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Making Her Own Schedule, Setting Her Own Pace


By Lori E. Smith

HER SOPHOMORE YEAR Sheila C. Allen was co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association (BGLSA), co-director of Contact, a peer counseling group, and one of the founders of the feminist magazine, 'the rag.'

Next year Allen is moving back home to Washington and getting a dog.

"I don't want to think on anyone else's schedule next year," Allen says. She talks of working at some irregular menial job and seems almost wistful when suggesting she'd like to wait tables.

Such statements sound odd coming from Allen, who is known as much for being an Adams House intellectual as for her activism in feminist and gay and lesbian causes.

But as she says, "I'm not a symbol, you know. I'm just me."

ALTHOUGH IT'S BEEN A WHILE since the media called her every time they needed a quote about homosexuals at Harvard, Allen definitely feels that she was a token for much of her time here. She describes herself somewhat ironically as being "the dyke of the Class of '93," and is conscious of the notoriety that caused.

"Certainly, my freshman and sophomore year, it was like I was the paradigm of the Harvard lesbian," she says.

This was not necessarily a definition she shied away from. As Allen says, she came to college "primed to be political, primed to be out."

In high school Allen worked for the national peace organization, SANEFreeze. At SANEFreeze Allen served as an "in house feminist," working to raise awareness of women's issues within the organization itself.

From her experiences at SANEFreeze, Allen says she recognized the impact that actively working to combat homophobia could have. It was also from her experiences at the peace organization that Allen developed her commitment to transforming ideology into action, a quality that is one of the first things people mention about her.

Although she had planned to become very involved in the lesbian and gay scene at college, Allen was initially disenchanted with the BGLSA.

"Freshmen week, I went to practically every event that had gay in the name, but the women didn't appear," Allen recalls. "The first couple of times I went to the BGLSA I was appalled at how many men were in it and how the two women running it weren't feminists."

As she recalls, it was some "relatively early event," perhaps National Coming Out Day, that brought her back to the BGLSA. She quickly got involved in BGLSA activities, becoming an at-large member of the board and helping organize protests against ROTC's presence at Harvard. She was elected co-chair in the spring.

Allen's year in office came at the same time as a resurgence of right-wing activism on campus. Two new groups, the far-right journal Peninsula and AALARM, the Association Against Learning in the Absence of Religious and Morality, started up just as the Republican Club began staking out a more conservative and more outspoken stance under the leadership of then-President Sumner E. Anderson '92.

The groups claimed to represent oases of conservatism in Harvard's politically correct desert and took gay rights and the general acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle as direct targets.

One of the first big efforts was the "blue-square" campaign the following year. While the right-wing groups said their blue squares were meant to advocate "family values," they were widely interpreted as a strong antigay statement. Homosexuals in Nazi Germany were forced to wear pink triangles as identifying badges and the symbol has since been reclaimed by gay rights activists.

Anderson first mentioned conducting a blue-square campaign in the spring of 1990. In the end, it was AALARM that began postering the campus with blue squares in October of that year. Members of AALARM also chalked blue squares on the side-walks of Harvard Yard and around the houses. All this occurred the day before the National Bisexual Gay and Lesbian Scholars Conference was to begin at Harvard.

"It was beautifully timed. The right wing on this campus really knew how to get the media," says Allen, who suddenly found herself appearing on the front page of the New York Times Education section and taking calls from the Associated Press about the event.

Allen says that the protest by AALARM took on particular significance for her because she had only recently found out about black triangles--the symbol the Nazis assigned to lesbians. She says that she had previously felt somewhat removed from the emotional impact of the pink triangles.

"Seeing the blue squares was--Oh my God, it might have been me," says Allen, recalling that she had difficulty walking around the Yard for fear of seeing another blue square. "It was a feeling of 'these people don't know me and they're saying I can't exist.'"

ALLEN says she was unhappy about her involvement with BGLSA that year. It took a great deal of time in a year in which she was taking four and a half classes and had serious time commitments to two other organizations.

"What I really wanted to do--and did--was found a feminist magazine," Allen says of her sophomore year. "And that was 'the rag.'"

In the fall of her sophomore year, a friend of Allen's told her of another woman who had been talking about doing something similar and "all of a sudden, eight people were saying, 'let's do this.'"

