Queer individuals experience a reality that is much different than the world that heterosexual cisgender individuals experience. Having an identity that defies the norm means existing in and interacting with the world in an incredibly different way than our counterparts. Being queer is an identity, but it is also a statement. We filter life and build it in ways that give us comfort, solidarity, and progress. We actively seek out safe spaces, look for solace in friends that are like us, and we do the most radical thing of all: we exist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.