Jonathan Skurnik ’86 on his LGBT-themed Documentaries

Pete Williams ’76, November 2021
(excerpted in the November 2021 DGALA newsletter)

On October 7th this fall, DGALA hosted a Zoom event with Jonathan Skurnik ’86 about his documentary films “Becoming Johanna” and “A Portrait of Robert Jackson.” “Becoming Johanna” (2016) follows a transgender Latina teen as she is rejected by her mother and deals with life issues over a 5-year period. Skurnik made the Jackson short documentary when he was a senior at Dartmouth; it is a roving-around-campus interview with Robert Jackson ’86, who speaks candidly about his struggles as a black man and a gay man. The film had never been digitized, and so DGALA put up the funds to do so, and the film now will be permanently housed in the Dartmouth library system. Jonathan made both films were made available to DGALA members for viewing before the Zoom event and for a limited time thereafter. If you are interested in seeing either or both, or the Zoom event, email us at DartGALA@gmail.com.

The event was hosted by DGALA leader Lee Merkle-Raymond ’86, who knew Jonathan while the two were at Dartmouth; questions from the audience followed. The following is a summary of what was discussed.

Jonathan on Why He Made Becoming Johanna

I was gender non-conforming as a youth, and I was horribly bullied. So this project was personal to me. And it is for all youth, as well as all adults: we all are gender non-conforming to some extent, and we all are oppressed by a strict binary system. I had been reading about transgender youth living in communities that supported them. These children and their families were doing what my community hadn’t been able to do when I was a child. As a social change filmmaker, I wanted to document and help grow the movement that embraces rather than suppresses children with gender expansive identities. I found Johanna in an LA program for transgender youth, when she was 16. We worked together for five years as I followed her, and later as we toured the country to speak to large groups about the film [which also appeared on PBS].

Jonathan on the Robert Jackson ’86 Film

Robert was my friend at Dartmouth, and he had come out to me about a month before we made the film. Filmmaking was my passion at Dartmouth, and I asked if he would collaborate with me on a film about him, discussing his being black, and possibly his sexual orientation. Robert agreed, and he did come out during the filming. Later the film was screened at Webster Hall to over 300 people (as one of ten films from Jonathan’s class). Robert and I sat together; Robert was nervous; I told him I’d tell them not to run it if he wished, but he said, “No; it’s OK.” We held hands for the whole film. Afterwards, Robert received a standing ovation and much support from the audience.

Jonathan on the Future and Continued Relevance of LGBTQ+ Film-Making

There is still so much oppression and homophobia in our culture. Look at the status of Roe: such protections will continue to be under attack for many years. It is just part of the picture of progress against oppression. No one wants to give up OutFest in LA, or NewFest in New York City. I filmed a convention of LGBTQ+ Jewish young people in Orlando a few years ago. There were extremes of experience. Some kids were threatened; but in other communities there was no need to come out, as a variety of orientations were accepted. That is more what it is like today – levels of acceptance and oppression vary all around the country, and we need to approach the topic in that regard.

Jonathan Speaking with Green Light after the Zoom Event

“It was a joy to connect with both alumni and students to discuss my films. DGALA supported the digitization of the first major film that I made at Dartmouth, which I hadn’t viewed in over 25 years. It was gratifying to realize that the voice and themes that I’ve developed over a lifetime of creative output were incubated and developed while I was a student, and to see the extraordinary similarities between my very first film and my most recent PBS documentary. Another key part of my life that started at Dartmouth is my lifelong commitment to being an ally to the LGBTQ community, and making the world safe for all of us who deviate from the gender binary.”

Comment from Student Leader Jess Chiriboga ’24 About the Event

“Within, Dartmouth’s LGBTQ+ club, gathered together in Brace Commons over delicious pizza (thank you DGALA for funding!) and yummy snacks and desserts! There were a couple of new faces, which was incredible. Our group especially enjoyed seeing Dartmouth of the past in Jonathan Skurnik ’86’s film on Robert Jackson ’86. Collis sure looks a lot different these days! Thank you to DGALA for the incredible Q&A, the free pizza, and for digitizing the Jackson film for us to enjoy!”

Torrey Peters GR ’13 on Detransition, Baby and More

Pete Williams ’76, November 2021
(excerpted in the November 2021 DGALA newsletter)

Her publisher Random House aptly described Torrey Peters GR ’13’s best-selling 2021 novel as “brilliantly and fearlessly navigating the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.” The novel (now available in paperback and currently being adapted into a television series) has won numerous accolades (Named One of the Best Books of the Year by Esquire: Long listed for The Women’s Prize; Roxanne’s Gay Audacious Book Club Pick; New York Times Editors’ Choice). However, tackling taboos and writing honestly about sex, gender and relationships can also bring forth detractors, as well as challenge thoughtful readers. On June 15 of this year, DGALA leader Sheila Hicks-Rotella ’04 led a candid conversion about these issues, ideas and more in a Zoom presentation co-hosted by Women of Dartmouth and attended by a large audience from around the world, who also asked questions. Following is a summary of what Torrey had to say. If you’d like to view the full Zoom recording, contact us at dartgala@gmail.com.