Allen says they were concerned that Lighthouse, the women's magazine that was also just starting up, wasn't willing to come out and take a strong feminist position. Their first meeting also occurred around the time that Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 was coming under fire for remarks he made about the difficulty of adjudicating date rape. Allen thinks the protests surrounding his remarks helped draw people to the first meeting of the rag.

From the beginning, 'the rag' attracted controversy for its deliberately anti-establishment structure. The magazine is run by a "collective" of students, a move Allen says was sparked by the founders desire to avoid the traditional hierarchy of most publications.

"The thing about 'the rag' was that there was always two things going on," says Allen. "There was the experience of working as a collective as well as writing about feminist issues." The latter was seldom as easy as it may have seemed to outsiders, according to Allen.

"The first forum was really heavy," she recalls. "All the divisions in feminism came up--race, class, sexual orientation a little bit."

The content of 'the rag' has also been highly controversial. The first issue included a personal story of date rape that Allen says she and others worried would have negative repercussions for the woman who wrote it. The actual result, she says, was that in the next issue they were overwhelmed by people wanting to write about having been abused.

This led to a worry that they would develop a reputation as "the meest magazine," as Allen puts it. Allen says they were concerned that the emotional impact of some of the pieces would be lessened by cliched articles. "You know, 'all these really horrible things happened to me, but I am woman and I survived,'" explains Allen.

Allen speaks of 'the rag' in the past tense. Despite one controversial issue, none of the people involved with the rag will be here next year and Allen predicts the magazine's demise. Nevertheless, she is quite proud of it, calling it "a great feminist experiment."

ANOTHER SOPHOMORE YEAR experience that Allen talks of with great pride is her work with Contact, a peer counseling group that specializes in issues surrounding sex, sexuality and sexual orientation. She became a counselor in the fall and co-directed the organization during the spring and the following fall.

"I learned so much about leadership," she says. "You need a very different style of leadership when running a small group of people who need to rely on each other in not just a professional way. I had to pay attention to group dynamics in a way I never had to before."

Allen says that working the phone lines taught her a lot about the differences of people and the importance of there being someone to listen. "I think the peer counselling groups at Harvard are one of its best kept secrets," she says.

DESPITE HER EARLY DECISION to concentrate in Women's Studies, it wasn't until her junior year that Allen says she really began focusing on academics. She credits a Women's Studies seminar she took the previous year as being "a real eye-opener." She says that it prompted her to start looking more closely at relationships and representation. And it was during a graduate seminar with Professor of English and Comparative Literature Barbara E. Johnson in her junior year that Allen says she "actually started thinking."

"I'd always read books," Allen says, earlier referring to herself as "the kid who always read through recess." "But I never paid much attention to the textual aspects. [During the seminar] I started looking at books in an analytic way."

Johnson, who was also Allen's academic advisor both her junior and senior year says that Allen has more intellectual independence than many students.

"[She has] a strong investment in real world politics and analytical strategies even when the two things are not easily reconciled," Johnson says.

Johnson also credits Allen with influencing her to become more of an activist. In December of 1991, Johnson was one of the faculty members who spoke at a rally protesting a controversial Peninsula issue on homosexuality. She agrees with Allen that she probably would not have spoken had not Allen asked her personally.

"I think I became more of an activist under her influence, and she became more a deconstructor under mine," says Johnson.

The rally protesting the Peninsula issue was one of the last BGLSA events Allen was involved in planning.

"They didn't seem to know anyone who was gay," recalls Allen of the Peninsula writers. "They didn't quote a single gay person who was happy and it's not like we're hard to find," she says.

"We decided we wanted to get grown-ups to speak," remembers Allen. "We didn't think that the magazine was just hurting undergraduates. We wanted professors who might come out or at least be supportive."

She hastens to add that when they invited Johnson and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes "we asked them to speak, we didn't say 'please come out.'" Both did, however, and Gomes' announcement in particular shocked many.

Allen is pleased by the number of faculty who have come out since then, and contrasts this year's protests over Gen. Colin L. Powell's commencement address with the protests two years ago.

"By the time of the 'lift the ban' rally there were enough gay and lesbian faculty that were out that having one more person come out wasn't so much of a phenomena," says Allen.

