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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.