Way, Way Out

Approaching Pride month with thoughts about identity, politics, and the value of defining your own “normal”

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about being gay. I feel like I’d be pretty good at it. Should I give it a shot?

We have fun here but seriously: what prompted this was when I realized several weeks ago that it had been a long time since I’d thought at all about being gay. It’s almost as if once straight people stopped shoving it down our throats, we could go on about living our lives.

I didn’t need to have a bunch of imaginary conversation trees always at the ready. I just mentioned my fiance, so I need to include a gendered pronoun sometime soon to make it clear, but I don’t want it to be so blatant that it sounds like I’m making a coming-out announcement, and if they say “she” or “her” before I get a chance to, I need to make a firm but polite correction and be ready to follow-up with an assurance that it’s fine and I’m not offended. I didn’t need to keep an additional tape loop1On top of the one I already have as an over-thinking introvert, of course of every conversation running in my head, mindful of whether I’d said anything that would “out” me and introduce any awkwardness into the conversation.

Since I’m a white guy living in California, working for a company with explicit policies about diversity and inclusion, it’s all very minor “social lubricant” stuff instead of coming out of any concern for my own safety or job, but it’s still a relief to be able to turn all of it off. It’s like when landscapers have been working outside your office all morning, and it takes a few minutes to register that they’ve stopped. When you get accustomed to constant noise for so long, the silence seems alien.

In fact, the only reason I noticed the quiet was because I went onto social media and immediately saw a bunch of the familiar discourse. One post that stood out was in response to the “controversy”2Scare quotes because I’m never sure just how much of it is genuine controversy vs. social media posturing around displays of leather or fetishes at Pride events. The poster was complaining about “assimilation,” and they used the phrase “ghouls like Pete Buttigieg,” which actually made me laugh out loud.

Don’t get me wrong: I supported Buttigieg in the last election, I still think he’s an excellent and insightful statesman, and I look forward to his taking a prominent role in the Democratic party as it settles into a more youthful centrism. (While a more genuinely progressive party develops outside the DNC). But it cracks me up to think that anyone anywhere would have a strong enough opinion about Pete Buttigieg to call him a “ghoul.”

And I mean, I kind of get it. The whole idea of Pride demonstrations in the first place is to reject the social pressure to be ashamed about not conforming to limiting and old-fashioned ideas of gender/sex/propriety in general. A lot of LGBT people go through a phase of wanting to set a level of conformity they can get away with — I’m okay as long as I’m not like those people — and that’s largely driven by internalized homophobia.

But it’s also exhausting. As somebody who went through a long coming-out process relatively late (in my early 30s); and who would probably be content to settle into a bland, Buttigiegian level of gayness myself, I’ve always felt like I’m being bombarded from multiple sides of conformity. Some people say I’m too gay, others that I’m not gay enough. In my case, it’s rarely explicit, but it occasionally is: I have at times been called both the f-slur and a “self-loathing closet case,” neither time by anybody whose opinion I give a damn about, but enough to stick with me.

For most of my life, it’s felt like having one hand on the “Gayness” dial, carefully scanning the crowd for their reaction as I tune it to exactly the acceptable level. It’s all about external validation, and the pressure of conformity around something that’s supposedly all about self-identification.

It’s still weird to me that anyone would assume I’m straight, since it’s been about twenty years since I stopped trying to hide my orientation. Did you people not see the rainbow flag emoji in my Mastodon profile?! It also feels obvious to me, because every time I see a photo of Women In Love-era Oliver Reed, I turn into a Tex Avery wolf. And I swear, no exaggeration, the other day I saw some production stills of Toshiro Mifune from various points in his career, and I felt light-headed as if I were about to faint. Still, it’s as true now as it was all during my adolescence and my 20s: nobody genuinely cares as much about my orientation as I do.

I absolutely understand that visibility is essential. I’m just concerned that instead of actually promoting self-expression and self-identification, we’re falling into lazy patterns from the past, substituting one brand of conformity for another.

(In retrospect, I think a lot of that pressure is unique to San Francisco, which in addition to all of its great aspects, has its own brand of performative tolerance. The most memorable example to me was when a city councilman was trying to introduce a bill to put the slightest limitations on public nudity, along the lines of “you can be naked, but just put a towel down first.” It was described as having opposition from “the gay community,” even though I couldn’t imagine how being part of the gay community would make me eager to stare down a man’s withered, leathery junk while I’m eating in a restaurant).

