Group Identity

Strongly identifying with our community and our identity is how we survive. It is how many of us find support, comfort, and acceptance. By connecting with other people that have shared experiences with us, we find a source of strength that helps us to grow.

Ruth E. Fassinger proposed a theory about identity development. She noted two processes of it. The first was individual sexual identity in relation to internal awareness and acceptance. This process involves four phases. The first phase is awareness, in which the individual sees themselves as different from others. The second is exploration. In this phase, one explores their attraction to people of the same gender. The third phase is deepening/commitment. It is in this phase that the individual internalizes the identity as a gay person. The final stage is internalization/synthesis. It is in this phase that one incorporates sexual identity into one’s whole identity.

The second process was group membership identity in relation to one’s role within the gay community. The first phase is the awareness that there are people with different sexual orientations. The second phase is where one explores their relationship to the gay community. The third phase is a commitment to the gay community. Fassinger noted that this meant accepting the negative consequences that could occur as a result of this commitment. Finally, the fourth phase is internalizing the minority group identity across contexts.

By connecting with and associating oneself with a community, life can feel like it has more purpose. Accepting your identity as a queer person can be difficult, but it’s a lot less daunting when you realize that you have an entire community of people that are ready to welcome and accept you – just as you are.

Is Masculinity Considered Predatory When Embodied By Women?

People have a tendency to be afraid of what they do not understand. A lot of people feel comfortable with routines, rules, and expectations. If you’re aware of what is expected of you, you have a general idea of what you are supposed to do. The presented model of the American dream is to go to college, settle down, get married to the opposite sex, have 2.5 kids, and own a house. If you grow up thinking that the goal is to obtain this specific way of living and if these options are available to you, there is no obvious reason for you to question the system or identify how harmful it can be. If you are a straight, cisgender person of privilege that does not know about or understand other people’s experiences or identities, you may not realize how you play into a system that continues to oppress the rest of us that live “alternative lifestyles.” All of the aspects of the proposed American dream are not achievable for everyone. Not everyone has the opportunity or privilege to go to college. Not everyone is straight, and not everyone identifies with the gender binary. If the majority population refuses to question the heteronormative system, they will remain ignorant and we will remain ostracized and unseen.

Our heteronormative society has a tendency to force gender roles on individuals. Something that I’ve noticed is that a lot of straight people that I’ve interacted with have a tendency to be afraid of women that are more butch or stud presenting. Some lesbians embrace masculinity. They may wear clothing that is considered “manly.” Some may take on more dominant roles in their relationships, but not all necessarily do. We all have different styles, different preferences, and different mannerisms. Masculinity or gender presentation doesn’t necessarily determine personality traits or relationship roles. I’ve heard people talk about masculine presenting lesbians as if they are to be feared. They identify the masculinity within these women as predatory. This is the same masculinity that is praised when it is embodied by men. This parallel demonstrates that it is not masculinity that people fear. It is when someone of a certain gender steps away from the expected correlating gendered behaviors.

Jean Cordova, co-founder of the Lesbian Exploratorium explained “masculinity doesn’t belong to men, just like femininity doesn’t belong to women.” I agree with this statement. Unfortunately, there continues to be a great amount of stigma that is associated with men embracing femininity and women embracing masculinity. When individuals exude something other than what is expected from their gender, it is shamed or feared. True liberation cannot be reached if femininity and masculinity continue to be expected to correlate to specific, binary genders.

Queer Sexuality: An Identity Is Not An Invitation To Ask Questions

People are curious. This is not a bad thing. It’s natural to want to learn more and try to understand other people’s perspectives. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you can learn while still respecting people’s boundaries and dignities. Invading someone’s privacy for the sake of curiosity is disrespectful. After I came out as gay, people got braver in their questions. When it was assumed that I was straight, no one asked me about my sexual preferences or my sexual history. Now that they know that I’m gay, people feel entitled to ask for details about my sexuality. When you’re straight, your sexuality is mostly your own. It isn’t up for public debate. No one questions it. Nobody asks, “when did you first know you were heterosexual?” or “when did you first realize you were sexually attracted to the opposite sex?”

