By Heather Pearson
Queer spoken word poet Katie Wirsing performed last Wednesday night in celebration of National Coming Out Day (NCOD). Recognizing LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming folks, this day falls on Oct. 11 every year and marks a time of celebration and visibility for queer individuals and communities.
A professional poet, Wirsing has performed at LGBTQ festivals, colleges and conferences nationwide. She’s been recognized nationally for her poems, and co-runs Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp, a camp for transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) kids ages four through twelve.
Event co-host Sophia Brownstein started the evening reminding the audience that NCOD is a day to celebrate, but that individuals also shouldn’t feel pressured to come out if they don’t want to or don’t feel safe. Our recognition of this day, she suggested, must include conversations of how to support and provide resources to individuals who may face negative consequences for coming out, question why these risks exist and recognize that coming out to oneself is also a milestone to be honored.
Following this introduction, Wirsing performed poems about queerness, family and grief, as well as all the pain of growing up. Bringing the crowd to laughter and then to tears, she used her individual stories to relate to the audience. In between performing vulnerable poems, she took time to interact with the room, talking queer media representation, cis allyship, biphobia and transphobia within LGBTQ+ spaces and, of course, her dog.
“I absolutely adored Katie’s performance,” commented sophomore Dawn-Hunter Strobel. “She was particularly good at incorporating the audience into what she was talking about, though she was on the stage, it felt like all of us were sitting down and talking to a good friend that just happened to have a lot of stories to tell.”
Willamette Events Board members purposefully decided to bring Wirsing to campus to recognize National Coming Out Day.
“WEB has money set aside to bring people to campus, and we have the responsibility to use that money thoughtfully,” remarked Brownstein. She noted that Wirsing was able to create a sense of community between queer individuals on-campus who may sometimes feel isolated.
Additionally, Wirsing challenged allies to step up and have difficult conversations. She stressed that rather than trans and gender nonconforming individuals having to do the exhausting work of educating others about their identities, it is up to cis and straight allies to have those conversations with other cis and straight people. Real allyship, she implored, is having those conversations so that queer folks don’t take on that burden.
Brownstein added that allies should try to elevate the voices of trans and queer folks who do speak up. Point people towards the writing or words of marginalized people who have chosen to use their voices, she said, rather than speaking over them.
Beyond inspiring allies, Wirsing also challenged queer individuals to intentionally be inclusive of all members of the LGBTQ+ community. A strong trans and GNC advocate, she called for queer communities to better include and center trans individuals, and to not judge someone’s ‘queerness’ by how straight or queer their relationships read to an outside individual.
“Why are we judging people by the gender of the person they are with at all?” she asked. “Isn’t that against the whole point?”
At the end of the night, students gathered at the front of the room, joking and talking with Wirsing.
“She stood there, queer and very human, open and honest about being queer without making it all she talked about,” summed up Strobel. “This narrative is important because often queer and trans people are tokenized and expected to only speak to those issues. The way she presented herself as well as queer and trans issues was very humanizing and validating.”