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LGBTQ moments along our shared path

“Run away with me,” Charles Jackson ’60 wrote, his heart in his throat.

Vulnerable, he wanted to say more but didn’t have the words; first love’s effusive confusion smote him speechless.

“Everything became focused on this older boy who transferred in our third weekend,” Jackson remembers. “I didn’t know anything about him—I still don’t—but I just thought he was so gorgeous. I would sit in a window in Mary Lyon One and wait for him to walk past.”

“Run away with me,” he wrote, his heart on the page.

Alone, he burned—the closest they ever came to interacting was when the older boy asked to borrow a bar of soap and their fingers accidentally touched.

“I’m 78 now and I know how this sounds,” he laughs, “but that moment—despite everything that happened after—remains one of the most emotionally heightened of my life.”

“Run away with me,” he wrote, his heart in the campus mail.

It was 1956; the older boy turned the anonymous love letter over to Dean William Prentice ’37, who had no sympathy for the mystery writer’s loneliness or longing.

“Run away with me,” he read and saw only “a dangerous menace to the community” who needed to be exposed.

And so, when a trembling Jackson received a summons to Prentice’s office, the tenderhearted freshman—who believed himself the only gay person in the world—knew he would face a public outing, expulsion, or worse.

Clothier Hall was locked, so he couldn’t jump off the bell tower; instead, he swallowed a stolen bottle of pills.


We’ll never know how far back our Swarthmorean LGBTQ story truly goes. To say that it’s a different world today than in 1956—let alone 1864—is an understatement, but it’s still wrenching to think of any of our queer voices lost, muted, or silenced over the years.

Robert Norman ’49 remembers how his now-deceased roommate, “a really handsome, blond, tall, blue-eyed fellow,” would be inundated with invitations from lovestruck ladies to the Women’s Student Government Association dance. “He fled the campus for a few days so as not to have to deal with the problem,” he recalls. “The term ‘gay’ was so remote from our environment that I never heard it.”

“As a heterosexual male, I look back and know that I was friendly with a number of students who were gay then or who subsequently realized that they were, but it was never discussed,” adds Tom Webb ’66. “I came away from Swarthmore uneducated as to what life was like for those who were gay or lesbian. I consider that a lost opportunity.”

After all, honoring these voices—and each unique one that has or will come after—only inspires us all to draw closer together.


“I am interested in organizing gay alumni,” Kate Wilson ’84 wrote to Diane Wilder ’83 in a letter dated Jan. 13, 1987. “Why I want the network among gay and lesbian Swarthmoreans is probably similar to why anyone wants an alumni group … we want connections with people who share our experiences. … How can this be done?”

Wilder, Swarthmore’s assistant director of alumni relations, responded in less than a week: “I’m not sure what kind of response you will get—whether enthusiastic or negative, many or few, but I think the idea is a terrific one.”

After the April 1987 Bulletin solicited submissions, autumn saw the publication of the first issue of Out Together: Swarthmore Lesbian and Gay Alumni Network. Coordinated by Wilson and Wilder and edited by Lori Kenschaft ’87, the newsletter took shape via a complicated process intended to maintain readers’ privacy.

“Looking back at that now, it gives me pause to remember what was at stake for some people if their sexual identities were shared,” Wilder says. “There wasn’t any institutional resistance here—we were all enthusiastic to help—but we wanted to proceed cautiously because there could have been real consequences for some alumni.”

Kenschaft, who came out as bisexual halfway through her time at Swarthmore, had long been involved in LGBTQ activism, helping rally 10 percent of all the then-current College students to join a Philadelphia demonstration protesting the Supreme Court’s 1986 anti-gay ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Crafted with the help of many alumni, including Jacqueline Lapidus ’62, Liz Mackey ’82, and Dave Allgeier ’86, Out Together featured class notes, cartoons, personal essays, political perspectives, project lists, histories, addresses, and a sense of exuberance.

“I’m impressed at the levels of organizing we were able to do with such limited resources,” says Wilson. “I see that as one instance of a political ethos that values gathering—for example, helping run the ‘lesbian tent’ in the 1995 U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing—and recognizes the crucial role of ‘ordinary’ documents.”

Although the publication only lasted for a few issues, it meant a great deal to those who received it and took heart from the power and promise of its deceptively simple title.

“It was thrilling to hear from older gay alumni, about what their worlds were like and what they were doing,” Kenschaft says. “Getting glimmers of other gay alumni at all stages of life was exciting and gratifying. It meant so much to just know: You’re out there, you’re out there, we’re out there.”


Looking back at all the roles she’s played, the most important for Kelly Ann Lister ’63 might just be the one she’s focusing on now: listener.

“I’m 75 and I could be these kids’ grandmother,” she laughs, describing the transgender community group she regularly attends in Cleveland. “When I started going, this was a tiny meeting but now it’s huge. I do my best just to listen to and connect with as many people as I can.”

