Queer at MIT, but not on the blogs by Chris Peterson SM '13
the map is not the territory, but it's getting closer
As you may know, this summer we are redesigning MITAdmissions.org. As part of that process, I polled the bloggers on blogging features and blogging processes that would improve their blogging lives. There were many great suggestions, but one in particular caught my attention, in response to a need with which many other bloggers past and present concurred (emphasis added):
Not sure if this is possible, but maybe having an anonymous way to blog? Maybe like creating a profile that any blogger can use when they want to write but can’t have the blog be associated with them. I would definitely use this feature to blog lgbtq+ content.
We talked about this proposal, and this need, at the next blogger meeting, and then on several blogger lists of current and former bloggers. Through those discussions, we realized something: though many bloggers, past and present, have identified as LGBTQ+, and were able to be open about their identities at MIT, where they felt welcome, none have been “out” on the blogs. There are several important reasons that bloggers may not feel safe to openly identify as LBGTQ+. Some may not be out to friends or family, some may have concerns about discrimination with future employers, and some may face grave consequences for being out in their home country or state.
This is not to say that queer content has never been featured on the blogs; it frequently has. The earliest post I can find that was centrally “about” LGBTQ+ life is from 2009, when Laura published a guide to the MIT Rainbow Lounge. A few weeks ago, Yuliya hosted a guest post about all the gay events at this year’s CPW. In the 9 years between these posts, there were dozens of other posts about LGBTQ+ life, culture, and events at MIT. But, despite the fact that many bloggers in that time period identified as LGTBQ+ while at MIT, none of these posts were written by LGTBQ+ bloggers about their own experience being LGBTQ+.
(I want to be clear, here, that this is not an individual or collective failure of the blogs or the bloggers. No one is obligated to discuss their sexual orientation, gender identity, or anything else with anyone, ever. As this thoughtful essay observes, being “out” is not the only way to be LGTBQ+, and the costs of being “out” are not borne equally by all people. The point of this post isn’t to attach an “oughtness” to “outness,” but to identify a significant gap between life as lived at MIT and life as represented on the blogs, when in other cases we pride ourselves on those things being so close together. And today, when fewer than half of teenagers identify as exclusively heterosexual, it feels incongruous, if totally understandable, to not have more of these stories told in the first person.)
To amplify, and in some cases protect, the voices of these students who have to use discretion in being out, and to offer a more comprehensive view of LBGTQ+ Community at MIT, I asked current and former bloggers if they would be willing to share their stories, either anonymously or under their name. Not all LGBTQ+ bloggers did, but some chose to, and I’ve reproduced their stories, unedited, below.
Being gay and growing up in my conservative household was hard. For a while it was fine (up to around middle school), because I really had no idea what being gay meant or that it was condemned. I just happened to be really jealous of that girl in that movie that got to kiss that boy. And I just really wanted to touch my elementary school best friend’s hair and hold his hand. Innocent thoughts turned to shame when I realized that those innocent thoughts were things I should be feeling guilty for. And soon, shame turned to suppression and denial. Middle school. Oh middle school. I convinced myself that my feeling of admiration for the cool girl in school was what it felt like to be straight. And I convinced myself that my watching EVERY coming out video on youtube in existence was me just being an invested ally reeeeaaaalllllllllyyy interested in queer culture. High school was better. The cycle of tricking myself into thinking I was straight and then questioning why I have to question whether my “straight” feelings were genuine was getting old, so I stopped. I stopped thinking about the girls I wanted to like but didn’t and continued not thinking about the boys I liked but couldn’t. I focused on academics. Untill… Gay marriage was legalized, and some of the youtubers I had been watching for years (not the small queers youtubers I mentioned earlier, these people were getting millions views and I just assumed they were straight) made coming out videos. And I didn’t know how I felt about it, because I didn’t have the words to express how I felt, but looking back at that moment with the new and improved lexicon of this day and age, I can definitively say that I felt personally attacked by their relatable content. That summer was the first time in my life that I locked myself in my bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and mouthed, not said, just mouthed the words, “I’m gay.” It sounds dramatic, or maybe it doesn’t, but it was, because I was making a really big deal about it. I felt as though I usually feel right before giving a presentation, only this was worse, because this was the scariest audience I ever had to present in front of. I walked away from that mirror, and took a shower. When I came out (ha ha… ), the mirror was foggy and I looked blurry (I felt blurry too) and I said it again. But still, something about those words, bounced off the mirror and hurt. Summer ended and I continued to focus on academics. The next school year began and ended, and summer began. My mirror was still there and I was still looking at someone afraid to look at themself. To get to the point where I am now — where the mirrors I look into are friendlier — took time and friends and talking and unlearning and thinking and, most of all, a LOT of unshaming. I don’t know if that’s a real word but it’s the most important one of my whole paragraph. Well, I’ll define it just in case: Unshame (verb.) to rid oneself of shame
If there’s anything you take away from this story, it’s that shame is really not a fun feeling to have. I had no idea how much room my shame was taking up until I felt the wide-open space when it was gone. I know it’s hard, but if there is something you are ashamed of, that’s okay. I don’t want to spout “3 simple steps to follow for you to feel better about yourself”, because we’re all human and complex and I don’t think it’s that easy. But know that it’s possible and it may take work and time and care, but trust me when I say that putting work and time and care into yourself is worth it.
