Coming Out Week Offers Safety, But No Imperative

“Coming Out Week,” Swarthmore’s annual celebration of queer identity, swung into action last week with a “Queernival” last Thursday outside Sharples, a SQU-hosted party at Paces Saturday night, and an OASIS-sponsored Open Mic featuring slam poet Kai Davis on Sunday night. Plenty more events are “coming out” this week, so to speak.

The fifteen-year-old campus tradition will span a total of ten days this year and originally stems from National Coming Out Day (NCOD), which celebrates “coming out” as a rite of passage for LGBT people across the world. NCOD is internationally observed by the LGBTQ community on October 11 each year, the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Yet Coming Out Week celebrates not only the act of coming out. “It is actually less about coming out and more about celebrating pride,” clarified Joyce Wu ’15, SQU Intern for the Intercultural Center. “It’s a misnomer.”

To Craig Earley ’16, a new member of both Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and Queer Straight Alliance (QSA), “It’s all about demonstrating that Swarthmore is an affirmative place for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, and everything else outside the heterosexual or cisgender norms. It really demonstrates the welcoming and inclusive nature of the school and its students.”

Yet despite Swarthmore’s reputation as a welcoming and inclusive space for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities, this ideal of inclusivity was challenged last spring when hateful messages targeting the LGBTQ community were chalked on campus, making this year’s Coming Out Week all the more significant in affirming Swarthmore’s commitment to students of queer identity.

In response to the hate speech incident, Dean of Students Liz Braun announced in a recent email the instatement of “ally workshops for interrupting oppression and honoring LGBTQ identities.” The first was held on Monday, October 1st and the second will be held today (October 4th) from 4-6pm in Kohlberg 114. Using the “language of allyship,” these workshops aim to “explore how to take responsibility and action for fostering a Swarthmore that honors and affirms LGBTQ identities,” reminding us not to take Swarthmore’s inclusive community for granted. In small groups, students will be able to learn everything from how to “properly react to transphobic comments” to how to “be the best allies to your queer and trans friends”, according to Braun’s e-mail.

Another major event will be the screening of Pariah at the Lang Performing Arts Center on Friday night at 7 pm, followed by a Question and Answer session with Director/Writer Dee Rees and Producer Nekisa Cooper. Screenings will also be held at 10 pm, as well as 7 pm and 10 pm on Saturday night. The 2011 American contemporary drama film follows the tale of Alike, a 17-year old African-American teenager coming to terms with her lesbian identity. A winner of the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the film will be sure to move hearts and minds while artistically portraying the poignant struggles and triumphs of embracing queer identity. A Queer/Trans Party will also be hosted in Wharton D Basement at 10 pm on Saturday night.

So far, students seem to enjoy the activities and events hosted by the Coming Out Week Planning Committee. “On a personal level I love it.” Earley effused. “I came out just over a month ago, so Coming Out Week means a lot to me. It shows that Swarthmore is a place where people like me can be out and proud and have the support of the community.”

Yet the idea behind Coming Out Week and the concept of “coming out” in general may not be as simple as we think. Associate Professor of Spanish Luciano Martinez, a published expert in LGBT studies and queer theory, raised concerns regarding the oversimplification of “coming out,” which he describes as “a very complex emotional, psychological, and sexual experience” and a difficult “process of self-acceptance.” He feared the “banalization” of coming out in the sense that “it is not a singular episode but rather a complex, and at times very painful journey that involves coming out to yourself, then coming out to people … like you, then finally, coming out to people who are not like you, to heterosexual people. So it’s a process with many stages.”

“My fear is also about… misunderstandings of the idea of the closet and the assumption that the closet is always a space of shame, of oppression, of hiding,” Professor Martinez continued. He argued that the “closet” must be contextualized with regard to space and time. “In some instances, many students and young people are in place where openness is not possible … Many LGBT youth live in places without networks of support. There are a lot of forces against the pursuit of gayness. We need to pause for a minute, and reflect about a country like ours where so many young LGBT are committing suicide. The closet might be a space of survival.”

He pointed out the example of homosexual people surviving amidst the Holocaust and the last Argentine dictatorship. “In those times, the closet became a place to resist normative pressures. It was a space of freedom and self-expression. I am scared about this kind of imperative because not everybody has the same opportunities, in terms of support networks, to come out.” He points out that some students may be ready to come out express themselves in a certain way, but that “we should respect different possibilities of coming out” and “refrain from judging others” for not choosing to come out, which should be upheld as a legitimate decision.

Wu also concurs, clarifying that the queer groups on campus are “not forcing people to come out but providing a space for people to come out.”

That having been said, Professor Martinez reinforces the beneficial effects of Coming Out Week on the queer community, primarily in terms of increasing visibility, bringing awareness to mainstream society, and creating a network of support. He explains that collectivizing a minority helps confirm to members that they have equals who share the same interests, eliminating the pain associated it with the feeling that one is alone. Earley agrees, stating that Coming Out Week “demonstrates the campus’s diversity and keeps the queer community visible.”

“Coming out is one of the most important things that the queer community has done in the past few decades,” he said. “Simply declaring ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m transgender’ has been transformational. It has made it possible for people to be open about their own sexualities and gender identities in a way that was impossible in the past.”

Joyce Wu is the Chief Copy Editor for The Phoenix. She had no role in the production of this article.

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