Although she’d questioned her gender identity as early as junior high, it wasn’t until Lister was 50 that she was able to begin exploring transitioning, and 54 when she actually had surgery. That longtime dissonance between her internal and external selves made it hard for her to interact with people, and she remembers her time at Swarthmore—even if it did help launch her to the Peace Corps—as lonely.

The distance between her College experience and today’s is vast: Not only is there now a transgender student support group, but this year’s campus vigil observance of Nov. 20’s Transgender Day of Remembrance had 50 students in attendance, up from six in 2015.

“That is an indication to me that the work we’re doing to support the population is starting to pay off—and that our numbers of the community might be increasing,” says Jason Rivera, director of the Intercultural Center (IC).

Maximizing the resources and support available to the campus LGBTQ community has been a priority of Rivera’s since his arrival in July, when he received a report from staffers who identified challenges and opportunities they wanted him to address.

Now an official LGBTQ advisory group to the IC, that group includes Title IX Fellow Becca Bernstein; Center for Innovation and Leadership Director Katie Clark; Presidential Fellow Bruce Easop; Violence Prevention Educator and Survivor Advocate Nina Harris; IC Assistant Director Mohammed Lotif; and Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development T. Shá Duncan Smith. Through next December, the College has also hired Graduate Fellow Nyk Robinson, whose sole responsibility will be to focus on the campus’s LGBTQ population.

That spirit of improving collaboration and inclusion isn’t limited to current students, either, according to Andrew Moe, associate dean of admissions and director of access and programming.

“I tell prospectives that we are a campus where student voices are important and queer identities are supported,” he says. “What I love about Swarthmore is that we’re actually thinking about access, not just for LGBTQ students but across the board— students of color, first-generation college students, low-income students, undocumented students—reimagining how we can be friendlier to all.”

That resonates deeply with Lister, who sees herself as a compassionate listener who seeks to nurture where she can. Being of gentle and loving service to hospital patients, transgender youth and their families, or even—she hopes—LGBTQ Swarthmore community members is healing, both inwardly and outwardly.

“All this work is helping me, little by little, to erase the guilt of the past and replace it with hope for the future. Mine is a happy story, even if I didn’t always see it that way,” she says. “I am who I am and I would not deny the beautiful thing that has happened in my life. My journey has helped me realize how important it is to listen to each other—with love.”


Fortunately, Charles Jackson ’60 awoke in the hospital after his overdose physically unharmed; fortunately, his story was not defined by suicide or shame.

Completing the school’s required treatment by a College-approved psychiatrist over a one-year suspension to determine whether he would be a danger to classmates, Jackson was buoyed by the help and love of his friends, especially his roommate, Bill Lyon ’60.

Even though they’d shared a tiny dorm room and talked about everything else, they had never been able to reveal the secret they had in common, until Lyon surprised Jackson by taking him to his first gay bar. Knowing that he was no longer alone, and that anyone telling him to be ashamed was wrong, forever liberated Jackson.

“There are power places in life that have a great physical effect on you—I’ve been here dozens of times since graduation but whenever I see campus again, I just think, ‘Oh my God,’” he says. “I used to dread coming back, but now I see that I was born again here. It freed me and I was able to make choices about my life based on reality, not a fantasy. That’s why Swarthmore has huge power for me.”

After graduation, Jackson went on to build a rich, full life, and he delivered a talk at his 50th Reunion, “Gay at Swarthmore, Then and Now.” Even after Lyon died in 1995, Jackson never forgot the memories they made together as roommates and friends.

Bonding over their shared background as sons of working-class fathers—Jackson’s a janitor; Lyon’s a milkman—they’d adopted friend-to-the-friendless Eleanor Roosevelt as their patron saint, pasting a picture of her on their wall. When Lyon and Jackson were reunited after his return to the College, their bond and this idea took on a deeper meaning.

“That was my real education—we’d ask ourselves, what would have to change for everyone to accept us?” Jackson says. “We developed this idea, Bright Blue Day, where we figured that if everyone woke up on a given day and those people who were attracted to their own gender would suddenly turn bright blue, that would be change enough to make everyone accepting.

“Our Bright Blue Day was Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday, Oct. 11,” he says. “Every October after, we’d always say to each other, ‘Maybe this year we’ll have a Bright Blue Day. Maybe … just maybe.’”



Chalkings have long been a vivid but impermanent campus means of making a statement. Our chalked stones are actual Swarthmore pavers worn down and walked upon by generations of community members; they reflect the rockiness of our road and the strength of our shared foundation, illustrated with great care and vibrant color to last forever.

These pages and portraits, links and lives are by no means definitive or exhaustive; these are merely selected stones in the road, and we invite you to add yours, too. Help pave our way: After all, this is our shared Swarthmorean path—and none of us needs ever walk it alone again.