Originally published March 15 in PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
If a queer stands on a crowded bus and nobody sees them, are they still there?
It may seem a silly question, but for LGBTQ folks whose queerness is less visible, it reflects a legitimate concern. There are many factors that contribute to queer invisibility in the LGBTQ community as well as the world at large — gender presentation and roles, the gender of one’s partner(s), and public (un)awareness are but a few.
Coming out may be a universal experience for LGBTQ folks, but some find they have to do it more often than others. Even the keenest gaydar is not always enough to alert “family” to the fact that they belong. As a result, they find creative ways to say, “I am here.”
Beth Mattson, 31, and Chris Weyl, 35, get it. From the outside, they look like any other hetero family. Sure, mom has short hair, dad is a touch sensitive, and the boy child sometimes wears pink. But this is Portland.
Married but not mainstream
That both Mattson and Weyl are queer is something that often gets overlooked. In fact, before meeting each other, both were almost exclusively gay. So this newfound invisibility means coming out again. And again. And again.
“It’s a couple levels of coming out,” Weyl says. “Not only do you have to perhaps introduce your friends to the concept of dating someone of the opposite biological organs, but you have to figure out how to establish to straight people that you’re not necessarily straight. I’ve had to be lot more obvious about this.”
To illustrate, Weyl pulls out his messenger bag, which has a wide rainbow running down the middle. It’s an intentional signal, and one that has come in handy recently.
“PLOP [Parenting Lesbians of Portland] had no idea what to do with us,” Weyl says.
Apparently not sure if they were dealing with a lost straight couple, the organizer asked, — “thoughtfully, nicely,” Mattson points out — “Why are you here?”
They were there because Portland has no queer parenting group that isn’t divided by gender. It was either PLOP or Daddies and Papas. Either way, they were bound to raise a few eyebrows.
As they were leaving, Weyl says he realized he forgot his bag and went back in for it. One of the organizers asked him to describe it and he said, “It’s the gayest bag ever.” Just as she was about to be offended, Weyl grabbed his bag and finally saw the look of recognition in her eyes.
“You’d think a shared vocabulary would get it going,” Mattson says. “I can make as many Amy Ray jokes as I want to, but I still have to come out as queer. Coming out is a lifelong process. It’s just a lengthier sentence know.”
Heidi Seekins, 32, can relate. Like Mattson and Weyl, she and her husband Andrew Wiley are queer. Seekins also identifies as genderqueer, while Wiley considers himself bisexual (“for lack of a better word”).
“I definitely feel like my queerness has been more invisible since I got into a ‘heterosexual’ relationship and especially since I got married,” Seekins says. “I think that many people assume that, a) you are the gender that you appear to be, and b) if you’re in a hetero relationship, then you are straight.”
Now that she’s married to a man, she says it’s harder to casually mention a female ex than it was, say, in her days as a student at Smith College.
“For some reason now, it’s difficult for me to say ‘my ex-girlfriend’ without it seeming like this big heavy thing I’m dropping,” Seekins says.
Strangers often feel justified in making assumptions about a person’s identity if they know the gender of that individual’s partner. But this not only renders invisible the queerness of folks in apparently heterosexual relationships, it also erases the identity of any bisexual in a monogamous relationship.
“I feel invisible as a bisexual any time I go out to a bar,” says Cameron Kude, 25, who is bisexual and currently in a relationship with a man. “If I’m at a gay bar, I’m assumed to be gay. If I’m at a straight bar, I’m assumed to be straight. I love the idea of a bi bar, where one could feel free to talk to or flirt with anybody before assuming their sexual preference.”
For Sossity Chiricuzio, 41, the visibility-by-association she gets as the partner of a masculine-gendered queer is no replacement for the real thing.
“For anyone still wondering: standing next to a masculine-gendered queer and finally being visible does not count as a magic trick,” she says. “In fact, it makes that singular pleasure into another form of rejection, somehow, which is doubly frustrating.”
See, Chircuzio is a femme who, despite her involvement in the LGBTQ community, fierce style, and visible tattoos, often feels her queerness is invisible. She recalls how that invisibility has marked her queer life since the beginning.
“I’ve felt invisible in my queerness since before I could even name it,” Chiricuzio says. “I’ve always been most comfortable in long hair and skirts. It’s my natural state of being, and even now often leaves me feeling invisible to both queers and non-queers alike.”
As a result, she’s had to actively assert her queerness. At age 19, that meant informing her college support group that her lipstick didn’t negate her sexual identity. In her 20s, she found herself assuring “old-school dykes” at the lesbian bar she wasn’t lost, she didn’t have a boyfriend waiting in the car, and that she had “already been turned out, thank you.”
These days, though, she puts less energy into giving signals and instead holds out hope that people will start taking more responsibility for their assumptions and make an effort to really see one another.
“I think the key is doing what comes hard to everyone in this fast-paced world we’ve created: taking the time to thoughtfully engage with or observe other people,” Chiricuzio says. “I frequently see other queers on the bus that might, if they actually looked at me for a moment, [take] in the various visual cues in my appearance and notice my direct gaze that is seeing them, and in return, see me.”
Because however queers accomplish it, there’s no denying that visibility matters.
“Visibility is also important because when others see you, they feel more comfortable being visible themselves,” Seekins says. “Being open and visible with our identities will encourage others to introspect about their own identities and/or to be open with identities that they have previously kept to themselves.”