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boy, girl, boy, girl
Challenging the imperatives of sex and gender in student culture
by Susan Rosenberg

More elemental than race or nationality, gender is what defines us first and foremost—starting with a blue or pink baby blanket. For both sexes, the meaning of gender affects nearly everything we do, our sense of self, and our relations with others. For college students navigating late adolescence, gender interweaves—and sometimes entangles—the development of their sexuality and personal identity.

It’s an eternal coming-of-age drama on campuses around the country; the only thing new about it lately
is the self-awareness and candor of the actors. At Skidmore this spring another Honors Forum–inspired “Shades of Gray” colloquy drew a large crowd of students, faculty, and administrators to share views on masculinity and femininity, Skidmore’s social scene, and the demise of Diva Night.

Erin Barach ’06 screened a documentary video she made with Rachel Carson Demmond ’06 about the Diva drag ball hosted each year by the gay and lesbian student group. Diva, said its organizers, “is about cross-dressing and exploring sexual identities.” But in recent years, as more heterosexual students have attended and crowds have grown to 1,000 or more, it’s become, according to the video, “insane, overboard, intense” (a student) and “a celebration of decadence” (the campus-safety director). When a few alcohol overdoses at last year’s Diva (an officially dry event) brought ambulances to campus, college authorities considered banning the dance. This year, in the weeks before Diva Night, the Skidmore Pride Alliance worked with other student groups on an education campaign to discourage “pre-game” drinking. But seven cases of alcohol abuse led again to medical crises, and SPA agreed to end the eight-year Diva tradition.

In the film and the discussion afterward, Mason Stokes, an English professor and faculty advisor to SPA, defended the original goals of Diva. “If you see drag as a political protest, it has a kind of fierceness and beauty. It has an activist purpose, which is to educate.” Drag challenges “rigid gender categories,” he said, “and that’s a healthy thing.”

Craig Hyland ’05, president of SPA, is sad to lose Diva as a venue for free sexual expression, but he knows that cross-dressing for it drives some students to drink: “Some guys feel, ‘I’m not wearing this miniskirt unless I have three shots first.’” As videomaker Barach says, “It’s easy for people to be cool when talking about cross-dressing, but when they incorporate it into their social life, they have a hard time handling it.”

Stokes points out, “For the gay-lesbian-bisexual group, Diva was a place where they could be themselves, while for heterosexual folks it became an opportunity to lose themselves—and when you depart from your real self, all rules are off. It became an excuse for Mardi Gras excesses.”

“If you see drag as a political protest, it has
a kind of fierceness and beauty. It has an activist purpose, which is to educate.”

—Mason Stoke
But what can the extremes of Diva tell us, Stokes asked a panel and the audience, about the norm of gender relations at Skidmore? Some students observed that at Diva “the men cross-dress and the women undress” because the idea of cross-dressing, even on a lark, “horrifies” many women. “I want to show off my body,” said one, “not hide it in men’s clothes.” Another confessed, “I’d be afraid to go out anywhere not looking pretty.” And: “A lot of college women have body-image problems. Being scantily clad at Diva is a chance to feel positive and free about their bodies.”

Peer pressure and competition emerged as a major issue for Skidmore women. According to one, part of the student culture, or at least its rhetoric, is that “women compete for hookups”—sexual encounters. “Those who have more hookups are ‘hotter’ and can feel superior.” Elizabeth Ingber ’05, maker of a roving-reporter video screened at the forum, points to another “divide among women at Skidmore: Some women feel excluded and not understood by the strongly feminist women. And if you’re alienated from your own sex, you’re sure to be confused.”

A male student offered, “Maybe because women have such a strong voice in the classroom here, they overcompensate on the weekends to show the guys that they can be ‘sexy,’” not just assertive and scholarly. In Ingber’s video, some men students did complain, “The male perspective gets bashed in the classroom, while the female perspective is elevated.” Many women refute that, including Adrienne Zuerner, a French professor and director of women’s studies. But in any case, she argues, “No dynamic in the classroom is the cause of behaviors outside of class.”

Certainly men face gender pressures. Said one male student, “Men get pressured by other men to be masculine; it’s not just a response to women.” And Hyland noted that “nonathletes are often seen as gay, while athletes are seen as hypermasculine—violent and competitive.” Pat Oles, dean of student affairs, argues that the male voice isn’t really stifled by feminism; but inasmuch as “traditional distasteful male behaviors like drunkenness and aggression are out of favor in society today, macho culture is a bit beleaguered.” And he’d like to hasten its demise. “I want to cultivate more male leadership in the student body that’s profeminist, humanistic, responsible, and thoughtful.”

The time seems ripe: “There’s a growing critical mass of students eager to engage in discourse on gender,” says Mary Stange, professor of religion and women’s studies. “The women’s studies major has some excellent students, SPA has forged coalitions across the gay and straight communities, and the student feminist network currently has some men in its membership.” Sociology professor Susan Walzer, who specializes in family and gender, shares the hope that students will tackle issues of sexuality head-on. “My concern about the hookup culture is that it’s often a matter of people looking to get affirmation in the most superficial ways. Of course, emotional intimacy is scary territory,” she says, but escapism through alcohol and exploitive relationships needs to be replaced by clear thinking and honest feelings. She believes “better integration of academic and social life could be helpful.”

Ingber couldn’t agree more. “It’s an issue of the general intellectual tone on campus,” she says. “People need to talk more honestly and in depth. They feel they have so much to lose: their pride, a potential mate, some kind of status on a pedestal… But sometimes I talk with one of my friends, an ‘out’ lesbian, for hours and hours about gender issues, and we both leave those conversations so refreshed.”

“Ways of coping with sexuality issues are certainly very individual,” says Walzer. “No institutional policy will have the answers. But what we can do as a college is to provide the structures for discussing this as a community, which does help individuals think about their attitudes and values for themselves.”

Sue Rosenberg never attended a drag ball, but she once went to a Halloween dance dressed in overalls and cornstalks (as a scarecrow).