Why We Need To Stop Judging Sexuality On Appearance

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.

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. 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.

If half of young people are ‘a little bit gay’, why are bisexuals still invisible in our society?

Ukippers, hard-line Christians, and other such persons were right to be worried. The insidious Gay Agenda is slowly creeping over the UK, and soon Britain will overrun by bare torsos in rainbow bodypaint, Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, and – worst of all – the increased acceptance of those who don’t identify as straight.

First published by The Independent, 18th August 2015

Ukippers, hard-line Christians, and other such persons were right to be worried. The insidious Gay Agenda is slowly creeping over the UK, and soon Britain will overrun by bare torsos in rainbow bodypaint, Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, and – worst of all – the increased acceptance of those who don’t identify as straight.

According to a recent YouGov survey, around half of young people are at least a little bit gay. Of those surveyed, 72% of adults and 49% of people aged 18 to 24 chose a position other than exclusively heterosexual. These results are nothing less that sweet music to my bisexual ears.

YouGov, perhaps scrambling to regain credibility after their disastrous predictions regarding the 2015 general election, were quick to clarify that the results don’t necessarily refer to active bisexuality. But the most interesting thing about the new findings is that people are increasingly likely to see sexuality as a scale, rather than a hard and fast dichotomy.

The idea that sexuality is more than either ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ is very important in terms of the acceptance of all LGBT folk. Presenting sexuality as a ‘one or the other’ choice acts as an unhelpful straightjacket (sorry) and can prevent people from feeling comfortable enough to truly understand and explore their sexual desires. It also contributes to the very real issue of bi-erasure, where those who identify as bi are rendered invisible in the LGBT community and saddled with negative stereotypes in wider society.

Bi-erasure really sucks because it can stop or delay those who identify as bisexual from coming out due to the internalisation of harmful myths around bisexuality. How many people who identify as bi have been told they’re ‘greedy’ or ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘going through a phase’ or that they should just ‘make up their mind’?  The recent hashtag #GrowingUpBi indicates that these negative and uneducated responses are commonplace. As a bisexual teenager, I experienced serious homophobic bullying at school that lasted for several years, but when I got to university I didn’t join an LGBT society because I didn’t think I was ‘gay enough’ to be accepted.

The results of the YouGov survey are encouraging in that they indicate a greater openness to accepting fluid and non-binary sexual identities. If young people are increasingly willing to place themselves on a scale of sexuality rather than either entirely gay or entirely straight, this could help to eradicate bi-erasure, and will certainly facilitate greater acceptance of non-hetero identities.

As a nation, we’ve made huge gains in the struggle for LGBT rights over the last ten years. The fight isn’t won, of course, and there are still homophobic attacks carried out, homophobic slurs included in everyday conversation (“that’s so gay”), and offensive stereotypes attached to people who don’t identify as straight. In popular culture, gay characters are still tokenised or characterised solely by their sexuality. Trans men and woman are still subjected to harassment and violence on a mass scale, particularly if they are people of colour. Femme-presenting lesbians are still fetishized as sex objects for straight men. Bi and pansexual individuals are still dismissed as hypersexual or merely ‘trying on’ a different sexuality, Katy Perry-style.

Meanwhile, the idea that if you’re not gay or lesbian, you’re not really part of the LGBT community, is incredibly damaging and can leave bisexual and pansexual individuals feeling lonely and isolated, like they don’t fit in anywhere and their sexuality is invalid.

There’s work to be done, and some groups within the LGBT community are still more marginalised than others, but the YouGov results give me hope.  If half of young people aren’t exclusively straight, after all, then there’s even less of an excuse for bisexuals like me to remain invisible.

Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.

Ellen Page coming out is news – and so long as gossip websites try and police the way women look and live, these public statements should be celebrated

On Friday, Ellen Page came out publicly at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas. The star of Juno’s eight-minute long speech contained a critique of Hollywood’s repressive standards and a mention of her own struggle and the suffering she underwent while keeping her sexuality a secret.

First published in The Independent 18th February 2014

On Friday, Ellen Page came out publicly at the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas. The star of Juno‘s eight-minute long speech contained a critique of Hollywood’s repressive standards and a mention of her own struggle and the suffering she underwent while keeping her sexuality a secret.

