The Right Kind of Gay
Are you the right kind of gay?
It’s a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Because it’s Pride month, and the discussion and celebration of queer identities always makes me reflect on mine a little bit.
For a long time, I was really ashamed of my….well, queerness. Not just being bisexual – though there’s a whole lot of shame and doubt wrapped up in that too – but being One of Those Gays. You know what I’m talking about – too loud, too proud, too camp, too wrapped up in queer culture. I was determined, by the time that I finally came to terms with my sexuality, that I would never be the wrong kind of bisexual; never be the queer who made it their identity, never be the one who made a big deal about their sexuality. I would just be straight, apart from having sex with women sometimes, and that would be the end of it. It was bad enough that I had to be bi; the least I could do was everything I could to ignore it, right?
I grew up and became aware of my non-straightness in the late nineties and early noughties, and that was a time when LGBTQ representation in the media was taking undeniably huge steps forward. Sex and the City, Will & Grace, The L Word were all pushing LGBTQ characters in the mainstream, and there was this pervading sense at the time that we were Getting There. Gay people existed in pop culture. Culturally, we had accepted that they were around. Job done.
But looking back, there was a very specific kind of gay, the kind who got the lead roles, who was represented as the ideal, and that was the gay person who basically passed as straight: they were often divorced from queer culture, unaffected by LGBTQ history, existing in a vacuum where gayness had never been anything other than an identity completely equal to straightness and utterly unremarkable as such. So much of this seemed wrapped up in this push for gender conformity – almost as though adhering to the rest of the standards of heteronormativity would make the handicap of being gay palatable. Those queers who didn’t, the butch women and feminine men, were sidelined in supporting roles, a fetish or a stereotype or a joke. If you wanted to be taken seriously, as an LGBTQ person, you had to be a Will, not a Jack. Just don’t shove it in our faces, okay?
There’s nothing wrong with being a queer person who does not present in a traditionally “queer” fashion (and it doesn’t mean that they’re not as much a part of the LGBTQ community as those who do); there’s nothing wrong with including characters who present in such a way, either. If being queer really was just treated with the same normalcy and standardization as straightness, and if it had been for centuries already, maybe this kind of representation would have make sense in the overwhelming way that they existed in this period of pop culture.
But really, looking back on it – it just doesn’t. Pop culture was trying to reflect a shift towards LGBTQ acceptance at the same time as virulent and vitriolic homophobia was still present in so much of their audience. The answer to that problem was to present the most palatable version of queer people that they could – closest to straight, closest to “normal”, who would not force an audience to confront the uncomfortable truth of queer history, both recent and distant. Queerness is not dependent on how a person presents themselves in day-to-day life, but in these shows, straight-passing was used as a way to avoid handling the awkward issues of how terribly LGBTQ people had been treated in very recent memory in popular culture. Even the ones who were allowed more space to express more stereotypically “queer” presentations were generally sidelined as a result; they existed, sure, but only as the gay best friend, as a joke.
There was a sense of shame about being unapologetically loud and proud, to being angry about our oppression, to celebrate those parts of queer culture that were, you know, gay. It’s something that I took on for years; I spent a big part of my life trying to keep my mouth shut about the queer parts of myself, even though they are very much there. Not just the attraction to multiple genders, but love of LGBTQ pop culture (as well as creating some of it myself), studying queer history, engaging with queer activism. These things were and are so important to me, but I tried to crush them down for years, certain that the best way to exist as a queer person was to make myself as palatable to The Straights as possible.
Embracing that side of myself has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life. For so long, I felt like I was completely divorced from a history that now included me, and opening myself up to it in a serious way has allowed me to feel more grounded and comfortable in who I am than I ever have before. Queerness does not exist in a vacuum, it exists as part of a long, storied history that deserves recognition in culture at large. This Pride month, I’m really proud to embrace being queer, in all the ways that word means to me. I have no interest in trying to tone myself down or clean up that queerness any longer; I’m the wrong kind of gay, and I’m just fine with that. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you’d like to read more of my writing on sexuality, take a gander at the links below, and please consider supporting me on Patreon!
Greey, Lying, or Slutty: Straight-Passing and Bi-Erasure