National Coming Out Day Reflection: John Howell

John HowellI very much appreciate the invitation to contribute a reflection in celebration of National Coming Out Day 2014, perhaps especially so since I followed last year’s series with both interest and benefit. For those who missed it, by dint of whatever genre of distance, I commend a (re-)reading; the total event—comprising reflections on the misuse of “rigor” as a silencing mechanism in academic discourse, the archives by which one negotiates the strictures of acceptable embodiment and sexuality, the lamentably anachronistic necessity of visibility politics in the Divinity School circa 2013, the echoes of trauma one can feel in even well-intentioned conversations, and the power that attends what one might name as a coming to self-knowledge and self-acceptance—is a sobering, prophetic, and yet hopeful portrait of the LGBTQIQA experience in Swift Hall.

One consequence of the peculiarities of my own experience of queer life (which is no monolith) as it intersects with the Divinity School is that the most pointed critiques that last year’s contributors levied felt to me, simultaneously, both exceedingly reasonable and bracingly disjunctive. When I came to Chicago in 2003, I did so from contexts in which queer persons of all social locations remained social pariahs, and in which the choice to display a simple pride flag on the façade of one’s home left one susceptible to more and less egregious modes of address—modes commonly viewed and spoken of as appropriate to so audacious a self-declaration. While that home was not my own in the literal sense of the anecdote, I do not think it is particularly difficult to imagine the work that the exhibition of that kind of precarity does on folks who find themselves on the wrong side of the fault line that divides normalcy from alterity, constantly striving to police the putative markers of “queer” that they find on their persons. That fault line has a history, is constantly shifting to and fro, and part of the point of narrating the (i.e. my) movement between “there” and “here” is to say that it shifts as much with geography as with time. It is to make the rather obvious point that context matters. I do not wish to say that my own experience was exemplary, as to do so would elide the particular challenges that face queer persons not so readily incorporated in to homonationalism [1], but for me, trite as it might sound, Chicago (the city, the University, the conversation about religion in Swift Hall) proffered unexampled freedom.

My own sympathy with the aforementioned charges—that queer theory, experience, and theology here remain matters of double-entry bookkeeping when kept at all; that the manner in which the School is ordered, staffed and supplied with texts often precludes questions that would seem central to human experience; and that the situation on the ground seems to require recourse to a political idiom (i.e. “coming out”) long since outmoded because it obscures the fact that we are all always coming out but unevenly risking intelligibility—thus has a curious architecture. The very condition of that sympathy is also the object of those critiques; my participation in the critical discourse on the status of queer in Swift Hall is subtended by libraries brimming with the books that narrate the prehistory and diversity of that discourse, by colleagues and friends who were so patient with the missteps that tend to characterize one late to queer speech, by springtime conversations in Swift 403 (about forestructured autonomy and subjective intelligibility and resignification) that were to me revelatory, and by an occasional and expertly guided tour through the varieties of queer life on offer in Chicago on a nightly basis.

This is not to say that U/Chicago is a “cruising utopia,” or that one should succumb so readily to the solicitous comforts of “queer pragmatism” [2]; it is to celebrate, instead, the facets of our community and conversation that welcome, engage, and enliven queer personhood, and that facilitate the hard conversations which are so needful. It is to send a love letter that ends, dear, we have so much work still to do.

[1] For an elaboration and critique on homonationalism and queer liberalism, see David Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), and Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[2] See José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press 2009).