Torrey on Her Time at Dartmouth

I transitioned and came out then; it turned out to be a good experience; people were not hostile; they were interested. My thesis advisor ended up being one of the most important people whom I have ever met. We started with a traditional thesis advising relationship, but it evolved to include broad philosophical issues; it shaped my thinking.

Influences for Detransition, Baby

Transitioning in my early 30s, I had to find meaning in life. Older trans women generally were not able to have the broader horizons that younger trans women do today. As a guide I read works of divorced cis women who were starting life anew in their 30s. You need to start over with less time, fewer illusions. They used humor, sadness, joy and loss. I tried to apply that model to trans women.

Controversies

The phenomenon of detransitioning is sometimes used by bigots and transphobes; I do not believe that it is something that we cannot talk about. We all do things in life that we come to regret, but that does not mean that we were wrong in the first place. Most people who detransition do so because it can be very difficult; you can lose friends, family, jobs. I say, “Let’s talk about it.” That is more healthy. Even to joke about it. A comparable example has arisen when same-sex couples divorce; they may feel that they are stigmatizing same-sex marriage, but that is not true. Divorce should not just be for straight people.

Another controversy was my nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction [a prominent prize awarded annually in England to a female author of any nationality for a work in English]. Some critics called me a man in disguise infiltrating a women’s contest. These attacks did not bother me; they triggered good conversations in the UK and actually helped sales there. I take more seriously criticisms by trans people; some felt that my book exposes too many secrets.  I say that no transgender people should feel shame about any aspect of their lives, and the way to get rid of that shame is to shed sunshine, as my novel does, and as my public appearances, such as on “Good Morning America” and “Today” have done.

How Allies Can Help

There are short-term and long-term issues. Currently there are a lot of anti-trans bills in legislatures in many states. Yes, we should fight those. But you also need to understand that they are distractions so that energy gets siphoned off the fight. There are bigger issues than sports. Some trans women cannot get jobs and have other much more serious issues. And those issues extend to a lot of other people.

Advice for Writers

My early writing was for everyone and no one. Later, when I wrote for trans people, I found a sense of urgency. Don’t worry much about your craft as a writer, but ask to whom do you have something to say with urgency. Imagine those people and speak to them. If you do that, it will be interesting to others as well.

Use in the Book of “Transsexual”

Question from the audience: What were your motives in using “transsexual” rather than “transgender?” Answer [paraphrased]: This is the milieu in which I live. We sometimes make fun of the term “transgender.” Some of my trans friends have issues with the way that we have been grouped. It is not that “transgender” is a wrong term. But “transsexual” has the word “sex” in it, so it’s more fun and has a pulpy 70s feel. It’s just a preference.

How People Should Come Away from Detransition, Baby

It’s not that the book gives a solution. It describes the situation for trans women today and shows their problems. How are we going to make a life together and not lie to each other? This is the question that the book raises; the current generation of trans women must figure out how to live. In my own life I am grappling with some of the questions that the book raises.

The Zoom Session

Thank you for having me and asking such thoughtful questions. The logistics were great and the turnout was wonderful.

DGALA Supports Dartmouth’s New Race, Migration and Sexuality Consortium

Pete Williams ’76 with Amanda Rosenblum ’07, November 2020
(excerpted in part in the November 2020 DGALA newsletter)

On October 15th of this year, DGALA’s board of directors, together with the Dartmouth Asian Pacific American Alumni Association (DAPAAA) Executive Board and concerned DAPAAA Alumni, wrote to President Hanlon, urging the College to provide institutional backing and long-term funding for Dartmouth’s relatively new Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality (RMS Consortium). Of our Ivy League peers, Dartmouth remains the sole institution without a centralized race/ethnicity/ migration studies program, and there remains a notable lack of funding in the areas of sexuality and gender studies. DGALA believes that increased investment in this effort is a necessary step toward addressing systemic inequalities, and preparing our students to identify, tackle, and dismantle inequities across the globe.

The Consortium is directed by Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Professor Eng-Beng Lim, who was instrumental in starting the program and already making it a significant presence on campus during what is now its second year of operation. The Consortium is co-directed by Professor Kimberly Juanita Brown, and has 19 founding faculty members across the college’s departments. Notably, Matthew Garcia, professor of history and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies and founding RMS faculty member is co-chairing the search committee for Dartmouth’s first Senior Vice President of Diversity and Equity.

