A Summer of Activism
From Bryn Mawr to Shanghai, four students landed summer internships with an LGBTQ focus.
By Alyssa Banotai
Photographs by Kate McCann
“Bryn Mawr has taught me to be socially conscious as second nature,” notes Kate Hinchey ’16, McBride.
Given the College’s history of student activism, it’s no surprise to find four Mawrters pursuing summer internships and research positions devoted to issues of LGBTQ activism, advocacy, and awareness.
What is surprising is the breadth of their work, which includes conducting scholarly research, organizing fundraisers, making puppets, and mastering social media.
Brenna Levitin ’16 harnessed the power of alumnae/i Facebook outreach for her research on 20th-century LGBTQ history at Bryn Mawr, and Hinchey has turned her internship at a Philadelphia community center into a long-term employment opportunity. For Sula Malina ’17, her internship with a Boston-based queer theater company affirmed her passion for art and activism as both an academic and a career path, and Manman Lu ’15 learned the power of social media in her work at the only existing LGBTQ pride event in mainland China.
Addressing the Archives
When Levitin, a gender and sexuality studies major who hails from Worcester, MA, attended a tea on summer funding, she envisioned herself creating educational videos about science.
Instead, she met Evan McGonagill ’10, assistant director of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, and learned about the Tri-Co Digital Humanities Internship.
Although deliberately unstructured, the internship suggested that the research focus on the second half of the 20th century and involve the College’s Special Collection. “As you think of Bryn Mawr history, you often think of the M. Carey Thomas era, so we were thinking of how to transition it to a more modern perspective—something that’s more directly relevant to today,” Levitin explains.
A cursory look through the collection called her attention to the student activism of the 1970s-1990s, particularly in LGBTQ-related areas. That interest complemented McGonagill’s in the intersection of academic and social recognition of LGBTQ communities on campus.
“It really has grown so organically from the very beginning as the meeting point between what we have access to and what Brenna wants to do,” McGonagill says. “One of the things about this internship that’s different from others in the past is that we didn’t know how much was going to be there.”
What was there was a lot of microfilm, an incomplete archive of The College News, various student publications, and, at Haverford’s Special Collections, the archives of the Bi-College Gay People’s Alliance, founded in 1975. Levitin’s desire to delve deeper into her research had the added bonus of augmenting the archives. She and McGonagill collaborated on an oral history of Joseph Kramer, professor emeritus of English, who taught the first LGBTQ literature class in the Tri-Co. They also used Bryn Mawr-related Facebook groups to reach out to alumnae/i and, through the contacts they made, were able to conduct several phone and Skype interviews with Mawrters from the late 1970s, 1980s, and early to mid-1990s.
“When I asked about first impressions of Bryn Mawr, or how it felt to be out at Bryn Mawr, or how it felt to be LGBT at Bryn Mawr, a number of alums have said it felt like being a kid in a candy store—exactly in those words, which is very funny,” Levitin recalls. “There’s definitely that aspect of Bryn Mawr being very attractive and freeing, and a number of people talked about the safety that they felt inside the Bryn Mawr bubble.”
Indeed, one alumna spoke about how her post-graduation move to Washington, D.C., during the Reagan Administration made her realize how much of a safe space Bryn Mawr had been.
In their accounts of relationships between LGBTQ students and College administrators, “a number of the alums felt at least somewhat supported by the administration or at least appreciated the administration even as they recognized that it was not vocally supportive,” Levitin notes. “Even with the people who were happy with the administration, there was an acknowledgement that it tried to minimize or suppress the perception of Bryn Mawr as a lesbian-friendly institution.”
Alumnae/i interviews and reels of microfilm were unable to hide a frustrating and persistent archival silence on certain aspects of LGBTQ life at Bryn Mawr—what Levitin calls “a very obvious void” that made her want not just to fill in the blanks but to take a deeper look at what this silence represented. “We’re trying to write a history of queer spaces and people, and how do the silencing of queerness and the silencing of queerness in our archives intersect?” she asks. “That’s something that kind of got me spiraling down a very deep rabbit hole.”
Addressing the silence, Levitin acknowledges, was the biggest challenge in the creation of We Are/We Have Always Been: A Multi-Linear History of LGBT Experiences at Bryn Mawr College, 1970–2000, the digital exhibit that is the culmination of this research. She says, “I want to emphasize for the consumer of this project that we’re not trying to fill these gaps but draw attention to them.” Adds McGonagill, “Not every silence is an accusation but at the same time, they deserve to be interrogated.”
Levitin hopes her work will most resonate with fellow students: “One of the things that is important to me is that current students and prospective students—but current students especially—will see themselves in the history. It’s not just whispers about M. Carey Thomas, but here are actual alums who are trans or bi or any of those things, and they’ve always been here.”
