April 17, 2016. I’m a prefrosh at Visitas, still unsure about where I’ll be in the coming fall. And while that decision has occupied most of my thoughts since I received my acceptance letter, at this particular moment I am much more concerned about where I’ll be in the next hour.
I spent the morning going through the Visitas calendar, highlighting the events I want to attend. Yet (perhaps ironically) the event that I’m most excited about remains unmarked. This is intentional; I’m terrified that one of my future classmates or potential friends will ask to borrow my calendar and notice that I’ve highlighted the BGLTQ Meet and Greet. What would they think? What if they told everyone? What if word got back to my parents?
I’m with a group of about six students, and we’ve been going to the same events together all day. But the BGLTQ event starts in 10 minutes, and I’m racking my brain for an excuse to slip away. I consider skipping the event altogether, just to avoid the messiness of lying to my new friends. What if they can tell? What if they already know? What if they secretly hate me for it but are too nice to say anything? Thankfully, the lure of finally meeting other queer people overpowers my fear, and I mumble a hopefully believable excuse before running off.
The event is in Boylston Hall, but I do a few laps around the Yard just in case any of my new friends are still around. I even make a stop in the secluded bathroom of Sever Hall to give myself a pep talk. Before finally walking through the doors of Boylston, I look around to see if anyone I know is watching me. I’m on edge as I make my way to the basement, certain that everyone in the building can see me and knows why I’m here.
But once I reach the event, I’m safe. This is it. The room is packed with students. Someone offers me a rainbow pin and I grab multiple, almost as if I’m worried that I won’t have any more opportunities after this to express my queerness. I meet current undergraduates and am awestruck by how comfortable they are with themselves. How are they so open? I could never be like that.
On my way out, I stuff the rainbow pins into the bottom of my backpack and pray that no one finds them.
April 21, 2018. I’m a sophomore now. I’m also an intern at the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, the same office which organized the BGLTQ Meet and Greet I attended during Visitas. This year, the Meet and Greet includes a panel of current undergraduates who will answer questions about queer life at Harvard. I’ll be speaking on the panel.
Twenty minutes before the event, I’m at dinner with my friends. When they ask me my plans for the evening, I tell them without hesitation. After dinner, I walk confidently into Grays Hall basement, where the event is being held, without stopping once to see who’s watching. After all, I work here and enter this space multiple times a week.
As prefrosh trickle in, some look unphased, as if they’ve done this dozens of times before. Others seem nervous; it’s probably their first time in a queer space. Some talk loudly with the friends they came with, while others stand alone off to the side. The wide range of comfort levels in the packed room is palpable.
After the panel, some prefrosh approach me with more questions, and some even ask for my contact information in case they think of more questions later.
Near the door sits a bowl of rainbow pins, some of which I made, for the prefrosh to take. As the last attendee leaves and I prepare to close up the space for the night, I glance over at the pins. Their novelty has worn off; by now I’ve made dozens of pins and handed out dozens more. I have one pin proudly decorating my backpack and a couple more scattered around my dorm room. Do I really need another one?
I remember the terrified prefrosh from two years ago, the one so deep in the closet that she had to lie and sneak around to attend the Meet and Greet, the one who hid in a bathroom to give herself a pep talk before entering a queer space, the one who almost didn’t show up due to fear of being outed.
I take a rainbow pin for her.
September 8, 2018. I’m sitting down to write this piece.
I consider it a privilege for me to have reached this point in my life, where I feel comfortable being some level of out in almost every space. Because of my positioning at an elite, fairly liberal institution, I have the autonomy to avoid most of the spaces where I don’t feel comfortable and the resources to seek and create spaces where I do feel comfortable. And while it has and continues to be a difficult journey, I overall feel supported and open.
I find myself forgetting sometimes what it’s like to not be out on campus. I feel a pang of annoyance when someone assumes I’m straight, but less than three years ago, I felt like my life depended on that assumption.
Explicitly queer spaces are wonderful and necessary because they can signal to BGLTQ folks that we’ll be welcome there, and can be catalysts for building community. But labelling a space as queer can present a barrier to entry for those who aren’t out. And even adding “Allies welcome!” may not be enough to make closeted folks feel safe.
I wonder how many BGLTQ prefrosh didn’t show up to the Meet and Greet. I wonder how many walked up to the door of Grays and couldn’t bring themselves to walk in. I wonder how many did show up after sneaking away from their friend groups.
In an ideal world, every BGLTQ-identifying person would feel comfortable being out, in whatever way makes sense to them, in every context. But we’re not quite there yet. And while the most visible members of our community might be out and proud, I want to reaffirm that any BGLTQ-identifying person who isn’t out, whatever “out” means to them, is indeed valid. Coming out is a personal choice, and it’s never required.
For those of us who are out on campus and freely access and create queer spaces, I hope we continue the important work of visibility while remembering and advocating for those in our community who are unable to join us.
For those of us who are not out in all or certain spaces on campus, know that your community is fighting to make this world a more welcoming place, and we’re here to support you regardless of your level of outness.
Whether you have multiple rainbow pins decorating your clothes and bags, one stuffed away in the bottom of your backpack, or have never seen a rainbow pin in your life, you are a valid and important member of our community.
Becina J. Ganther ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History and Science concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.