There is a lot more to my coming out journey than this – the me coming out to people part, the one where MIT actually plays a really large role – that I hope to one day share more publicly. But for now I wanted to at least share the “private” part of my coming out journey – the me coming out to me part – in this private-ish way. I hope it helps anyone who reads it! In the end, the queer youtube creators that were brave enough to share their stories and journeys of accepting themselves was what got me to eventually accept myself. And all I can ever hope for is that the content I create does the same for others.
“Did not fully realize I wasn’t a 0 on the Kinsey Scale until after graduating, but as a bisexual lady in a long-term committed relationship with a man, I’d… rather other people get the chance to speak, I guess? Like, bisexual erasure is real, and I’m in a position where I could hide behind my hetero relationship and don’t have to be like “”HELLO I AM FELLOW QUEER”” but also there are people within the LGBTQ community who would likely not consider me truly one of them or whatever and ugh, anyway this is why I have not written about it
Also because Jamaica is a real very homophobic country and I’ve got relatives with whom this would not fly
So there’s that
My parents know and support me, and that’s really all I need
I’m gay. Mouthing those words to myself in 9th grade, knowing that they were true, meant everything to me. Saying those words* to others after my freshman year of college, where I experienced being out for the first time, meant everything to me.
*by “saying those words” I obviously mean “writing long letters to explain those words” because I’m extra like that, but same difference
But writing those words here, on these blogs, on this public platform, means even more.
Context: I have been openly gay at MIT since about a week after freshman orientation. After freshman fall, I came out to my friends from high school through the long letters mentioned in the above asterisk. But I am still deeply buried in the closet, behind all my thick winter jackets, when it comes to my parents. They are conservative, and on a scale of reactions, 0 being the horrific “I’m disowning you” reaction and 10 being the ideal “where’s my pflag shirt” reaction, I imagine theirs would be in the 3-5 range. So I definitely don’t think it will be tragic or awful or impossible to come out to them, but I know for certain that it will be very difficult, awkward, and tears might be involved. Context completed.
Because of that, I never considered coming out to them anytime soon. I always imagined I’d do it out of necessity, if/hopefully when I get a long-term significant other (@gay gods, do you hear me?). But all that changed when I found out that “[I] GOT THE GIG.”* It may seem like those two things are irrelevant, but they are really not.
*subject line of the email that said I’d be a blogger
More Context: The internet, specifically the content by LGBTQ+ people on YouTube, is a reason (a huge one among others) that I was even able to come out to myself and then gain confidence after four years of being closeted in high school to come out to others in college. I wrote about this in more depth in one of my essays for a CI-H I took, but the gist is that every day after school (starting probably in middle school), I would watch gay YouTubers like Tyler Oakley, Kingsley, Hannah Hart, Ash Hardell, Riley Dennis, and more. Slowly, but surely, I came to realize that I was like them. In recently years, cartoons and media started being created that feature gay content, like Steven Universe or Yuri on Ice, media that I was never exposed to as a kid because it just didn’t exist then. After going through huge dilemmas during my first year about what I want to do with my life, I finally figured out that I want to pursue content creation in one form or another, with the dream that one day I will contribute to making LGBTQ+ (and generally diverse) content that will positively impact others, the same way it has impacted me. Context completed.
