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Last Club Standing: Mills LGBTQ club looks to expand membership and focus

Mouthing Off! members (from left to right) Andee Sunderland, Amanda Jordan Christenson, Veronica Beaty and Cayden Coronado during a regular Tuesday meeting. (Courtesy of Ari Nelson)

If you happened to see one of your fellow students traipsing around campus late last Friday night wearing next to nothing, it was probably because they were on their way to Fetish Ball — one of the most well-attended dances thrown on Mills’ campus.  This year’s theme was “Midnight Carnival,” and the event came complete with a popcorn concession stand, a sea of balloon animals and live performances by Oakland variety troupe “Vespertine Circus.”

Fetish Ball is thrown every spring by Mills club Mouthing Off!, otherwise known as A Queer Alliance of Mills College, a club geared towards providing a safe space for LGBTQ-identified students to come and educate themselves and each other on queer issues and identity.

Despite having a seemingly sizeable LGBTQ population at Mills, Mouthing Off! has only a few members — around seven to 10 — who regularly attend meetings. And since last year, when Queer Melanin disbanded, it is the only Mills club specifically oriented towards queer and trans students.

“Like any club, there’s more people in the fall and it kind of dwindles in the spring,” said club president Amanda Jordan Christenson. “Technically we probably have over 40 members — if you’re going by the e-mail listserve — but not very many people come regularly.”

Christenson, a junior and public policy major, is now serving her second year as president.  Before she became involved with Mouthing Off!, she was president of her high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) for two years.  Currently, she is interning with GSA Networks, a statewide organization that, among many other things,  focuses on training, leadership and activism in queer youth.

You would probably recognize Christenson — her short brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses and hooded sweatshirt — if you frequent the campus library. She hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, as does Mouthing Off! treasurer (and her girlfriend) Veronica Beaty.

In addition to president and treasurer, Mouthing Off! currently has a vice president and publicity chair.  In the past, they have also had an Activism Chair, but that seat has remained vacant during the past two years, which makes a portion of the club’s mission statement — “activism on and off campus” — somewhat difficult to keep.

The activism chair position was created three years ago and filled by senior Juliet Weintraub for only the first year.

“They created the position for me because we were re-birthing Mouthing Off! and I wanted to make sure that activism was part of our mission,” said Weintruab, a Women’s Studies major.  However, after one year, she decided to leave the club, and there has not been an activism chair since.

“I got burnt out on the club. All of the club’s energy went into putting on Drag Dance and Fetish Ball, and I hadn’t joined Mouthing Off! to plan school dances. I had joined Mouthing Off! to find community and be around other activists,” she said.

Cayden Coronado, the Vice President of Mouthing Off!, said the club would like to do more activism, but there is only so much the club can do with the amount of members that attend.

“The sad fact is right now Mouthing Off! barely has enough members to carry on into next year and, if we can’t get more people to come to the meetings, the club might fold within the next few years,” Coronado said.

Issues with recruiting and sustaining interest over long periods of time is not the only difficulty the club faces.  Not all LGBTQ students are interested in or affected by the same issues, and often, members have radically different political viewpoints.

“We just get this total schism where we have some members who are really hardcore, on the front lines of queer and trans activism on this campus and in the broader world; then some students who probably don’t even know half the words they’re using. And then they both end up leaving before the end of the year because the activists don’t think we’re doing enough activism and the other students are scared off or whatever,” Beaty said with exasperation.

This year, Mouthing Off! donated $200 to financially-floundering Lyon Martin, a San Francisco health clinic geared specifically towards providing services for women and transgender individuals. The last big activist “shebang” had happened back during the No On Prop 8 campaign. Proposition 8, or the “marriage equity” issue, is a main example of an divisive issue within LGBTQ communities. Some LGBTQ individuals (as well as straight allies) believe that “fighting for marriage” reinforces the problematic notions that 1) only those with a certain marital status deserve societal benefits, and 2) marriage is the ultimate way of having a legitimate relationship.

“( No On 8 ) is such a moderate gay agenda item,” Beaty said.  “We’ve passed out HRC stickers in the past, which to some people is going to be totally radical, cause like ‘Oh my God, gays have rights!’ and to some people is going to be totally offensive.”

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has a long history of not being inclusive to trans people, and its main campaigns — such as achieving marriage rights and getting gays officially allowed in the military — are viewed by many radical queer activists as assimilationist projects. Campaigns such as this one are said to be “denying the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power,” as said by the mission statement of Gay Shame, one Bay Area group which has long criticized the HRC.

“We’ve had really embittered debates, for example, about pushing for marriage equality — and this is like a routine thing,” Beaty said. “I’d say every couple of weeks it’s just kind of like ‘well, marriage equality,’  or we’ll sit down and be like, ‘well, two girls are trying to go to prom together somewhere.  Maybe we should like, write letters of support. And then there’s gonna be a faction that’s like ‘F*** proms, that’s bulls***.  You don’t need to buy a dress.’”

Publicity chair Jules Shendelman, a senior and a Queer Studies major, feels a possible way to move Mouthing Off! towards becoming an activism-focused group might be to abandon responsibility for throwing Fetish Ball and Drag Dance, the other party the club throws annually, altogether.

“They’re a tradition and they’re a fun tradition — there’s no reason that should have to end — but the fact that is all on Mouthing Off! means that social events and campus activism kind of get pushed aside for these larger commercial events,” Shendelman explained.

“In some ways the way that Mouthing Off! has been pigeonholed mirrors the larger social phenomenon of white gays — not necessarily queer groups — being more corporate and doing less activism,” Shendelman said. “It’s kind of unfortunate to see that duplicated in one of the sole long-term functioning groups for queers on campus.”

Mouthing Off! hopes to recruit new members in the fall, and will be undergoing some slight changes in leadership as Beaty and Cayden Coronado, the vice president, will be graduating.  At the beginning of Fall semester, the group plans to co-sponsor Team Awesome’s poet Andrea Gibson, who will perform for new students during orientation.

“I think we’re going in the right direction because we’re starting to create partnerships with other groups on campus which is really important.  That’s kind of my goal for next year: to create those bridges between other groups on campus and co-sponsor events and that sort of thing,” Christenson said.

Mouthing Off! also plans to host a film series focusing on intersectionalities in the LGBTQ and queer community in the fall.

“I just wish people knew how amazing it could be,” Beaty said.  “We can buy all the books anybody wants, we can fly in all the burlesque performers — it’s just that there’s not enough people to make it feel like I’m not doing it for my own amusement.  That’s what I kept saying at Fetish Ball: It seemed like a personal whim, because there just aren’t enough voices.”

Mouthing Off! meets every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in the Bender Room.