Distance and Disconnect
This year’s National Coming Out Day on October 11 marked the beginning of Out and Proud Week at Tufts, with events at both the LGBT Center and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Fenway campus. These joint celebrations are an attempt to bridge connections between LGBTQ+ SMFA students and the Medford/Somerville campus.
At present, Tufts is listed as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly schools in the country, making it an appealing choice for LGBTQ+ students. In 2016, the university acquired the SMFA, bringing even more LGBTQ+ students into the community. According to joel gutierrez, the program administrator of the Tufts LGBT Center, the rankings are based on the amount of LGBTQ+ support resources the university offers, but can fail to account for whether the programs are actually effective. “Those rankings don’t necessarily mean anything,” gutierrez said. “I think you really have to look at what’s actually happening on the campus.” Despite its high ranking, five years after the merger, SMFA students are saying that more needs to be done to make both the Medford/Somerville and the SMFA campus more supportive of LGBTQ+ art students.
Currently, the main avenue of support for LGBTQ+ SMFA students lies in the LGBTQ+ population on the SMFA campus. While Tufts does not collect demographic information on students’ sexual orientation or gender identities, SMFA students say that there is a large community of LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and studio managers.
“In my dorm at least, I feel like there’s a lot of LGBTQ+ students. So I immediately felt like I wasn’t gonna stick out,” said first-year Bachelor of Fine Arts student Michael Tsiakalis-Brown, who lives in the SMFA Beacon Street dorms. Tsiakalis-Brown is also enrolled in the SMFA studio class Flora and Fauna, taught by part-time lecturer Ria Brodell, who is nonbinary. “I feel so comfortable in their class which is really nice,” Tsiakalis-Brown said.
“[The amount of LGBTQ+ students at SMFA] is really empowering and nice to see. It’s a very safe space, where I feel like I can just have my art and ‘LGBT’ isn’t the first thing that’s thought of it, because there’s so many LGBT people in that space,” said SMFA Student Government Association President Kim Tran, who is a third-year in the dual degree program.
“I’m in more of a heteronormative space predominantly at Medford, whereas [at] SMFA It’s like, ‘Oh, you just like happen to be LGBT, and you make awesome art,’” said Tran.
Ira Craig, a fifth-year combined degree student, said over email, “There [is] something to the fact that there are so many queer artists who came before us, and that art is one of the few places where it is relatively safe to express queerness.”
LGBTQ+ issues are also brought into the classroom explicitly in classes like Queer Studies Studio, which is currently being taught virtually by part-time lecturer Betsy Redelman Díaz. According to Díaz, who responded to questions over email, the class begins with an opportunity for students to check in with each other, listen to the class’ collaborative playlist, and respond to art prompts.
“One [prompt] from a few weeks ago was ‘draw the Queer Future you want to live in.’ It sounds simple, but these rituals help us to recenter and come into this communal queer space together,” Díaz said.
The rest of the class consists of time to discuss readings or videos relating to various intersections with queerness, followed by studio time to process those ideas. Díaz says that sitting with Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and POC-centered queer theory for an extended period of time offers her students the “opportunity to engage in a prolonged practice of self-reflection within the context of a supportive queer community, which [Díaz thinks] is a special combination for an artist. Making art from that space of supported vulnerability is a powerful thing.”
However, not all classes at SMFA allow for this deep discussion of queerness in art. In critique settings—where students show work and get feedback from the class—some students have had mixed experiences. “I have kind of walked away from [some critiques] wishing that I just had opted not to [put the piece up for critique],” Craig said in an interview. “As accepting an environment as Tufts and SMFA report themselves to be, the fact of the matter is that presenting queer work to a roomful of people who are not queer [is] probably not gonna go over well, and they’re not going to get it the way that you hoped.”
In addition to their experiences with critiques, both Craig and Tsiakalis-Brown mentioned being misgendered in class, despite the culture around sharing pronouns at the SMFA and Tufts. “I got misgendered by this woman during a [critique]—fine, she’s like 75,” Craig said, “[but] she had us all write our pronouns on our name tags that day, [so] I was wearing my pronouns.”
According to Craig, the administration’s response to LGBTQ+ student artwork has not been entirely supportive. Craig worked with the LGBT Center on the Trans Day of Remembrance show in 2018, which was supposed to be exhibited on the SMFA campus as well as on the main Tufts campus.
The piece was a memorial to the 24 trans people who were killed that year. “It was up for three days,” Craig said. “[The SMFA administration said] you have to take it down because the sculpture show [was] going up and the sculpture show didn’t open for another week. So it was weird.”
In an email to the Tufts Observer, Patrick Collins, the executive director of public relations, wrote that “the request for the Trans Day of Remembrance show was submitted after the year’s schedule had been set, but [Tufts University Art Galleries] worked to secure time and space to enable the show to proceed. Unfortunately, the show could not run as long as we might have hoped due to the space having been booked previously for another exhibition.
