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.

The Weight of the In Between

The act of coming out is one of the more common discussions about sexuality. There are YouTube tutorials, articles that lay out the steps, and television shows that demonstrate examples of these moments. Coming out is hard. It’s a defining moment that influences your relationship with yourself and with other people in your life. The act itself is scary, but it is sometimes necessary for survival. The aftermath can either be heartbreaking or an immense relief. It’s often a mixture of the two. But coming out is far from a one-time deal. It is so much more than a planned conversation that you have with your loved ones. It can take years to come out to the people in your life.

You might express doubts about your sexuality to close friends, but struggle internally with it for a long time before consciously sharing your identity with others. You might come out to your friends at one point and wait a long time to come out to your family. If you come out to your family, it’s often not all at once then either. It can be a couple of members and then eventually extended relatives if you are comfortable with that. And it can take so much longer to be open in public about your sexuality. Even if you are out to almost everyone in your life, you may still take measures to be discreet for your own protection. PDA might be a hard limit for you, or you might embrace it regardless of your surroundings. Everyone is different, and everyone has their own defined comfort levels.

We often talk about coming out as a before and after experience. The discomfort of the in between is overlooked; personally, I found this to be the most difficult stage. Before I came out, I viewed the act of coming out as very definite. For me, saying it for the first time would mean solidifying my future. It meant that I would never be able to hide from my own reality again. Claiming my sexuality meant that I could never take it back. I would never be able to remain hidden or continue my life as a “straight” person again. Once you step out of the closet, there’s no way back into it. I spent a long time thinking that even if I was gay, that I could continue my life as a straight person and live a “conventional” life. I could not picture living as an out gay person. I could not envision myself happy or in love. I couldn’t accept myself, and I could not fathom the idea of anyone else embracing my identity. Coming out didn’t feel worth it to me, and I isolated myself with lies and repression. It was in this stage that someone close to me asked me if I was gay. As someone who was in a state of intense anxiety and fear of being found out as gay, this abrupt question caught me terribly off guard. I wasn’t ready. I froze. I couldn’t answer her, and so my silence did so for me.

The months that followed were painful, awkward, and gut wrenching. I hated who I was, and now someone else was aware of something that I had fought to keep to myself. She watched me closely and asked me questions that I wasn’t ready to answer. I was an uncomfortable and emotional mess. Coming to terms with my own identity felt nearly impossible, and now I was being watched while I did it. It took me months before I reached out to anyone else. Almost every moment that I experienced in this in-between phase felt excruciating. Taking steps to being out wasn’t something that I had planned. It was happening, and while no part of me regrets it, I felt so incredibly tormented at the time. Before coming out, I could comfort myself with denial. But after breaking the silence about my sexuality I was a mess consumed by emotion and fear. Being out has been incredibly healing and empowering, but the steps to get there were some of the hardest times of my life.

If your sexuality is anything other than heterosexual, understanding it and accepting it can be a long and complicated journey. Even if you have complete awareness of it, you likely will still experience an intense struggle with it and how you are received by society. There’s a lot of pressure on defining the one exact moment that you realized you were gay. People will ask, “when did you know?” sometimes with the best of intentions, but coming to terms with being gay is so much more complicated than waking up one day and realizing it. It means understanding that it is who you’ve always been. It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to finally accept a piece of yourself that you have rejected but carried with you your entire life.

Being gay is part of my essence. It’s who I am, but correctly identifying that aspect in myself is not something that I was always able to do. Growing up, it was something that I saw in glimpses of myself, but fought against. With time, I experienced further clarity, acceptance, and understanding. If I could simplify coming out to myself to one moment, I would, but it was so much more complicated than that.

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.

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.

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.