DGALA and DAPAAA leaders led an awareness campaign with all alumni prior to Alumni Council that resulted in a significant number of emails about RMS being shared with alumni councilors and the Alumni Liaison committee. RMS was brought up repeatedly during Alumni Council. We hope to continue to elevate the conversation.

As a result of emails to President Hanlon and the Dean of the Faculty Professor Elizabeth Smith, the leaders have now scheduled an early November meeting with Professor Smith, whose office provided initial support for the Consortium and could be instrumental in assuring its continuation and growth.

Eng-Beng Lim
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Professor Eng-Beng Lim

To learn more about the RMS Consortium, DGALA recently conducted a virtual interview with Professor Lim, who is Dartmouth’s first tenured professor specializing in LGBTQIA-related academics.

Would you tell us more about the Consortium?

Thank you so much for your inquiry. I have had several meetings with the leadership of DAPAAA and DGALA concerning RMS’s status and future.

RMS is driven primarily by faculty and student interest on questions of justice (economic, social, racial, gender, sexual, migrant). It has tremendous buy-in from our campus community, and has a national presence with over twenty top scholars on our advisory board.

In terms of the Consortium’s priorities, we are putting together the following:

  1. An interdisciplinary minor
  2. Strengthening our Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows program (we recruited 30 this Fall)
  3. Weekly Faculty workshops and salons, “Putting Radical Thought to Action.”
  4. Humanities Institute on Transnational and Decolonial Ethnic Studies
  5. Consortium lectures
  6. Weekly newsletter (that you can subscribe by writing to us).

Our curriculum is aligned with intersectional and decolonial approaches to questions race, migration and sexuality.

My sense is that new initiatives in academia can be a challenge to advance. What is the current status and future hopes for the Consortium?

In terms of the College’s support, Dean Smith provided generous seed funding to establish the Consortium on May 6, 2019. Our agreement was for the funding to last 12-18 months, and to then find sustainable funding after that. In the meantime, I have secured additional funding from the Leslie Center [at Dartmouth] to augment her initial infusion of funds. We hope to become a Center and/or to find reliable sources of funding. Institutional priorities and fundraising are areas that are outside of my control or honestly, understanding. However, lots of alums have expressed support for RMS.

Because the work we do as a Consortium is also a matter of faculty volunteerism, we can do this work regardless of the College’s fundraising efforts. Having structural permanency would obviously have greater impact across the board on campus, and facilitate this work better. I can say in the areas where faculty have control, that is around RMS curricular re-thinking and programming for example, there is immense excitement about the Consortium across the campus. We are currently well positioned to make transformative contributions to the College in intersectional and decolonial studies of race, migration, and sexuality and their critical surround. Also, in areas of under- or zero representation, such as Asian American Studies and queer studies, RMS will try to fill in the gap and provide small offerings in and through RMS.

How does the Consortium compare with what other peer institutions are doing?

No other peer institution has a center that incorporates queerness and sexuality as part of their thinking on race. And speaking of race, we are the only Ivy League campus without a center on race and ethnicity, let alone gender and sexuality! We are on fallow ground indeed.

If you would like to express your support for the RMS Consortium and for Dartmouth to provide institutional backing and long-term funding to RMS, please write to the Alumni Liaison Committee at alc@dartmouth.edu. Those emails are shared with the Board of Trustees.

History and Influence of Sororities at Dartmouth

Interview of Maya Khanna ’22 by Amanda Rosenblum ’07, May 2020
(excerpted in part in the June 2020 DGALA newsletter)

Maya Khanna '22 on LSA in the Peruvian mountains
Maya Khanna ’22 on LSA in the Peruvian mountains

Maya Khanna, a Dartmouth ’22 from Rochester, Minnesota, is taking an off term to conduct a qualitative research project interviewing alumnae about their experiences with sororities, whether they were affiliated or unaffiliated. She is looking at the history of sororities at Dartmouth and their influence in shaping the Dartmouth community. I participated in a Zoom interview with Maya back in March. She was professional, gracious, and made me feel immediately comfortable. I decided to turn the tables around and interview her for this issue of the Green Light. Maya was up early, about to head to a local Farmer’s Market with her family, but happily chatted with me about her project and her thoughts on Greek Life at Dartmouth in general. You can read some of our conversation below.

What’s your life like at Dartmouth?

I’m a ’22, so I’m in my second year. I’m a history modified with women’s and gender studies major, and Spanish minor. I was on an LSA+ learning Spanish in Peru this past Fall. When I returned, I saw many of my friends had decided to rush houses. The Dartmouth Outing Club is one of my primary communities on campus, and I’m very involved in Cabin and Trail and the club Nordic ski team. I’m also part of SAPA (Sexual Assault Peer Alliance) and SPCSA (Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault) and other projects related to gender-based violence prevention and response. I write for The Dartmouth.

How did your research project begin?

