things because their friends are queer, and they don’t use MOQA as a conduit.
“But MOQA has the resources to provide funding for parties, lectures and speakers. It would be nice if MOQA could funnel a lot of different directives.”
Though sensitive to such explanations, Tony Huynh ’13, MOQA co-president from 2010-2011 offered an alternate diagnosis.
“I think that everyone is at fault, but I don’t think that meetings have been very well run this year,” he said, suggesting that MOQA has seen diminished member participation in part as a result of the group’s leadership.
Huynh suggested that this year’s group planned fewer social events than in past years, organized a reduced number of discussions during the group’s Sunday night meetings and also failed to adequately advertise programming.
In response to such critiques, Santiago, the one current co-chair who had committed to serve in the same position next fall, instead cited an institutional failure, describing the challenge that co-chairs face in seeking to provide programming for the diverse membership of the LGBTQ community without staff support.
“As co-chairs, we’re forced to focus on ourselves as students while simultaneously fostering safe spaces for an entire community of students, creating LGBTQ-related programming and events and addressing all the needs (social, political and academic) of students. Some of this should be provided for by a staff member,” she wrote in an email.
Santiago noted that Middlebury is “one of the only” NESCAC schools without an LGBTQ resource center or staff coordinator. Though the College has a Queer Studies House and Chellis House, the former is an academic interest house for queer exploration, and the latter, the Women and Gender Studies Resource Center, is independent from queer identification.
Ashby contended that students seeking non-academic LGBTQ support have only two options: MOQA or the Center for Counseling.
“So you can either get psychological help, or you could go to MOQA.”
Yet, Collado pushed back against this assessment, explaining that students seeking LGBTQ support can turn to a variety of staff and faculty, including Dean of Students J.J. Boggs, Special Assistant to the Dean of the College and Senior Advisor for Diversity Jennifer Herrera, all five of the Commons Deans, the staff of Chellis House and the faculty of the women and gender studies department.
“I hesitate to silo affinity groups by area of specialization,” she said. “I welcome the opportunity to engage in this conversation, but I want to make sure that we’re being very intentional about the way that we define the roles of our staff.”
Kevin Moss, the Jean Thompson Fulton professor of modern languages and literature, presently serves as one of MOQA’s two faculty liaisons. When informed of the news of the decision to disband the organization, he suggested that he did not think that such a move was an appropriate one, but hoped that it might spur conversation.
“I don’t think MOQA should disband, but if this gets people seriously engaging the question of how it can be better in the future, I’m all for it,” he wrote in an email.
“I also think it shows that we really need an LGBTQ coordinator to take responsibility for organizing things. Staff, faculty or students will burn out.”
Though official steps have not yet been taken to disband MOQA formally, Monday’s email explained that henceforth MOQA will “no longer function” as a student organization. Co-chairs hope that this step will cause the community to think more deeply about the role of an LGBTQ student group on campus.
“As a result of whole-community discussion, it is our hope that a conclusion can be reached as to the way forward for MOQA or a similar organization,” they wrote.