Her strength and bravery in coming out is not, for me at least, in question. It’s inspiring to have high profile actors, musicians, sports stars and entrepreneurs come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. It makes being part of the LGBTQ community feel less lonely, and not something that should be hidden because you’re afraid of mockery, of not being selected for jobs or of losing friends, contacts and status. The normalization of homosexuality by famous names even makes it harder for young people to bully their LGBTQ peers. I wish Ellen Page had been out when I was a scared twelve-year-old who knew she had to get a boyfriend to fit in and stop the taunts of ‘ugly lesbian bitch’.Jane Czyzselska writing for the Guardian yesterday is of the opinion that Page’s disclosure“shouldn’t really be news”. I fear that commentators who wish to deny the importance of Page’s speech are rather missing the point. Page’s coming out should be news, as long as we live in a world where homophobia still exists. It should be news because she is giving hope to all of those who are still in the closet, still “lying by omission” and still too afraid to embrace who they are. If we skip over Page’s speech as unimportant, as an irrelevant disclosure, we are downgrading her bravery and failing to recognise how valuable it is for the LGBTQ community when high profile persons decide to be publicly out.One of the most interesting parts of Page’s declaration was when she addressed the “crushing standards” that Hollywood places on all of us in terms of beauty and success. She mentioned a recent E! article where she was criticised for wearing sweatpants. The writer asked “why does this petite beauty insist upon dressing like a massive man?” and Page answered “because I like to be comfortable”. Why was the E! piece written and published in the first place? It is, of course, irrelevant celebrity gossip. Who cares what Page wears when she’s off to the gym? But it’s also an example of the pernicious and nasty way that magazines, newspapers (you know who you are) and blogs penalise female celebrities for their appearance, twenty four hours, seven days a week. This is a highly gendered form of criticism. E! shamed Page for ‘looking like a man’, as if femininity is something you can measure by the kind of trousers someone is wearing, as if there are concrete rules for how you should look and behave when you belong to a particular gender.

The front page of The Sun today shows a picture of Angelina Jolie wearing a tuxedo. The headline? ‘Brad and Mangelina’. The headline is crass and insulting, as if Angelina has somehow transgressed by wearing a garment that is typically favoured by men, instead of the gown that she ‘should’ have worn. As Simon Amstell says in his stand-up show ‘Numb’, “maybe your idea of what a girl is supposed to be is quite restrictive”.

In my last piece for Independent Voices, I criticised Shakira and Rihanna’s faux lesbian performance in Shakira’s latest music video. A commenter below wasn’t particularly keen on what I’d written, and stated that I ‘looked like a lesbian’. I think this was meant to insult me, but it provides a great example of how our society likes to shout women down and shame them. Making light of what a woman wears, what she looks like or how ‘feminine’ she is perceived to be isn’t okay. Maybe we should stop reading the appearance-focused, mean-minded gossip columns and allowing their influence to encourage us to believe that it is normal to constantly police ourselves and our bodies. Wear those sweatpants Ellen; I’m really glad you’ve decided to come out.

Not sexy: Rihanna and Shakira pose as lesbians for a music video – but where are they on LGBT rights?

The assertion that ‘sex sells’ isn’t revolutionary, particularly when it comes to music videos. From Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ to Miley Cyrus’ groan-inducing ‘Wrecking Ball’, sexy videos made by female pop artists are pretty much expected.

First published in The Independent, 7th February 2014

The assertion that ‘sex sells’ isn’t revolutionary, particularly when it comes to music videos. From Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ to Miley Cyrus’ groan-inducing ‘Wrecking Ball’, sexy videos made by female pop artists are pretty much expected. The problem here (apart from it being an extraordinarily tired formula) is that you have to keep cranking up the steam-o-meter to draw views. The video for Shakira’s new single featuring Rihanna does this by posing the two women as lovers, and judging by the number of views, it seems to be working.

If there were more positive depictions of same sex couples in the mainstream media, I think the video for ‘Can’t Remember to Forget You’ would be less offensive. As things stand, Rihanna and Shakira’s latest offering devalues lesbian relationships and reduces them to a fun thing to do to get people watching.While they are grinding and stroking each other’s thighs, both women look outwards to the camera and audience, rather than at each other. They repeatedly sing “I’d do anything for that boy”, clearly placing a male presence at the centre of the performance.

This kind of faux lesbian pairing isn’t new either. Remember Britney and Madonna’s kiss at the VMAs in 2003? Or Britney and Rihanna’s lip locking at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards? These are performance kisses, staged in front of huge audiences. They do not signify real intimacy or feeling or anything that actually occurs in a lesbian relationship, apart from the window dressing of a kiss. Rihanna and Shakira’s antics are merely part of the overwhelming tide of sexy music videos from female pop artists, a practice so dull in its homogeny that it no longer really shocks or excites for longer than the song’s duration.