Academic research is not something I really thought about doing because I’d always associated academic research with the hard sciences. I took a class with Annelise Orleck my freshmen summer called “Women and American Radicalism on the Left and the Right.” Annelise Orleck is my thesis advisor and faculty mentor. She’s a wonderful human being and academic resource. What I found most striking about the course was the way we used individual stories to exemplify broader historical trends. That sparked my interest. I believe that storytelling is one of the best ways to examine history. In Orleck’s work, she couches individual experiences in the broader historical context in which they take place. This is a method of research I found really appealing. My first off term was coming up this Spring, and I thought it would be a good idea to enjoy Hanover and explore research I’m interested in. Annelise told me I’d need to come up with my own project, so I immediately started thinking about what to focus on. I’m interested in institutional accountability. Dartmouth’s history is fraught in so many ways. There’s a lot there in terms of looking at the institution’s history, and looking at individual narratives as well as the time and culture of when they were students more broadly. Dartmouth’s culture is really unique. We’ve all heard of the Dartmouth bubble. In many ways, it follows the ebb and flow of social trends more broadly in the United States. It’s impossible to go to Dartmouth and not feel how Greek life impacts students on campus. I thought others must have done research on this topic, but that’s not the case. There is very little academic research on Greek life, and even less in sororities more specifically.

What do you think about gender dynamics in sororities?

I do a lot of work with SAPA and SPCSA on campus on gender-based violence prevention and response. Underlying any work you do in gender-based violence is inherently a question of power. Who has power? Who has historically had power? This relates to how students relate to each other on campus, as Dartmouth is a historically patriarchal institution. Women have struggled to find a space outside of male structures of power. More broadly, I’m interested in how students relate to each other on campus. Gender is just one form of power difference, but you could also look at race and sexuality, etc. Of course, you have to consider intersectionality, as no one is just one identity. I’m just really interested in gender.

What do you hope comes out of your research?

These are stories that everyone knows but no one really talks about on campus. My interviews cover the more nuanced elements of sororities. The truth is, 70% of eligible students join. However, many don’t stop to think about the implications of joining sororities or why they want to join. I hope to encourage conversations that prod people to think more critically about their part in affiliated systems at Dartmouth. We are all complicit in the ways we interact with these systems. It’s important to open up a broader conversation about this. I would love to create a book project, a presentation, or a podcast to share with the wider campus in a more digestible way. I’m still figuring out the medium and trying to cross different disciplines and areas of focus. This is more than an academic project and has the potential to impact personal experiences.

What do you want to see in sororities in the future?

If I’ve learned anything from the project so far, it’s that sororities have a ton of potential. They can be really empowering institutions for women. At Dartmouth, where women have historically been discriminated against, it’s really important that women find ways to connect to one another and build each other up. However, that’s not always the way that it works out. I’ve heard a lot from alumnae about sororities not being empowering, not building women up, and catering to the fraternities. I want to make sure women think more critically about why they join sororities. I want to see sororities become more accepting for all women and non-binary people on campus.

There is a discussion going on right now about non-binary individuals and sorority rush at Dartmouth. National sororities are saying they can only accept female-identified students. What do you think about the admission policies?

Personally, I believe you can’t have a space where you are empowering women, and then not also accept everyone who identifies as a woman or wishes to be part of that community. I think it’s really important that if you are creating safe, inclusive spaces, and trying to be a voice for women and minorities and people who have been historically oppressed, you can’t have that and then not be accepting to others you don’t believe are the right fit. If people want to be affiliated, that should be their choice. Sororities should make individuals of all gender identities comfortable in their space. I disagree strongly with those who say non-binary people shouldn’t be included in sororities. Gender fluid people are already excluded from so many spaces on campus. Sororities need to be better than that.

Virtual Service Opportunities

All of us have certainly missed getting together with friends, family, and the Dartmouth community during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while many activities and ways of keeping in touch have virtually transitioned (via Zoom, FaceTime, etc.), we know that those who are most in need of connection are especially struggling right now.

While Dartmouth has officially cancelled this year’s Day of Service, DGALA’s annual service initiative is continuing through the contribution of handwritten notes from members to our elderly LGBTQIA+ friends at the GRIOT Circle.

We can all use some TLC right now – and a trusty handwritten note might make a big difference in someone’s life. Since 1996, GRIOT Circle has provided a welcoming space, culturally sensitive services, and member-centered programming that affirm the lives of LGBTQ elders of color. Much of this is made possible because of our generous supporters. You can learn more about them on their website.

DGALA members in other cities can suggest other virtual service opportunities/make partnerships with local nonprofits to support their communities and we can help them implement the opportunity.

Thanks to Amanda Rosenblum ’07 for finding this opportunity and being our liaison to GRIOT, as well as to our newest DGALA Board Member, Erik Ochsner ’93, for coordinating this mailing!