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.

Gay Minorities in a Heterosexual World

Heteronormativity threatens those of us that identify outside of the straight/cis model. It is so pervasive in the majority culture that queer individuals have created their own subculture simply by living authentically and surrounding themselves with like-minded people. Being a minority is stressful; trying to assimilate to a culture that barely recognizes your reality as valid or normal is incredibly difficult. Being categorized as “other” to the majority community leads us to seek out our own culture so that we can live honestly and comfortably with a strong sense of self and social identity.

Adam William Finerhut proposed a model that demonstrated the intersection between minority and majority identity. He proposed that there were four categories that gay people fall into, depending on what communities they identify with. The first category is “assimilated.” This category describes gay individuals that do not identify strongly with LGBT culture or community. Instead, they surround themselves with heterosexuals and feel like they belong in the heterosexual world. They do not consider their sexuality to be a large factor in their identity. Their sexual orientation, if they are in this category, is often ignored or even denied. Closeted individuals that create a heterosexual existence and life would fall into this group. They feel like they successfully blend in with the majority.

The second group that Finerhut identified is “separated.” These gay individuals feel as if their sexual orientation is crucial and absolutely central to their personal and social identity. As a result, they actively seek to separate themselves from the heterosexual world. They seek comfort in exclusively gay spaces. They feel an inability to relate to straight people or the heterosexual world. However, those that fall into this category are rarely able to completely separate themselves from heterosexuals. They may work with straight people or interact with them when needed, but they primarily value their relationships with other gay people and prefer to spend their time in queer spaces.

The third group that Finerhut proposed is “integrated.” These individuals work to combine their gay or lesbian identity with their active involvement in heterosexual spaces. They try to combine their social worlds, and do not feel isolated or try to separate from either community. They like to exist in both communities, and they do not feel isolated by either category.

The last group identified is “marginalized.” Those that fall within this category do not feel comfortable with their social identity in the gay community or the heterosexual community. They feel isolated from both groups, and they feel like they do not belong in any space. This is a dangerous group to belong to. We draw strength from community, and we develop self-respect through our confidence about our identity. If individuals feel separate from every social group, whom will they turn to for support? This is where a lot of gay youth fall through the cracks. They may feel rejected by their family and their heteronormative community, and they may not be able to find a queer space that is comfortable for them. Some gay youth find themselves jumping from a repressed environment to a scene that might involve risky sex, drug, and alcohol use. They may not find comfort or community with that particular scene, and therefore may feel rejected from both social circles.

Experiencing positive group identity helps develop healthy gay affirmation; having a supportive community positively impacts the mental health of individuals. Those that are high on gay identity will experience less internalized homophobia. Coming out to a large circle of people, if you are able to do so safely, may lessen the discomfort and self-hatred that you might feel about yourself and your identity. Surrounding yourself with people that have similar identities and experiences will also help.

Discrimination, perceptions of stigma and rejection, and internalized homophobia all contribute to stress that negatively impacts the mental health of gay individuals. However, feeling a stronger sense of identity with the LGBT community can help to lessen internalized homophobia and perceived stigma. Many of us actively seek out queer spaces and gay representation in the media. We can find comfort if we have the opportunity to interact with people that have similar experiences to ours and if we try to connect with others in our community.

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.

The Consequence of the Social Script

Women are taught both explicitly and implicitly that their worlds revolve around men. Even the origin story of Adam and Eve in the Bible tells a story about how Adam was created first and that Eve was developed from his rib. There are many aspects of the Bible that are used as tools to further perpetuate patriarchy as oppression that I could discuss. But this story in particular, as it is taught and believed by many to be the start of humanity, is a classic example of how women are discredited and seen as mere extensions of men. When women are later described as the ones who give birth and life to others, they are treated more like incubates than they are as individuals. Religious teachings, societal impressions, traditional gender roles, and a multitude of other factors enforce the idea that women are supposed to pleasure men and to bear children for men. Girls are raised by their families and taught by their peers that it is natural and expected to experience attraction to boys. Popularity is gained by being the object of affection of boys. Girls are pressured to have crushes on boys and to modify themselves and their behaviors in order to capture their attention. This pressure is so ingrained in our culture and in our conversation with adolescence that many would never consider it to be harmful or oppressive.

In my experience as a young queer woman, I did not initially question this system. I followed the script, selected boys to call my crushes, attempted to win their affection and attention, and experienced subsequent frustration with myself when it never seemed to click. When the idea of being romantic with boys made me feel physically ill, I assumed that something was innately wrong with me. A lack of education on queer identities, little exposure to other adolescent queer experiences, and the script that I was pressured to follow led to a confusing and disorienting existence. This “otherness” is something that terrified many of us because it was something that we identified with.

