I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to be an effeminate gay man in a heteronormative society. I’ve pondered the fact that society often lumps gay men in with straight women, but it wasn’t until more recently that I started thinking about what it’s like to be a feminine man within the gay community. You’d think that a community fighting for equality would embrace all its’ members, but sadly this isn’t the case in my experience. I’ve met an extraordinary number of gay men who share this “no fems” ideology, claiming that stereotypical gay men are the reason the gay movement hasn’t succeeded yet, one even said to me that I am “the kind of gay guy people hate.” They tell me that if all gay guys just acted “normal” then people wouldn’t have any problem with us.
The trouble here is that there is more than one definition of “normal.” For me, “normal” is exactly the way I am: the way act, talk, walk, etc. all come naturally to me, trying to be anything else would be abnormal. This isn’t to say that all, or even most, gay men follow this discriminatory ideology, just that it’s a strangely common phenomenon. In my opinion, the root problem is that popular gay male culture is becoming more and more exclusive: it revolves around young, super fit, and generally promiscuous men. As such, any guy who isn’t hitting the gym five times a week, is over 35, or isn’t into casual hookups is immediately turned away. What this means is that there’s huge group of gay men being rejected by their own community,a dn looking for somewhere else to turn. For me, that somewhere turned out to be the larger queer community. Personally, I’ve found the queer community to be infinitely more inclusive than the gay community. It is, in it’s nature, a community that embraces people who identify anywhere along the spectrums of both gender and sexuality, without any unwritten rules for acceptance. The gay community certainly has its merits, and it’s full of wonderful people, but for me, moving forward, queerness just feels a lot more like the “normal” that I would like to experience than gayness.
When I was in undergrad, being queer was my business. As the president of my campus’s LGBTQ student organization, my identity as a queer woman was directly tied into my identity as a student leader and activist. On top of that, my research for my English degree revolved around the legacy of lesbian literature. I couldn’t imagine being queer and not doing queer work somehow, and the opportunities.
Now, as a grad student, some things have changed. After moving across the country and starting fresh in a new town, my ties to the local LGBTQ community are more tenuous. As a result, it almost feels like my ties to my queer identity are more tenuous. While I’m by no means alone in this new adventure, it would be impossible to replicate a community connection that took four years and lots of work to build, especially in a single semester. I’ve spent the bulk of my time so far just trying to keep my head above the water, adrift in a sea of schoolwork, group projects, and my internship. I’m still as active as I can be in the LGBTQ community (after all, here I am writing this blog post for Spectrum), but my work now looks a lot different than it did a year ago. It’s not a bad thing—in fact, this has been an incredible learning and growing process for me. It’s just a huge adjustment after feeling so set and comfortable at my last university.
So what does it mean for me to be queer when it’s not also my job? My identity feels both less and more salient to me now. I go long stretches at a time without thinking about queerness, only to realize that suddenly and spend hours pondering what it means for me. Grad school has been an opportunity to broaden my horizons—I’m still doing social justice work, but for a much larger community of identities—but I think my next step is to figure out how I can remain close to my core even as I stretch myself further. How does my queerness influence how I interact with non-queer spaces? How does it influence the social justice work I do with other communities?
Even more importantly, I think it’s important to figure out what being queer means for my personal life. For so long, I’ve been a queer activist first and a queer woman second. What does it mean to explore my identity for myself, and not for the work I could be doing? Every time I think I’m done figuring out who I am, every time I think I’ve set myself in stone, the universe throws me a curveball and I find myself back to feeling as uncertain as I’ve ever been. I’m looking forward to what the disequilibrium can bring me. I’m looking forward to the growth, if only I can be patience enough to let it happen. And until then, I’ll be here, writing my blog posts and staying close to the work that brought me here in the first place.
