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Growing up Mormon in my conservative Phoenix suburb, the subject of queerness was so thoroughly taboo to me that my conceptualization of what “gay” meant and looked like was nearly exclusively defined by the two queer-coded characters I saw on television: Ryan from High School Musical and Kurt from Glee.
Given that those two performances were, more or less, my only data points on what gay men were like, I accepted without question most — if not all — of the stereotypes that I heard in the hallways of my elementary and junior high school. Among other things, gay men enjoyed musical theater, listened to Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, gesticulated with their hands, and didn’t care for sports.
Well, I fit into every last one of those descriptions, and — owing to the fact that I grew up in a brazenly homophobic area where anyone who could conceivably masquerade as straight did so — every openly gay person I knew seemed to as well. So even though I was closeted and somewhat in denial about my sexuality throughout high school and, later, on a two-year church mission, I still felt comfortable assuming that virtually all gay men were exactly like me.
Coming to Harvard, however, threw me for a loop.
Here, gay men weren’t just token gossip buddies, effusive student body presidents, and liberal activists. They were also car enthusiasts, powerlifters, and everything else I had once assumed exclusively straight.
While I appreciated this new environment and the safety it offered me as I began to unlearn the more regressive doctrines of my religious upbringing and accept myself as gay, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease.
As someone who had grown up rehearsing introductions in futile attempts to ‘straighten’ my voice and mannerisms, I felt particularly threatened by the throngs of more masculine-presenting gay and bisexual men on campus. How could we be equally queer? From my perspective, they seemed to benefit from all the privileges of straightness with little of the ridicule, exclusion, and self-loathing that had been routine in my life for so many years.
If my friends and classmates who seemed to exist comfortably within the heteronormative constructs of the gender roles assigned to them were queer, what did being queer even mean? How could it be possible that around 27 percent of my Class of 2025 peers identified as LGBTQ+ in sexual orientation, when I had always felt so alone at my approximately 3,500-student public high school?
How could my friends ‘explore’ their queerness when I had spent the better half of my life running away from mine? The white girl who kissed another woman at a party once and was now bi, the masculine prep school guy who used he/they pronouns — did they just want to be special? To have their chance to scale the “oppression olympics” podium?
On campus, the same words I had intentionally avoided my entire life to deflect suspicion of my sexuality were everywhere. Even straight people were using “slay,” “camp,” and all the latest terminology from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In short, I felt as though my identity — which I was finally starting to feel comfortable expressing — was under attack. Being queer was suddenly socially acceptable, and it appeared to me that everyone was trying to get in on the fun.
With time, however, my self-obsessed indignation slowly began to subside. As I became more comfortable with who I was, flamboyance and all, my sexuality ceased to be an outsized insecurity of mine. I no longer needed to be the person I had once been: a scared, closeted teen desperate for confidantes whose journeys exactly mirrored my own.
In listening to the stories of friends across all shades of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I began to internalize that others’ unique identities didn’t invalidate mine. Gay, bi, lesbian, trans, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people could all fall under the same “queer” umbrella without being equally subject to the same histories or difficulties, both across and within distinct camps of gender identity and sexual orientation. Moreover, in researching queer history, I realized how indebted gay culture is to African American Vernacular English and activists of color — making my attempts to lay claim to ‘queer lingo’ feel farcical in retrospect.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be uncommon or subversive or marginalized to be ‘special.’ There was nothing about queer joy I felt the need to gatekeep; I was no arbiter of another person’s gender or sexual identity.
In my mind, queer liberation is about securing all people the safety to be the “truest, most beautiful” versions of themselves.
We all deserve the freedom to venture beyond the confines of the boxes in which we have been placed and select for ourselves the lifestyles, pronouns, and partners that are most congruous.
So, screw 27 percent. I hope everyone at Harvard feels free to be queer.
Grant B. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Statistics concentrator in Cabot House.
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