Before I get to what I’ve been itching to write about all week, there are a few things you should know about me. I come from a small town (only a single traffic light) where there are three churches within a single block of one another and everybody knows everybody else. I left my small New Jersey town for a very progressive college in Western Massachusetts and have lived in New England ever since. I am queer. This is something I never admitted to myself growing up, but I knew it was true. I remained deeply closeted until I went away to school. Writing in a serious way led me towards a place of self-acceptance: I got involved in spoken word, where confessional poems are some of the strongest currency, and I started writing about myself. Writing about yourself, you quickly run out of material if you stop at the surface, so I dug deep and got my hands dirty. The things that made me uncomfortable about myself. The feelings I had for others I had refused to define. The situations where I felt it necessary to remain silent for fear of exposing myself as “other.” The writing and performance were what drew me out of thinking of myself as inherently broken and wrong; by claiming my identity, I made myself stronger.
The opportunity to claim an identity is a massive component of the American college experience. Not only do you have to declare a major when you take part in higher education, but you have to declare who you are over and over again, defining yourself by what kind of people you surround yourself with, how you spend you time, and where you want to be in the world. I went to a poetry reading on Tuesday at Berklee College of Music. Not the academic, no clapping, wine and cheese kind of reading, but a vital, informal open mic-type deal named after the Macklemore song “Same Love.” The students stood up in front of one another and read poems about struggling with gender and sexuality. Their work was brave, ranging from multi-voiced experimental work to straight narratives about the city of Boston and the perils of dating when you can’t tell what gender someone is looking for in a partner. I was expecting to feel the way I always feel at readings–excited about certain poems, indifferent about others–but I had goosebumps the entire time. The energy in the room was potent because of how intensely everyone felt about what they were reading. Stating queerness aloud was a deeply political act.
The students at Berklee have a devastating schedule of classes, band practice, and concert performances that leaves little time for activism. But they had carved out a few hours to say in front of their peers that they were queer or queer allies, a declaration that still carries so much weight in so many places. I can only imagine how many of them were from one traffic light towns like mine. The first time I slammed a poem about a girl I loved and never told in high school, I was barely 18. It was the first in a string of many firsts that spoken word gave me, but the most important thing about that performance is that I finally felt like I was honestly living in my skin, a whole person. Watching the kids of the open mic read, I felt so close to them, so proud of what was happening in that room.
I’m broadcasting my same love as an act of solidarity with everybody who was brave enough to read on Tuesday, for all those who stayed silent even when they had something to say, and for teenage me, who didn’t know how to tell anybody who she was. Spoken word is a safe space for a lot of queer people. I tend to take that for granted now, as so many of my friends and the artists I admire fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. I don’t talk much about my queerness with my friends, because it’s inherent to their understanding of me as a person. It’s the same kind of identifier as being a woman; when I write, I’m writing from a gendered and queer perspective, even when I don’t write about experiences specifically tied to gender and queerness. Claiming queerness in my writing showed me there is no small town taboo so strong it can silence someone who stands up to speak. Without question, art is a space where activism flourishes. For many people, the simple act of putting pen to paper is, in itself, a rebellion. It’s easy to get insulated from this idea when you are curled up in a corner with your notebook, scribbling. But it’s important to remember that the most powerful thing we can do is tell our stories proudly, in public, and use that communication to spark change.