“We get it. You’re gay. So what?” The far-too-familiar question “Why does your entire personality revolve around being gay?” is one that many queer folks dread. So, let’s unpack it.
The question in and of itself may not seem hateful; in some cases, it may even seem to come from a place of genuine curiosity. Yet, the meaning behind this question reveals a stark disconnect between queer and straight perceptions of reality.
The first time a variation of this question was posed to me, I felt an instant surge of anger and confusion. Anger because I couldn’t understand how my “femme” appearance and attempted assimilation into the “palatable” version of queerness had failed. Confusion because I didn’t know why this question even bothered me. Looking back, I realize that to appease my own fears about what being a lesbian really meant.
I had dimmed down my “gayness.” Rather than explaining myself, I simply said: “It’s not.” I shifted the conversation away from queerness entirely, reminding them— and myself— of all of the other interests, passions, and characteristics that made up my personality.
Today, I approach this conversation with a new outlook. How can one question the validity of my queerness when they view the world from a strictly heterosexual standpoint? Which, arguably, isn’t entirely their fault. I set out to understand the underlying factors that lead to the prevalence of this question [and my personal disdain for it]. Here is my new answer:
NEWS FLASH: The entire world is centered around being straight. TV, music, art, religion, academia, marriage, careers, advertisements— you name it— it’s straight.
The first factor that perpetuates the idea that queerness encompasses one’s entire identity is the overwhelming presence of compulsory heterosexuality that is ingrained in our society. Adrienne Rich, a poet, and influential feminist, popularized this term in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Compulsory heterosexuality, as described by Rich, is the assumption that all women are sexually attracted to men. This assumption protects men’s access to women and is enforced by norms of “proper” feminine behavior and popular media. In other words, heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed onto women through our patriarchal system of oppression. Furthermore, the idea that the only normal sex, love, and relationship must be between a cis-gendered man and woman continues to keep women psychologically trapped within a certain role.
“The lie of compulsory female heterosexuality today afflicts not just feminist scholarship, but every profession, every reference work, every curriculum, every organizing attempt, every relationship or conversation over which it hovers.”Adrienne Rich
Heteronormativity, or the belief that heterosexuality is the only natural expression of sexuality, ultimately reinforces heterosexism and homophobia. According to the American Psychological Association, many social theorists argue that “this assumption is fundamentally embedded in, and legitimizes, social and legal institutions that devalue, marginalize, and discriminate against people who deviate from its normative principle.”
A modern example is a misconception that any sexuality outside of the norm is “just a phase.” The “phase” stereotype is especially prevalent in the bisexual community. Often, people assume that women are actually straight and just experimenting, while men are actually gay and have not accepted it yet. This belief revolves entirely around men. It claims that one cannot have a real relationship or sexual satisfaction without the presence of a man.
Heterosexual power dynamics are not only normalized but are also romanticized. From the time women are old enough to understand the subliminal messages in movies, TV shows, and children’s books, we are being groomed to believe that finding a Prince Charming is the key to our happiness. In adolescence, any feelings or interactions between the opposite binary gender are seen as attraction and flirting.
The assumption and enforcement of this type of relationship create confusion and contrition among queer youth. To combat this psychological manipulation, queer folks must unlearn the misogynistic dynamics that teach you to hold male desire at the pedestal of your self-worth. We must give up the yearning for external validation from the opposite sex. We must give up the future that we spent our entire lives subconsciously preparing ourselves for.
Repression and Internalized Homophobia
A world that views heterosexuality as the default subsequently breads shame, self-hatred, and alienation. There are two main consequences of compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity in society: 1.) Heterosexual people will consciously and subconsciously believe negative messages about homosexuality and gender-nonconformity and treat the community accordingly, and 2.) Queer folks will consciously and subconsciously believe negative messages about homosexuality and gender-nonconformity and apply them inwards— often manifesting itself through internalized homophobia.
After hiding, denying, and resenting who you are, it can be overwhelming to readjust to a life where you are no longer pretending. While it takes some years to realize their sexuality due to compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity, it can take just as long to dismantle your own internalized ideas about queerness. Personally, it took me a particularly long time to accept the loss of the person I once was. I was no longer the person our societal institutions had conditioned me to become. To this day, there will always be a part of her that peeks through. But there is another part— a strong and beautiful part— that not everybody will understand.
The adjustment from “in the closet” to “out of the closet” is often portrayed as the ultimate barrier a queer person must face. Yet, what happens next is rarely discussed. Figuring out your place in a community outside of the protections of heteronormativity presents its own set of barriers.
With years lost to shame, trauma, and confusion, there is a lot to make up for. It is common to seek out friends, media, and a personal style that aligns with your newfound identity. The urge to connect with those who share our formative experiences—who share in the rediscovery of ourselves and our hidden history— can be overwhelming. In a world that is not made for us, it is not enough to merely exist. It is not enough to be “accepted.”
Next time you wonder, “why does ‘x’ need to flaunt their gayness so much?” ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable. Ask yourself why the outward expression of their identity stands out to you. Does my personality really embody queerness more than yours embodies straightness? Confront your own discomfort before questioning queer folks— because we will no longer apologize.