Let me be perfectly queer

By Virginia Grande

My love for books combined with a new love for myself 🙂

Let me be perfectly queer: it took me a while to be comfortable saying those words. We didn’t have an equivalent for queer when I was growing up in Spain. Not that I knew of, at least. So when I started being attracted not only to boys, I couldn’t express how I felt. The closest was bisexual, which didn’t fully fit and was treated as a joke by the few I told. For a long time, I hid that part of me from all, myself included.

Fast forward to moving to Sweden, where I finished my degree in computer engineering and started working in computing education at Uppsala University. I had more time and energy to get involved in ACM-W, celebrating and advocating for women in computing. I had the honor of co-chairing womENcourage 2015 with Andreína Francisco and supporting regional ACM celebration efforts in Europe. From my experience of being perceived as less capable than men, I understood the importance of gender equity. What I did not expect was the level of warmth you get in community building. How healing it was to see all these women supporting each other in being their most authentic selves against a system forcing them in the opposite direction. I yearned for that, and yet, I was not fully there… for now.

Scholarship recipients and some participants of womENcourage 2015. Photo taken by Kristina Lidayová lidayova at gmail dot com and Tomas Oravec samotcevaro at gmail dot com

For that, I needed my people. There are many reasons why we may end up with a life away from family, be that physically and/or emotionally. Immigrants know the importance of having a close network in their new home. Queer people have expanded the ways in which we make kin, creating unbreakable bonds of care. I was very privileged to meet queer immigrants who welcomed me and gave me a safe space to explore my identity in many loving conversations and reflections, in a gentle invitation to be kind to myself. They also gave me the vocabulary I needed, even if I did not understand then that it could refer to me. One day was especially important. I shared that I wanted my hair short, but my hairdresser would not really listen. They gave me a recommendation for a barber, so I made an appointment. She immediately knew what I needed. And then there, in the mirror, I finally saw myself: my wonderful queer self. That word I learned, non-binary, was indeed me.

When I shared my new pronouns at work, confusion sometimes got in the way of support. People were afraid of saying the wrong thing. That was one of the reasons why we started our local LGBTQIA+ event series for staff and students in STEM. We had two aims: to educate people on queer topics and to create community. I’m forever grateful for Ivy Weber, Ana Tanevska, and Bedour Alshaigy’s drive and tireless efforts to bring to life our events. These went from informal gatherings to seminars on topics such as queer-inclusive approaches at work, trans health care, asexual and aromantic identities, the work environment for queer people in Sweden, or the queer history of Uppsala. After two years of the very positive impact of this series, I have now stepped down from co-leading it. What a difficult decision it was! On the one hand, I wanted to continue using my privilege to support others, learning together how to work towards intersectional queer inclusivity. On the other hand, you know what they say: put your oxygen mask first. Having previously been on sick leave due to anxiety, I knew I had to take care of my mental health. The last event I am co-organizing is Q Tech Day this August, where queer professionals in technology will share their work both on campus and at the main local library for the youth group (ages 13-25) and the general public. We are so excited about this! Representation matters, as does taking our research outside of the university. I have no doubt that this network will continue to grow with its fantastic future leadership.

Caption: Q Tech Day logo by Mercè Montoliu
Defending my PhD in June 2023. Photo by Andreína Francisco

During these events and especially in my teaching (hoping that it helps my students feel safe), I sometimes wear T-shirts with prints on queer rights and affirmations. I have a progressive rainbow flag in my office. I share my pronouns in my slides when I present my research. This has led some folks to believe that I’m always comfortable being out. However, I do not always feel safe or confident. Even in a queer network, I often wondered if I was “queer enough.” I didn’t always relate to what I saw referred to as queer culture, and I hadn’t met that many people who were nonbinary in the way that I felt I was. I had yet to understand the main principle of queerness: that there are as many ways of being queer as there are queer people. That the way you express yourself can vary depending on your level of comfort and how safe it feels, and that doesn’t make you any less valid. I very much felt this when preparing for my PhD defense a year ago and considered what to wear. I had to dress formally but could not think of attire that would match my self-view. In a public defense with a committee, in such a vulnerable situation, I worried that unconscious bias would affect how I was evaluated or that I simply would not be able to deal with people’s reactions. In the end, it was a tie between my feelings and society’s expectations: it was a tie that I wore, something I had always wanted to try on, that my dad helped me put on. A tie with the nonbinary flag colors. And those who knew, understood.

In time and after all of this, a realization: I had always been perfectly queer. Just by being me and with the enormous privilege that some of my identities, my environment, and a support network entail. That is something that we can all be: nodes in such networks. We can all contribute to a society with more room to safely be our authentic selves. We can, and must, challenge anti-queer systems and overall systems of oppression, sit with the discomfort when being called out on our inevitable mistakes, and then educate ourselves, understand our privilege, and use it to amplify other voices. We need to create spaces where everyone can feel safe being not only perfectly but also unapologetically queer.

Author: Virginia Grande (they/them) is a postdoc at Uppsala University. After their PhD on role modeling in computing and engineering education, Virginia now studies topics such as computing educators’ emotions and emotional labor, and norms in computing. They have served in the ACM Council of European Chapter Leaders (CECL), ACM-W Europe, the ACM-WE celebrations working group, and the ACM-W Chapters Committee. You can contact Virginia at virginia.grande@it.uu.se 

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