We’ve all heard of the “Gay Best Friend” - the general idea is that every woman must have a gay on hand at all times to keep her grounded and provide a good gossip fix. I’m not sure why, but some part of me thought I would be leaving the trend behind as I left high school. Unfortunately, my expectations were proven wrong. This week, as I sat down for coffee with a mix of new and familiar faces, barely five minutes went by before a girl I had never met before proclaimed me her new “GBF.” The second I heard the phrase, I knew she was never going to make it past the acquaintance stage in our relationship. I’ll admit, I’m more than a little sassy sometimes, I love show tunes and shopping, and I definitely have an opinion about the shoes you’re wearing right now. On the surface, I might seem like an excellent candidate to be your Gay Best Friend, but being boxed up like that invalidates the other parts of my identity. Far more important to me than shopping or broadway musicals are my love of literature, passion for writing, and obsession with indie movies. If you want to be my friend, then you might also take the time to learn that I’m a painter, an activist, a cat lover, and a coffee enthusiast. This girl, however, didn’t know any of these things about me when she declared me her Gay Best Friend, and the trouble is these are the things that really matter. I have plenty of friends who couldn’t care less about broadway stars and are constantly rocking sweat chic, but our coffee dates routinely turn into four-hour conversations, so we must be doing something right.
The reason I have such an aversion to the notion of the GBF, however, is not because I don’t feel I could fill the role, but because any resulting relationship would be deeply flawed. The GBF stereotype paints gay men as accessories, not people. It makes it clear that society is not yet ready to view queer-identified individuals as people. As such, it is nearly impossible to take these friendships beyond a superficial level; if I try to open up to one of these girls I am met with a blank expression that clearly indicated I have strayed from the approved topics. While the intentions motivating this phenomenon may not be entirely bad, it indicates that modern culture currently only has room for one particular iteration of queerness, further marginalizing the rest of that community. Additionally, even for the stereotypical gay man, the person whom this trend revolves around, society expects a complete lack of emotion and depth, as it would of an object. Oftentimes, discovering a person is gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer, causes people to focus in on only that aspect of their identity, and therefore forget the similarities they share, though there may be many.
I won’t deny that the GBF trend is more than a few steps up from beating gay kids up in the hallways, but at the end of the day, picking your friends based on their sexuality has the same root as picking enemies that way. While progress has been made, society is still not at the point of accepting queer-identified people to be as complex and dynamic as their non-queer counterparts. This is not to say that there aren’t cis-hetero people who are truly accepting, but as whole, we aren’t where we need to be; there are still innumerable people who, upon finding out someone is queer, are unable to see anything else about that person. The truth is that if my sexual orientation changes the way you think about me, then I probably don’t want to be your friend. Being gay is a part of who I am, but there are other parts too, and my friendship means you get them all. Just as people expect a deep and real connection with their “best friends,” they should expect the same for relationships with their “best friends” who happen to be gay.
… even if I’m 2 weeks late on taking this issue up: Marriage isn’t for you.
It’s for capitalism and patriarchy.
But, unlike the broken record that I am, I’m going to go in a different direction here than what you’re used to. If we grant Seth Smith (http://huff.to/HAXhsj) that marriage and love really aren’t for you but are for your spouse, how is that a good thing? Why should we celebrate it? How can you love another person if some of that love isn’t self-love? What is “love”?
What I’m trying to get at is that “love” is so non-descriptive. I feel like we’ve rendered it pretty useless these days, particularly in English. I love myself, I love my family, friends, some strangers, art, books, food, coffee, reading. I love everything, dammit.
So to clarify Smith’s point, romantic-love isn’t about you (stipulating romantic love got you to marriage and kept you in marriage). And even if this is true, that romantic-love is directed towards another (or even The Other), how did we get there?
This is how Toni Morrison helps out (*cough* my thesis). In order to love another person (without killing them, losing yourself, or killing yourself) you need to heal from your past, in whatever capacity that means. To do so means that you need to have self love, so you can safeguard yourself from when love goes awry, and a type of caregiver-love where someone in your life loves you and helps you to realize you can be loved and where you can find (in them and through others) community. It’s not selfish, it’s just “””””human nature.”””””
Back to Smith. So (romantic-)love isn’t directed towards yourself but to another. OK.
But Smith also helps to illuminate why marriage, perhaps, isn’t for me. Apparently, marriage is about another person. I get married to you for you while you get married to me for me (disconnect). Why can’t we get married for the same goal? To help our love grow, to show the value of love (#capitalism), etc., etc.
