BLOG: Mills Is Somehow Too Queer
Updated: Jan 3
I graduated in 2017 from Mills College, a private, 170-year old designated Historically Women’s College in Oakland, California. That summer, Elizabeth Hillman, the new president, declared the school was having a financial emergency. To address this, she implemented the Financial Stabilization Plan, which included a tuition reset and the forced retirement/firing of multiple faculty, among other things. All in the name of saving Mills, of course.
Flash forward to March of this year, President Hillman announced Mills would no longer grant degrees after 2023 and instead become an as-yet-undefined institute. Then, like some kind of predictable movie, the ‘answer’ appeared. Mills would merge, according to Hillman just this June, with Northeastern University, a Boston school with a record of buying up smaller campuses and turning them into satellites for students to spend semesters away, and graduate programs to pad their growing bottom line. Mills would become Mills College at Northeastern and would, as she put it, become ‘gender-inclusive.’
Though not advertised as a predominantly queer school, Mills is, in the parlance, pretty gay. 58% of students identify as LGBTQ+, and I was one of them. Recently though, a letter to the president from some alums surfaced praising the merger and suggesting the queerness of the student body as part of the problem — that somehow Mills is now just too gay for its own good. And that this is the cause of Mills’ enrollment and, therefore, financial woes. As of this writing, neither Elizabeth Hillman, who is herself a lesbian, nor the administration has yet to denounce the homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism present in that letter, despite claiming to celebrate Mills’ diversity.
But, I want to tell you a not-Mills story. For my freshman and sophomore years, I attended a community college. That school started in 1967 and adopted the chaparral, more commonly known as a roadrunner, as its mascot because it was a commuter school, and the campus initially consisted of trailers dispersed throughout the DuPage County area. The College of DuPage became quite large over time, presently occupying 273 acres, serving countless first-years and resuming students, and offering adult enrichment classes of many kinds. They have a relatively large and active queer affinity group that I participated in, but on the whole, COD is pretty straight. As a student, you were rather anonymous, and, as a professor, if you weren’t up to snuff, it might take a while before word got back to your particular dean.
I was one of those resuming students. I had spent years in retail, finally burned out, recognized the value of completing my degree, and dutifully registered for classes with people fresh out of high school. And my Intro to Philosophy professor was likely my age or perhaps even a year or two younger. He was new and dapper, and the other students seemed to find his peppering of pop culture references like using Beyonce and Jay-Z in his examples if not charming, at least amusing enough to pay attention half-ways. I, on the other hand, found them cheap and annoying. But I knew the time would fly by, and soon enough, I would be on to other courses, and I would no longer have to think about Professor Bartolome. Sidebar: I just looked him up on Rate My Professor, and anyone who rated him from my class gave him excellent ratings; had I known this website existed at the time, I definitely would have given him a 1, the lowest score possible.
The semester started OK, he was very into promoting a Christian or at least theistic viewpoint in his teaching, which was off-putting to me, but I chose to ignore his obvious slant. We covered many topics briefly, and a lot of material as this was an intro course, but I kept up with the readings and participated in discussions. However, I felt like he wished I wouldn’t, as I would be the one to question him when I thought he might be taking things a bit off course, so to speak.
One day we were discussing Causal Theory. Professor Bartolome had an example he seemed quite fond of involving the observer seeing a hologram of a sheep instead of the actual sheep, which was otherwise hidden from the observer. His example was a bit convoluted, but I added it to my notes anyway. The next day, we continued our discussion of the Causal Theory of Knowledge, which states that the cause of one’s belief in something is rooted in that thing’s existence. In addition to pop stars, he was also fond of using President Obama in his examples, so he said, “Obama is the president. You believe Obama is the president. You know he is the president because he makes the laws….”
I had been nodding along until he told the entire class that lie or, at best, a gross misstatement. I was rather shocked that a professor would get something so wrong, and he did not appear to be simply seeing if folks were paying attention by saying something obviously false. I decided I could not let this stand — these students might actually go on thinking the president makes the laws, so when he asked for a counterexample, I raised my hand. I said, “A counterexample would be the hologram sheep from the previous class. And Congress makes the laws, not the president.” And then, he proceeded to argue with me in front of the whole class. I had to explain to him that the president only signs the laws that Congress makes and passes. Finally, he said he did not know that and that he was wrong. Then he tried to tie it back to the hologram sheep example.
Even though it was definitely weird, everything up to this point had been relatively fine. What happened next was so entirely not fine. He proceeded to turn around, presumably to draw the sheep on the dry-erase board, but then he decided to use me as the example instead. He drew the body of a stick figure and said, “Alright, so this is Marilyn,” and then he looked right at me with… I don’t even know what kind of emotions he was trying to contain, and then continued, “should she have a dress?”
