The Quiet Solidarity of National Coming Out Day Through Queer Storytelling and Coffee

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Adrianna Martinez, Reference and Instruction Librarian at New York Institute of Technology.

In the Fall of 2018, I started my first full time librarian position. I work at New York Institute of Technology in Long Island, and I hold the position of reference and instruction librarian. As a queer latinx woman of color, I was (and am still) thrilled to work with such a diverse group of students. The students here are a mix of locals and international students. They come from different economic backgrounds, ethnicity, religious affiliations, and primary languages. I wanted to introduce myself to the NYIT community with instruction and programming that made my approach to academic librarianship clear: to elevate and support underrepresented voices with approachable and critical pedagogy. I want to make the academic library a space that reflects and holds resources for the NYIT community as intellectual individuals, not just their program.

Key to this work is constantly reassessing my language and actions by a) greeting people at the reference desk with gender neutral language b) starting every interaction with my pronouns, and asking for others to do the same c) starting literacy instruction and workshops with a traditional territory acknowledgement.

These practices may seem small but make a great impact on inclusion for the entire community– they have resulted in positive feedback from students as well as an increased interest in research help. Yet, I felt that there was a more visible way to reach those students that have not attended an instruction session by me or stepped foot in the library, which made me think, how can I try to reach those students? One answer was creating space for different kinds of students to feel comfortable in, even if that space is only temporarily highlighted as specifically for them.

One group I wanted to advocate for inclusion in the library was queer folks. The LGBTQIA+ representation on campus was hard to find. For resources, events, even the club itself I found only a sprinkling of information. There was no queer resources page, no official website or office, only an email address to contact. A campus for higher education without visible queer representation can be dangerous, not only for those on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, but all marginalized people on campus. In making one group seen, it opens the door for others to both see themselves reflected in their institutions and be active about wanting to be represented. The academic library can and should be a center for diverse support and inclusion to better serve its community, as well as motivate the rest of the institution to make change. In order to be a voice for marginalized folks on campus, I inquired about the PRIDE student group and administrative diversity initiatives. I already had an idea for an event that would draw attention to the unique experience of queer folks and wanted to include the community.

Student Life and some members of the PRIDE group relayed to me the reason for such an absence in queer life at NYIT. Safety was the main concern for these students. Some members were not out yet, and others had been harassed on campus, therefore they felt that it was safer to have a closed group. This method did, however, isolate those students not included in the closed group. With this knowledge, it was clear that the first event held by an entity that is not traditionally involved in outreach about inclusion. I needed to create an environment that was approachable for students concerned about outing, invite queer folks outside the group into a space of representation, as well as the general public to encourage allyship.

National Coming Out Day occurs every year in the United States on October 11. It was the perfect opportunity to host an event that created the environment the students appeared to be craving. Coming Out is an activity that can symbolize many modes of being. It exists for queer folks of all kinds and those that exist in the margins; talking about it recognizes those people that experience it without isolating them. For this day, I wanted to create a space on campus that was specifically queer for the entirety of the day.

Creating a temporary queer space in the library for this occasion extends beyond the duration of the event in that space. It shows that the library is a safe space for that community year round as well. The event was located behind a counter created in a pseudo-cafe area near vending machines and a microwave. The space was surrounded by small tables and couches, the most casual space in the library (an important note for not only accessibility but also for comfort and noise level). With such little public representation, an all-day event allowed for students to study in a queer centered environment on camps, something that does not happen often. A full day event that did not require myself to maintain needed to be visual and had to do with storytelling. Free to use tools, and accessible material were essential in the medium choice for this event. As a medium for storytelling, YouTube functioned perfectly. Projected from a mondopad the videos could play all day without issue.

People all over the world share their perspectives and experiences on YouTube. The dialogue about National Coming Out Day had to have individual experiences and perspectives at it’s center. To make this event as inclusive as possible, it needed to reflect culturally diverse experiences, from every part of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. With this criteria in mind, I created a playlist of stories from the queer community from the material available on YouTube. The playlist was not only composed of queer material but also varying perspectives from allies.

Another element to the playlist was videos from the It Gets Better Project. In 15 minutes of sitting in the cafe drinking coffee one could encounter a video of four tips for coming out to your parents by the parent of a queer child, a video of individuals coming out to their immigrant parents, and a clip from the first National Coming Out Day celebrated on the Oprah Winfrey Show. In another 15 they could encounter a video explaining the concept of two spirit, a Buzzfeed video of individuals talking about how they felt before and after coming out, as well as someone talking about the similarities in coming out in the queer community and coming out in the disabled community. The mix of experiences and moments of high impact in American culture to do with the LGBTQIA+ community that a student may be discovering for the first time created an environment of curiosity for everyone involved.

My role after the playlist was set up for presentation was to invite people into discussion about coming out. To maintain a casual tone of the event, I made coffee for anyone that stopped by. If a student just wanted coffee, while the coffee brewed, I told students what the event was about, and if they knew what National Coming Out Day was celebrating. I would highlight information about the current video playing and allowed the student/s to direct the conversation. Some students discussed in brief their own coming out story, or asked questions which I answered on an individual level, and one even came out to me and we discussed in depth family dynamics and whether he would feel comfortable coming out to them, or if he wanted to stay in the closet until he felt more independent.

This kind of event has never been hosted by NYIT before, to build community in this way, especially not by a librarian, which makes this event significant not only for the queer community but for all marginalized groups. In entering the event space on October 11 students were exposing themselves to voices that had not been elevated on campus before. Whether they were getting an extra caffeine jolt, or working while quietly listening or even just heard about the event; this made an impact. It showed that the library space is for the entire NYIT community, and we as librarians are conscious that representation matters.

I felt the real impact after the event ended. The event sparked a trust among the queer students and myself. Some students would find me in the library to share with me their experiences on campus as queer folks. The planning and follow through of this event allowed me to have a platform show my support for the community even when they didn’t ask for it. In doing so, it built a trust between myself and the closed PRIDE group that benefits the entire NYIT community. I am now working with the PRIDE group to become their adviser.

As a member of the queer community, I am personally invested in supporting the NYIT LGBTQIA+ folks during my time here. However, one does not need to be a part of a marginalized group in order to support them in a forward facing way. This kind of event does not require a lot of materials or space. Especially in a reference and instruction there are simple steps that one can take in order to make students feel visible. Solidarity and representation is happening on many fronts of librarianship: from the reimagining of knowledge organization systems, to archival work, but there is more to be done, especially on the fronts of outreach and instruction at the academic level. The process of inquiring about an underrepresented group can be an act of advocacy. Communities change through allyship and conversation.

An academic library can exist as many things, including a center for reflection and self growth, not just scholarly thought. If underrepresented populations are not placed into these spaces, it is a disservice to the community. This is just one example of a way that outreach at an academic level can exist that strengthens the queer community. In the upcoming months I will be bolstering the library’s collection in order to fill in the intellectual gaps here, as well as creating a library guide about LGBTQIA+ resources through the library and beyond. This is only the beginning of my time at NYIT, but it is not the beginning of this train of thought. On a commuter campus like NYIT it is hard to make an impact that leaves an impression of what someone can get out of the library; adding queer solidarity and acceptance to that list may motivate more students to seek them out.

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