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.

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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.