Recently I saw a comic from Sarah Shay Mirk titled “Why Did I Think I Was Straight?”, about their experiences identifying as queer and nonbinary. It significantly changed the way that I’ve thought about all of this, the questions of self-identification, visibility, and conformity.

On the topics of bi- and pan-sexuality, and being transgender or genderfluid, I’ve long considered myself an “ally” — for whatever that term is worth — instead of feeling as if I had any genuine place in that community. I’m basically a Kinsey 7, and I’ve never had any real feelings of gender ambiguity, so it would be extremely presumptuous for me to pretend that I know what it’s like for transgender or nonbinary people. But so much of Mirk’s comic felt so familiar to my own experience. It made me appreciate how much self-identification isn’t about finding the box that you fit in, but finding circles of intersecting commonality with other people.

I think I understand the problems inherent in a white guy asserting his right to be As Heteronormative As I Wanna Be. It can come across as Peter Thiel-esque selfishness: I’ve got my own level of comfort, so I can pull up the ladder behind myself, and everybody else can fend for themselves. But after seeing just how much of the persecution of trans people is just a lazy repetition of the same “arguments” that were made against marriage equality and gay rights in general — they’re so lazy, they didn’t even bother to change the playbook — I’m motivated by the opposite. We’ve already fought this battle, and we won it. I’ve finally gotten to see what it’s like to live my life without being constantly othered, and I think everybody deserves the same!

I clearly don’t have the answers to what will stop the political and cultural persecution of trans people. But my hope is that we can put a stop to it without having to turn back progress and fight the same battles all over again. Simply refuse to treat the issue in 2024 as if it were still 2000, as if we’ve learned nothing over the years, and have such short attention spans that we can’t remember we’ve already debunked all those lazy-ass arguments long ago. Stop treating each letter of LGBTQIA as a separate protected class that has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and instead get to the heart of the issue: letting people define their own “normal.”

When I was younger, I adopted the mantra “Being gay is the least interesting thing about me, so why should I be forced into making it a key part of my identity?” That, I believe, was largely driven by internalized homophobia. In the decades since, that’s evolved to: “Being gay is probably still the least interesting thing about me, but it’s still an important part of who I am.” An important part of that is learning not to give a damn whether anybody else thinks I’m doing it wrong, and defending everyone else’s right to do the same for themselves.

A crucial part of Mirk’s comic is that for a lot of “queer” people, everything “queer” about them is their “normal.” Mirk uses the example of being in a society where men didn’t exist, and it never occurred to them that some people (in particular: straight women) wouldn’t find that awesome. The thing I like best about But I’m a Cheerleader (which, again, I wish I’d seen when I was younger) is that it doesn’t even occur to the main character that there’s anything weird or wrong about the thoughts she has about other women. And I’ve regularly heard the claim that “everybody is at least a little bit bisexual,” which sounds like inclusivity on the surface, but is still othering to those of us who aren’t.

Part of the reason I don’t use the word “queer” to describe myself is because I’m only “queer” as defined by other people. To me, it’s all perfectly normal. Didn’t everyone have the same thoughts I did when watching The Empire Strikes Back for the first time? Isn’t everybody else a nerd who defines their own sexual orientation largely in terms of celebrity crushes? It was only after other people started telling me that I was weird or shameful that it even occurred to me that I was different at all. (And many decades later, I gradually discovered that I wasn’t even all that different).

So as Pride Month 2024 starts, I’m hoping we can stay politically conscious. Because for as much as I believe in simply refusing to jump through the hoops that right-wing bigots and opportunists keep setting out for us, it’s clearly going to take some work to ensure equality is legally defended. (Even with marriage equality a “done deal,” it’s still not legally guaranteed as far as I’m aware). But I’m also hoping we can stay socially conscious and acknowledge that self-identification means having the freedom to be as boring and “normal” as we want to be.

  • 1
    On top of the one I already have as an over-thinking introvert, of course
  • 2
    Scare quotes because I’m never sure just how much of it is genuine controversy vs. social media posturing

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