Why get married for the future? I want a radical combination of self- and romantic-love that is about a claim to love and joy and happiness in the present. Why get married for the children? No. I can’t have my own (#homogayqueerfag), nor do I really want my own. But why should I keep projecting myself outside of myself and outside of now? Children, yes, are adorable and fulfilling to some. But should they be THE reason to get married?
For me I can get all I want outside of marriage (partially because of my privilege of, hopefully, being able to live in the world and survive without all of the governmental benefits of getting married). Marriage is a system that reproduces capitalism and patriarchy and, in general, it forces me into a box that I cannot get inside of. If I’m in love with someone I don’t need anyone’s approval or recognition, I don’t need to convince myself that my love will last. Perhaps it wont. I value an always changing world and sometimes that means that my love will change.
“Love loves to love love.”
To continue on the train of thought I started with my last post, I wanted to explore what it meant for me to accept and embrace the femme label for myself. Before I could get to a place where I understood what femme looked like for other peoples’ identities, I had to understand what it could look like for me.
After I first came out, I struggled to find the visibility I wanted. I was one of the only out queer people at my high school, and I wanted to wear my identity on my sleeve. I joked with friends “Oh, if only I was butch!” But even as I joked, I wondered if I would feel “gay enough” if I looked the way I imagined I should. And for a while I resisted the label femme because it felt, in that environment, like I only had the two options of butch and femme. Choosing between them felt restrictive and static during a time in my life when I wanted the freedom to explore. At this point, femme felt less like something I had chosen for myself and more like a category I had been lumped into. So what was a feminine-but-not-necessarily-femme queer to do?
My comfort with femme increased when I got to college and started reading more about how others were using the term. Through the Internet, I had access to the femme community for the first time, and I could see that no two femme-identified people were alike. To identify with this label no longer meant I had to look or act a certain way; it no longer carried that kind of prescriptive pressure. I also finally felt like I had the choice to be femme, because for the first time in my life I was around people of many genders and gender expressions. Now that I could see the endless possibilities I had to express myself, I could identify as femme with the satisfaction of knowing I hadn’t chosen it simply because it was “good enough.”
Towards the end of college, after dressing and acting very “high femme” for quite some time, I found my personal style becoming more casual. I worried that maybe it meant I wasn’t femme enough anymore, that straying away from heels and lipstick every day would hurt my credibility somehow. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was my hangup and mine only. There was no Femme Police telling me how to present myself, and I was only getting in my own way for worrying there was. I know this experience is different for everyone—non-white, non-cis femmes have their gender policed all the time, even within the queer community. But I realized that if I wanted to make a community where everyone could be comfortable with others’ gender expressions, I had to start with my own. If I could stop policing myself, I could break myself out of the habit of policing others. This has been the most radical part of my femme identity—I’ve embraced my femininity for myself, performed it for myself, and rejected the outside pressures that made me doubt my femininity in the first place. Now that I can do that for myself, the next step is making sure I can provide the same for others.
In the last days of our summer vacation, a few friends and I sat down and planned a small get together, a “last hurrah” before we all went our separate ways for college. Upon receiving an affirmative RSVP from one our close, and also straight, male friends, I heard someone pipe up “Oh thank god - my boyfriend will be so glad there’s another guy there!”
I wouldn’t say I was angry, but I was certainly a little taken aback. I looked in her direction and simply said, “Excuse me?”
“Oh, you know what I mean - a straight guy!”
While my knee-jerk reaction was to say that I most certainly did not know what she meant, this isn’t the case. In all honesty, I can understand my female friends treating me differently because of my sexuality, but I do feel that there should be a limit on how far that goes. The definitively non-romantic nature of our relationships means that my girlfriends can wear leggings and oversized sweatshirts or even change around me without the need to feel self-conscious. Still, despite all we share - shopping trips, our taste in boys, and often, the same bed - being lumped in as “one of the girls” doesn’t feel right. It’s not that being called a girl is insulting - it’s not - but the fact of the matter is that I’m not one. My girlfriends, are quite comfortable around straight men, and our “group” included rather a lot of guys, me being the only gay one. Still, there seemed to be a glass ceiling on the relationships between my straight girlfriends and my straight guy friends. Whenever we were all together there would come a point when all the guys, save myself, headed home, while the girls and I continued gossiping before falling asleep 10 minutes into Pitch Perfect. At first, this never struck me as odd, but thinking about it now, it seems outdated to preset limits on a friendship because of what’s between someone’s legs and what they like to do with it. If you can’t trust someone to sleep in the same room as you, then why do you trust them enough to be their friend in the first place?