The only response I could manage at the moment was, “No, dude.” Note that the only times I’ve worn a dress as an adult were part of drag performances and Halloween. I had not started using They/Them pronouns yet, but I looked and presented pretty much the same as I do now, which I suppose many might read as ‘butch’ and ‘female.’ Professor Bartolome’s ‘example’ was shocking in the moment, and it is still shocking to relive it as I write it out. I had no quick, witty response, no apoplectic rage, just a simple, “no, dude.”
At that moment, I think he realized he was out of line. After I had called him out on the powers of the presidency, the whole class had perked up, and I felt everyone’s eyes turn to me to see how I’d now respond. I suspect he wanted me to walk out, lose it, or otherwise create a spectacle. And I certainly felt like it. Inside, I wanted to flip over a table like Liz Lemon when her underlings ate her mac n’ cheese. At the time, I wrote about the incident to a trusted professor. “He moved on [from the ‘me’ example] but, how is it that you’re teaching in a college and you don’t know how basic government works? How is it that you can’t handle being wrong? How is it that being called out on being wrong causes you to lose all semblance of professionalism in which you try to symbolically hit a student of a protected category cheaply and below the belt?”
How indeed. I wanted justice, vengeance. I wanted to make Professor Bartolome regret his actions deeply. I wanted a damn apology. And most of all, I wanted this to never happen to another student. There was a moment when I contemplated writing up a report about the entire incident and sending it to his dean. But I wanted to keep my power, and I wanted to make the rest of the semester feel as uncomfortable as possible for a man who was probably never forced to feel uncomfortable in his entire life. So, I sent him an email, which reiterated the whole situation from my point of view.
I ended it this way: I don’t know what you were going for, but I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say you didn’t realize that that was a totally inappropriate, sexist, heterocentric, and insensitive thing to say to a student- especially in front of the whole class. Maybe my correcting you had such a disquieting effect that you momentarily lost the ability to make the distinction between OK and not OK. However, I refuse to believe that you would treat others this way on purpose.
So, here’s where I am — I don’t want this to affect you, me, or the class, so I will respectfully ask you to apologize and not to make a comment like that to me again. I want you to know that I do enjoy your class — especially the response papers, and I recognize how difficult it is to cram a lesson into 50 minutes of class time. That being said, let’s find a way to move past this?
He, of course, wrote me back, man-splaining how he was only thinking of the signage in bathrooms which depicts the Woman as the figure with a dress. He did apologize. And I turned in my final paper 12 days late and received no grade deduction, so I think he got the message. But the point is, it should have never happened at all — none of it. A professor should not have persecuted me. Nor should I have had to resort to threatening said professor to get him to simply do the right thing. I have no doubt that had I not sent Professor Bartolome an email, he would have moved on, thinking he could get away with treating others any way he pleases when emotions get high.
And my other point is, I am additionally sure he would have gotten away with it because COD is huge, and students are just a number; also, look at the Rate My Professor page. The ‘If no one else is having a problem, maybe it’s just you’ sentiment is an effortlessly fallen back-on message many marginalized people experience in all facets of life. In my case, I had no idea if a dean would have taken my account seriously or might have even been chummy with my professor. It could have, without question, not gone my way had I chosen to contact his dean.
I recognize all school cultures are nonidentical, and within them, people have myriad experiences specific to the individual. Still, I *knew* that when I transferred to Mills, I would not have an experience like I did with Professor Bartolome again. I had other, differing encounters, some of which were repeatedly not affirming, but in my pre-Mills mind, again, I just knew Mills would be different, better. And primarily, it was. I have written about being misgendered and my experiences with homophobia and transphobia, which were awful in their own right. Still, it is true that I never again dealt with such a level of audacity from anyone once at Mills. However, the content and lack of response to the recent letter makes me question the surety of my footing at Mills regarding the acceptance of my queerness.
I am not making a direct comparison with my community college and Northeastern’s faculty or culture. However, I do see the parallels between them and the potential for encounters similar to mine to occur once Mills becomes subsumed under the umbrella of such a larger ‘global university system,’ or whatever it is Hillman called it.
Once again, I call into question the motivations behind those who wish to sell out a school that — however problematically — tries to be a queer-affirming place; or those who suggest in the aforementioned letter that Mills is somehow too queer. Consider all of this is occurring as Netflix’s CEO makes his uninformed claim, “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse — or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy — without it causing them to harm others.” At the same time, he doubles down on running a program that recycles the same, tired transphobic tropes for laughs and then fires the Black, trans pregnant person who dared to organize a walkout in protest. This situation proves that a safer place like Mills College is not only needed but absolutely necessary. You can stick your head in the sand and say these are not part of the same story, but they are. My Bartolome account, Mills’ administration and the letter-writers, and Netflix are all doing the same dance. Keep an eye on their moves.
I would venture to guess that Professor Bartolome, and perhaps the others, watched the Chappelle special, rapt, on its debut night.