Now back to finding out that I would be a blogger. The realization hit me that given this opportunity, I can write anything I want on a platform that has a steady audience. I realized that this is the closest I have ever been to creating impactful content by writing about LG B T … … … wait my parents will read my blogs…wait I’m not out to my parents…wait I can’t write about being gay at MIT or about all my awesome gay friends here or about meeting people of all sorts of gender identities here or about (still) questioning my own gender identity or about Gay™ WGS classes I’ve taken here or about something that will potentially help someone out there … wait I have to come out to my parents. Spoiler Alert: I have yet to do so, which is why I’m writing this anonymously. But I actually did play around with the idea of never telling my parents I would be a blogger, that maybe they’d never find out and I can have my own little secret gay blog on MIT Admissions. But I knew I had to tell them eventually or they’d ask, since they knew I applied.
Before ending this, I want to give the caveat about this “struggle” (quotation marks, not because my struggle is invalid or not real, but because it is relatively minor compared to other struggles that LGBTQ+ people face, like those whose parents would react with a 0 on the scale I mentioned earlier. I’m grateful that at least I have some security in mind that I can come out to them). Regardless of this struggle, I am still incredibly happy that I am a blogger and that I can create content on this site that I obsessed over for all of high school! And I’m even happier that this LGBTQ+ blogger post thing is being organized (thanks Petey!), so in the meantime I can throw some of my gay content into the interwebs!
I’m excited for the day (and I want to make it happen before I become blogger cruft) that I can blog my little gay heart out!
I generally avoided talking about being gay on the blogs because I wasn’t out to my parents while I was blogging, and they religiously read everything I post. I definitely had alluded to it in writing though. Really my main thing that I wanted to talk about was finding a community where I was surrounded by other queer people of color and being those things wasn’t just tolerated but celebrated. It was extremely comforting being in this kind of environment as a freshman away from home, and by writing about it I think it would’ve helped other similar incoming students find their communities where their identities could be celebrated, too.
Labels aren’t a necessity; I rarely use them in my daily life. However, I cannot understate that moment when you find out about a label and your entire life history clicks perfectly into place. I’m demisexual, which is like this weird Disney sexuality where I’m almost asexual, BUT, once in a while, like once a year, I get a crush on someone I’ve emotionally bonded with and birds start singing.
(The weirder part is that I thought this was normal for many years thanks to movies even though I knew that most people I knew were able to regularly notice that strangers or celebrities were attractive. So don’t fret if your love life does not resemble a Disney protagonist’s, it’s fine to be attracted to people whom you are not in True Wuv with.)
Usually, I say “queer” because there’s more, and it’s easier to make blanket statements than explain all the juicy personal details. In middle school, I had a crush on a boy first, and then a crush on a girl, which I thought was a fluke. By the second girl-crush I knew something weird was up. Somehow the dots didn’t connect enough for me to open my mouth and say “I’m not straight” until ten years later.
The environment I was raised in had strong opinions about “lifestyles” and races, so when I showed up for CPW and met real gay people and international students in real life, there may have been some cringeworthy interactions. I mean, I knew I had had crushes on other girls, but since I had been taught that Not Straight Is Evil, I assumed I was a straight person who had inexplicable crushes on girls sometimes, if that makes sense. And when I heard about trans people for the first time, I remember asking “do you call them the gender they started as or the one they’re switching to?” (Obvious in retrospect: it’s whatever they identify as. I guess the question recipient noticed that I truly had never thought about this. Fortunately, you only have to ask once in your life.) Thank you, whoever you were, for being patient with me. Thank you for reminding me to be patient with other people so that they’ll want to understand in the future, even if they don’t right now.
I have my MIT classmates to thank for paving the way and creating a place of support that helped me understand myself and others in more ways than just this. Look, that’s not as gay as it sounds — it’s not like there’s a pervasive gay agenda and we turned gay from catching the gay fever. We were already queer. We were always queer. It’s just that, when you have the privilege of getting to spend lots of time on interesting and challenging and impactful things, they change your perspective in a lot of ways, and one of those ways is realizing what a waste of time it is to overthink the features of the bodies inhabited by the people that someone has a crush on, when you could do so many other things with that time. Things that are important: being kind to others. Thinking through the ethical implications of your work. Trying to make the world safer to live in. Learning to the best of your ability. Calculating safety tolerances on your wooden rollercoaster to industrial engineering standards so prefrosh don’t fall off of it.
Anyway, I’m in an amazing relationship with my best friend…who so happens to be the opposite gender, making our visible lives totally hetero. But hey! SECRET QUEER CLUB, right here on the blogs. Living our socially ordinary and sometimes serendipitously extraordinary Secret Queer lives. We can’t all come out publicly on the internet, but we’re not alone, and neither are you.