It’s almost paradoxical, the identity that comes with being a gay man, or at least that’s been the case for me. A lack of common interests means that I frequently have trouble connecting with straight men, and while I often relate well to women, they seem to forget that I am, in fact, a man. More confusing, is that I actually think this could be a good thing. These experiences have forced me to think about the way gender influences my relationships, and I realized that that influence was far too strong. During my last years of high school, I would only pursue friendships with girls or other gay men. Now, however, as I make friends, I look for people who share my love of art and theatre, people who listen to the same music and watch the same movies as me. If it happens that these people are all girls or all guys, I won’t sweat it, so long as I know that I haven’t missed out on a friendship simply because of a person’s gender or sexuality.
"It is time for ourselves and for our communities to examine how we benefit from existing US racial structures. As non-Black people of color, we are granted the ability to assimilate and reproduce whiteness. By umbrellaing under “people of color” we absolve ourselves of political accountability. A white/non-white racial paradigm dismisses how the reality of anti-Black racism structures racial inequalities. While the term “people-of-color” may be useful in building movements across communities, it should not lead to “people-of-color- blindness.”On our campus, we cannot “foster healthy values” by exploiting Black students’ lived experiences to enlighten us on anti-Black racism. Instead we should work to examine our relationships to Blackness with the same specificity we use to examine our relationships to whiteness. For our racial justice work to be meaningful and sustainable, we must constantly work to unlearn anti-Black attitudes and practices, specifically in our respective non-Black communities.”
When I come out to people I usually say, “I identify as a gay/queer man.” Sexuality then gender. Usually I say a “gay/queer white man.” I layer my identities like sprinkles on the cake that is my existence. Barring weird discussions of embodiment and food, I find it important to include my gender and, usually, race when talking about my sexuality. The way I experience my sexuality is a part of my reality. But it is only a part.
Although I feel that my sexuality affects my life in ways my gender and race do not (and even granting that this isn’t really a coherent statement), all of my identities play off of each other and form an intersecting collage.
But still: sexuality is a “distinct” facet of my life—I can name it, point to it, interact with it.
For me it’s important to understand how sexuality affects the way I live in the world. While, obviously, it describes who I interact with intimately/erotically/sexually it affects the ways in which I portray myself and the ways people see me—my gayness/queerness is often visible across the road, down the street, and at night (or so south campus likes to yell at me).
So when I get into spaces where people are confused that sexuality is distinct from, say, gender, I fall off of any chair that I’m sitting on. It’s as if the world opens up and the void calls my body into itself. Sexuality is very different from gender, for example, because while it can be performative (e.g., moi) it need not be. One can keep one’s sexuality “private” (though I call into question any level of privacy these days). Sexuality is a way society produces truth about oneself (Foucault) and it’s just different. Full stop.
Everything can be summed to the following: my feminist thought class read Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex.”
And of course. The straight folks derail the conversation to discuss if marriage counts as a moral/sex panic or culture war, or, as I like to describe it, something to which I’m opposed to and lack any interest in. To me, marriage is like preferring one water bottle company over another—and I’m just trying to get a drink from the water fountain and not kill the world.
Interacting with academia about my identities and lived experiences is often tumultuous not because of the subject matter (#whitegayqueerman) but because of responses by classmates and interpretations by professors.
Class: “Well statistically there aren’t any homosexuals here.”
Me: *stands up* “homosexual is present.”
Class: “Like, we all work within binaries and, like, I couldn’t think of the world otherwise. It’s just too helpful.”
Me: *stands up and screams* “queer is present and I’m a trans* ally, a pan/fluid/queer ally, a gender queer ally, a gender nonconforming ally, in fact, let me never talk about binaries again … .”
Class: “When … Rubin … what does she mean … pervert?”
Me: *stands up* “she means me” *frolics around the classroom*
These spaces (*AHEM* all of academia) help show me that although I have a lot of privilege in every space I’m in, I also have some target identities where I feel oppression and face unintelligibility and confusion.