There’s a certain fascination that straight people have with people’s coming out stories. They’ll ask questions like, “do your parents accept you,” or “how long have you known?” While they might be coming from a good place, fielding questions like these aren’t necessarily on the list of things I want to do daily. Knowing that someone may have endured hardship or difficulty as a result of their minority status isn’t an invitation to ask about it.

I’ve been asked if I’m a “gold star lesbian.” This term is used to describe a lesbian that has never had sex with men before. The term itself is almost used as a way to shame people that followed the heterosexual social script before they understood or accepted their identity. Having a history of having sex with the opposite sex when you’re gay is nothing to be ashamed of. And it certainly isn’t a question that we should have to answer. Your sexual history and experiences are not up for public consumption for the sake of “learning” or “understanding.”

Some people are more than willing to be open about talking about their sexuality, identity, and sexual history. But you shouldn’t assume that just because someone is gay that it is immediately okay to dive into their sexuality, especially if you do not know them that well.

Asking questions about someone’s sexuality or experiences with their orientation is okay at times. If you’re close with someone, and you know that they want to talk about it and be open about their experiences with you, questions are okay. But if you’re assuming that we want to share our life story about our journey to acceptance with every person we meet, you might want to reevaluate acting on your curiosity. There are plenty of resources out there if you truly are interested in understanding our community; there are memoirs, YouTube videos, and novels. There are more resources than that one lesbian you met at a dinner party.

But You Don’t Look Gay

First of all, yes I do. I am gay, therefore I am what gay looks like. Now I might not fit every stereotype that you may have been fed. I have long hair, I paint my nails, I wear statement lipsticks when I want to, and I will never be able to pull off a snapback. And yet, I still like girls. Femininity and sexuality? Two different things.

One of my straight friends feels the need to remind me every once in a while that I “don’t seem gay.” I once asked her to clarify, and she said that “gay people are usually so loud and obvious about it.” I didn’t ask her whether it was my personality or my looks that threw her off, but I’m assuming it’s a combination of the two. See I might not be “loud” about it, but early on in our friendship I told her about the dates I was going on with girls. I wasn’t hiding my attractions or my relationships or my identity, so how did that make me quiet on the subject? I wasn’t actively filtering my language to pass as straight, and yet she perceived me as if I was “not like the rest.”

It’s not just her. Other straight people that I’m friends with see me as separate from the LGBT community. I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence that I have with my sexuality. I don’t refrain from talking about girls or my experience as a gay person. So maybe it is my appearance. I’m traditionally read as femme. Both gay and straight communities can misinterpret my sexuality. I don’t necessarily stand out as a lesbian even in queer spaces, and some straight people see me as if I’m just like them. They almost seem to forget that I’m gay, and this slight erasure of my identity makes me feel a bit lost and as if my validity is in question. But if I were to change my appearance to better fit a lesbian stereotype, it could feel inauthentic to me. Sure, I embrace several markers that lesbians use to indicate their identity to other lesbians. See: button down shirts, flannels, beanies, rolled up sleeves, and blazers – all found in my closet. But I also have days where I subscribe to traditionally feminine aesthetics, and my appearance refuses to indicate anything other than heterosexual.

If I were to cut my hair off and throw on a pair of cargo pants, would that make me more valid? It certainly wouldn’t affect my sexuality, so I don’t see the need to change how I present myself to make straight people believe or understand my identity. If anyone needs to change, it is these individuals who need to reevaluate what gay “looks like.”

Just Like You?

One of the big arguments that we use to normalize our same sex relationships is that we are not defined by our sexual orientation. This is true. We are all multi-faceted people. Our sexual, emotional, and romantic desires are not the most interesting things about us. Being gay does not disregard or diminish the rest of our experiences or interests. It is not the singular defining characteristic of our community. And yet, our sexuality is often seen first while everything else that we are and everything else that we do is considered secondary to it. As a response to this tendency, we assert that being attracted to the same gender doesn’t set us apart. And it shouldn’t. But we do not live in a perfect world, so it does.