Without sexual liberation, there is a lack of understanding, and in turn a misunderstanding of one’s identity and a sense of dysphoria. Society sexualizes young girls, but refuses to give them a broad and inclusive sex education or autonomy of their own bodies and control over their identity expression. If we focused less on young women as objects and instead treated them as human beings with developing identities, there would be less confusion and harm as a result.

Why Queer Identities Threaten the Patriarchy

The patriarchy is a social structure that has existed to oppress both men and women throughout history. We are negatively affected by this social structure that divides us with rigid roles, unrealistic expectations, and harmful beliefs. Men are expected to be masculine, dominant, controlling, and unfeeling. Women are expected to be feminine, submissive, timid, and emotional. Gender does not determine any of these traits, and it is harmful to expect them from individuals based on their gender identity.

The patriarchy relies on a binary classification of gender. It does not allow for natural deviance or the acknowledgement of alternate realities and experiences. Gender is simply a social construct that we use to categorize individuals. Judith Butler, a gender theorist, asserts that “gender reality” is a performance of gender. Butler says that gender is not tied to one’s body, but that it is instead a social construction that is open to fluidity. She discusses how various acts of gender create the idea of gender; therefore, without these acts, gender itself would not exist. She talks about how the body is an active process of embodying cultural and historical possibilities and that the act of gender is similar to a theatrical performance. Common assumptions of “being a gender” is that one is to act and meet certain social expectations according to the cultural script that their given gender assigns them. Butler differs from common assumptions by saying that gender reality is real only to the extent that it is performed.

If we, in the LGBTQIA+ community acknowledge the complexity and diversity of identity, sexuality, and gender, the patriarchy loses its power over us. If we acknowledge that it is flawed, non-inclusive, and rigid in harmful ways, we can choose to refuse to let it dictate our lives. Lesbian identities defy the social script that women are meant to serve men. If women who exclusively love other women do not exist to pleasure men or to be the object of men’s affection, they threaten the idea that women are the property of men. By refusing to conform to the roles that the patriarchy lays out simply by claiming our identities and acting according to our desires, our very existence threatens the system.

Labels: Why do we seek further division?

Our minds seek clarity, understanding, and compartmentalization. Labels provide us with a sense of comfort and ease. They give our world context and a clear framework. If we associate certain attributes with certain behaviors, and certain demographics with certain roles, our brain doesn’t have to do much else. Not a lot of work is required if we have clear-cut definitions of everything and everyone in our surroundings. This can both be helpful and problematic. As a result, we do not experience as much confusion about the world. Aspects of our daily lives are easier to perceive. However, by making automatic assumptions, we put people in boxes. If we jump to the conclusion that “what you see is what you get,” we miss out on different realities and experiences; we rob ourselves of learning opportunities and human understanding.

In the United States, gender is taught as something that is completely binary. Our culture perpetuates the idea that you are either a man or a woman. Gender identity is so much more complex than this. It can be fluid, it can contradict one’s assigned sex at birth, it can be clearly felt and understood, or it can hold absolutely no meaning to an individual. This applies to masculinity and femininity as well. Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum. Some individuals that identify as women can feel more masculine while others embrace and exude femininity. The same goes for masculinity. Male identified individuals can strongly identify with masculinity while others may lean more towards embodying femininity. Some people have gender identities that fall outside the binary and they may fall on any end of the masculinity and femininity spectrum. And our own experiences with these identities may shift and change over time, or even on any given day. Gender identities, preferences, sexual orientations, and our relationship with each of these are complicated. By assigning specific labels, we hinder our understanding of the complexity of everyone else’s existences.

On the other hand, labels can give us a sense of identity and community. They can serve as tools to validate our experiences and understand our existence. In the LGBTQIA+ community, we have a growing and shifting list of labels. Identity is complicated, and there is a sense of comfort in knowing and naming different parts of our selves. We deconstruct sexuality, gender, and desire in order to feel at ease and to perhaps find others that have similar experiences.

Personally, my relationship with labels changes constantly. Some days I feel great about assigning myself a clear-cut identity. Some labels give me comfort. Calling myself a lesbian feels right. But I also understand how doing so might give people anxiety. By claiming a label, one might feel trapped into committing to certain preferences for the rest of their lives. And while some identities and preferences may last a lifetime, our experiences and understanding of our selves may shift; putting specific labels on us might create immense pressure to remain constant and to not further explore our identities.

Labels can be empowering. Owning your identity can give you a sense of worth, and a name for what you are fighting for. At the end of the day, you’re fighting for yourself.