Events highlighted LGBTQ issues at Swarthmore and beyond
Few people — Swarthmore students among them — complain about getting time off for holidays. From Christmas to Independence Day, there are eleven U.S. Federal holidays that have been recognized by acts of Congress. Many are symbolic of American culture or honor great American leaders. Some were controversial in their time — it took more than a decade after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death for his birthday to be recognized as a national holiday, while some holidays are still controversial, such as Columbus Day, which celebrates the landing of Columbus in the new world, an event which many see as honoring the destruction of America’s native peoples. One of the many holidays that is not federally recognized is one that is recognized every year at Swarthmore — National Coming Out Day, which at Swarthmore took place from week of October 3 through October 7 this year.
Coming Out Week at Swarthmore is sponsored by a consortium of groups, including the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU), COLORS and the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA). It has been held during early October since 1995, and is one of two weeks designed to highlight the LGBTQ community along with the Sager Symposium in the spring semester. Events range from talks by speakers and panelists to movie showings, to community gatherings. This year, students and faculty engaged in a public panel discussion, held a candlelight vigil for LGBTQ people who have committed suicide and ran a workshop about Transgender issues.
“Coming Out Week on Swat’s campus is … a fun way to actively try to build the open and safe campus and wider community we desire and also to educate people about the obstacles in our way,” said Ian Perkins-Taylor ’13, SQU and QSA treasurer and organizer of Coming Out Week. “For example, several people on the Coming Out Week planning committee were very adamant about including trans issues in this year’s week since Swat is not nearly as trans friendly as it is queer friendly, and the Trans Issues and Ally Workshop was one of my favorite events of the week.”
Another event was a bagel brunch hosted by Hillel where students watched the film “Hineini.” “[The movie] was about students’ process of reconciling her religious identity and sexual orientation, and then starting a gay straight alliance at her Boston-area Jewish high school,” Perkins-Taylor said. “This means a lot to me because Coming Out Week is all about pride: pride in yourself and your identity, but also pride in your community, and this sentiment shows me that people at Swat have this pride and want to share it with their home communities in order to make them safer for and more accepting of LGBTQ folk.”
Perhaps the most visible element of Coming Out Week is the chalking of the most commonly used paths around Parrish, McCabe and Sharples with slogans and ideas designed to raise awareness of LGBT issues to the Swarthmore community.
Previously, the chalking has caused controversy — including an article in InsideHigherEd — because of explicit sexual statements and pictures, but this year seems to have been relatively calm.
Of course, one of the core objectives of Coming Out week is not only to increase awareness about LGBT issues, but also to provide a designated, welcoming time for LGBT students to be open about their sexuality or gender if they aren’t already. The phrase “Coming Out” parodies early 20th century debutante’s parties to ‘come out’ into society. In a society that often assumes heterosexuality, coming out to friends, family and others can be difficult and stressful. By providing a time when others are actively encouraging them to come forward, Coming Out Week makes a difficult decision and conversation easier and supported for LGBT students. “Personally, I wanted Coming Out Week to bring awareness to some of the queer issues that are present on campus but not to do so in a scary, didactic manner,” said Bryan Chen ‘14, one of the event organizers.
The origins of Swarthmore’s Coming Out Week can be traced back to a half-million person 1987 National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. On the second day of the rally, Dr. Robert Eichberg, an activist and psychologist, gave a speech establishing October 11 as National Coming Out Day, which has since been observed in all 50 states. “Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everyone does. It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes,” said Dr. Eichberg in an interview with The New York Times in 1993.
Since the original rally in 1987, Coming Out Day has been held throughout the US and across the globe, spurring greater understanding and knowledge of the LGBT community. However, work remains to be done in terms of awareness and safety for LGBT students in the United States. Swarthmore is one of few universities nationwide with a Coming Out Week — in fact, according to Psychology Today, only 7% of colleges across the country have resources for LGBT students. Swarthmore has multiple LGBT affiliated organizations that are associated with the Intercultural Center. “National Coming Out Day, which always occurs during fall break, is pretty well known in larger queer communities, which usually hold pride parades and events around the day, but it is certainly not as well known in general as Coming Out Week is on Swat’s campus,” Perkins-Taylor said. “I think that as the national and international community becomes more aware of queer issues, the day will become more well known.”
Following the 1987 establishment of Coming Out Day, the movement has spread across the United States and became an international phenomenon. This year, Coming Out Day was celebrated in Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and Britain on October 11. Yet still, in Parrish but not in Congress is Coming Out Day recognized.