By Michael G. Williams (Durham, NC)
I’m going to tell you a secret.
I was a college undergraduate in the 1990’s. (That’s not the secret.) I don’t mean the early or late ‘90s, I mean the whole ‘90s. I wasn’t a disciplined student, but I was enthusiastic. I had a too-active interest in too many academic subjects. I changed my major eight or ten times and completed 90% of most of them before my advisor sprang graduation on me as a trap. She called me to her office and told me I was graduating that semester, come hell, high water, or hand grenades. I said I couldn’t possibly get into the classes I needed, nearly four weeks into the new semester, but she smiled and said, “I’ve registered you. Here’s your schedule. Go to class. Get passing grades. Then never, ever come back.”
I loved being somewhere the only mission was to learn. I would go to the libraries – we had separate graduate and undergraduate libraries, but anyone could go to either – and spend hours reading random books. I would go the library to work on homework for Group Motion Theory (mathematics) and six hours later I had opinions about the insurance industry during Prohibition. (No joke. It inspired me to write a novel about a gay mystery-solving insurance salesman.)
Part of the appeal, of course, was distraction. I didn’t want to do Group Motion Theory homework. The rest of what drew me to the library, though, was that the graduate library in particular was this vast space of freely available knowledge remaining obscured – remaining effectively secret – only because there was so much of it. But it was right there! They didn’t check student ID’s until you tried to take a book out. Were they content just to read, anyone could go read all day long. No one would ever bat an eye.
Yet hardly anyone did.
It was during one of those “study sessions” that I discovered the secret I now tell you.
On the top floor of the graduate library, in the men’s room, in the very last stall, on the thin strips of grout between the tiles, were written numbers.
These were not phone numbers. These were call numbers.
They were the numbers for books.
If you’re familiar with the concept of the Dewey Decimal system, you’ll already know what I mean by “call numbers.” The library didn’t use Dewey Decimal, it used its own in-house taxonomy, but the concept is the same: different types of volumes and categories of study were organized into a numerical system. Texts in anthropology might all be between 120 and 125, putting them in one area, whereas music history might be the 330’s, Japanese Imperial textile manufacturing from 551.2 to 551.4, and so on.
The numbers in the grout were those kinds of numbers.
I realized immediately I had stumbled onto some sort of secret, but one hanging right out in the open, there to be seen by anyone who went to that floor, to that bathroom, to that stall.
I immediately wrote down some of the call numbers and went to those books. They were all the driest of the dry: bound volumes of decades-old academic journals, books not checked out in twenty years. They were perfect hiding places for the sheets of notebook paper tucked inside their front covers, sometimes farther back in the text.
On them were handwritten missives:
5th year senior seeks closeted athlete to date.
Graduate student needs an undergraduate to “tutor” on weekends.
Married professor seeks peer.
Sophomore wants to meet here, nights, fall ’93.
It wasn’t the fall semester of 1993. It was later than that. His note sat unanswered for years.
Not all were so unlucky. Some notes carried on whole conversations in two styles of handwriting, or three, or four, or more. Some leveled up from a message to a bulletin board. Some notes had been going for years.
On the graduate library bathroom wall, I found Craigslist from before Craigslist existed.
I was out as an undergraduate. I was way out. If I were any more out I’d need a spacesuit. I was active in the high-profile queer group on campus. I was one of the few writers for our queer monthly magazine willing to appear in the staff photo. I chanted, fist in the air, in pride marches. I wore queer tee shirts. There were a lot of us. We were on a college campus at a time when queer student activism experienced a boom. People were actively encouraged to come out. Visibility was important, politically and socially, to counter all the hate and fear. AIDS was being used against us and the fearlessness of coming out was that much more important when many people were still dying and all of us were scared. The conventional wisdom among the activists I knew at the time was that it was better to come out than to stay in, no matter what.
These days the conventional wisdom is different. There’s a lot more allowance made for the fact not everyone can come out. This was a different time, a time when OutWeek magazine lived up to its name by exposing famous closet cases. ACT UP and its angry queers were still around to keep the Human Rights Campaign honest. People who are made to feel afraid will eventually respond with anger. We urged people to come out not because it was safe but because it would cause confrontation, and that was a path to change. We marched on Washington in ’93 chanting, “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” and “Ten percent is not enough! Recruit! Recruit!” We were wounded and angry, and those made us dangerous. With every coming out we expanded our bubble of openness in a South that distinctly preferred us closed off.
I was intrigued and infuriated by this unencrypted language of call numbers written on a bathroom wall. Why weren’t these people out? Why limit themselves to the hope of maybe being seen by someone who went to the right stall on the right floor, looked closely enough, in the right semester, in the right year, went and found that book, and wrote back?
Why did they get to hide?
Of course, I knew why. We couldn’t all come out. We aren’t all activists. We don’t all want to rip open the seams of society. Not all of us feel wounded, and some feel too wounded to enter the fray from the start.
The anger passed in seconds and I was left feeling, well, not pity, not even sympathy, which is compassion for the hardship another endures but you do not. Instead, empathy: I put myself in their shoes. It was easy. I had been in their shoes before I came out.
It was earlier in my life, and in another place, but there were times when others came out and I stayed in because I didn’t see how coming out would help me.
So I read the notes. These were cries of loneliness by my people, and I owed them my attention. I wrote back on some of them. I offered coffee. I offered dates. I offered more than dates.
I never got a response.
I don’t know what happened to those people. I don’t know who they were. I don’t know if they’re now out or if they stayed hidden. I never mentioned the notes to any of my friends, not to my fellow activists, not to anyone. No one ever mentioned them to me. I assume we all knew about them, but they were a secret even within our bubble of openness.
For most of us, coming out was a trial. That bubble of openness was our sacred turf. It was something we created and achieved. For the people writing those notes, building a set of secrets out in the open, available for anyone to find yet obscured by all the other knowledge around it, that was their tiny, fragile bubble of openness. It was the space in which they could be honest about what they wanted and hopeful about what they might find. That was every bit as sacred.
I was at a conference across the street from that library a few weeks ago. I went and checked: no numbers in the grout. Blank Grindr profiles are the new call number on a bathroom wall, I guess. I think of those people often, though. They were and are our queer brothers, hiding in the open, some hiding still. I could have clung to anger at them, but that was part of the point of coming out: it wasn’t just for me. It was for them, too, and it still is. I hope they’re well. I hope they came out.
I hope they found a life that feels like theirs, morning, noon, and night; inside, and out.