Recently, I tragically had one of my favourite shows of all time, RuPaul’s Drag Race, ruined for me by one of my closest friends. To add insult to injury, he committed what I understand to be a cardinal sin in the realm of addressing queer representation – he is a straight white man. What a dick.
For those of you playing at home, I picked episode 1 of season 6. We watched, I frothed over all the iconic parts of the episode, I explained the entire history of the show and the subculture references, and he was an amazing audience member. He asked clarifying questions and listened. And then he did it: he told me exactly what the show was about in a way that I cannot unhear.
“I get why you like it,” he told me in his typical sweet innocent cinnamon bun man manner, “and I can see why this might feel empowering but, like, isn’t this still just straight people telling gay people what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to being gay? Aren’t they still trying to say that they have to fit into this box?”
Shattered. Absolutely shattered. Face crack of the century.
Look, I still love the show, obviously. That’s a given.
But what he said plays on my mind, and not just when it comes to Drag Race. I feel like a massive part of my queer experience has been trying to behave in a way that is acceptable according to the standards of the norm. I don’t want to say for straight people exclusively because I don’t think it’s fair when the majority of my amazing friends and family are both incredible and incredibly straight, so let’s use a better word: heteronormative.
Whether or not it is realised, there is a spectrum of “acceptable” to “unacceptable” gay behaviour that has been set that I feel like I have to constantly be assessing and addressing within myself. Being confident is toward the acceptable end of the spectrum; talking about my experiences as a queer person is unacceptable in certain settings in my life. Being an effeminate gay man is acceptable if you’re a television personality; being a gay woman who wears “masculine” clothing is not acceptable typically. It’s something I’m constantly aware of, and that is constantly running in the back of my mind.
In addition to this, there is a lot of emotional labour that goes into making sure you’re the right kind of gay, and that you also take up as little space with your gayness as is humanly possible. Essentially, I feel that for a lot of queer people, Marie Kondo is in charge of how much we’re allowed to take with us to different social settings (IE. Not a great deal).
A friend recently asked me what coming out was like, and my honest answer is that it feels like I’m in the process of going through a second puberty – even now, 2 years after publicly coming out. What I mostly remember about my first puberty was constantly being in my head about where I fit in, who I am as a person, worrying about if people like me or not, and figuring out if I’m worthy or not.
When I think about my current place with coming to terms with my sexuality, I would describe it as constantly being in my head about where I fit in, who I am as a person, worrying about if people like me or not, and figuring out if I’m worthy or not. I’m in a state of identity determination – a process that keeps changing and getting easier. But it’s still a challenge. So much energy still goes into making sure people don’t judge me as one of “those” gays – where my whole identity revolves around being gay. It seems so silly even acknowledge it in writing, but it’s a real fear of mine.
I had a conversation recently with a man who has a daughter who is also gay. The whole time he was telling me how she isn’t “in your face” about being gay and that it “isn’t a big deal”, and the whole time I felt like there was an unspoken element of her being praised for not being like me. I’m vocal about being queer, and I talk about it, and it’s an astronomical part of my life experience.
The thing is, it’s not a big deal to me because my identity begins and ends with being gay. It’s a big part of me because the initial decision to come out feels like deciding whether or not to set yourself on fire. It’s a big part of me because the decision to be an openly gay woman marks a change in who I am – from being very socially anxious to being incredibly personable and open to people.
I draw a lot of strength from the experience, because I never thought I would be able to come out. Because I never thought there would be any part of my identity that I would be able to own. I thought I would spend the rest of my life apologising for taking up space. The decision to own being gay marked the decision to begin owning other parts of me that I’d thought were shameful, like I thought being gay was shameful. If not for coming out, I wouldn’t be able to lean on my friends when I need to, to support people when they need someone, or to appropriately address and process my emotions. These all come as a result of coming out; I didn’t get to be the person I am today without coming out.
It’s impossible to separate my sexuality from my life experience, because they are going to forever be linked. I understand where people are coming from when they say, “I don’t make a big deal out of being straight, you don’t need to make a big deal out of being gay” but let me also offer this suggestion: shut the fuck up.
The comparison of being proud of being straight to being proud of being gay is non-existent; there’s a reason why it’s called heteronormative and not homonormative. I have spent most of my life being sent the message by society that being gay is shameful, not normal, and strange. I have to be proud of it, because it has made me a strong person who is capable of taking it when people don’t accept me. When you’ve been told your whole life that gay people end up alone and isolated, it kind of matters to be open about it and connect with people.
So much of what the queer experience entails revolves around doing what is right according to heteronormative standards. It’s exhausting to have to worry about people getting annoyed at me talking about queer issues and experience. But my straight male friend from earlier said another thing that also sticks with me.
He said to me, “I mean, yeah, if a pink elephant walked into the room you’d probably think, ‘oh fuck, that’s a pink elephant,’ but maybe if we spent less time trying to hide pink elephants it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
I feel like that quote was inspired from somewhere else, but I digress.
I’m really lucky. My core group of people – friends and family – are mostly straight, and I think that everyone could learn a few things about caring for your gay friend from them. So here are a few things they do for me that you can do for your gay friend!
- Listen to them and take their experiences seriously, as they take your experiences seriously and celebrate them with you. Keep being a good friend to them.
- That’s it.
- That’s literally all.