I’m bi! I didn’t connect the dots until my 20s. MIT is a wonderful place to be confused about yourself and, if it’s something you want to do, to figure yourself out. I had a very silly love life but my sexuality was never a big deal, and it continues to not be a big deal, and in that I am very, very lucky.
“I get questions occasionally from curious and tentative adMITs along the lines of:
– What’s the queer scene like at MIT? – Are people…accepting? – Will people respect my name and pronouns even if they don’t match the name and pronouns I’m registered under? – What’s the queer ….. scene ….. like ….. at MIT?
And I get a strong feeling of sadness and fear and hope all at the same time because I remember being in high school and wondering if college really would be a more welcoming place for me, the future so full of unknown unknowns. I remember scouring the blogs for queer or even queer-ish things — a mention of a same-gender significant other, or attendance at some gay event. And I didn’t find very much, or really anything at all, and that was disappointing.
When I became a blogger I wanted so many times to fix that. Hey, check out this cool fundraiser for a local lgbtq nonprofit I was part of. Hey, check out this club I’m in. Hey, here are all the resources at MIT that helped and supported me while I figured out I was transgender. Hey, check out this class I’m taking on queer media. Hey, here’s this story with queer characters, or this essay on queer representation, I wrote it for my HASS class this semester and I’m really proud of it.
But I guess MIT isn’t quite part of the rest of the world. And while I was a student I never got to the point with my family where I would be safe blogging about queer life. I feel bad about that; it will always be one of my biggest regrets about my time at MIT.
Because here it is — people at MIT made me feel safe to come out from the moment they met me, from even before I had come out to myself. Suddenly there were other queer people in my life and they were like the queer older siblings I never had. And I saw how other people treated them too. Classmates would come out and suddenly everyone just … started using their new name and pronouns, no questions asked. Seeing that, watching that, was what gave me the security and confidence to come out to my friends myself, and to ask tentatively if they would start using different pronouns for me. And they did. It was magical and amazing and affirming in a way I’ve never felt before, and they gave me the safe, supportive environment I needed while I was still questioning and unsure.
I think one of the hardest things to explain is that queer life at MIT isn’t condensed into, like, one gay club, like it often is in high school. Yes, there are queer clubs and organizations and resource centers, like the SPXCE and the Rainbow Lounge and Queer West and Affiliated and the Gender Fluidity Group. But there are also moments like when I’m hanging out with friends from my hall or from my club and someone looks up and asks “”wait, are there any straight people here?”” Like, I didn’t live on the “”gay hall”” and this club wasn’t a “”gay club”” — it just happens that you find little queer pockets almost everywhere.
Something that bears mentioning is that MIT social life exists as much in cyberspace as it does in meatspace — plenty of other bloggers have talked about mailing list culture at MIT. There are mailing lists for normal things, like dorm announcements and class announcements, but since anyone can make a mailing list, there are also mailing lists for memes, or pictures of walruses, or for selling your furniture. So of course there are mailing lists for gay talk too. Usually it’s a mix of gay shitposting and tag-yourself memes, but in the past few days there’s been a thread on one of the gay mailing lists — someone emailed out asking if people would share how they discovered they were some flavor of queer. That thread has over 50 replies now, each one a coming-out story. People who identified as queer in high school and found community at MIT. People who came to MIT and only then realized they were queer. People who identified as one kind of queer in high school and then came to MIT and realized they were a different kind of queer.
I’ll say this — there were definitely professors that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming out to. But there were other professors and mentors and TAs and UROP supervisors who were totally friendly and open, and some of them are openly queer themselves. Not enough, in my opinion, but they’re there and they’re friendly, and the most of the rest are respectful and understanding. One of my professors noticed that my friends were using she/her to refer to me and she took the extra effort to email me and ask, in so polite terms that I almost cried — she’s sorry she never asked before, she just assumed, but what pronouns should she use for me?
MIT’s not queer utopia. But there are lots of people working on getting there. Most of the dorms have gender inclusive housing. The MIT Media Lab just announced a pilot program for multi-stall all-gender bathrooms, which has been two years in the making. MIT also recently implemented a more streamlined way to change your MIT username and registered name to align with a name change.
Ultimately … it’s just nice to not be the only one. Or even the only two or three. And MIT was the first place in my life where I could experience that.
