Am I Queer Enough? Who Decides?

Since I began coming out to people as both queer and pansexual almost two years ago, I have only gotten two negative reactions.  (Sadly this was true a few months ago when I wrote this post, gotten a bunch more since)  One of these followed a very expected format – the ‘prove to me you’re bisexual’  reaction.  The person wasn’t mean or hostile, but simply looked at me as if to say “Come on… you’re not serious?”

He then proceeded to inform me that he “has a test for this.”  He asked me if I would “co-habitate with, and/or have my primary romantic relationship with a woman.”   I said I would.  It was the truth.  But I didn’t feel good about having passed his test.

I politely explained to him that it’s offensive to make yourself the authority on someone else’s identity.  “Has anyone asked you to pass a test to prove you’re straight?” I asked him.  He chuckled as if caught in the act.

If you haven’t check out Shiri Eisner’s phenomenal monosexual privilege checklist you will definitely want to do so.  I have privilege.  We all do.  But this list helped me tremendously to recognize some of the ways in which, as a bi/pan sexual, I do not have the privilege mono-sexuals do.

Privilege #2 from Shiri’s list:

Monosexual Privilege #2 – When disclosing my sexual identity to others, they believe me, without my having to prove it.

Folks who are gay or straight can mostly take for granted that if they reveal their sexual orientation, others will believe them.

The second bad reaction hurt more.  It was from a reader of my blog who I don’t even know (and I’ve gotten several more like it, since).  It hurt because she too identified as pansexual.  She’s identified this way a lot longer than I have.  She’s probably been asked to pass a “bisexual test” countless times.  And yet, she feels deeply offended and hurt by my choice to identify as “queer.”  She seems to feel if I inhabit queer spaces, either in person (gay bars) or in less literal ways, it is somehow insensitive to others who have suffered more than I as a result of minority stress (my terminology, not hers).  She spoke about my privilege as a person in a heterosexual relationship, and felt queer spaces should be reserved for those who are actively suffering as a result of being read as queer.

Everyone has privilege.  Some have way more than others.  I have a lot.  In my opinion, the thing to do with privilege is be aware of it and to fight hard and openly for equality.  I don’t believe our privilege should be ignored, nor should it be used against us as a weapon.  To me, needing to have been abused, degraded, or discriminated “enough” to claim a certain identity or be accepted as part of a certain group or movement is a dangerous slippery slope, as well as alienating to potential allies.  Being denied a right to queer identity or queer spaces is actually the opposite of privilege.  Why is someone else’s route to queerness or pansexuality more valid than mine?

Monosexual Privilege #13 – I feel welcome at appropriate services or events that are segregated by sexual identity (such as “general” i.e. straight clinics, gay community centers, lesbian-only events, etc.) 

Now if I was going around on my blog complaining about how bad I have it, with absolutely no regard for the fact that as a white, cis-gendered female, married to a male, I escape brutal realities so many others don’t, that would be obnoxious.  But I don’t.  In fact, I am focusing my career on providing affirming mental health services for sexual and gender “minorities.”  But I do speak on my blog about invisibility, and the intersection between invisibility and privilege, among many, many other things.  In addition to a lot of privilege, I also experience feeling erased as a queer who isn’t obviously queer in the way folks expect.

 I have a friend whose parents were born in Mexico.  She was born there as well, but her ancestors immigrated there from Europe.  She is racially white, but identifies as Latina.  People often feel offended that she identifies this way.  They feel it is offensive to those folks who are “real” Latinas (i.e. identified easily as Latina on a daily basis and suffer discrimination for it).  She feels folks assume that she is wealthy and her immigration experience was smooth because of how she looks.  She feels invisible.  Who gets to decide if she is “Latina enough?”

I feel very strongly that we have to be able to claim our own identities and have them respected.  In my opinion, my friend who identifies as Latina has thought hard about her privilege, is aware of it, understands that other Latinas have had different experiences, and is open to dialogue about that.  But ultimately, I can’t decide whose identity is valid, they must.

