“As I imagine is also the case for some of you, I am, unfortunately, attracted to men,” said J. Logan Smilges, as they began their DISCO Network talk, “Queer Silence: Rhetorical Quieting and an Erotics of Absence.” In my seat, I let out a surprised laugh. If the audience wasn’t paying close attention, they definitely were now.
While I haven’t been on Grindr, I’m familiar with the “empty black boxes” as profile pictures on social media. Rather than an image of the user, these black box profiles offer both concealment and presence: users know there is somebody behind the account, they just don’t know who. With Grindr as a case study on Queer silence, Smilges’ talk focused on how users “appropriate degrees of invisibility, such as when they choose not to upload profile pictures in order to manifest a Queer material presence.” Some might read this “invisibility” or “shielding” of identity as a negatively inflected “self-silencing”—a hiding of identity. However, Smilges argued that this manipulation of visibility can be a generative choice for Queer agency. Smilges calls this practice “quieting”—an identity-affirming practice that helps people gain control over their presence and signification in online spaces.
The freedom inherent in obscuring one’s identity may come as a surprise, given the emphasis on visibility and representation in Western Queer activism. Though some critique Rainbow flag accessories, “Loud & Proud” slogans, and densely packed Pride parades as neoliberal commodifications of Queer identity, American Queer popular culture overall embraces sharing one’s identity. And there is historical precedent, explains Smilges: “In the history of Western Queer activism, silence has been coded as weakness, as indifference, or as complicity with the people and institutions that harm our communities.” Instead of silence as an inherent harm, Smilges argues for alternative understandings of silence as an undeniable, complex Queer presence.
Though Smilges’ talk—based on their book, Queer Silence: On Disability and Rhetorical Absence—was about the generative potential of obscuring one’s identity online, Smilges was very open with us about their own profile. During the talk, they shared their Grindr profile with us and asked us to evaluate it. What were our assumptions? What does their photo emphasize? What is deemphasized? What do these images say about Smilges or intentionally do not say about Smilges? How are they using silences? What was the intentional visibility? During this portion of the talk, Smilges also invited audience members to share their respective online profiles and turn those questions inwards.
If Smilges’ opening remarks gesture towards an open and amicable environment, then the amount of audience participation and profile sharing confirm this atmosphere. In-person audience members and Zoom audience members alike felt comfortable speaking about their social media presence and online dating experiences, exploring the intersections of identities and visibility of identities within what are normative and often semi-anonymous websites.
“If a person of various marginalized experiences does not show face right away, it’s met with a kind of hostility,” remarked Smilges. But when the same individual is more visible, Smilges added, “it encourages kinds of interactions from these same homonormative users that are demanding people to show themselves in the first place.” Put simply, it can feel impossible to exist in these online spaces without some kind of hostility or judgment.
Though Smilges’ talk focuses on Queer spaces, I realized that the idea of “quieting” has applications in multiple online contexts. In fact, the hybrid mode of Smilges’ interactive talk provided in itself a meta interplay with the idea of quieting and silence. To be clear: neither Zoom nor Grindr is ever completely anonymous. Grindr requires a phone number to create a profile and Zoom registration records an email and name. However, as Smilges’ talk demonstrated, both Grindr and Zoom allow users a certain degree of control over visibility. Zoom chat-users could disclose the same level of intimate, personal experience to the digital and in-person audience that the in-person microphone user could, but somewhat obscured by their screen. The “empty black box” Zoom-users had access to personal communication while still defining their choices of how and where they may be visible and present, though perhaps quiet.