A Virtual Coming Out

National Coming Out Day adapts to an online format at Caltech

By Ankita Nandi | Published 10/27/2020
A Virtual Coming Out
A screenshot of the "Queer Me Out!" panelists on zoom

Sunday, Oct. 11 marked the 32nd anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and the 32nd observance of National Coming Out Day. Countless individuals around the United States and the world came out as queer on various social media and news outlets and in private. Since 1987, there have been countless events commemorating the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and the significance of “coming out.”

Whether through a heartfelt post on social media, or singing along to Diana Ross’, “I’m Coming Out!”, National Coming Out Day is an opportunity for the queer community to embrace and celebrate their identities. It also marks the beginning of National Coming Out Week, which continues to highlight issues regarding LGBTQ+ equality. Caltech was one of many colleges and community organizations that celebrated National Coming Out Week, as Caltech PRISM, the campus LGBTQ+ organization, and the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity (CCID) hosted a variety of events supporting and celebrating the queer community.

The CCID collaborated with PRISM to have a variety of events and resources available for students to celebrate National Coming Out Week. In previous years when students were on-campus, the CCID would set up a lavender door in front of Red Door Dining Hall, dubbed the “Lavendoor,” through which students can members of the Caltech community could walk through to “come out,” along with signs and setups for posting on social media. The CCID would also provide resources at a table by the Lavendoor, so that lesser known issues regarding queer identity were put front and center. Given Caltech’s affiliation with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the CCID would also collaborate with JPL’s LGBTQ+ organization Spectrum. In past years, members of the Caltech student body and faculty would join Spectrum in walking and fundraising for the LA AIDS Walk, which would typically take place in October.

As Abby Jiang (MS ‘23, Ruddock, she/her) of PRISM leadership said, PRISM is unique in the bonds that form between the undergraduate and graduate communities and with JPL. Taso Dimitriadis (he/him), Associate Director of the CCID, emphasized how the LGBTQ+ community is often one of chosen family due to varying support backgrounds. Speaking on the relations between undergraduates, graduate students and JPL, he said “we try to utilize a sort of mentorship model with the LGBTQ+ students because they might not have that same level of support that the other groups [housed under the CCID] do in terms of identity and their affinity space…there is more of a blending in terms of looking at affinity spaces for that group.” However, as with other clubs, the virtual setting has made community building difficult. Nonetheless, events were still put on, such as Queer Me Out!.

Queer Me Out!, held on Friday, October 16, was a series of short ten minute presentations given by various queer members of the Caltech and JPL communities discussing their experiences coming out and being queer while also sharing their research. As Dimitriadis put it, PRISM leadership came up with the idea for Queer Me Out! “to engage undergrads and create a culture where people can see themselves and their identities represented in STEM.” Speakers included Prashant Bhat (he/him, BBE G4), John Bostick (he/him, BBE postdoc), Dustin Buccino (he/him, JPL), Amila Cooray (he/him, JPL), Livia Hecke Morals (she/her, BBE postdoc), and Josh Zak (he/him, Ch G4).

Aside from the academic diversity, the speakers were also of varying sexual and gender identities. Dimitriadis described how the CCID has a few key goals when planning events: offering relevant resources, providing cultural and celebratory opportunities so people are proud of their identities, cultivating a connection to one’s STEM identity due to Caltech’s STEM focus, and serving specific populations within a broader community. Thus, Queer Me Out! allowed individuals across academic communities to connect and showcased the many different queer voices present in various STEM fields.

Despite the challenges, the virtual environment increased accessibility to the event; Dimitriadis mentioned that if this event were on campus, maybe twenty people would have attended due to time restrictions and people’s schedules. However, due to the ease of attendees simply zooming in from their homes and JPL’s current rotation schedule allowing for more JPL participation, attendance was around 50 individuals.

Although National Coming Out Week has concluded, the CCID has more events planned for the rest of the term to support the LGTBQ+ community. For Transgender Awareness Week in November and Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, the CCID is holding a safe space hosted by a Caltech alumnus in order to provide dialogue and engage with and find support for trans individuals on campus. The CCID will also continue to hold Safe Zone Trainings in order to provide resources for allies, and Queer Me Out! will return in late November or early December so more people can share their research and connect to the queer community. Even without a formal week focusing on LGBTQ+ rights, it’s important to continue supporting the queer community at Caltech and beyond.

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