We are no less human than the heterosexual community. But we are not “just like you.” Being gay may not define us, but it is a large part of who we are because our life experience is greatly impacted by our orientation. This is because we are constantly treated differently for it. Many of us grew up confused, lost, and even bullied for being different from everyone else. A lot of us didn’t have examples or explanations of what we were feeling, and it took many of us a long time to understand that it was okay. But while we fought for self acceptance and self love, our surrounding environment did not necessarily support us or comfort us. This isolation and rejection by society impacted us. The experience of being a minority did make us different.

Our sexuality shouldn’t make us different, but it does. Being gay is not what inherently makes us different; our shared experience in how we are treated by the majority community has set us apart from our heterosexual counterparts. Being shamed by the rest of society has led us to create a subculture of liberation and freedom so that we are free to express ourselves.

Being gay is a huge part of who I am because it is not just an orientation to me. It is a lived experience, and being gay has affected my life and the way that the rest of society interacts with me. In a perfect world, the gender that we love wouldn’t matter. Our relationships would be normalized by society, and no one would ever feel the need to hide their identity. But in reality, loving the same gender does mean that we are different; we are different because we are treated as such.

To Those In the Closet

In discussion with our closeted brothers and sisters, we often use the phrase, “it gets better.” This is true. It does get better. Understanding your own identity is a milestone that allows you to make sense of your thoughts, interpret your desires, and decipher how you relate to the world and the people around you. There is a sense of confidence that comes with this comprehension and level of self-awareness. But even if you feel as though you understand yourself, you may not feel comfortable in your skin yet. You may feel separated from the rest of society if you are still closeted. You might feel isolated and different than the rest of the straight world, and you may even feel left out of the LGBT community because you feel as if you can’t freely or publicly embrace your connection to it. If you are feeling lost, know that you won’t be aimless forever. There are others like you; this disconnect is only temporary.

It is absolutely vital during this time that you seek out information and resources. Read everything. Blog posts, memoirs, discussion forums, and anything that you can access to understand other people’s experiences, journeys, and thoughts. If you come across the perspective of another LGBT person with a different race, socioeconomic background, religion, or political climate, you might even learn more from them. Realizing that what you’re feeling is universal might give you a sense of solidarity and belonging with others that have gone through what you’re going through right now. These stories might have insights or emotional responses that you can relate to with your own experience. Know that everyone’s coming out journey is different, but remember that each one is personal and valid. Watch YouTube videos about being in the closet and about life after it. Pay attention to LGBT activists and their content. Watch movies and television shows with LGBT characters and actors. Learn about our history. See how far we’ve come, and know that we can go so much further.

Accepting yourself is a complicated and continuous journey, but it is one that you must embark on in order to fully experience joy, love, and peace with oneself. Know that the rest of us are on it as well. We are a resource to you; reach out.

The Correlation Between Depression, Anxiety, and Queer Identities

Almost everyone I know that identifies as LGBT+ has a history of depression and/or anxiety. There is a framework that says that the prevalence of these diagnoses in our community is a result of minority stress. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create unhealthy and oppressive environments and experiences that negatively impact our mental health. We experience a variety of stresses as a result of our sexual orientations. These include expectations of rejection, actively hiding our authentic selves, processing and struggling with internalized homophobia, and suffering from a multitude of social pressures. Harm comes from both internal struggle and external treatment.

Precipitating trauma negatively impacts one’s wellbeing. Being lesbian, gay, or bisexual heightens one’s vulnerability to mental illnesses because individuals with marginalized statuses face repeated exposure to stress. They experience chronic social stress due to social environments that promote pervasive homophobia. Individuals with queer identities have higher rates of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders than cisgender heterosexual people. The rates are even higher in people of color because of the additional layers of oppression that they face.

This isn’t shocking. Of course being part of a demographic that is judged and persecuted can negatively impact one’s emotional well-being. However, when I was looking into the link between mental health and queer identities, I saw studies that hinted that mental health is also impacted by whether or not someone is in the closet. A study conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal indicated that coming out positively affects biological and mental health. In this study, it was found that gay and bisexual men had a lesser chance of depression, anxiety, and high cortisol levels than heterosexual men. Additionally, it was found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals had lower stress levels and lower chances of exhibiting depressive symptoms if they had come out to their friends and family. It makes sense that mental health might improve if individuals come out to their friends and families and are accepted and well received. The stress of “being found out” lessens, and they would not feel the pressure of keeping who they are a secret. If they aren’t actively trying to suppress their sexuality or keep their orientation hidden, their stress levels would likely lessen. However, if their friends and families reject them, they will likely experience an adverse effect. The impact that coming out has on an individual really depends on their level of support, group identity, and safety.

