It’s Time to Get Real About Your Community
Moving from self-shame to self-love
Let’s face it: the LGBTQIA+ community can seem like a strange and unlikely collection of disparate groups. An uneasy coalition of outcasts. United to fight for similar issues, if not for a single, common cause. Bound by our bodies. Standing for how we love. Struggling to protect whom we love.
Maybe this fragmentation is why it has been so easy for straight society to divide and distract us. Why our community has yet to embrace any unifying leaders or spokespeople. Why so many of us have fought and marched together, yet still felt disjointed. Why we have also sometimes turned our anger inward, on each other.
Maybe that’s the logical result of oppression manifested in social isolation. The result of what happens when we grow up separate and alone. With no sense of shared culture. Fearing, fighting, and rejecting our identity, as well as everyone else’s. Perhaps one cost of our journey is a reluctance to trust authority. And an apprehension to band together.
It’s not just that as young people we exist outside of straight society. It’s that we are also very different from each another. When we finally find and embrace our true selves, the first thing many gay men do is seek other gay men. And that initial search is often about sex. There is brotherhood in belonging. In dancing together. Laughing together. Hunting together.
But I’m continually surprised by the number of us out gay men who are not friends with other out gay men. The number of us gay men who come together just for the sake of coming together. And then separate in sheepishness. Fumbling with our phones, feet shuffling slowly, as we eye life’s exits.
With all we have faced, it’s no wonder we sometimes have trouble trusting our own. But on some level a community is just a group of friends. What happens the next time you initially encounter another openly gay man. Do you sexualize the situation? Do you stammer or hesitate? Suddenly go shy? Feel unwarranted pressure or expectation? Flee? Or are you able to seamlessly slip into a subtle shorthand of shared experiences? Bond over bigotry and brotherhood.
There is something so sweet in these moments, where our solidarity is still burgeoning. And if we blow past them with past wrongs, recriminations, or internalized homophobia, something is lost. If we leap into bed, we might miss out. If we dismiss each other out of fear, shame, or othering then we are the ones who lose. Because there can be no community without communing. And that takes trust, established slowly and built over time.
It can be so easy to label one another, and then get lost in our own Byzantine taxonomy. But just as empowering as labels have been for us, so too are they for others. Consider the pride and joy we felt when we first embraced our own gay identities. Would we deny that experience to anyone else? Would we impose our labels on them?
These categories can help us place ourselves in the culture at large. Help us determine where we fit. Define who we are. Determine why we are the way we are. What’s important to us. But only if we select them ourselves, in our own time, and based on our own unique understandings. Where common language meets individual experience.
Underneath these labels, we are all human beings. Each needing mutual loving kindness to survive and thrive. We have so much in common that our separateness can seem absurd, and our labels constricting. It can be tempting to use these labels as a means to draw lines in the sand. To hide behind the coattails of more senior members of our new-found tribe. To close ourselves to anyone we deem different, unqualified, or unworthy. We must be so careful about our boundaries. Ensure that they enhance our lives, rather than constrain them. Support both our differentiation and our inclusion. Embody our social paradox: this is me and that is you and we are one.
Too often when we gay men refer to the LGBTQIA+ community, we really just mean gay men. All those other people are afterthoughts. And of course by gay men, we more than likely mean gay cis men. Or even, white, gay cis men. Or rather masculine, white, gay cis men. OK, Able-bodied, masculine, white, gay, cis men. Able-bodied, masculine, white, gay, cis men with big penises. Able-bodied, masculine, white, gay, cis men with big penises and huge sex drives. But not too huge. Or weird. In fact it’s probably best if they’re just like us. Or at least those carefully-curated versions of ourselves that we save for social media. Diversity creates richness and strength. Bigotry just creates clones. Purity at the expense of fidelity.
One unintended consequence of our cloning behavior has been that too many of us gay men have not spent enough time with women, but most especially lesbians. Sure we might pal around with a few straight women, cultivating mutually advantageous, non-threatening relationships, based on the thrill of uniting male and female energy in a society that says men and women can’t be friends. Relationships that inadvertently reaffirm our separateness and aloneness, as the only gay in the neighborhood. But somehow cultivating friendships with lesbians threaten that.
Strangely, I’ve noticed that friendships between gay men and bisexual or pansexual women are more common than friendships between gay men and lesbians. Maybe that has something to do with the way straight society places strange parameters on the acceptability of same-sex attraction among women. It’s often a desirable (and even fetishized) trait, just so long as in the end the woman ends up with a man. And maybe that dynamic has permeated gay culture.
But when female same-sex attraction becomes a sexual orientation and a cultural identity, all of a sudden many gay men seem to have a problem. The media-driven narrative about our cultural divisions only exacerbates that dynamic. Pushes us out of our cultural comfort zone. But more troubling is that many gay men carry a strain of misogyny that threatens our relationships with all women. Our biases have formed a wedge in our relatedness, which has only contributed to the need for women-only spaces. A need for lesbian-led movements, to fight for those rights we gay men have ignored.