ALLEN SIGHS RESIGNEDLY when she is asked the Powell question. Yes, she will be protesting. "I'll definitely be wearing an armband and a sticker on my mortarboard," she says, adding "I think the balloon is a stupid idea. It's going to look like a party, not a protest."

Like many gay rights activists Allen is uneasy about the dominant place on the gay agenda that integrating gays into the military has taken. "Fighting for our rights to kill and be killed is not my top priority," she says.

"What I'll be protesting is the insult of inviting him here in the first place," Allen says.

ALLEN HAS ENJOYED a relatively low profile since her junior year. One of the biggest events in her life since then was her recent conversion to Judaism.

Although she grew up going to Episcopalian Sunday School, Allen says she always felt more culturally Jewish than Christian. She says that she always marked the beginning of spring by the Passover seders that her family attended at the home of friends.

After the father of a Jewish friend died in her senior year, Allen says she realized that she felt much more comforted by Jewish mourning customs than by the Christian ones she had undergone when her own relatives died. "The Jewish rituals just seemed so much warmer, so much more humane," Allen says.

She initially planned to put off the decision to convert until after college--when she'd be mature enough, Allen says laughing. She also felt that coming out was already enough to deal with. Last spring, she says, she realized that it was no longer enough to be a "Jew by default."

"Last year there were a whole bunch of things going on right around Passover that if one was Jewish, might have made you feel under attack," Allen says, making particular reference to the controversy over the kosher toaster oven in Dunster House and to a letter to The Crimson by Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter, which accused the paper of having a pro-Jewish "racial agenda."

"I realized I was feeling under attack as well," Allen recalls. "And then it was Passover and I couldn't find a seder to go to. It sort of felt like spring never came."

Allen says she continued to think about conversion over the summer, doing a lot of reading and talking with another friend who was considering it as well. In the fall, she met with Rabbi Sally Finestone of Hillel and began studying with her.

Finestone says she was impressed with how comfortable Allen already felt with Jewish customs and observances when she began the conversion process.

"In conversion there's always a psychological component, a moment of feeling a part of the community. That was the easiest part for Sheila," Finestone says.

The Friday after Allen converted, she led the Reform services.

"That was really nice," Finestone says, who saw it as Allen saying that "I am now an official member of this community and I am now ready to take responsibility for continuing this community."

For her part, Allen says she found coming out good prepatory experience for converting. It is a comparison she is used to making.

"In some ways converting is very similar," Allen says. "You're taking on an identity that you're not getting from your family." She notes that while this experience unites her with other homosexuals, it separates her from other Jews who, for the most part, do receive their identity from their family.

Allen says that her conversion was not a surprise to her friends--most of her high school friends responded "it's about time." Regarding her parents, she again makes the comparison to coming out.

Allen says that her parents first reaction to her coming out was: "Well, I don't think you'll be happy because you won't have children.' I said, 'Well, I will have children' and they both immediately said, 'you can't do that to your kids'"

Allen credits her parents with coming a long way since then. She thinks her father had a harder time dealing with it initially but says it has been "amazing to watch him grow."

"He had very specific dreams for me," says Allen. When her father visited her the spring of her first year, Allen says he was astonished at the number of people who came up to her to say hi.

"It was weird to him. I had become an important person on campus in a way he couldn't deal with."

Allen says that she thinks her parents see her conversion to Judaism as another rejection, even if an inadvertent one. "In some ways I wonder if [my conversion] isn't harder for them to understand because they can't just say 'well, she was born that way,'" she says.

THIS SUMMER Allen is planning to travel through Europe and Israel--"the old roots and new roots tour," she calls it. She says she will probably apply to graduate school in English, but isn't interested in spending a lot of time worrying about it now. She'd much rather talk about the kind of dog she hopes to find at the pound.

Allen's friends see her as someone who will remain an activist, no matter what field she is in.

"She's always been worried about the reality of everyday lives," says Jessica S. Yellin '93, Allen's first-year roommate and a prominent feminist activist in her own right.

"I hope that she'd be an academic activist, someone who's truly able to bridge what seems to be a false gap between intellectual endeavors and activist politics," says Yelli.

In the meantime Allen has her eyes on a more immediate goal; hiking the Appalachian trail next spring--with the dog.

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