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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.