My reader made the point that anyone can call themselves anything to the point where identity labels lose all meaning.  Of course.  We can claim identities that have no relevance to us to the point of absurdity.  But most people don’t.  Why would they?  Identity is so fundamental to our internal lives as well as our interpersonal lives.  I would argue the vast, vast majority of us are authentically trying to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

And consider the alternative – someone else gets to decide what our identity is.  Why should someone else, pansexual or not, be policing me and deciding I’m not queer enough to go to gay bars or call myself queer on the internet.  Let me be clear.  If she, or anyone else, wants to dialogue about why they do or don’t identify as queer, I’m open to that.  I might even learn something.  Hell, I might even start doing things differently.  But that would be my decision.

Monosexual Privilege #3 – “I can feel sure that upon disclosing my sexual identity, people accept that it’s my real/actual sexual identity (rather than anything other than I said). 

I would argue kicking people out of movement working toward equality is bad policy all around.  What if the 99% told Warren Buffet to stop arguing their cause because he’s rich?  What if men were told they couldn’t be feminists?  What if free folks hadn’t become abolitionists?  At one time the government decided how much racial minority blood made someone a person of color.  If we can’t determine our own identity, we are at the mercy of others whose motivations may range from benign but ignorance, to openly hostile.  It’s bad enough for majority groups to try to impose identities or negate identities of marginalized groups.  Far more tragic, in my mind, is when we “sexual minorities” do that to each other.

Those of us choosing to question hetero-normativity and gender binarism have to allow each other the space to do so in our own ways.  My reader continues to repeat that there is no “us and them,” queer and not queer, that it’s more nuanced than that.  Yes, precisely.  But for me, that’s what queer is.  Queer is a stance that says “it’s more nuanced than that.”

Yes, on one level there is no us and them, but on another very human level grouping ourselves by identity is profoundly human and in some ways necessary for survival.  Why not be happy when someone feels drawn to and wants to identify with a group to which you belong rather than try to argue the group doesn’t even exist, negating and denying that person’s experience, and possibly your own as well?

Monosexual Privilege #14 – If I’m cisgender, I am accepted and celebrated as part of “queer” space or movement.  If I’m an ally, I am applauded for my support of the queer movement.

If there is one single mark I leave on the world, I want it to be that labels are not singularly good or bad.  They are both.  We can’t have identity without labels.  As human beings we are utterly dependent on language and desperate to feel seen, known, and understood by others.  Without labels, we can’t do that.  But those same labels confine us in ways that can cloud us to our true identities and pit us against each other as well.  That’s why I believe we have to constantly expand our notions of identity, while respecting existing labels.

Getting rid of labels may sound nice, but in practice it would leave us literally speechless and quite alone.  With all due respect, I’d like to ask that person who feels tormented by my queer identification if others who are more “deserving” of labels have to give them up, or just me?

#9  I never have to worry about successfully passing as a member of my sexual identity group or as a member of my community.

 I’ve included these excerpts from the monosexual privilege list, not to prove that I am “minority enough” or “queer enough,” but to show the ways in which discrimination can come from members of the same group, in addition to those who identify differently.  Not only do I have to prove to folks who are not pansexual that I’m queer, but I feel as though I’m being asked to prove I’m worthy to someone who is.  That makes me sad.  Very sad.

 I personally am drawn to the labels queer and pansexual because they are so expansive.  For me, pansexual is a sexual orientation that doesn’t make gender a central aspect of desire.  I understand that for many who identify as bisexual they feel the same way about that term, and I would never question that.  For me, being queer is a questioning perspective that strives at the same time to respect and value people’s chosen identities, while also making space for ever-expanding and more nuanced visions of identity.  We can create space between gay and straight, for example, without denying gay and straight identity to those who claim it.

Queer is a way of being in the world.  Being pansexual is part of being queer for me, but so is being a feminist, so is being in an egalitarian marriage, so is struggling internally with how marriage to a man affords me tremendous privilege, but also invisibility.  I believe I was already queer before I was fully aware of my same-sex attraction, when I was a strong ally and advocate for equality.  Am I “queer enough?”  Was I then?

 #8  When seen with a partner I’m dating, I can be certain to be recognized as a member of my sexual identity group.

