By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
In my 30 years on this planet, I have belonged to a staggering number of identity-based groups, some of which would seem to be mutually exclusively, and in nearly all of which I have, at one point or another, been told I don’t belong.
I’ve been a girl child and an adult male. I’ve been cisgender, genderqueer, and transgender. I’ve been a heterosexual, a bisexual, a lesbian woman, and a gay man. I’ve been an atheist, an agnostic, a spiritual-but-not-religious, a part-time Quaker, and a Bahá’í.
On the surface, it would appear I’ve also been rather indecisive. Or that I’ve been gradually emerging from a deep and multi-chambered closet. But this is how self-discovery works. Rarely do we flip a switch from one firm idea of ourselves to another, never to change again, despite the apparent finality in an act like coming out.
We cling to this notion because, as humans, we are drawn to binaries. Man/woman, gay/straight, in/out, self/other. They give us the illusion of order in a chaotic world.
The reality is, identity is both fluid and relative. It is not static, nor can it be defined by external forces. We are all shape-shifters to varying degrees. The light at our core remains constant and true, but the lenses and filters through which we radiate change over time.
This is why self-identification is key. It’s hard enough to know one’s self — to attempt to define another is a fool’s errand. And yet, we do it all the time.
For a culture that holds up self-identification as a sort of Holy Grail, we sure are quick to judge who is allowed to identify in what ways. Community boundaries are often a site of tension — and likely have been as long as humans have organized themselves into tribes. But in the queer community, we like to pretend we have a “come as you are” policy that takes new members at their word. If you say you’re one of us, then you are.
Unfortunately, we don’t always hold to that high ideal.
Take, for instance, the woman who, after the breakup of a longterm lesbian relationship, falls in love with a man. Suddenly, representatives from the Official Lesbian Membership Committee are at her doorstep, demanding she revoke her card and accept the label of “hasbian” — or “LUG” (Lesbian Until Graduation) if the breakup corresponds with collegiate commencement. It doesn’t matter if she still identifies as a lesbian, bisexual, or any other type of queer — she is shunned as “straight” without so much as an exit interview.
This is especially likely if the man she’s dating is cisgender. If he’s trans, she’ll still be pressured to alter her identification, but she may be allowed to remain on the outskirts of the community as a “fickle” bisexual (you know, the women we love to claim for our team if they’re celebrities, but tend to shun in real life).
Other ways to fail the “real” lesbian test: Dress too femme (thereby buying into heteronormative beauty ideals), dress too butch (thereby elevating masculinity and by extension, patriarchy), appear to uphold the gender binary by dating a butch (if you’re femme) or a femme (if you’re butch).
Really, any adoption of qualities that seem to reflect the heterosexual mainstream is shunned. Case in point: the misguided and poorly applied policy at Portland gay bar CC Slaughters that prohibits any and all wedding-related attire (including white gowns and shirts that say “Groom”) in an effort to keep out the bachelorette parties of straight tourists. While disrespectful behavior is the target, recently married gays and lesbians get caught in the crossfire.
But it’s not just sexuality that’s under scrutiny; we also have the gender police. There is, unfortunately, a reason websites like Trans Enough and Original Plumbing exist. This question of who gets to claim “trans” recently made headlines with the announcement that TV host B. Scott is suing BET for gender identity-based discrimination. Some within the transgender community have accused Scott of being an opportunist, an effeminate gay man with an androgynous fashion sense who is riding on the coattails of “real” trans people (aka folks who have pursued medical transition and identify with the sex “opposite” that assigned to them at birth). That Scott has identified as transgender is, apparently, not enough.
The flip side of this culture of exclusion is non-consensual inclusion. This includes the urge to label every gender variant person as some kind of queer (including but not limited to that effeminate guy at the office who wears pink shirts and earrings, that tough-looking gym teacher with the mullet, that short soft-spoken guy with shapely eyebrows, that tall muscular blonde with the strong facial features) and then, when proven wrong, to assume they are closeted.
This impulse is also found among lesbians who think trans men aren’t brave enough to be butch women, or gay men who think trans women don’t have the nerve to be effeminate men. A similar erasure can be found among lesbian-identified women who make it a point to say they only date women and trans men.
Identity politics can be empowering, especially when it gives a voice and sense of community to those marginalized by the majority. But when we behave as if we know others better than they know themselves, we create the opposite of community — we create outcasts.