Language, identity and National Coming Out Day

–Nino Testa took over as LGBT Center Director this fall. Caroline Ambros / The Tufts Daily

Each year, the LGBT Center purchases an ad in the Tufts Daily in celebration of National Coming Out Day (NCOD). You will see this year’s ad on page four. This is my first year as director of the LGBT Center, but it is not my first time signing the NCOD ad. I signed it most years when I was a graduate student at Tufts. While the language of the ad changes from year to year, a few things remain consistent: There is no consensus on how the ad should be worded, which identities should be included and what the goals of the ad are. I have never known the wording of the ad to not cause some level of discomfort, confusion or political disagreement. This year has been no exception. Instead of letting the ad appear without comment, as if it represents the sentiments of a unified queer community, I thought I would highlight some of the problems that people have with the ad as it is worded and point to some of the structural difficulties of this project. I do this to encourage a more nuanced conversation about gender and sexuality than can be had in two sentences of paid advertisement. I also want to acknowledge those who chose not to sign this ad. These folks are, in their refusal to sign, an important and potentially invisible, part of the project.

In years past, the ad explicitly called for allies to be listed among the LGBTQ* folks who were coming out. A few years ago, allies were asked not to sign because many people in the community felt that this space should be reserved for those who belong to marginalized sexual or gender identities. Some felt that this exclusion was both a denial of the fluidity of identity and an erasure of important resources that queer and questioning students might seek out on campus. For my part, I decided this year not to mention allies in the laundry list of identities represented (I also didn’t mention heteroflexible biromantics, but more on that later). However, I also did not ban allies from participating, as had been done in the past. I didn’t check anyone’s queer card when they signed on to this list. No proof of one’s gender or sexual identity was required, and I would never ask someone to disclose that information to me if they did not offer it. Part of being an ally is consistently asking the question: “How and when should I be using my privileged identity to lessen the impacts of a dehumanizing system?” I left it to allies to determine whether and how to participate in this project of “coming out” with a large group of LGBTQ* people.

One problem that I personally had with the ad in years past is that the use of only a few commonly used identity markers (mostly the ones that make up the letters of the LGBT Center’s name) seemed to erase the diverse and vital experiences and identities of many queer folks on campus. I added more terms to the list this year with the hope that more people would see their identities and experiences reflected in the language of the ad, and therefore, in the mission of the LGBT Center. But, of course, in expanding the list I only highlighted all of the identities that weren’t included (including the aforementioned heteroflexible biromantics), underscoring the Sisyphean task of creating an inclusive list of identities. Lists, language and labels are, by their nature, exclusive. So even by gesturing toward a more inclusive community, I may have inadvertently made someone feel left out. Ending the long list of identities with “and otherwise queerly identified” hardly suffices for someone who feels their identity is too easily erased or made invisible. Next year, I will try to craft a statement that demonstrates a better awareness of the difficulties of such a project, but I can by no means promise a totally inclusive list.

We really don’t have a good word to refer to all the people who fall under the LGBTQIA umbrella. Importantly, not everyone who we might try to pull under that umbrella would want to accept our invitation or would feel good about the word we used to describe our presumed connection to them. For instance, while the term “queer” has become commonplace in some academic settings, in other spaces it might make people uncomfortable, recalling scenes of violence and insult. One person’s identity category could be another person’s history of trauma.

No one has mentioned discomfort with the word “queer” this year (a sign of the times), but another word on the list, “queercrip,” triggered some immediate and emotional responses. For those who are unfamiliar, the term “queercrip” was used initially by some disability scholars, activists and artists to name their unique position as queer people with physical disabilities or bodies that are often perceived as being out of the norm. Because of its connection to the typically pejorative word “cripple,” some people at Tufts felt uncomfortable with or offended by the inclusion of “queercrip” on a list that was meant to feel positive and affirming. I understand this discomfort. However, there are a growing number of self-identified queercrips and I wanted to ensure that those who use that label on our campus (and there are some) felt validated and as though they were an integral part of the work we are doing at the LGBT Center — because they are. Someone’s discomfort with the words we use to describe ourselves does not determine our right to use those words. And this, to me, is a central value I bring to both this imperfect NCOD ad and my work at the LGBT Center: I want to listen to the words that people use to describe their own identities and experiences, and reflect that language back to them.

Finally, it is worth noting that even with the best intentions, projects that “celebrate” outness — like the Tufts Daily ad and the rally we are holding today — can sometimes have negative impacts on folks who might consider themselves “closeted,” questioning, uncertain of their identity or afraid or unwilling to discuss these parts of themselves in public. I hope that no one sees these projects as some kind of imperative to be “out.” Whether and how to discuss one’s own sexual or gender identity, sexual activity and sexual desires is not a simple decision or a decision we make only once in our lives. I hope that our focus on “outness” does not provide a new norm against which people feel the need to measure themselves, and yet this may be an unintended outcome of the ad.

If this list is so problematic, why even have it? That’s a great question, and I ask it genuinely. I will probably ask it every year before National Coming Out Day. I’ll ask it to ensure that we are always being critical of traditions and mindful of the exclusions we will necessarily produce in our work. Sometimes it is sufficient to ask these difficult questions about our work, even if we can’t come up with good answers. How could any of us be expected to solve the language problem? Not having the answers does not stop us from working toward a more just community. At the LGBT Center, my goal is to create an intentional space dedicated to the complex emotions, realities and experiences people have related to gender and sexuality. If you have a question about some of the identities listed in the NCOD ad or you’d like to further discuss any other issue related to gender or sexuality, I hope you’ll come to an LGBT Center event this semester.