Young liberation movements are consumed by the act of defense – fending off attacks on character and, unfortunately in many cases, person. Marginalized groups spend the formative years of their crawl into mainstream acceptance combating the propaganda of legislators and moral leaders, who warn “normal” folks of the impending moral apocalypse, brought to you by the unmentionables. For the LGBT community, our identity has been defined by outsiders through the incendiary characterizations that we’re child molesters, abominations, mentally ill, incestuous, vulgar, sex-crazed, perverted, subversive and unable to control ourselves. Fortunately, in excruciating increments we’re gaining victories and reticent support across the ideological and political spectrum. Far from accepted, yet light years ahead of where we’ve been, we’re hurtling towards unprecedented visibility not as scourges of humanity but as people who simply want to love freely and equally.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’s recent repeal highlighted the dissolving effectiveness of the tired arguments which have, for so long, weighed us down in nonsense. Those in favor of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell came out swinging with the golden oldies, explaining that if gays were allowed to serve openly in the military, unsuspecting soldiers would be raped in the shower, unit cohesion would be obliterated and the barracks would turn into a giant orgy. Yet curiously, and perhaps for the first time, the public wasn’t buying it. In fact, an overwhelming 67% of Americans supported the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
As we win these landmark battles with greater frequency, our identity will be less defined by fanatical homophobes and we can begin the arduous task of self-defining who we are. So far, our simple explanation has been that we’re just like heterosexuals, with the exception that we’re gay. We want the same things as our breeder brethren: a spouse, job security, a nice house and maybe some kiddos. We just want it with the same sex. In essence, we’ve made heterosexuality and homosexuality two sides of a coin which, regardless of how it lands when flipped, is joined by a common sexual structure.
Except our identity as the anti-heterosexuals is a shallow one that egregiously misses the most important truths of human sexuality. It’s to LGBTs’ detriment, and indeed may contribute to our continued oppression, if we persist with the same arcane ideology of sexuality that homophobes have relied on, ironically, to oppress gays for eons. Heterosexists, the ones that try to keep us from adopting babies or getting married, claim that there is one way for humans to experience sexuality. One Man. One Woman. They believe that anything that diverges from this in any capacity and for any period is absolutely wrong.
The same attitude pervades the gay community, and perhaps in some circles exceeds the homophobes. Men and women who question their sexuality and gender or identify as bisexual or transgender are often considered divergent from the gay status quo, and therefore lesser. A common quip among gays is that bisexuality, for instance, is just “a layover on the way to gaysville.” The idea of a person who is neither gay nor straight seems inconceivable to those who fit neatly into discrete categories. Likewise, individuals who identify as transgender often find themselves, even among their gay and lesbian peers, misunderstood, mocked or called out as freaks. For the “confused” who lie somewhere in the murky in-between of gender or sexuality are often treated like outsiders, because they’re simply not gay enough. The core of the LGBT community is clearly gays and lesbians, partly because they are greater in number or perhaps visibility, but also because they’ve established themselves as the only viable alternative to heterosexuality.
The idea of not being sufficiently minority isn’t a conundrum peculiar to the gay community. Commentators of all races and beliefs clumsily tried to navigate what it meant to be black enough when Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for the presidency. Some whites, most notably President Obama’s running mate Joe Biden, declared that Barack Obama was the right kind of black, or as he put it, “Articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Among African Americans, there was a discussion of Obama’s kind of black, meaning he might be black in color but not “black like me.” (Though, to be fair, some journalists point out that a white media might have overblown this division of thought.) As a man who straddles culture and color, President Obama is a challenge to those who assume that a cultural identity is founded on homogeneity of thought and belief. This challenge confounds humanity as a whole: Am I feminist/Christian/liberal/green/conservative enough? What does my identity mean if not in line with those of my ilk?
