First published by Refinery 29, Thursday 10th March 2016
I’m not straight. Not straight. Did I say it loud enough? I’m. Not. Straight.
It took me until I turned 21 to admit this and come out as a queer woman. Now, I feel ashamed that I was closeted for so many years; using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term like the other kids at school, waking up in cold, humiliated sweats after dreaming of girls, and lying to my parents about my sexuality.
It’s taken a long time for me to feel able to admit that I am attracted to both men and women, so now I can, it’s frustrating to me that people constantly assume I’m straight.
It’s unlikely that I would’ve so aggressively pursued straightness in my teens as the only ‘acceptable’ identity if I hadn’t grown up in an environment where gay was not ok. My parents are Christians, and both of them held intolerant attitudes to homosexuality. Then, of course, there was school. After I made the mistake of kissing a girl in Year 7, years of kids shouting ‘dyke’ and ‘lezzer’ at me ensued, until I eventually backed into the closet. Here, I quickly learned to see pretend-straightness as a safety net.
It was only later, after three years spent earning my Bachelor’s degree at university, struggling with mental illness, and being forced to take stock of who I was and what I wanted in life, that I decided hiding my sexuality was now causing me more unhappiness than comfort. I was also lucky enough to be in a more tolerant environment in which to come out as queer. When I did so, it opened up a new world of possibilities; a world where I could go gay clubbing as a queer woman, become more politically engaged in LGBT activism, and have a long term relationship with a woman.
Back then, a couple of years ago, when my ex-girlfriend and I presented as a couple in bars and clubs, we were regularly propositioned and harassed, and even filmed via mobile phone without our consent, and I felt unsafe going out to certain places. When I was on my own, however, people would assume that I’m straight, and still do – because the way I choose to present myself doesn’t immediately mark me out as queer.
This concept is often referred to as ‘passing privilege’, and describes when a person is able to physically fit into an identity category to which they don’t necessarily belong – in my case, as a straight woman. Although passing can sometimes make me feel excluded from the LGBT community and as though my queer identity is illegitimate, it mostly means that I can move through the world free from homophobic harassment. And for that, I am lucky.
Those who don’t ‘pass’ as straight are often forced to deal with homophobia in their day to day lives, characterised by threats and slurs, social exclusion, and physical violence. The term is also commonly used when a transgender person passes as cisgender (cisgender is when one’s experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth.) In a transphobic world, passing is something that is often necessary to trans people’s safety.
THE TERM ‘PASSING PRIVILEGE’ IS, IN ITSELF, CONTROVERSIAL, BECAUSE IT SHOULDN’T BE A PRIVILEGE FOR ANYONE TO BE ABLE TO CAMOUFLAGE THEMSELVES AS STRAIGHT OR CISGENDER IN ORDER TO LIVE SAFELY.
The term “passing privilege” is, in itself, controversial, because it shouldn’t be a privilege for anyone to be able to camouflage themselves as straight or cisgender in order to live safely. And yet, sadly it is.The American blogger Brianna Wiest writes on the topic of passing well: “The act of ‘sexual profiling’ has become so ingrained in our culture that I think, in many ways, we’re entirely blind to it,” she says. “We take snippets of people’s behaviour or appearance, compile them into our neatly categorised ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ files and then proceed to assume that we therefore know, with certainty, who they are at that level.”
We still tend to think that men who look or behave in a more feminine way are attracted to other men, and that women who present as more masculine or androgynous are lesbians. This narrow way of identifying and defining sexuality on the basis of gender expression is a form of unhelpful stereotyping, and can be irritating at best, and outright offensive and dangerous at worst.
It’s also completely outdated.
Why do we still, today, have a tendency to assume most people are straight until told otherwise, when statistically, more and more people are defining as something other than straight? In a YouGov survey from August 2015, 23% of British people generally and 49% of British people aged 18 to 24 chose a position other than exclusively heterosexual. We might still live in a patriarchal culture, bound up with heterosexual privilege, but clearly we need to give up the belief that LGBT is “other” or “alien” – because that’s just not a reality anymore.
These days, at 24, I’d openly define my sexuality as open to attraction to people of all genders. Only, there’s an added layer of confusion when I tell people I don’t define as straight: I have a boyfriend. It’s hard not to feel as though I’m losing my identity as a queer woman due to the assumptions others make about me based on this. Often, I have to explain to people that I was never a lesbian, and I’ll always be pansexual, no matter what gender my partner is.
To put it simply: My boyfriend doesn’t define my sexuality, only I can.
I might be in a relationship with a man, have long hair, and paint my nails pink, but it doesn’t make me any less queer. I’ve gone through my own personal journey to come out, and I don’t have to conform to a narrow ideal of what “not straight” might look like to each new person I meet. If we’re serious about tackling homophobia and improving inclusion, we need to approach others with openness and acceptance, and let their sexuality stay their business. Let’s start by leaving our judgements at the door.