Lesbian relationships should not be used as a form of entertainment, for the consumption and titillation of an audience. It is difficult enough for women in relationships with other women to openly show each other affection in public because they are so often harassed by sexualized remarks and cat calls. If massive stars like Rihanna and Shakira are going to depict lesbianism as a steamy performance, lesbians will continue to be treated like entertainment when out and about with their partners. If you’re a queer woman, you don’t kiss your girlfriend to make the boys stare.

I would be more forgiving of the lesbian posturing in the video if Shakira or Rihanna would stand up for LGBTQ rights in their home countries of Barbados and Colombia. There’s a great deal of public ill-will still present towards homosexual couples in Columbia because of machismo attitudes in Latino culture. And although the law is rarely enforced, homosexual acts are illegal in Barbados and carry the death penalty. The influence of both artists could legitimately be used to promote tolerance and equality and it is disappointing that they have failed to rise to this challenge, while at the same time they have donned lesbianism like a fun costume in order to enhance the appeal of a single.

A Colombian councillor has started a petition urging the National Television Authority to ban the video. Marco Fidel Ramirez reckons Shakira and Rihanna’s Sapphic antics “damage the moral character of the youth of Bogota, Colombia and Latin America”. This is unpleasant and homophobic, and utterly irrelevant. The video isn’t a “shameless case for lesbianism”, as Ramirez claims, because it doesn’t depict lesbianism. It depicts empty, cynical performance by two straight women.

Lesbophobia is Alive and Well

It seems that there’s still a lot of rigid stereotyping going on when it comes to queer women and what they should look like.

First published in The Independent Friday 13th December 2013

My girlfriend and I were finishing our drinks in a pub in Cardiff. We shared a brief kiss and got up to leave. I was half-way to the door when I realised that a group of men were loudly applauding us and one was filming on his phone.

The incident wasn’t just intimidating. As a woman in a lesbian relationship, it made me feel that my girlfriend and I were being considered ‘entertainment’ by these men. Like we were something exotic from a porn set. Like our affection for each other existed for the personal pleasure of those outside our relationship.According to female friends who are also in relationships with women, these aren’t isolated incidents. Comments like “can I get in on that?” or “I’d pay to see a bit more of that” when we kiss are just as threatening and unpleasant as homophobic name-calling. These statements devalue the relationship. They make it into a sexy show that’s put on for the satisfaction of others. Since when does this happen with heterosexual couples?

I think this occurs because we like to put people in boxes, and we get annoyed when this doesn’t work out. Elizabeth, 23, says “it’s like people feel uncomfortable if they can’t pick out those who are gay in a crowd according to their own stereotypes”.

It seems that there’s still a lot of rigid stereotyping going on when it comes to queer women and what they should look like. Lesbians who look more masculine or androgynous are more easily recognised as gay, but being traditionally feminine-looking means that people don’t know until you start holding your girlfriend’s hand or publically displaying affection. I find it very strange that there are expectations regarding how a lesbian or a woman in a lesbian relationship ‘should’ dress or present themselves. Surely queer women are just like all other women, varied and all unique.

This seems to be an issue that has seeped into the LGBT community itself. Poppy, 21, says “I was in a bar in Manchester’s gay district and another lesbian asked me to prove my sexuality by getting off with her friend. They didn’t believe I was gay because I didn’t look a certain way.”
Statistics from the ONS indicate that more than twice as many men identify as gay than women. Is this because there genuinely aren’t very many lesbians out there? Perhaps feeling intimidated by inappropriate comments or like you have to look a certain way to identify as a lesbian has something to do with the relatively low numbers of young women coming out.

This kind of ‘lesbophobia’ is alive and well, but gains are being made for the LGBT community. Last week, the Montreal bar Le Manoir issued an official apology to a lesbian couple who were asked to leave the establishment because they were kissing. It’s important for queer women to feel accepted and comfortable in public, unafraid that they will be the target of sexualised remarks or the institutional homophobia demonstrated by the manager of Le Manoir. I’d like more lesbians and particularly more ‘feminine’ lesbians to feel comfortable coming out. I’d also like guys to stop catcalling or clapping me and my other half when we go for a drink. Yes, we’re wearing dresses and no, you can’t get in on that.