I can’t SURF.

CW: Descriptions of nudity. Talking about dysphoria. Mentions of depression symptoms.

I’m sitting in the first floor piano lounge of Baldwin Cottage, our dorm for people who aren’t cis men. According to upperclassmen who’ve lived here longer than I have, my freshman year marked an unprecedented amount of transgender and/or nonbinary residents. Off the top of my head, in a building that houses up to thirty, I can name ten of us, if I include myself.

I can’t remember who’s in the lounge with me, other than one friend; in my memory, the room is empty besides us. I’ll endeavor to keep my friend as anonymous as possible, although a few identifying characteristics are unavoidable.

But let’s back up. Oberlin is notorious, at least in terms of the spiels people give prospective students, for its density of events and activities. We have an average of two concerts a day and hundreds of student groups, for a college of three thousand. Bulletin boards in college buildings are inevitably papered over with competing invitations, four or five sheets deep.

Instead of finding the diversity of opportunities inspiring, during my first year I’d managed to wield it as a weapon to break my own heart with. Depression, chronic illness, fear of strangers, and Oberlin’s famously intense academics colluded towards me spending a solid year not attending meetings for any group I was interested in. Every week I made a promise to myself I’d later break, that this time I’d make it out of Baldwin for something other than classes and meals, and so I thumbed through the dense cacophony of posters regularly.

There’s an eye for art and design in my head that I can’t turn off. It’s been my field for too long. Same for grammar and phrasing, for the same reason. Quickly enough I picked up some obvious patterns:

  • There’s a very limited amount of poster artists active in Oberlin, judging by how often a couple people’s styles visibly repeat.
  • Common phrases: “All are welcome” and “There will be free pizza”.
  • Few groups fail to mention and emphasize how valuable they would be to allies in particular.

That last one is its own post-to-be. Right now, I’m going to discuss the first two.

One of the artists I see a lot has a very recognizable style. They draw in thick black linework that ends up printed on oversized white paper, always with elongated human figures twined around each other, with the event text in the middle of the page. Sometimes they’re posted colored in; at the end of last semester I saw a group in the library in action, filling in the figures’ dresses with mottled watercolors.

I see this person’s art in two main contexts: posters for dance events and for SURF meetings.

SURF, as their posters always elaborate, is Students United for Reproductive Freedoms. They have a tumblr here. I’ve never seen their posters colored in, but new ones go up periodically, reminding Oberlin that they meet weekly. “Students United For Reproductive Freedoms”, the posters say, and some variation on “Weekly meetings 9pm in Wilder 204”, and “All are welcome.”

The blocky handwritten letters are surrounded by this artist’s trademark intertwined bodies. They’re naked and feminine-coded, with legs arranged to cover their crotches and breasts bare.

I would have said that they’re the naked bodies of women, but an awful lot of the women I know don’t look like that. The closest to hand example of someone who does, at the end of the day when I have to resentfully pry off my binder so I can still breathe in my sleep, is me.

“All are welcome.”

So let’s go back to the present tense of the first paragraph. I’m sitting in the first floor piano lounge of a dorm whose core community, at least in my experience, is dominated by trans/*/nb people. As far as I can remember, my friend and I are alone.

If you’re sitting in the first floor piano lounge, you get a lot of walk-ins. “Have you seen Brittany?” “I found this lost ID.” “Where’s Kate?” “Where should I hang this poster?”

This time it’s the last one. Someone walks in holding a SURF poster, and asks where they should hang it up. They seem perfectly nice and well-intentioned. My friend, notably shy, says nothing.

Baldwin as a dorm only really takes over the building from the second floor up. We share a building with the Third World Co-op, meaning that the first floor of Baldwin Cottage can be laid claim to equally by building residents and co-op members. By contrast, the second floor lounge is the main lounge for residents, and the hallways on the second floor have dedicated places for event posters. It’s widely trafficked, since you need to go through the second floor somehow, if you live in Baldwin, to get to your room.

Posters on the first floor get less visibility. It’s a larger space, so the attention of passers-by isn’t channeled directly to whatever sticks out on the wall. Least noticeable is the narrow couple feet of corridor between the door into Baldwin and the open area of the first floor not-piano-nor-TV lounge. People don’t linger there on their way in and out of the building. At most, they glance at the posters competing for their attention in this space–which are usually outdated–before pushing the heavy wooden door open and going on their way.

I flick through my options. I don’t like them. This is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at SURF’s posters; when I see them on the corkboards in Wilder Union, or the events board in the Science Center, I glance at them and flinch away. I can’t think of any trans/*/nb person in Baldwin their art wouldn’t potentially put at risk, without even getting into the effect on sex-repulsed ace people.

“You can put it up by the door,” I say, finally. The person thanks me, and leaves. I never see that particular poster again.

“Thank you,” my friend says, after a pause. We subside back into silence. I feel sick the way I usually do, when I have to make trade-offs Baldwin shouldn’t have had to deal with. I’m emphatically pro-choice, and disgracefully uninvolved in politics at Oberlin for a politics major, a situation I’m looking to fix. I even have Tuesday evenings free right now. But…

“All are welcome.”

They probably even mean it. They’ve still told me I can’t go.

tl;dr Summary: While Students United for Reproductive Freedoms (SURF), Oberlin’s pro-choice student group, take care to state on their posters that “all are welcome”, their posters are also decorated by the naked bodies of people who were probably intended to look like cis women. This is a big enough problem that I’ve been forced to hide their posters in my (small and significantly trans/*/nb) dorm, because the extent to which their art would trigger people’s dysphoria was too dangerous. This produces a filter, a self-fulfilling prophecy, that people who are uncomfortable with their posters won’t get involved with the organization to an extent where they would point it out. And when reproductive rights are a huge issue for the trans/*/nb community, that’s unacceptable.


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