According to Collins, the TDOR show, which is an ongoing collaboration between the LGBT Center, Chaplaincy, and SMFA Student Affairs, has since been featured in the Terrace Gallery at the SMFA as well as on the Medford/Somerville campus.
This disconnect between Tufts’ reputation as a top-tier LGBTQ-friendly campus and the mixed experiences of LGBTQ+ students is even more pronounced on the Medford/Somerville campus. Tsiakalis-Brown, who has no classes on the Medford/Somerville campus this semester, also felt that there was a hostile attitude towards LGBTQ+ artists on the Medford/Somerville campus.
“I… overheard some really weird comments,” Tsiakalis-Brown said, “from [presumably a] Medford student, where they were like, ‘All the guys at SMFA are so well dressed and then the girls aren’t and it just felt so gross to me. It felt homophobic and misogynistic.”
“Queer folks are definitely more comfortable at SMFA in terms of visual expression,” Craig noted. They went on to describe a series of eggings at the Crafts House, where some SMFA students live on the Medford/Somerville campus. Many residents of the Crafts House at the time were LGBTQ+ students, and several residents were students of color as well. “We wouldn’t go out during homecoming because every year on homecoming, someone from Crafts House got egged,” Craig said.
While the Office of Equal Opportunity encourages students to report incidents like this, Craig said that the residents did not bring the matter to the OEO, because it is “notorious for not doing anything on cases that it’s brought regardless of what the paperwork says”.
In response to student concerns about inaction preventing them from reaching out to the Office, Executive Director and Title IX Coordinator of the OEO Jill Zelmer, commented over email that “Much of OEO’s work is confidential and actions that it takes often cannot be communicated to the community for privacy reasons, which might lead to erroneous impressions about the office’s activity and impact.”
Further, Zelmer said, “We would like to know more about the incidents so we can provide students with support, try to determine who is targeting them, and take appropriate action in response. That’s why it’s important for students to report these incidents.”
In addition to the hostile environment, Craig feels that the quality of discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom also varies on the Medford/Somerville campus. Craig mentioned that they have noticed an increase in classes being offered at Tufts that explicitly focus on queerness.
However, Craig found the more explicitly queer-focused classes they had taken at the ExCollege to be lacking in depth. For example, in a peer-led class on gender and sexual minority health at the ExCollege, Craig said they were expected to “teach the class about how gay people have sex with each other.” According to Craig, another course failed to take into account the experiences of anyone in the LGBTQ+ community besides cisgender white men.
Outside of academic settings, the Tufts administration supports LGBTQ+ students through the LGBT Center. “The Senior Director supports LGBTQ+ students in an outward-facing way by making sure Tufts’ policies and protections trickles down to the practice—practice meaning encounters that LGBTQ+ students face daily with staff, faculty, and other students,” Senior Director of the LGBT Center Hope Freeman said over email. “This looks like common use names being accurately viewed in the electronic systems and on rosters as well as pronouns being prominently displayed and respectfully used.”
Despite the administration’s efforts, the physical distance between the two campuses presents a challenge for LGBTQ+ SMFA students. “Especially now, having been back in person, there just needs to be a lot more resources for SMFA students,” gutierrez said. “What I really want to see is more support in general for SMFA students that aren’t [able to] travel all the way to Medford to access those resources, because [the distance] makes it super inaccessible.”
Currently, it can be difficult for SMFA students to access the LGBT Center because its office hours occur when many students have class. In addition, having to commute between the campuses results in a lack of awareness that the Medford-based LGBT Center is a resource for SMFA students as well. “Part of [addressing] that [challenge] is being present on the campus, but also inviting folks here, when they can be here,” gutierrez said.
Joint programming appears to be a solution to some of the difficulties and disconnect felt by LGBTQ+ SMFA students. “Some of my favorite programming is for National Coming Out Day,” said Tran, who worked on the event. “It was a really great time to come together as a community, and I really appreciated it.”
As the combined degree program expands, and enrollment at the SMFA increases, more LGBTQ+ SMFA students—and their artwork—will be found on Medford/Somerville campus. “I think that the student body being inundated with more people who are interested in the arts and passionate about making and doing and community… [i]s a wonderful thing,” Craig said. “There’s potential for Tufts culture to change but I think that it’s not going to be fast.”
This year’s TDOR show will open at the SMFA on November 18th, two days before TDOR, before traveling to Medford/Somerville later in the winter. In addition, gutierrez shared that the LGBT Center hopes to bring more artwork from trans students to the campus, perhaps for a Trans Day of Visibility show on a smaller scale than the Trans Day of Remembrance exhibit.
Díaz believes that art can be a valuable tool to enact a change in culture. “I think good art queers the world in some way,” Díaz wrote in an email to the Tufts Observer. “The verb “to queer” is a technique used in queer theory to challenge heteronormativity through the troubling of identity binaries [like] gender, sexuality, masculinity, femininity as well as identity politics and systems of oppression more broadly… Queering is a lens that can be used to problematize, to subvert, to push boundaries, which to me is the same thing that good art does.”