Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make too much noise. Definitely don’t make it obvious that you’re eavesdropping on that couple’s conversation two seats down. New York City subway cars have an unspoken etiquette. The overarching trend? Anonymity. The most important rule of sitting in a silver train car hurtling down Broadway at 20 miles per hour is: Don’t get noticed.
Usually, being nameless is a waypoint — the first stop in your relationship with another person. It’s what all your friends were before they were “Jen” or “James” and what your professor was before he wrote “DR. BLANK” in big letters on the blackboard. But what makes namelessness frightening is when it doesn’t end. That couple jabbering on the subway about how they want to move out of their small flat in Brooklyn for a bigger place in the suburbs will walk off the train car and never see you again. To you, they will remain nameless forever.
This might not bother you when you consider that New York City is home to 8 million people, but the lack of a name is really the lack of a voice. It’s more than namelessness — it’s invisibility.
I was recently interviewing Yale students from China for an article. The piece dealt with sensitive political issues in China, such as the arbitrary imprisonment of Chinese citizens. In interview after interview, the students requested anonymity, fearing professional or personal consequences for being mentioned by name.
It’s jarring when intelligent and passionate students with strong opinions ask you to assign them false identities. What’s more is that this anonymity is not temporary. The article will be published under pseudonyms; nobody will ever know who said what.
Without the possibility of remaining anonymous, these students would not have spoken at all. Anonymity can be used as a tool for people to protect themselves when calling out authorities or people in power. But the very need for that tool is what I find so upsetting. That need indicates that there are systems in place that demand we remain silent about who we are and what we stand for. The common denominator among these systems is preventing people from existing as their full selves and using their own names.
The threat of anonymity does not apply solely to people living under autocratic regimes. It’s a daily threat, an interpersonal one. It varies in degree and severity, context and manifestation.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, there have been countless times in which I have felt the need to remain nameless. That is a question that every queer person at some point asks: Is this a space where I need to be invisible? Am I allowed to name myself here?
Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, there were times when I felt invisible without even knowing it. I didn’t even know I was hiding. Silence overtakes us so easily — all it requires is that we do nothing, say nothing.
But then I heard about Eshel, an organization dedicated to bringing about LGBTQ+ inclusion in Orthodox Jewish communities, finally beating back the terrifying power of anonymity and allowing people to say their names loudly and proudly. Founded in 2010, this is a new organization — one that’s alive and that has a lot of work to do. How scary. How exciting.
It’s no coincidence that the LGBTQ+ community uses the language of Pride. Capital-P Pride is a way to fight namelessness. It demands that all people be proud of who they are and what they represent. Pride is a way to alter the public space, to offer visibility to the invisible, give names to the nameless.
In 1913, the American poet Ezra Pound wrote a 14-word poem called “In a Station of the Metro.” In it, he describes what it is like to look at faces of people in a metro station as the train whizzes by, like “petals on a wet, black bough.” These faces appear indistinguishable to him, as one big “apparition,” or ghost. Evidently, subway etiquette hasn’t changed a bit.
While we may continue to remain nameless on trains, never knowing what to call the stranger singing for a dollar or the angsty couple from Brooklyn, it’s our responsibility to fight systems that demand silence when we attempt to declare our identities or pursue our passions. Everyone deserves visibility. After all, having a name can bring an entire person to light.
Gabriel Klapholz is a first year in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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