Forging the Future
Kate Hinchey’s work in the LGBTQ community precedes her admission to Bryn Mawr as a McBride scholar: She was vice president of the Queer Student Union at Temple University, worked as a Philadelphia Dyke March organizer, and ran the nonprofit side of Stimulus Productions, a Philadelphia-based lesbian production company. To continue building her professional activist credentials in Philadelphia during her time at Bryn Mawr, she sought out an internship with William Way LGBT Community Center.
“I really love Bryn Mawr, but I wanted to be reconnected with my community in Philly,” she says.
Hinchey, a sociology major with a concentration in gender and sexuality, found her classroom experiences to be an asset in her nonprofit work. “In our classrooms, we’re constantly talking about issues of intersectionality and how social justice issues affect us and all kinds of people, and I’ve definitely had to put myself in other people’s shoes and think more critically around the different populations the Center works with,” she says.
At William Way, her work centered around two major fundraising events: IndiGoGo, a one-night-only “dance adventure” that called on her production company experience to coordinate several major production companies for a single event, and a gala called Homecoming, which succeeded in raising more than $20,000.
The continuation of her activist work concurrent with her academic path at Bryn Mawr has given Hinchey a clearer career view as graduation approaches: “I came into Bryn Mawr thinking I wanted to work as a child life specialist and slowly but surely realized that I definitely want to go into nonprofit management or development at a for-profit. I love being able to see real results immediately within an organization and being able to figure out how the entire web of the organization works.”
Hinchey plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work or public administration, or an MBA after graduation. In August, she was elected to the board of trustees of the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, the only youth-led independent nonprofit organization in the United States.
In the meantime, Hinchey continues to tie her LGBTQ activist work to her time at Bryn Mawr. Through Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement work-study, she is continuing her job at William Way for the full academic year.
Plus, her coursework continues to resonate with her activist interests: “This fall, I am a part of the Identity Matters 360°”—a course cluster examining multiple systems of identity—“and I know that so many of the elements of identity politics we are studying in class connect directly with my activism work. Keeping one foot in the real world and one foot at Bryn Mawr is going to challenge me and make me a stronger Mawrter,” she says.
The Theater of Puppetry
Typically the down season for theater, summer is a less-than-ideal time for a theater internship that offers little in the way of learning opportunities for students. Not so for the Theater Offensive, a Boston company devoted to the promotion of LGBTQ and diversity issues through accessible community art and performance. For Sula Malina ’17, a gender and sexuality studies major from Cambridge, MA, an internship with the company offered opportunities in activism and theater (obviously) and large-scale puppetry (somewhat unexpectedly).
She arrived at the close of the spring tour, just in time to input audience reaction data and to assist in preparations for the Theater Offensive’s Pride Parade presence in celebration of the organization’s 25th anniversary. “I wrote some blog posts about working on a puppet,” she says. “We had a puppeteer come in from New York and designed a puppet with a giant pair of lips and some legs and high heels—hours and hours
of compact cement and foam. It was a ton of fun. It was my favorite part of
Malina, a theater lover since high school days, traces her interest in activism to her participation in the Tri-Co Summer Institute. “It was a great introduction for me being interested in activist-y things,” she says. “I think that helped to guide me on my course selection and helped me realize that what I was interested in was gender and sexuality studies and activism.”
During her internship, Malina was impressed with the Theater Offensive’s commitment to its principles, particularly in contrast to her girlfriend’s disappointment with her own internship at another nonprofit.
“I got to sit in on so many meetings where we would be talking about how we could get all of this money from this source, but if it’s not going to jibe with our mission statement, we can’t do that anymore,” she recalls. “I really gained a sense for what it means for an organization to have integrity, especially in terms of where it gets its funding.”
Pride in China
A simple question drew philosophy major Manman Lu ’15 to her internship with ShanghaiPRIDE: How did the only existing Pride event in mainland China survive in the midst of heavy police supervision? A participant in previous events, Lu, a Shanghai native, responded to a recruiting call for the ShanghaiPRIDE organizing team and spent her summer as the assistant to the organization’s co-founder.
“I was not a frequent user of social media, and the experience has totally changed my opinion,” she says. “It is great to learn how social media provides a way for underground organizations such as ShanghaiPRIDE to speak out to its community.”
Lu offers high praise for the joint mentorship and friendship offered to her by her internship supervisor as well as for the community-centric efforts of the all-volunteer staff of the organization. The experience, says Lu, has made her consider the possibility of pursuing work at an LGBTQ nongovernmental organization after graduation.
“It is simply amazing to realize that these individual efforts had made Shanghai this summer a better place to stay for all members of LGBTQ communities in China,” she says. “The internship has brought me more than I have imagined. It has changed my view on international LGBTQ communities in Shanghai and how much individuals may contribute to it.”