It’s important to note that this study only looked at a group of 46 lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Because it is so limited, these results are not definitive and do not represent our community at large. However, it does support the idea that it is necessary for society to continue to carry on with progressive policies in order to protect queer lives, lessen stigma, and promote higher social acceptance of LGBT individuals. If society works to create environments in which people can safely come out, queer people will physically and emotionally benefit.

Femininity On A Spectrum

If masculinity and femininity are on a spectrum, and where you identify at any point can change, then there shouldn’t be this immense pressure to define yourself as a particular category in the queer community. There are so many separate categories just within the lesbian community that try to nail down “which lesbian you are.” Personally, I feel as though I don’t fit any particular category. Labels have expanded past butch and femme. Look up lesbian terminology and you’ll see terms like lipstick lesbian, chapstick lesbian, stud, stem, androgyne, high femme, and so many more. I have friends that identify along with the androgyne category. This makes total and complete sense to them; they are confident that they are not femmes. They present themselves in ways that defy traditional femininity. They’ve never been “girly.”

Whenever I ask the people around me what they think I am, I hear an overwhelming agreeance that I am a femme. This made me wonder, what is it that classifies you as feminine? Is it your actions? The way you carry yourself? Your extracurricular interests? Or is it simply gender presentation?

Gender presentation can reflect one’s inner self. Or it can completely defy it. My friends have worn dresses and makeup before; doing so didn’t innately change them to make them more femme. If we all dressed up in the same outfit, they would still consider me to be the most femme out of all of them. So is this because of something innate that we exude? If I don’t feel particularly attached to femininity, why is it that I am consistently perceived as such?

Femininity is so much more than clothing, and it is far more complex because it is completely intangible. It is a social construct that is meant to help us understand the world around us. It is a combination of how we see ourselves, how we wish to present ourselves, and how we interact with the world around us. It is absolutely a manmade concept and it is not explicitly defined for each person. It is fluid and malleable. It’s important for me to remind myself that labels don’t have to be definite because we’re all different, and we don’t have to be the same presented version of ourselves today as we were yesterday.

The gay community embraces fluidity and doesn’t abide by rigid roles. We’ve already broken down barriers by defying societal norms in terms of our sexualities. If we can embrace an identity outside of the “norm,” we feel more comfortable experimenting with and breaking down social constructs. I think this allowance for changing preferences and identities and gender presentation is one of the most beautiful aspects of our community. Conforming to a binary has never been part of our path.

I didn’t choose to be gay. None of us did. We didn’t actively pick and choose what our identities were. We discovered our preferences and we shaped our lives around our realities. We deserve time and a lack of rigidity with our experimentation. Your identity is yours, and how you shape it and what you call it is up to you.

Straight/Cis Privilege

Sexual orientation describes the gender or genders of people that someone may be emotionally, romantically, or sexually attracted to. The levels of attraction one might experience for a gender or multiple genders may vary depending on the person, if they experience attraction at all. We know our sexual orientation based on our feelings and our experiences of desire and attraction. Sexual identity can be fluid, however, and one label might not completely encompass one’s sexual identity or confines of attraction for their entire life span. Individuals that are both cisgender and straight are privileged because they never have their identity, desires, or experiences questioned or rejected; their privilege stems from the fact that they never have to worry about existing outside of the heteronormative binary model that is presented as “normal” and “standard” in society. Many people do not understand the danger that can result from identifying as anything other than straight and cis.

Some straight and cis people do not accept us because they do not understand us. In order to understand us, they would have to empathize with us and try to see things from our perspective. Refusing to do so is easier, but it is incredibly lazy. Many people remain homophobic because it would take work not to be. They would have to admit that they were wrong and that their way of thinking was flawed; they would have to own up to the harm that they had caused to others because of their homophobia. It would become necessary to confront the reality that their bigotry stemmed from a lack of understanding and education. In their perspective, it is easier for them to discount our experiences and to condemn our existences than it would be to learn and change.

