Even non-normative cultures have meaningless, self-imposed rules
by Reyna Wang
According to a 2015 report from the Public Religion Research Institute, 7% of U.S. millennials ages 18 to 35 identify as LGBT, which is almost twice the percentage of self-identified LGBT adults. Of course being queer, and especially being trans, poses challenges in any environment, but it seems that at least in the more “liberal” areas of the country, there has been incredible progress among young people in terms of accepting their LGBTQ+ peers. Even at only moderately liberal universities like Fordham, many report harassment, but the support system for queer students and the queer community itself tend to be open and expansive, which allows me, as a queer person, to feel generally safe on or off campus.
At Fordham, most of my friends and even most of my closer acquaintances identify as queer. This is not a deliberate effort on my part, but I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a people with whom I feel comfortable being open about my sexual orientation and gender identity. In my experience, the queer community at Fordham encourages students to be proud of their sexual orientation and gender identity and to talk about the experiences of being queer. There’s even a sort of tangible pressure to identify as LGBTQ+ that’s derived from the pride associated with these identities, though I don’t think there is anything wrong with this sort of peer pressure considering the pressure to be straight that’s derived from the shame associated with being queer, imposed by systemic heteronormativity and mainstream culture.
What I am starting to feel uncomfortable with is the peer pressure in queer social circles to be a certain type of queer, a type that is associated with a specific aesthetic, a specific type of dialogue, a specific sense of humor, and a specific set of interests. As mainstream society becomes increasingly accepting of queerness, social interactions with my queer friends, specifically those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, become more and more dominated by the “gay” identity. To some extent, talking about how you label yourself in terms of sexual orientation is liberating for yourself and everyone else; it combats stigma by forcing mainstream society to confront the existence of queer people and humanize their conception of the LGBTQ+ category, and it creates a more comfortable space for other queer people to stop hiding their sexualities from the public. However, at some point, when the “gay” label seems to permeate every conversation or activity you engage in with your queer friends, the label can seem to reduce queer people to their queer identity instead of emphasizing their diversity and complexity as holistic individuals. I so often hear my queer friends say, “I look so gay” or “You look so gay” any time anyone wears a plaid flannel, or highlight their appreciation for, say, cats or a certain musical artist as a mark of being “gay.” The omnipresence of the “gay” label in queer social circles is exacerbated by the use of social media, on which it is quite common for someone to post a generic selfie captioned, for example, “Good morning, I’m gay.” These statements can be damaging in that they reinforce the belief often held by mainstream society that the choices and interests of queer people are products of their sexual orientation, depersonalizing them and lumping them into a category that is intrinsically incompatible with mainstream culture. They also create a standard of queerness that can become an unstated requirement for social acceptance in queer circles, creating a pressure to conform that goes against the virtues of diverse and creative expression embodied by the LGBTQ+ liberation movement.
It can be crucial for marginalized groups to develop a shared culture as a facet of their liberation movements. Certain accessories or hairstyles popular in communities of ethnic or racial minorities can serve as important methods of resisting the pressure to assimilate to white Western culture. Shared tastes in music or artists can be an effective way to unify these communities and imbue them with a sense of pride, making their fights for liberation stronger and more spirited. However, the gay culture that increasingly saturates my social life and social media feeds, seems more ornamental than personally meaningful, more hypocritically hegemonic than diversely expressive, and more a form of self-indulgence than a means of resistance. Gay liberation has always been about empowering shameless self-expression, yet more and more often, peoples’ expressions of the gay identity feel like forced reminders that they do indeed meet the qualifications of being gay and thus maintain their esteemed position in queer social circles by following gay fashion trends, getting androgynous haircuts, admiring certain gay celebrities, and keeping up with gay slang. I often hear the phrase “iconic gay,” referring to a queer person who is “very gay” because they exemplify the dominant gay culture and thus hold a more prominent and solidified social position within the gay community.
Even the term “gay,” used as an umbrella term used to describe gay, lesbian, and bisexual people or qualities, can be imbued with biphobic connotations, as the iconic gay is understood to be gay or lesbian, and thus bisexuals are considered somehow less queer. In queer social circles there’s a sense of shame associated with “straight” relationships, an unnecessary counterpart to the pride associated with “gay” relationships, which has lead many of my queer friends who are not monosexual to feel like they must deny their feelings for or attraction to people of the opposite gender. And for a community that is so keen to acknowledge the fluidity and non-exclusiveness of gender, it is strange to me how clearly the margins between homosexual, bisexual, and straight identities are established. Though permanence can be comforting for some, I think it can sometimes be more liberating to think of sexual orientations and identities not as permanent labels that you must sort yourself into but as constantly evolving summations of your experiences which you define for yourself. There is no such thing as experimenting with a certain sexuality if you accept that all relationships, and in fact life itself, are but a series of experiments, the conclusions of which continuously construct your uniquely personal identity.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual identities are not like other marginalized identities concerning race, gender, and class in that they are not assigned to you by the external world. It is something that only you can perceive unless you choose to share it with others, though you are oppressed by it whether or not you decide to share. So when there is a normative standard for gayness, that encompasses preferences and actions beyond those directly related to sexual orientation, queer people who do not fit this cultural standard are often accused of experimenting or exploiting real gay people by merely trying on the identity. The standard can intimidate these queer people from opening up about their sexual orientation and prevent them from receiving the support of other queer people in queer social circles. Increasingly, I am being invited to events and spaces which explicitly deny straight people from attending or entering. Again, I don’t find this a problem since queer people have been and still are denied access or admission to many resources and spaces, so sometimes the only way to guarantee queer people’s needs come first is to establish a purely queer space. I am, however, troubled by gay-only social gatherings, which are often only by invite yet have no inherent relation to queerness, since people must out themselves, as well as conform to normative gay culture, in order to feel accepted and included by their gay friends. An identity that is supposed to foster inclusion and self-love is at risk of becoming divisive and fostering insecurity, if it has not already.
The normative “gay” culture, necessarily established in contrast to normative straight culture, enforces the gay-straight duality created by society to control the dialogue on sexuality and marginalize sexual diversity. The only utility the direct expression of gayness holds is to represent the gay identity a source of pride and visibility, to resist the shame and erasure that mainstream heteronormative society imposes on queer people. The ultimate goal of any liberation movement should be to destabilize the identity itself, as it was invented and is enforced by hegemonic culture in order to oppress. Is it productive, then, to reinforce the gay identity within the gay community itself? Is this healthy for both longstanding and newer members of the community? Is confrontation through identity politics an effective form of resistance, or does it work with the shackles with which heteronormative society has chained LGBTQ+ people? I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but as queer people united in our liberation, we owe it to ourselves to give them some good thought.