- https://medical.mit.edu/services/mental-health-counseling/group-counseling (see gender support group)”
“I’m pretty sure impostor syndrome is something that will haunt me, no matter what I do. Like, I’m not even sure that I should be a part of this post, as someone who’s only been flirting with labels for about half a year, and who announced her canonical bisexuality on Twitter about a month ago. But if my coming-of-age stories can help at least one person feel less alone, these thoughts are maybe worth sharing.
I didn’t realize the blogs were starved for queer content, because it’s honestly not something that I was looking for or grappling with at MIT. My first priority was just surviving undergrad, followed by figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. You know, no big deal. And interwoven with all that existential dread was trying to be a better human and navigating friendships and support systems and mentors. So most of the thoughts that got funneled into my blogs and vlogs were related to all those things. Not dating, not the one relationship I’ve ever had (which turned out to be not super healthy anyway), and not the queer community at MIT (which I considered myself an ally to, but never really a part of).
So, all that to say, I don’t have any retrospective tips and tricks to queer life at MIT, or any particularly resonant experiences that are worth blogging about at length. But I can say this: even though I was basically in diapause re: questioning my sexuality for 22+ years of my life, when I was ready to start unpacking those thoughts and feelings, being part of such an inclusive community at MIT helped. I was around friends who were actively struggling with their identities, trying to be more comfortable with themselves and the labels they chose. And that helped me build up language and a more complex understanding of being human… which sounds really vague. But, for instance, having conversations about bi erasure in media with smart, good people eventually helped me realize that I just assumed I was straight, and maybe that wasn’t so true. So, I dunno. Every little thing counts, and I’m grateful for the people I surrounded myself with, and the close friends I have now. And I’m grateful for the bloggers who have more complex perspectives and experiences than I do when it comes to all this stuff.
Nowadays, I probably live my life more publicly than the average person, and definitely more publicly than I did as an admissions blogger. I’m working for a company that makes YouTube videos, I’m a regular guest on some podcasts, and for some reason people respond when I tweet about being good at Mario Kart. And since I have a bigger (still not huge, but not insignificant) audience of people who know who I am, and I’m in the privileged position of having a workplace and family that are supportive, I feel like I should keep being as authentic as I’m comfortable with online.
So, hello! I’m here. I was a blogger. And I’m bi (sexual and racial and pedal! so bonus points for that, I guess?). My story is still very much unfolding, but MIT was a part of it. So I’m glad that this post exists, and will hopefully help more people figure out their own stories at MIT or otherwise. Because life is messy, and I think we all need all the help we can get. “
I was in my thirties, married to a man, and my youngest son was only a few years old when I “came out.” I didn’t use that term to describe me at the time and it doesn’t quite fit to write it now, only because it implies that somehow everything up till then was purposely or even inadvertently concealed. But it wasn’t like that. I identified as straight all through high school and college and into my thirties as a mom with two young children– until I didn’t anymore. My marriage ended for all the complicated reasons marriages sometimes end, and I fell in love with a gay woman I met at work, although not necessarily in that order. When I officially stopped identifying as straight it was only because one day it simply occurred to me that I could choose to switch my sexual orientation. Maybe it was because I was working in an organization with a high percentage of gay-identified women at that time, or because I was attending grad school in a liberal arts program in a very liberal state, or even because I was a writing a literature thesis under the genre of queer theory. I had a fairly easy time being accepted by the outside world when I made this switch.
But that’s not to say that it wasn’t without some struggles. My parents had their own ideas about my identity and what it was or should have been. It took them a while to accept it and we didn’t speak for eight months after several heated arguments. Certain friends pulled away. I wasn’t taken seriously by some coworkers and others in my new social circles because they considered themselves to be part of a hard-won minority group and they wore their specific labels proudly. I tried on many different labels for a long time to see if any fit for me but eventually I stopped standing in any one place, and stopped identifying myself with any definitive term. Not straight. Not gay. Not bisexual. Not lesbian. If I have to use anything now, I usually choose to say I’m queer. I believe what this generation of college age kids know pretty well already- that one’s sexuality and / or gender is often fluid throughout a life. Now I’m remarried again to a wonderful spouse. She is biologically female but fluidly gendered and she also chooses not to define her sexual orientation with a label (although neither one of us can get used to using “they” as a pronoun or calling each other a wife).
I’m pretty happy to be a part of the accepting community at MIT because it is one that stops to consider where the boundary lines are drawn and questions what the labels mean or need not mean. And it’s also a place that is truly welcoming and supportive of wherever a person finds themselves to be standing at any given time.