Originally published on huffingtonpost.com
“I’m not defined by being gay.”
It’s time we retired this phrase. There are a few reasons why it’s said, and a few (and much stronger) reasons why we need to no longer say it.
It’s a phrase used most commonly by those who are newly-out and/or by those who are living lives where they’re around those whose attitudes toward gay people might not be as inclusive, educated and/or understanding as they could be. It’s used in this way to compartmentalize our orientation, as if to say, “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean it’s the only thing about me” ― and while that is true, we are all “more” than Just Gay, we also are gay. Even if we try to hide it in the many ways it can be hidden, it will always be a part of who we are.
This usage is meant to calm straight people ― to assure them that we’re “just like them,” and thus nothing to fear or look down on.
But when was the last time you heard a straight person say that they’re “not defined by being straight?” I’m going to wager never, as being straight is not something that society has or will ever expect someone to apologize for or explain away. Straight people grow up with no negative stigmas attached to the heterosexual identity, and as such have no reason for language to compartmentalize it in the way that many LGBT people still do.
It is also a lie. Of course we’re defined by being gay, we can’t not be. We’re as defined by being gay as all straight people are defined by being straight. No gay person is more or less defined by it than any other; all gay people are defined by being gay to the exact same degree.
There are gay people who reject this idea ― and it’s most often those who want to distance themselves from others within the gay communities by appealing to an anti-gay attitude in culture. It’s a way to deflect anti-gay attitudes away from one’s self and onto someone else.
This is something I’ve actually had an easier time explaining to straight people than to some gay people; usually those who still struggle with embracing a gay identity will try to downplay or compartmentalize their gayness. They still feel a need to insist to others, and often themselves, that they’re not like those other gay people. This insidious behaviour has been around for as long as we’ve been Coming Out and it still exists in 2016, where the only way some gay men can feel comfortable is to declare how “Unlike Those Other Gays” they are. I understand that discomfort, I felt it myself in my first openly-gay years, but it can be overcome with honest self-interrogation.
Being defined by our orientation does not in any way mean that we are solely defined by it, nor that our orientation is the largest of our many defining characteristics or factors that make us who we are. But it is a factor in how we view our place in the world and how we’re treated in it, regardless of whether or not one is even openly-gay ― we still view the world as a gay person, we experience it as a gay person. We are never not gay. It is also worth remembering that it is the part of us that we learned, from a young age, to keep hidden. People don’t intentionally hide small and non-important things for years. We hide what we fear is so big and negative that our lives as we know them will collapse should the truth come out.
It is also the language of weakness. Rather than embracing a gay identity, saying “I’m Not Defined By Being Gay” is indeed apologizing for it. It says that being gay is a negative, and that to be seen and treated with dignity, fairness and respect, we want others to “not see” us as a gay person.
I’ve had variations of this expressed to me before by straight people, very well-meaning ones, who thought that saying “I don’t see you as a gay man, I see you as a friend” was something I wanted to hear. Frankly, it’s not. I worked too hard to overcome societal homophobia as well as my own insecurities and the internalized homophobia that plagued my earlier gay life to not want the Gay Man that I am today to be seen. I worked for that courage to be the openly-and-happily gay man that I am today. I want him to be seen.
When someone says “I’m Not Defined By Being Gay”, what they end up conveying is “Don’t define me solely and negatively by my being gay,” revealing that how they feel about being gay is still defined by a fear of how others may treat them as a gay person. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the phrase is touted with much frequency by politically-conservative gay men; it’s the censoring, editing and compartmentalizing of your identity to win entry into a still-anti-LGBT political club; your membership hinges on the conditional approval of anti-gay people. In turn, how you feel about being gay ends up being defined by the negative attitudes toward gay people that are expressed by those around you.
The openly-gay male who goes to gay bars and pride parades is not more defined by being gay than the gay man who is not out, or the gay man who is out but does not socialize with other gay men. The gay voter who cares about political candidates’ stances on LGBT issues is not more defined by being gay than the gay voter who chooses to support anti-LGBT political candidates.
As an outspoken gay man, I’ve been told before that I am defined by being gay because I talk about being gay and queer a lot, through my daily life and advocacy and activism. The reason I talk about it so much is because I have the privilege to be able to do so. I came out when I was in high school, to parents whose first words when I came out were: “That’s wonderful, when do we get to meet your boyfriend?” My parents were both very active in PFLAG for many years; my mother was formerly the President of the Toronto chapter and was the Grand Marshall of the Toronto Pride Parade in 2013. I talk about being gay, and my parents continue to talk about LGBT issues, because too many people in culture still won’t, or are not yet in a space that affords them the ability to do able to so, safely and confidently.
We cannot command respect for ourselves as gay people when we continue to use specific language that compartmentalizes our orientation and identity. When we apologize for being gay, we’re complicit in the culture that continues to see it as a negative.
I view being gay as a gift that has offered me the clarity of an outsider’s perspective. I not only have had to figure out who I am, but how I will fit into a world not-yet made for people like me. That perspective has been invaluable in helping to see that the way things are is a transient construct than can and will be changed as more minds are opened.
The voices of hatred and bigotry against us will never be silent. The voices of equality and truth need to be loud and proud. And being proud means that we will no longer apologize for nor dismiss our orientations and identities as things that do not define us.