If some lesbians find some of us gay men to be fickle or flippant, who could blame them? With our fetishes of toxic masculinity, our tacit embrace of a sexist popular culture, and our active participation in the racist aspects of our society. All that they have fought against. If we find them smug, is it really so surprising? Given our lack of capacity. Our lesser standing on the maturity curve. Our unwillingness to change. This is how cultural stalemates are born.
Maybe our bigotry is born in part out of an innate desire to pursue other men, both gay and straight. A desire that doesn’t just separate us from women (since they aren’t allowed to join our hunts), but often curries favor from men on the backs of women’s liberation. A desire that too easily joins in the misogyny of others, in order to disguise our own secret longings. A desire that inevitably cozies up to those who (even inadvertently) are invested in female oppression. When was the last time that any of us as openly gay men listened, I mean really listened, to the fear and pain and shame of any woman? Or marched with them in solidarity on an issue that does not directly impact us? Issues like breast cancer, equal pay for equal work, or the myriad other costs of bigotry they face as a community?
There are important questions all of us in the community must consider as we form a coalition. What do gay men and lesbians share culturally, outside of our same-sex attractions and struggles with homophobia? When and how do we engage with lesbians on a personal level? And if we don’t take the time to get to know them as fully-realized and complex people, then how can we expect to effectively unite with them in our political struggles?
And let’s be clear: there is a debt to be paid. Lesbians have been standing with gay men for generations. Patiently accommodating our cultural uniquenesses and eccentricities, while keeping their eyes on the larger prize of intersectional liberation. Put plainly, we have not reciprocated. Or at least nowhere near enough. How can we not be moved by their leadership and care during the peak period of our deaths in the AIDS epidemic? Or their heroism at Stonewall? Their fight for marriage equality? And everything in between and beyond.
We gay men rarely deserve the lesbians who have loved us. Have fought alongside us when we had the means, and for us when we did not. And yet even after all this, somehow the strains of our misogyny run deep. We are not immune. We don’t get a free pass just because we too have known bigotry. Too often we have reduce lesbians to caricatures and punchlines. We marvel at their music, and make fun of their fashion. In the best of times this banter might carry the delightful intonations of little brothers, teasing their more mature sisters. But too often it resembles an oppressive discounting, and shaming. And now it’s time for us to genuflect, get real, and grow up.
If we gay men have been derisive and dismissive of lesbians, then we have been downright violent and hostile to trans women. We often act as if we’re afraid of incurring the cost associated with congregating with feminine bodies in a male-dominated world. We live in a world where it’s ok to dominate and objectify feminine bodies, but not to have one or associate with one.
And trans women stand at the forefront of feminine oppression, even at the hands of other feminists. But most dangerously and directly at the hands of men. Straight men who would sexualize and kill them. And even worse: we gay men who would stand by silently. Afraid to lose what little favor we have mustered, for the sake of someone perceived to be so low on life’s ladder.
How often have we gay men cast trans women aside to avoid recognition or association, in an awful guilt by association? How many times have we excluded them from our spaces, because we thought they threatened our masculinity, killed the mood, or made us enhanced targets for police action?
Perhaps for some of us this violence has been a way to re-enact our own self-hate of the more feminine modes of our own expression. Perhaps some of us are on gender orientation journeys of our own, and have weaponized our fear and self-loathing. Perhaps some of us envy their relations with straight men. Or perhaps some of us just carried the same transphobic fears and fascinations of the rest of society. Whatever the reasons, we gay men have truly harmed trans women and it is time for us to recognize this and atone.
Our relationships with trans men might even be more complicated than those of trans women, given our slow acceptance of the role body parts and gender play in our sexual relations. When we say we’re attracted to men, do we also create space for our attraction to trans men? If not, why? Being gay means we are attracted to other men. But what exactly are we attracted to anyway? Muscles? Body hair? Penises? Do we really think that there are no trans men out there that don’t possess these magical features?
And beyond the realm of sexual attraction, why are we friends with so few of them? Is it because some of these trans men are straight? And if so, why would their sexual orientation influence our separation? Should we hold straight trans men equally accountable for our torment and abuse, just because they share the same sexual orientation as straight cis men? How many of us have ever been abused by a straight trans man? And if not, what are we afraid of? Issues of our own masculinity? More guilt by association? Or do we just assume we lack things in common, simply by virtue of the differences in our cultural upbringing?