Underlying the tension of “In between-ness” is the threat of betrayal. If a person is bisexual, it ostensibly means she could receive the benefits of heterosexuality while still engaging in the camaraderie and inclusion of being gay, serving as a walking Trojan horse which lies in wait to disrupt the serenity of gay life. Admittedly, this fear isn’t wholly unfounded. Many gays have been ruthlessly excised from mainstream heterosexual society, cast aside from family and profession or persecuted to the point of retreating. In their exile, they make a new life with new friends and a web of supportive, like-minded people. Their exit from straight society becomes their entrance into one that is strongly padded from the haters and the homophobes. The presence of those who straddle the worlds opens the gateway for more hurt, judgment or feelings of abandonment.
Additionally, some gays and lesbians view the “freaks” e.g., transgender, intersex, bisexual etc. as potential saboteurs of the heterosexual ideal. When gays are presented as strikingly similar to straights, such as the gay characters Mitchell and Cam on ABC’s sitcom Modern Family, the public accepts the picture with little confusion. Mitchell represents the “man” on the show, working as the emotionally brusque breadwinner who is constantly trying to calm his emotional spouse. Cam, on the other hand, cooks, cleans, takes care of the baby and often bursts into hysterical tears. Even anti-gay viewers can appreciate the show, and indeed many do as evidenced by its popularity among traditionally conservative Republicans, because the men have been crafted to act out in male and female stereotypes. What if, instead, one of the men had transitioned from being a female to a male? What if one liked both men and women and made frequent, sexually-charged jokes about each sex? Modern Family, instead of being critically acclaimed and wildly popular, might find a viewership that didn’t warm to a couple who lies outside heterosexuals’ comfort zone. For some gays and lesbians, keeping up the image of being “normal” queers means greater acceptance.
These justifications for spurning sexuality ‘tweeners makes the plight of an exclusive gay group seem sympathetic. That is until you recognize that the world is mostly made up of people who, whether they consciously cop to it or not, lie scattered across the Kinsey scale, harboring some degree of heterosexuality or homosexuality. The chasm between gay and straight becomes the deepest, darkest closet that one could imagine leaving. After all, being neither of those groups and feeling contentiousness on both sides, hopeless in-betweeners know they will find no tribe that will accept a person who lives in the nebulous. This closet becomes even more constrictive when it comes to gender. Lying outside the feminine/masculine, man/woman dichotomy is perhaps even more dangerous and lonely than diverting from sexual mores. Scores of people abandoned in a sexual no-man’s land live life buying into their worthlessness and oddity, abandoning sexual or gender expression and trying desperately to adhere to the only options available to them.
With these potential allies lost, the gay movement has accomplished what the heterosexists have been desperately seeking to do; bolstering the idea that sexuality is black and white. Homophobia isn’t even close to being about gay people. It’s about a disruption. Women who trend towards masculinity or men who exhibit more feminine characteristics receive the brunt of anti-gay bigotry because they are experimenting with the sacred cow of gender norms. Their disproportionate discrimination serves as proof that obstructing centuries of socialization comes with quick and severe rebuttal. Being gay also opened the locked door to previously taboo sexual modes like serial monogamy or open relationships that most keep “on the down low” in order to conform to the heterosexual paradigm of lifelong monogamy with one person. These troublesome sexual rebellions illuminate the truth of homophobia: It isn’t necessarily the fear of gay people only, but the fear of the sexual unknown; uninhibited, fluid, dynamic and challenging.
The gay movement need not represent the in-betweeners and the queers in order to be vital or relevant. Indeed, raising awareness of alternate sexual identities might in fact be the first step to a broader civic conversation. Yet the intentional or tacitly condoned shunning of bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning individuals may cause the unintentional effect of obstructing wider progress for the gay community. The emerging gay identity, simply a mirror image of heterosexuality, means that non-gays might never fundamentally understand anything outside of heterosexuality. Their beliefs of their rightness and entitlement will only be reinforced by this watered down version of gay-ness, producing a fake acceptance for queers of all stripes.
Note: The jargon, theory and politics associated with gender and sexuality expression can be overwhelming and maybe even a bit intimidating to some who are unfamiliar with less-visible minorities of the LGBT community, like transgender or intersex individuals. If you’d like to know more about the struggles of “in-betweeners”, I’d suggest the following books: