by Lauren Serge
In 1997, a group of progressive lesbian and queer individuals banded together to fight for visibility on Ohio University’s (OU) campus. They called themselves the Swarm of Dykes, or SOD.
With the name’s shock value and their fiery personalities to match, the group was a force to be reckoned with on campus, protesting for equality among all in the LGBTQ+ community.
Today at OU, there are numerous organizations offered to queer people, with the LGBT Center located at Baker University Center at the center of it all. Back in 1997, however, the LGBT Center did not even exist. The SOD sought to establish a place for queer people to gather, connect and protest.
Caitlin Sweet, who graduated in 2000, was a member of SOD when it was formed. Sweet said the majority of the queer students on campus used to gather at Open Doors, an LGBT group that met at United Campus Ministry. At these meetings, the women-identifying and men-identifying people would have breakout sessions where they could each talk about their respective issues.
Sweet said it was at these breakout sessions that the idea for SOD was sparked.
“I just remember us being in the basement and being like, ‘This is super unsatisfying for us,’” Sweet said. “None of us were in a place of our queerness where we felt sad about being gay, or needing support or a place to process. What we really wanted was something political. (We thought) what if we were to start our own group? And what is the collective term for a group of dykes? And the joke was, it would be a swarm. We wanted to form a direct action, non-hierarchical, political, queer organization. And so, Swarm of Dykes was born.”
Heather Moyer, who graduated in 2000, was also a member of SOD during her time at OU. Moyer said the decision to use the word “dyke” in the name of the organization was to disassociate the power it held within homophobic discourse, and to instead, reclaim it as part of the community, as the term “dyke” is widely known as a slur used against masculine or adrogynous women and lesbians.
“We wanted the shock value of it and reclaiming that word for ourselves,” Moyer said. “There were a couple of LGBT groups on campus, but there were none that did any radical action. And so we decided that we would want to do one that was a little more confrontational, just to make you think about what we were saying.”
Betsy McCann, who graduated in 2000, was also a member of SOD. McCann emphasized the attention the name garnered greatly influenced the message of the organization as a whole.
“The whole point was that the word dyke was this very taboo, off-subject word that got people’s attention and made people very uncomfortable,” McCann said. “A swarm seems like something aggressive. And it seems like there’s a thickness to the concept of a swarm, that there’s a lot, so a swarm of dykes seems so intimidating and big. And so I think the name was definitely picked to get the reaction. And I do think we got it because even just becoming a registered organization on campus was a big step for us. Because I’m sure there were some phone calls or some meetings that were like, ‘Can the group be called this?’”
Though SOD did become a registered student organization, there was frequent pushback on campus. According to The Post’s archives from 2003, the graffiti wall was defaced and slandered with homophobic slurs. The Swarm took a direct and combative approach to this act of hate and The Post stated that “members of the Swarm confronted the group and persuaded them to stop defacing the wall.”
Aside from other students, SOD also faced conflict with OU administration over the name.
Mickey Hart, the first director of the LGBT Center, said the Swarm did not take this pushback lightly.
“At the university, there were certain words and phrases that couldn’t be on the wall, not looking at context,” Hart said.”The facilities folks who monitored the wall, painted over the word dyke, because that was one of the words that couldn’t be on the wall. In response to that, (the SOD) painted that entire long wall black, and much like you would on a chalkboard, they wrote the phrase ‘I will not write dyke on the wall. I will not write dyke on the wall. I will not write dyke on the wall’ repeatedly.”
SOD’s bold responses to their criticism, Sweet said, allowed for their voices to be heard and the issues they raised to be properly addressed.
“As an official organization, you can paint the graffiti wall with your group’s name, which we did, which then the university immediately covered up (even though) we had rights to be using that,” Sweet said. “So we had a lot of back and forth with them. We would literally be painting the wall, and they would show up to cover that. So we’d have a lot of issues around censorship, but we pretty much had this agenda of being as loud as possible and taking up as much as space. And I think we really freaked a lot of people out and the administration, which meant that they would then take (our) concerns more seriously.”
While the boldness of the name was certainly a topic of conversation, McCann said the activism of the group was much more significant.
“I think that the name being such a lightning rod gave us so much room to operate,” McCann said. “But also, at the end of the day, we really tried to start some different types of conversations on campus.”
The Athena yearbook archives from 1999 outlined a particular conflict present for the Swarm — their debate with Brother Jed. Jed would often visit OU and other college campuses to preach his conservative Christian values, including his opposition toward homosexuality.
The Athena yearbook states that when the debate was set to begin between SOD and Jed, “two Swarm of Dykes members, Heather Moyer and Tyle Fernandez went to the front of the room to begin the debate, they immediately turned around, and about 20 other members got up to stand behind them with their backs to the audience. Taped to the back of their shirts were fliers that read ‘Our vulnerability in this culture will not be exploited for your entertainment.’”
Moyer noted that her experience with protests like the one with Jed were impactful in that they helped to address the systemic issues for marginalized people.
“There were still a lot of people around that would insult us or that sort of thing,” Moyer said. “It was a safe space for us to be a little more radical by confronting the patriarchy and white supremacy and endemic issues in our society.”
“WE WANTED THE SHOCK VALUE OF IT AND RECLAIMING THAT WORD FOR OURSELVES. THERE WERE A COUPLE OF LGBT GROUPS ON CAMPUS, BUT THERE WERE NONE THAT DID ANY RADICAL ACTION. AND SO WE DECIDED THAT WE WOULD WANT TO DO ONE THAT WAS A LITTLE MORE CONFRONTATIONAL, JUST TO MAKE YOU THINK ABOUT WHAT WE WERE SAYING.”— Heather Moyer, SOD member who graduated in 2000
An important aspect of SOD, Sweet said, was that it was not merely focused on the lesbian experience. Instead, it took a holistic approach to issues happening to disenfranchised individuals.
“I think it was before intersectionality was like a buzz word and we were practicing that,” Sweet said. “We had trans members. We had people of color in our group. We had poor people, people from middle class backgrounds. So we had as much as you can for a place like OU that isn’t a super diverse group of demographic. We don’t live a singular life. For a lot of us like being gay wasn’t the only thing impacting us. So we wanted to make sure our activism wasn’t just about that singular thing.”
McCann said the lack of resources and representation on campus was greatly challenged in the efforts made by SOD.
“There was no campus education happening,” McCann said. “There was no presence. In the mid 90s, the world wasn’t accepting of a queer presence. It was still a place where you were expected to fit in and comply. And I think Swarm of Dykes is such a middle finger to that. And what it did is it blew up the space that was accessible to queer people on campus.”
Hart, who worked with members of SOD to eventually establish what OU students now know to be the current LGBT Center, said the extremist styles of SOD helped to amplify the needs of smaller, less vocal groups on campus fighting for visibility.
“At that time, where we were in the LGBT rights movement, it seemed kind of like an extreme group,” Hart said. “The great thing that I think, impact wise, that Swarm of Dykes did as a very extreme group, it made (spaces like) Open Doors a safe place for people to work. So I learned from that, to sometimes move what may seem like the margins to the middle, you need a group that’s a little more radical in that approach. And so I think that it really was one of those times where it woke up the campus community about LGBT issues.”
Micah McCarey, the current director of the LGBT Center, was a student at OU during SOD’s time on campus. McCarey said the unique tactics SOD utilized to get their messages across were essential in the progress made on campus today.
“It takes different forms of activism, different styles in order to really impact change,” McCarey said. “Because you have those who will respond very positively to the aggressive activism that perhaps comes to mind when you hear of a student group named something like Swarm of Dykes, but then there are people who are more permissive that they prefer to have quieter, controlled forms of communication and advocacy. But I think there’s both presences at work today.”
One of the opposite approaches to activism on campus in the late ‘90s and early 2000s was Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity specific for progressive and sexually diverse men. Dale Edwards, a founding member of the fraternity and the LGBT Student Senator, described the differing approaches that often occurred between the two groups.
“I really saw Delta Lambda Phi and Swarm of Dykes as like the opposite ends of the political spectrum — as super progressive to mainstream progressive and it was great that we had those different points of view and ways of tackling some of the issues and subjects,” Edwards said. “Because ultimately we were all bringing up issues that the administration needed to deal with.”
Ultimately, McCann said the changes that SOD helped to inspire allowed for significant progress in the way LGBTQ+ issues were recognized, even in her time as a student.
“I think about how much better those conversations were by the time I was a senior from the time I was a freshman,” McCann said. “And it was simply because they just gave a different voice. Instead of being one voice for all the LGBTQIA students at OU, there were six voices now. So I do think there’s a huge legacy there.”
For Sweet, the legacy resides in her personal growth throughout her time at OU as a member of SOD. Particularly, in the ability for its members to embrace their identities loudly and confidently.
“It was really amazing to be able to be completely uncensored about your queerness, your gender identity, or sexuality and then your political beliefs,” Sweet said. “And a lot has changed. I was in a dorm (and) it was really super uncomfortable for me. We were all dealing with homophobia in the classrooms, from our teachers, from the administration, from our classmates. So it was, I think, a really vital thing for us to have each other and for all of us who were various shades of freaks, various shades of left-leaning politics to have a space where we could be very unapologetically ourselves. I’m not necessarily an activist anymore, but I do think that period of time in my life was pretty crucial for crystallizing some stuff about who I am. And we found a really sweet community as well.”
With the numerous resources and student organizations currently available at OU, McCann said it is an emotional revelation to witness the progress over the years.
“I mean, on Instagram or the alumni newsletters, when I see the resources (at OU now) it just makes me want to cry,” McCann said. “It’s just incredible what the experience is now versus what it was and it’s great to think that in our drunk Court Street years, we did some work that made it possible.” 🔥
This piece was originally published in The Post and appears here with their permission.
Lauren Serge is a junior at Ohio University majoring in Journalism with minors in Marketing and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is a culture staff writer for The Post, OU’s independent student newspaper on campus.