Why coming in as Queer is just as important as coming out.
by Ciarra Jones
I watched as the recipient of my inquiry malfunctioned in real time. I could see the question on the tip of her tongue, which restroom do you use? I watched her exhale with relief as I saved her from her wavering: “Any restroom is fine.”
It was my first day at Harvard Divinity School and the first time since the tomboy-years of my youth that I experienced the discomfort of being uncategorizable.
I reflected on this moment for weeks. As a cisgender woman, I in no way experience the gender discrimination that trans people do. My gender identity allots me a myriad of privileges and it would be wrong to erase this truth. But this moment forced me to confront my Queer body in a new way. In some ways, this is a privilege in and of itself: for me this instance ultimately cultivated productive self-reflection. For others, interactions like this can be extremely unsafe and traumatic.
, it was a problematic conflation of my sexuality and gender-identity. I did not like that this new person in a new place assumed something deeply personal about me. I felt exposed and unsafe and I experienced the sharp urge to cloak myself in straight-passing performativity. To those who know me, this may sound silly. I have a closet full of button-ups and a shoe-rack full of Clarks and Doctor Martens. Yet, I never thought of my wardrobe as an outward sign of my Queerness, but rather an extension of myself. I never wore things for the purpose of beaconing my sexuality (well, nineteen was a rough year — I just wanted some cute girls to notice me!) but rather, my sexuality gives me permission to expand my wardrobe, to try new styles without worrying about compromising my femininity. This freedom was affirmed by those around me at the time. I was incredibly fortunate to live amongst Queer friends and family in the Bay Area who stood in their truth and as result gave me permission to step into my own.
My Queerness makes me feel safe to engage in new ways of presentation, but this experience demonstrated to me that these new ways of presenting myself also mean that folks now know something about me without actually knowing me. This is terrifying because as much as I love my Queerness, homophobia is a reality in both broader society and in academia. I was no longer at Berkeley, but at Harvard. “Harvard is conservative with a lowercase c,” a professor once told me. The conservative nature of Harvard is palpable, and so was my fear.
What restroom do you use? The question behind her eyes catapulted me into liminality. Not only was I Queer to myself, but suddenly, my body signaled to the world that I was Queer.
At the University of California, Berkeley, I came out as Queer—at Harvard, .
Coming in Queer is something that is scarcely given adequate attention. Rarely, if ever, has the media given us a chance to watch a Queer character grow into their Queerness. We love to broadcast over-exaggerated tropes wherein a Queer kid outs themself to their whole high school with a huge banner that says “I’m Gay.” But we never ask, I wonder how they are grappling with their sexuality, 10 years later?
The construction of “outness” is a fallacy, one that assumes that someone can ever truly be “out” to everyone. It’s impossible. I often argue that “outness” is a moment of realization of who one is in relationship to one’s self. For me, now that I am out to myself, sharing my identity with others means perpetually coming into myself. When I choose to share my sexuality with someone (I don’t share it with everyone) I am saying, it is important that you receive me fully in this moment because I know that I deserve to be loved holistically. When I “out” myself it is always with the caveat that I refuse to stay in community with the person if they prove themselves to be unloving. Thus when I come “out” to someone I am reminding myself that I am worthy of love and acceptance. It is less about their response and more an acknowledgement of my inalienable humanity. Coming out is an assertion of one’s right to be loved just as they are. Coming out is a consensual act of returning to ourselves again and again.
Coming in is less interesting to our society because Western sociocultural norms are obsessed with “moments” (I mean, Twitter literally has a section called Moments). But moments fade into full lives. Oftentimes, Queer people’s lives are distilled into public and private instances of disclosure. Whether that means writing an annual facebook post in order to reaffirm our Queerness or constantly reminding our family members of who we are, our identities become predicated on how often and how loudly we reveal ourselves. But in-between our blaring the trumpet of our identity sit days, weeks, months, and years of living in our Queer bodies. Just being Queer.
Despite my initial fears of exposure and vulnerability, coming into my Queerness became my armour against the intense scrutiny of academia. Coming in Queer, though jarring, reminded me of what my Queer friends and mentors taught me. In an academy based on critique and rejection, Queerness teaches us that critique is not our identity. To live in critique is to erase our multiplicity. Queerness says that this grade is not my identity, this classmate’s dehumanizing remark is not my truth because I am always worthy, just as I am.
Academia is steeped in an anxiety concerning progress and time. Students are always hustling to receive their next degree, to complete their next project and most importantly, many use their degrees, projects, and accomplishments as a means to receive outside validation. For many Queer people, we have developed a reservoir of self-love. We have revealed who we are to our friends, parents, and loved ones only to receive rejection in return. We quickly learned that we cannot live our lives predicated on outward acceptance because oftentimes acceptance for Queer people comes at the expense of our truths. Queerness reminds us to step out of both applause and rejection in order to look inward to ask the hard questions.
Queerness knows intimately that people can only celebrate and love us as deeply as they love themselves. And further, that we cannot wait for people to catch up before we start granting ourselves the permission to love ourselves. Queer people understand that many people see our identities themselves as failures. In this way, Queerness reframes failure by removing it from the notion of objective finality. Queerness reveals that failure is not an absolute truth but a value judgement given to us by another fallible human being. Queerness teaches us to find validation in ourselves, not the value judgements of others. Queerness wisely elucidates that failure may not be real at all, just a temporal space on the process to becoming who we already are: worthy and enough.
Perhaps Queerness protected me the most when contending with feelings of imposter syndrome. Queerness teaches us that true imposter syndrome is attempting to fit into molds that can no longer hold us. Due to the violence of our society's obsession with categorization, Queer people know what it is to be an imposter, for we are often forced to be imposters in our own bodies, performing identities that do not belong to us for the comfort of others. Coming into one’s Queerness is the result of doing the work of unlearning performativity and bravely embracing authenticity. This is not to say that imposter syndrome is not gendered, racist, classist, and extremely difficult to overcome. However, it is to say that Queerness beautifully speaks to these understandable feelings of mis-belonging by reminding us of the emptiness of making academia (or other professional pursuits) our sole identity. For a prerequisite to scholastic affirmation is running after success in perpetuity. Queerness disrupts the Western notion that worth and productivity are inextricably linked by prioritizing self-acceptance over that of temporary applause. Because to love our Queerness we must practice a rooted commitment to unlearning oppressive societal norms, Queerness shows us that true knowing is actually being brave enough to not know.
Academia, though at times beautiful and full of possibility, relies on capitalism and productivity as its framework for success. Productivity as a metric for success is corrosive because it steals our capacity for rest and steadfast self-love. Moreover, academia transforms each and every one of our colleagues into competition by encouraging academics to fear the possibility of being found wanting in comparison to another’s expertise.
Love is the antidote to unworthiness and Queerness is radical and unencumbered love. Queerness is seeing oneself and saying “I love you.” Queerness is looking at your friend and saying “I see you.” Queerness is hope. Queerness is boundless in its touch and invites us to be accepting and celebrating of the boundlessness of ourselves and others.
When I came in Queer I brought self-love, communal-love, hope, belief, and boundless grace with me. In an institution hellbent on profiting off of my insecurity, I am so thankful that my very identity is steeped in the belief that