"Am I Queer Enough?" Panel Sparks Conversation Among Students, Faculty and Community Members

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On the evening of October 24th, a group of students and community members met in Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room to discuss a question that often haunts LGBTQ+ individuals: “am I queer enough?”

The event was organized by Cindy Lopez in coordination with Colors, a group for queer students of color, the Swarthmore Queer Union (SQU) and the Pride Month Planning Committee. Lopez stated that she wanted to hold the event because of the feeling that she and many queer individuals have that they are not ‘gay enough,’ alternative enough, or of the right culture to be embraced as queer. Lopez aimed to “create a safe space for people to be able to express their feelings,” as she is “interested in other people’s sexuality and how they feel as part of the queer community.” She highlighted the difficulty of being a queer person of color, saying that “being a person of color in the queer community is hard to deal with as well, it’s been very whitewashed for a very long time.” Lopez has huge hopes for the space to be comforting to all who come as well as an educational space for any and all who wish to learn more. She invited Professor Sa’ed Atshan of the Peace and Conflict studies program to speak at the event. Following Professor Atshan, three queer students shared statements, stories and thoughts on the subject “Am I Queer Enough?” This was followed by a rich question and answer session between attendants of the event and the panelists.

Professor Atshan began by introducing himself as a Swarthmore Alumnus, a Quaker, a Palestinian, and a queer man. He then explained that he wished to be personal and vulnerable while noting the difficulty of doing so: “there is a sense that if we choose to be vulnerable somehow our authority is diminished... Our intellectual rigor is diminished... But we can’t always talk about justice and intersectionality in this detached, intellectual way.” He said that “in the spirit of coming out, in the spirit of pride” he wished to create a space that would welcome vulnerability and the sharing of experiences.

Professor Atshan then explained how one of his difficulties with understanding his sexuality was that while he was growing up in Palestine, there were no words to describe queerness in a neutral or positive way. “I did not have the conceptual vocabulary to make sense of my queerness. But I knew something was different. I knew deep down inside that I had something that was perceived as inferior.” Although there was no queer movement or queer community at his home in Palestine, Professor Atshan said that he felt very lucky to be a part of a Quaker community that did not tolerate bullying and to have a progressive and open-minded family. Still, he felt that he did not meet the expectations placed on him by normative masculinity and overcompensated by devoting himself to academics and by playing patriarchal roles in theatre.

When Professor Atshan became a student at Swarthmore, he said that he was not able to remain closeted. “Swarthmore pulls you out of the closet! They drag you out of the closet! This is not the place to be if you want to stay in the closet.” These remarks prompted laughter from attendees. However, despite being openly gay at Swarthmore, Professor Atshan said that he had difficulty coming out to his family. “Every time I went to tell my family I would look into their eyes and go through the worst case scenario… that they would exile me.” When he finally came out to his mother, she cried and then explained that she was crying because he had gone through a journey of self-discovery without her and because she was proud of him. Professor Atshan said that his family’s support gave him the courage to be a role model and a queer activist in the Middle East.

Atshan finished his speech by talking about the way that the Palestinian queer community has changed since he was a teenager. Now, he says, there is a queer community, a queer movement. There is also now a neutral term for being gay: mithli, a word that means “same as me.” He also noted that the process of decolonization is an important part of the queer struggle, as colonial powers have enforced anti-gay policy as part of their regimes.

The first panelist of the evening was Meghan Kelly, ‘18, she/her. She was drawn to attend the event Tuesday nightbecause the question, “am I queer enough?” was one she struggled with throughout the past few years. She notes that the process of self-knowledge and growth is never over. “What I have learned, is that it is up to you to define your own identity”said Kelly. She spoke to the importance of prioritizing yourself throughout the (lifelong) coming out process: “it is about where you fit well for yourself rather than for those around you.”

The second panelist to speak was AynNichelle Slappy, who uses she/her pronouns.Slappy shared her experience as a black queer woman growing up first in Detroit and then in predominantly white rural communities. It wasn’t until her junior year that she became critically aware of queer issues. The first question she asked herself was “how can I be a good ally?” She explains, “I thought everyone liked girls, because I loved girls.” She now identifies as a bisexual woman yet brought up a poignant issue. “I’ve always struggled with the idea of coming out. Straight people don’t come out as straight and it bothered me that I had to do something to assert myself.” She notes that her feelings have changed in the face of both the importance of being a role model and to giving voice to experiences that have been silenced too long. Whenever she can speak as a queer black woman, she says, it is a “tiny victory.” “As a black person, people grow up thinking this identity isn’t real or isn’t okay. It’s nerve racking to tell young people who are supposed to look up to you, but it was really empowering when I did tell my young cousins.” She said it felt valuable to come out as queer and “show them I am still me.”

The final panelist, Gene Witkowski ‘21, spoke about growing up in a conservative family with a traditionally masculine father as his only masculine role model. “My dad was a stereotypical masculine guy,” he said. “He was repressive and expressed anger as his only emotion… he was my only example of masculinity so I shaped my identity around his.” Witkowski remembers seeing a license plate with his father when he was 6 years old that said FAG. His father said words that have stuck with Witkowski for years, “it’s a shame those people exist.” Witkowski reflects that his father was unaware that one of “those people” was sitting next to him at the time. Like Atshan, Witkowski dedicated himself deeply to academics when he realized he identified differently than the community he was in.

Attending an all boys high school as one of two gay students, Witkowski found himself in need of a queer community. “I turned to the internet and found a home” He says. It was at a school retreat where students were encouraged to talk about where they found God in their lives, he came out publicly and was supported by his friends. Now he finds a space for self-reflection and processing in the art of music, both listening to it and writing it. He has found inspiration as well as solace in “People who are unafraid of being themselves, bearing their heart and soul in the music. You can see yourself in them.”

After panelists introduced themselves and spoke, Lopez invited audience members to speak or ask questions. One woman responded to Professor Atshan’s discussion of decolonization by sharing her experience of being a queer Nigerian, saying that she wanted to “offer something to people who are struggling with their identities particularly people of color”. She said that because she went to a conservative Catholic school, “I thought who I am is a sin.” She said that Nigeria’s religious landscape is dominated by Christianity and Islam but that there are people, including her grandmother, who practice traditional African religions. Her grandmother was the most supportive of her when she came out and “the main force for making my parents accept me.”

She pointed that “progressive values are not Western. Most of the values that we have today in Nigeria are colonialist. There were not distinct gender roles until missionaries came, queerness was not a sin until missionaries came… there are documented parts of our history that are queer, that are feminist. It’s important to know your history and know what your culture really is.” In response, Atshan added that eradicating homosexuality was often an explicit goal of and justification for colonialist regimes.

Later in the evening, an attendee spoke about the feeling of being misunderstood by those around them and the pain that came when others, including friends, doubted their queerness. This story sparked a valuable conversation. AynNichelle Slappy, a panelist of the evening, offered that “[your identity] is none of their fucking business.” She proceeded to explain that another person’s not understanding your identity “actually has nothing to do with you.  It has to do with things that happened before we were born, at the beginning of this country, before then.” In other words, someone’s assumptions of who you should be have more to do with them than they do with you. Because heteronormative assumptions and systems of thought are so ingrained, resisting and living into a queer identity can require intention. So what does it take? Atshan contributed his thoughts on this matter, saying that queerness is much deeper than identity politics and sex, “it’s about love, commitment, and about affirming each other and being there for eachother.” “So much of homophobia is about dehumanization and I’m not going to let them dehumanize me,” he said. Atshan then offered that “We have the capacity to be there for ourselves. We must love ourselves. We have that power.”