Some cis men are bisexual. Get over it. Sure, many of us as young gay men claimed to be part of this brotherhood, in an effort to delay the inevitable embrace of our homosexuality. Or at least soften the blow of going all the way gay. And many of us have known men who claimed to be bisexual, when they were really just closeted. Or just out for a little something on the side, before heading home to their wives. And some of us resented their ability to straddle both worlds. To code switch seamlessly. To avoid all that we had endured. The fear. The beatings. The lack of employment and housing. And so we lashed out. Telling ourselves that all bisexual men must be like this.
I’m sure some bisexual men took advantage of this dynamic, but that’s on them. We need to let it go. Because nobody can truly take advantage of us unless we let them. And bisexuality is different than the down low. The fact that some of us might have had some negative experiences with men who only claimed to be bisexual, does not obviate the existence of a full sexual spectrum. Just because some deceived us or themselves does not mean all bisexual people are lying. We cannot paint them with that brush.
In fact simple logic and math dictates that inevitably this segment must the largest segment of our community. Some bisexual people are cis. Some are trans. Some have shared sexual experiences with both men and women. Some haven’t. Some have longings for men and women simultaneously. Some don’t. Some experience equal attraction to both men and women, while others lean more one way or another. Bisexual people are not intrinsically “in denial” or lying. Bisexual people are not automatically more masculine or feminine than gay or straight people. Nor are they objects to be feared or fetishized. Like all of us, they are just people on the many spectrums of love and relatedness.
The human heart is deep and mysterious. It scoffs at our delicate sensibilities. What is our sexual orientation if 51% of our attraction bends towards one gender? What about 99%? Who could dictate how we identify? The answer is easy: no one but us. Nobody can silence or erase us, unless we let them. In some cases, other gay men will feel threatened by our individuality and try to reabsorb us into the group. And certainly straight society will try to make us into what we are not.
The mainstream always takes the path of least resistance. And if left unchecked, it will expediently create caricatures out of each and every one of us. That’s why it is so critical that we resist. That we stand up and be counted in all our various shapes, sizes, races, genders, expressions, and orientations. So that we leave our mark. And the world must reckon with us.
It seems like most of us gay men fear queer people. Straight people have hurled that word at so many of us in acts of violence and degradation. In fact that word carries more stigma for gay men than any other, save one. But from the fires of gay liberation, some reclaimed it. Used it as the basis for a new culture, separate and distinct from gay culture. The distinction between gay culture and queer culture boils down to a non-traditional approach to sexual orientation and gender norms.
Queer men intrinsically threaten the status quo, which too many of us gay men valorize. Gay men want acceptance while queer men want a fight. To even call yourself queer is to be vaguely threatening. To reclaim your power by embracing an epithet, and thereby put yourself at risk. Which on some level is part of the appeal. To stand apart from mass media and consumer culture. To inhabit a space in implicit yet direct opposition to the mainstream. To inquire into the value of mimicking heteronormative power and relationship structures. To abandon the transactional nature of traditional relatedness and consumerism. All working hand-in-hand to form a chain of oppression.
So it’s no wonder then that those of us gay men who have most wanted to align with straight power structures have been the ones who have most feared queer culture. We have desperately wanted to be part of the mainstream, so have avoided anything and everything outside those stark lines. Some of us have even wanted to pass as straight, so we have attached to sexual jargon like “masculine for masculine” and “straight-acting.” We have felt a revulsion to the feminine.
In fact aside from the rampant racial prejudices in our community, we can trace almost all of our internal hate back to our fear of the feminine. Our aversion to feminine bodies and fear of feminine mannerisms. Our desperate need to be seen and accepted by straight men. To cling to the masculine. Create our very own caste system of hate. Built on our bigotry. The prejudices of gay men inflicted on the world. And you need go no further than a dating or hook-up app to witness them play out on a daily basis.
The term “intersex” describes people born with a range of sex organs and conditions which mainstream medicine considers atypical. Some intersex people are born with a female appearance, but have internal male-typical anatomy. Some intersex people are born with a male appearance, but have internal female-typical anatomy.
Some intersex people are born with genitalia that seem ambiguous to those healthcare professionals and family members present at their birth. For instance, some people born with XX chromosomes might have any of the following:
- a large clitoris, which may even resemble a penis
- a fused labia, perhaps even containing lumps that feel like testes
- labial folds that resemble a scrotum
Some people born with XY chromosomes might have any of the following:
- a small penis, which may even resemble a clitoris
- a divided scrotum, perhaps even missing one or both testicles
- undescended testicles
There are a variety of other physical traits that can make it challenging for even the most seasoned healthcare professionals to assign a gender at a child’s birth. And this is to say nothing of atypical chromosomal conditions which can further complicate the process.
At the end of the day, “intersex” is a culturally-constituted category based on a range of physical and biological features. The physical traits and resulting lived experiences of intersex people are real, even if society has created and contrived the groupings. Body parts vary in size and shape, be they breasts, penises, clitorises, scrotums, labia, or gonads. Even sex chromosomes can vary. And yet, for most of us in the Western world, medical professionals and our parents decide what our gender will be at birth, without our input or consent. This decision is not as cut and dry as many might think, yet it impacts the rest of our lives.