Because of my whiteness and because of my cis-manness and my temporarily able-bodiedness and my middle-classness and my documented-citizenness, etc., I often forget that I experience marginalization because of my sexuality.
This is not to throw a pity party but it is to be self aware.
I forget I can be fired from any job I have in my home state. I forget that people still call for my death in the news, in public discourse, and in private. I forget that my sexuality helps to define the way I live in the world when I have created my world as queer. I’m thankful for these situations, even though uncomfortable, because they help me see my future outside of the 4 beloved blocks in Kerrytown.
Self awareness. It’s where it’s at.
For me, the road to claiming the label of “femme” has been long and winding. It has become such an expansive, inclusive term that I never really stop exploring its different meanings and iterations. Just when I think I’ve become comfortable with the femme label and my expression of it, something challenges me to open it back up and take another look. While I always come back home to it, I love the opportunities for this constant examination and questioning.
In the past year across the blogosphere, I’ve seen articles discussing the existence of “femme privilege,” or the presumed safety of passing for straight because of a more traditionally feminine gender expression. My first encounter was with Cyree Jarelle Johnson’s post “Femme Privilege Does Not Exist” (http://femmedreamboat.tumblr.com/post/39734380982/femme-privilege-does-not-exist), and shortly after the rebuttal by Gabrielle on Autostraddle (http://www.autostraddle.com/femme-privilege-does-exist-a-little-153400/). Both arguments challenged the way I thought about power, oppression, and femme-ininity; both articles made me question terms like “privilege,” which I naively thought myself completely well versed in. As a femme queer woman, I’ve felt the loneliness of not quite fitting into queer spaces, but because I’m not masculine of center I’ve never been attacked for not conforming to social norms of womanhood. The only way I could reconcile these experiences was to see them as “both/and” rather than “either/or;” both are forms of institutional misogyny, and neither have any place in a socially just society.
But all of this got me thinking about the privileges I do have, and how they influence my femme expression. While passing for a straight woman does not necessarily render me “safe”—there’s still the possibility that I will be victimized as a woman, regardless of my sexual orientation—I know that my other identities contribute to my ability to move through this world relatively unharmed. White femininity is still upheld by mainstream society as the most desirable, and chances are good that I will find women who look like me in the media I consume. My hair type is not considered something to be fixed—I can find products to style it, and nobody will ever require me to permanently alter its texture to look “presentable.” I can find makeup that matches my skin tone without having to go to high-end store, and I can find shoes and other clothing in shades of “nude” that actually match my skin tone. Not only that, but I’m of a class status where I can afford these visual cues of femme-ininity in the first place. When deciding how to express my gender to the outside world, I have an abundance of resources that others don’t.
So when it comes to finding spaces where my femme voice is heard, I want to make sure I’m not talking over others who have had their voices silenced for much longer, and for many more reasons. When I talk about being femme, it must be inclusive of all expressions of femininity. I must not restrict the femme label to white, upper class, able-bodied womanhood. In femme spaces, and in queer spaces, there must be room for all forms and functions of femme-ininity, because without all we might as well have none.
This video is the first in a new series in which alumni share their experiences and answer students’ questions, called AlumniConnect. Colin Roberts is our first feature. For more videos, follow us on facebook: facebook.com/spectrumcenter and on twitter: @UMSpectrumCtr, or find us on our website: spectrumcenter.umich.edu
Colin Roberts is a gay man, citizen scientist, and English teacher. He came to the Spectrum Center for the first time early in his freshman year and, over his five years at U of M, participated in the coming out group, dabbled in the LGBT commission of MSA, traveled to attend several Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conferences (MBLGTACC), and helped to plan the MBLGTACC hosted at U of M. Also during those five years he completed a BS in Biology with a minor in Peace and Social Justice, worked as an RA in Fletcher Hall for three and a half years, overcame depression, studied at the Biological Station, and worked 2-3 part time jobs most of the time.
After he received his degree, he spent nearly a year working as a docent and educator for the UM Museum of Natural History, and he is currently finishing his second year teaching English in a public middle school in South Korea. He is still very much interested in science and social justice, and he is exploring educational and employment opportunities for when he returns to the USA in March 2014.