Many people only ever start to question their homophobic stances if they realize that one of their loved ones is part of the LGBT community. They are confronted with the reality that they are not as completely separate from our community as they thought they were. Unfortunately, many people in this situation still refuse to separate themselves from their homophobia. From a place of pride, anger, and stubbornness, some would rather turn their backs on their loved ones than on their comfortable, oppressive beliefs. Instead of accepting that their ideas and opinions were wrong, they believe that their loved ones were wrong or that they were led astray. Rejecting previous beliefs apparently is more painful for some than rejecting people that they once claimed to love.

However, a portion of the rest of society has been able to shift towards a more progressive and accepting understanding of LGBT lives. When LGBT individuals with celebrity statuses or high social statuses come out, they start a conversation. More exposure to queer lives that straight people have positive associations with may open their minds and their hearts. Having role models that are out may lead queer individuals to be more comfortable with coming out themselves. By coming out, they increase the understanding and exposure that relatives or friends have with gay people. The more people that come out of the closet, the more straight people are faced with the idea that their version of reality is not what they thought; they realize that attraction and identity is not the same for everyone, even for those that they are closest to. The more their bigoted views are challenged, the more likely they may be to reevaluate their stances and try to change.

Our community has made an immense amount of progress in a short period of time. We are simply leading lives full of love and authenticity; the more that other people understand our existence, the less likely they will be to respond with hate to our humanity.

Lesbian Representation In The Media

Seeing individuals with sexualities that match your own portrayed in the media is incredibly important. It is affirming and healing to see your identity valued and given a voice. Gay representation helps to normalize our experience and our existence. When we are portrayed, we are acknowledged and brought to life. When we are blessed with complex characters that share our identities, we can relate to them and even learn from them. While television shows do not necessarily portray plots that we would follow step by step, simply seeing individuals that claim their sexualities and continue to live their lives alongside everyone else allows us to see that our identities do not stop us from having our own paths or making our own choices. A variety of experiences are open to us. Different careers, relationship models, emotions, and stages of life are demonstrated. When we are given roles outside of being the “token gay,” we are given life. We are given endless possibilities; seeing this portrayed is empowering.

However, the media’s representation of lesbians has continuously failed us. It has given us characters that we have fallen in love with, only to have them torn away from us with an endless number of death plots. Seeing unapologetic, healthy, and loving relationships between two women is rare. When we finally get a glimpse at one, it is ripped away from us an alarmingly fast rate. In comparison to heteronormative relationships, our relationships rarely get a chance to last. Often, our characters barely get a chance to live. As demonstrated in an article written in 2016 entitled  “All 175 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters On TV, And How They Died,” most of them, if given fleeting moments of happiness and love, usually end up with disastrous consequences. This pattern is easily recognizable and the loss is felt collectively by our community because we are paying close attention. We are drawn to shows that have lesbian or bisexual characters. We actively seek representation and we flock to TV shows with these relationships. We fall in love with these characters, we identify with them, we feel their struggle, and we invite them into our hearts. So when each of these characters is ripped away from us with a death sentence one by one, we feel the loss as if it were a personal one. We emotionally connect to the characters that are portrayed because otherwise we rarely get to see our lives or our options played out.

Death scenes are usually written for shock value. But we’ve witnessed so much of our community being slaughtered in history, in the news, and in fictional shows that we aren’t shocked anymore. We’re hurt and traumatized, but we see it coming. Your portrayal of suffering doesn’t shock us anymore; it just disappoints us.

So even with this pattern, why do we continue to put our hearts on the line? We know the risk. We know the pattern. We know that we might get sucked in only to experience another loss. And yet we continue to search for representation because many of us feel isolated and alone without it. Closeted individuals especially desperately need this representation because they need an outlet. They need a sign that life outside of the closet is possible. They need to know that acceptance is attainable and that having healthy relationships is an option for them too. So we will not abandon shows with queer representation, but we will demand better. We will open our hearts, but we will ask you not to break them again.