So why do parents participate in this outdated practice? Why do healthcare professionals or government officials require a choice? Who has the authority to decide how small a baby’s penis has to be before we call it a clitoris? How large does a baby’s clitoris have to be before it qualifies as a penis? And why does the size of the organ so often dictate the designation? In modern society, what does male even mean? How about female? What combination of body parts is required to count as intersex? Prenatal exposure to hormones? Mix of testicular and vaginal tissue? How should we gender a person with XXY chromosomes, mosaic genetics, or any other atypical chromosomal traits? What about atypical hormonal traits, like androgen insensitivity? And what qualifies us to make this decision? Who assesses the outcome or the correctness of the decision? And who sets those criteria, as well as the consistency and effectiveness of their application?
What is gender, other than a social construct? What can gender orientations predict about our aptitudes or affinities? Are gender orientations fluid, fixed, or both, at various points in our lives? Can people have multiple genders, or no gender at all? Once you get curious about gender, the whole system seems built on a house of cards; you start to wonder what it’s all about in the first place. Historically, gender assignment has been about patrimony, power, and money. But in modern society, why is gender still such a powerful construct? Seen in this light, it can all seem a little arbitrary and facile for so sacred a choice with such steep consequences.
The term “asexual” refers to a sexual orientation that describes people who experience little to no sexual desire. Asexuality is different than celibacy, which is a sustained period of sexual abstinence. Nor is asexuality an issue of low libido: a low sex drive resulting from a variety of physical, psychological, or emotional issues. Asexuality is neither a gender orientation, nor a choice. It is not the result of trauma, nor a hormone imbalance.
Asexuality is a sexual orientation, like homosexuality or heterosexuality. It is not about the presence or absence of orgasm. It is about deep feelings, rather than simple behavior. Like all other sexual orientations, asexuality falls on a spectrum. Some asexual people have sex, and others don’t. Some asexual people masturbate, and others don’t. Some asexual people have romantic desire, and others don’t. Some asexual people identify as straight, while others identify as gay, or queer. Some asexual people identify as cisgendered, while others identify as transgendered.
When asexual people have romantic feelings for someone of the same gender orientation, they might refer to themselves as “homoromantic,” which is yet another orientation on the spectrum. This orientation does not preclude their asexuality. It’s just a further descriptor, indicating that the objects of their romantic attractions are generally of the same gender orientation, even if that attraction is rarely or never sexual.
Likewise, the term “heteroromantic” refers to asexual people who have romantic feelings for someone of the opposite gender orientation. And “biromantic” refers to asexual people who have romantic feelings for someone of either gender orientation; “panromantic” refers to asexual people who have romantic feelings for someone of any gender orientation.
When someone discloses their asexuality to us, they deserve the same love and respect as anyone. The same care and concern we expected when we came out of our closets. When someone reveals their deepest truths, the most loving thing we can do is listen. When it’s our turn to speak, what’s important is our blessing and affirmation, rather than our opinion. An acknowledgment of our shared love and experiences. And a reassurance that our love will continue, enhanced by this news and increased intimacy. The implicit awareness that knowing someone who might be different than us in certain ways will inevitably enrich our lives. And the world is better off with them in it, living openly and proud.
There are so many other orientations and identities that we invite and accept into our community, as designated by the “+” in “LGBTQIA+.” In fact all who commit to love and support one another are welcome. The categorization of people is a dangerous game. We are well-advised to use these labels as platforms for our own self-empowerment, lest they unwittingly become mere means to divide ourselves further. Each of our groups can be increasingly distilled by the nuances of our bodies or beliefs, until we are standing alone. The sole result of our own purity tests. So it requires a combination of courage, discernment, and pragmatism to create and leverage our categories while balancing our individuality with our community.
It’s reductive to collapse any remaining identities into the “+” symbol, but we as a community have yet to find the label to include all of us in a way that is logical and intuitive for society at large. So we have to make some tough choices. When does a behavior become an identity? When does an identity become an orientation? Is there are a hierarchical relationship between the three? Do these labels empower or imprison us? How can we leverage them to better serve each other, as well as society at large? And just who gets to decide all this?
It’s easy to reduce our various categories and labels to a game of semantics or “what about-ism.” And as a layperson it can all feel overwhelming. Think how challenging it is for us gay people to keep current with all the various combinations of identities and orientations. Now just imagine how tough it must be for straight people, who are often brand new to thinking in these terms. And yet these labels are important because real people and real lives are at stake. Therefore there can be only one answer: we are each of us who we say we are. No questions asked. And it’s all beautiful.