My reader feels strongly that how much I’ve struggled makes me who I am, rather than, well… who I am.  I don’t think we can play that way and build a powerful movement to ensure equal rights for “sexual minorities” and gender variant folks anywhere on those spectrums.

I’ve never claimed to know or understand the experiences of those who have had to live openly as sexual minorities.  In fact, I go out of my way to recognize that I don’t know that.  But I don’t think that negates my experience or makes me less entitled to identify as queer.  In fact, I would argue there are no specific identity factors that should matter in determining who is queer.

Queer is a way of being in the world, and it is open to anyone.  I say, the more the merrier and the better for us all!  If everyone was queer (in the widest sense) I think the world would be a much better place.  That’s what queer means to me.  I can’t decide who else out there is queer.  But I damn well think that I should be the one to decide if I am.

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5 thoughts on “Am I Queer Enough? Who Decides?

  1. Ah, Monikers! You have me thinking of the Johari Window. I was not aware of this concept/technique until last year when someone brought it up at a dinner party. I was asked if I would disclose to my music students that I have a penchant for “old school rap”, or would I keep it “Hidden”, as one of the Johari windows is described. Evidently, this window is also called “Façade”.

    Strangely, I have never had a student ask me what my favorite songs/genres are other than what I present to them for study in our time together. I never noticed that until that party last spring.

    I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I should come out to my closest friends and family. I have been so privileged in my life because so much of how I look and sound tells a story that IS true about me. I look Black, and I am. I look like a Woman, and I originally am. I have no obvious regional accent helping me sound decently educated, and I am.

    Would I call myself Bisexual or Queer or Pansexual in public? I just haven’t decided. More tired privilege, no doubt.

    • Hi, thanks for this perspective, I’d never heard of Johari Window. You know, I think we bisexual/pansexual/queers should have just as much leeway to decide when and how to come out as anyone. I think our coming out processes are often viewed with suspicion, whereas those who ID as gay or lesbian tend to be viewed more empathically. I think this is a double standard. You are already dealing with identities that make you less privileged, only you can decide if you want to add to that being queer in a way that’s often not even accepted within the queer community.

  2. Lyla- I was sitting at a dinner party on Saturday night for a friend’s birthday. I knew about a third of those in attendance. Others I had met years prior or not at all. Those at the table that I was sitting near began talking about their families. Every one of these women was married to a man and had at least one child. The question came up, “What does your husband do for work?” (We had already heard about all of our own careers.) As I participated in this conversation, which I could because I am, in fact, married to a man, part of me felt cheated. I told them what my husband does but inside I was saying, “But don’t assume that’s all of me.” And I have no idea if I was hearing about every part of them, either. I leaned over to my best friend and said something like, “I hate this. I feel like I’m not being authentic to myself.” I didn’t know these women well enough to declare, “Well, yes, I’m married, and my husband does this for work, but by the way I’m also attracted to women.” If I had a female partner, I would have said so and would have told them what she does for work. But I don’t. Assumptions are made. Was this me hiding behind monosexual privilege, even though I’m not monosexual? Maybe. Or maybe it was me sitting in utter insecurity about how to approach this subject with women I barely knew…because, in fact, those who are not totally gay or totally straight don’t really seem to fit anywhere. So I (wrongly) kept my mouth shut and let people make their assumptions. Am I “less queer” because I didn’t know how to handle this situation or because I didn’t say “the right thing?” I don’t think so. I think some of the challenges for those of us who are not monosexual are different than those who are, but I don’t think they are any less significant.

    • M – thank you so much for your story, and backup of my position. I completely agree, ironically the pressure to be “queer enough” actually keeps many of us in the closet, which is what, supposedly is so frustrating to others. You were in a very tough position, and I don’t at all think it’s easy. If a lesbian woman had been there and declared she had a female partner, folks would probably have realized the way they were asking the question was problematic and accepted her relationship. If you had stated you are bisexual, I’m guessing the response would have been something like, “Why are you even mentioning this, it doesn’t matter, you are married to a man.” Thanks for sharing!!

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