Content Warning: The following piece references sexual assault. If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310.
“Moving on…” — these words used to swiftly change the subject make me wince every time I hear them. I feel shame, embarrassment and discomfort, as if I had said something I clearly should not have; as if I lacked the self-awareness to realize how uncomfortable my words made others. It is striking to me how just two simple words can convey so much meaning, how something that simple can send the message so clearly that my identity and experiences are not worth dwelling upon. That we ought to just “move on” with the conversation.
These words have been said to me time and time again, in one form or another, since I first openly identified as queer. Sometimes, it’s “anyways…” or “anywho…” or just a total lack of regard for what I just said. These phrases are often used when I mention my sexual orientation in passing around people who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community and don’t know how to respond to my queerness. They are used in times when I am undeniably queer, making those around me uncomfortable. They are used to move the conversation past the queerness and to get back to something less “taboo” and “uncomfortable.”
These words seem like a natural way to deal with the awkward silence that follows the mention of the part of my identity seen by many as unnatural, deviant, or sinful. And yet somehow, those two simple words, ‘moving on,’ sting so much worse than any of the blatant homophobia I have experienced for much of my life.
To get to the root of the problem with the term ‘moving on’ and other similar phrases that seek to move past queerness, it is important to consider how differently heterosexuality is treated in the same context. As someone who is bisexual, I constantly experience double standards in response to the way I express my sexual orientation. After mentioning my same-gender attraction and past relationships, I have repeatedly experienced quick changes of the subject and awkward silences followed by something as inconsequential as a joke about being “in love” with a famous actress.
On the other hand, when speaking about my experiences dating and being attracted to men, I have not once experienced this kind of tension and change of subject. In fact, many of the same people who expressed discomfort by harmless references to queer love and identity found no such uneasiness when discussing my experiences of sexual assault by a man — in far more detail than I have ever shared about any female partner.
It becomes clear to me, then, that the discomfort around conversations about queer sexualities stem not from a resistance to discussions about sexuality, but rather from a discomfort when diverging from heteronormative standards. For instance, one wouldn’t typically express discomfort in hearing about the plot of a typical, heterosexual romantic comedy, or in listening to a song by an up-and-coming straight artist. Nevertheless, sharing media by and for queer people is sometimes considered too “in your face” about queerness, in a world where LGBTQ+ people seldom get any representation. Similarly, hearing a funny story about a friend’s partner of the opposite sex wouldn’t be a cause to tense up and utter “Moving on…,” but the same is not necessarily true when the partner is of the same sex.
It seems that the discomfort which comes with discussions of queer identity emerges from a hyper-sexualization of queerness that entirely disregards the reality of queer experience. Queer love becomes something taboo and inappropriate in a world where heterosexuality is expected and institutionalized in every facet of our existence.
To be queer is to live in a world of perpetual precariousness and uncertainty. Of course, there are accepting members of the LGBTQ+ community and supportive allies on this campus, but there is also a non-negligible population on campus that believes queer people like myself do not deserve basic human rights. I have experienced such homophobia firsthand.
In order to safely navigate life at Princeton, it becomes necessary to be selective about how, and with whom, one shares their queerness. One instance of poor judgment could result in social exclusion, experiences of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, or other forms of rejection by peers. Conversations with peers who might not be so accepting in many cases become carefully calculated so that every sign of queerness is censored: the pronouns in funny stories about ex-partners, passing references to queer culture, and any divergence from the expected heteronormative culture.
Therefore, when one shares their experiences with queerness at Princeton, even in a passing joke or reference, it is a display of trust in another person. Expressions of queerness mark us as different, leaving queer people open to the rejection and ridicule that could, but hopefully won’t, come. To hear the likes of “moving on” as a way to overwrite such a vulnerable expression of self, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be incredibly invalidating. It indicates a desire to gloss over the difference and demonstrates a certain amount of discomfort with queerness — a fundamental part of the identities of many LGBTQ+ students on campus.
While seemingly harmless, phrases like ‘moving on’ and ‘anyways’ in response to expressions of queerness are indicative of a far larger problem on Princeton’s campus: the unwillingness to hear and validate the experiences of queer people who are open enough to share them. The solution is to just listen, even if you disagree or feel uneasy. Sit with the discomfort and be grateful that you have been trusted with such an integral and personal aspect of someone’s identity.
Queerness is about more than attraction, who you love, or even sexual orientation. Queerness is living through the precariousness and coming out the other side stronger. It is watching elected officials debate how to regulate your body, your love, and your very existence. It is finding community and strength in those with shared identities and the prior generations that fought for queer rights. It is learning to love yourself for the very reasons that many people might hate and ridicule you. Queerness is about strength and survival and resilience, and I, for once, am not willing to move on from such an integral part of my life, whether it causes others discomfort or not.
Hannah Reynolds is a senior in the Anthropology Department from the Finger Lakes in Upstate N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.