In Their Own Voices
SILVER SPRING, Md.– Within a community that was built as a safe haven for those who are discriminated against for their sexuality or gender identity, infighting has created fault lines.
As the LGBTQ+ community has gained acceptance in popular society, the nuances of identity have become more pronounced and a more comprehensive vocabulary for these identities emerged. While more people choose to identify as LGBTQ+ and choose the labels– or lack of labels– that they’re most comfortable with, those who have identified as LGBTQ+ for longer, or view their identity as having a greater claim to the community, often seek to keep these perceived newcomers out.
This gatekeeping can be harmful both to queer people within the LGBTQ+ community and to the LGBTQ+ movement as a whole as it seeks equality within straight, cisgender society.
“Any efforts to exclude people are negative efforts,” said Dr. Christina Hanhardt, author of Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence. “Those are never going to win benefits for the broadest constituency of people.”
Dr. Hanhardt also explained that gatekeeping isn’t a new phenomenon: “There is a long history of debates about who may or may not be included into the category of sexual minorities…You see a lot of lesbians and gay men in earlier years arguing that transgender, as a gender category, did not belong with lesbian and gay, and you see today, now, claiming that other new identities don’t belong.”
The LGBTQ+ community has existed in various forms throughout history, but what it represents and who’s included in it has changed. Many different acronyms are used to designate the community, including LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, and LGBTQIAP.
These can refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, or pansexual people. The acronym doesn’t name every individual identity than can be included within the community, but some prefer longer acronyms designed to be more inclusive.
When inclusivity is rejected, people’s identities are dissected and communities are held to the immeasurable standard of ‘queer enough.’ People face different forms of gatekeeping based on how they identify.
Below are some of the most common identities, and what follow are the voices of those who claim them.
Asexual (ace) – People who don’t experience any sexual attraction
Aromantic (aro)- People who don’t experience any romantic attraction
Bisexual/biromantic- People who are attracted to two or more genders
Pansexual/panromantic- People who experience attraction regardless of gender
Transgender (trans)- People whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth
Nonbinary- People who don’t identify as a binary gender
Agender- People who don’t identify as any gender
Polyamorous- People who engage in multiple sexual or romantic relationships with the consent of all people involved
ASEXUAL & AROMANTIC
Asexual and aromantic people are often excluded from the LGBTQ+ community because their identity doesn’t inherently imply attraction to the same gender or non-conformation to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Ace and aro people are told by many members of the LGBTQ+ community that they don’t belong and have no claim to a queer identity.
Many LGBTQ+ spaces aren’t ace-friendly, like gay bars where ace people might not feel comfortable.
When ace and aro people seek a community, they often find their identities erased or invalidated.
“Even when I’m in LGBT spaces, I’m afraid of being out as being asexual…I’m afraid that people will choose to argue with me about my sexuality, and I don’t want to do that. I don’t think that I should have to argue about my own existence.”
“I didn’t tell a lot of people how I identified, I didn’t come out to a lot of people, because I was afraid that they wouldn’t accept me even if they were LGBT themselves… It hurts to be shunned from the community just because you’re trying to be yourself.”
“As someone who identifies as asexual… people [say] that’s not a valid identity. And so, you second-guess yourself. It’s like, well maybe I just haven’t met the right person yet, or maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like. And so you’re unsure of your identity and it’s like, what if I’m wrong? Not what if those people don’t understand my identity.”
“It’s a common thing for all queer identities to feel like you’re broken, but I feel like there’s a different aspect of it for ace-aro people… Our society is inundated with the idea that romantic and sexual relationships are the pinnacle of intimacy with another human being and what you should aspire to in your life, and that’s really damaging to people who don’t want something like that, or can’t feel that kind of attraction.”
Bisexual and biromantic people often face a denial of their identity or a refusal to accept them as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
While some members of the LGBTQ+ community believe that bisexuality is a phase and invalidate their identity, others believe that because they experience attraction to the ‘opposite’ gender, they don’t belong in the community.
“I was obviously not straight enough at all for anyone, but I was not at all gay enough. I felt more issue with the gay community, especially older women who have come out as gay, and how they treat bisexual women at the time, like not gay enough at all, and not willing to be open to bisexual people at all.”
“A lot of people tell me, after I tell them I’m bi, no you’re not, you’re gay, and you just haven’t come out of the closet… it’s weird that people think that they can tell you what you are.”
“Bisexuals dating someone of the opposite gender [are] not being accepted in the LGBT community because they’re in a ‘heterosexual relationship’, as if somehow dating someone of the opposite gender took away from their experience as an LGBT person before, during, or after they dated that person.”
“From the perspective of a bi person, I feel like there have been a lot of subtle, not overt ways that people have sort of invalidated that. For the most part, I’ve dated guys, but not entirely, and when I do, people discount my sexuality, or just automatically consider me straight.”
“There are people who say that being bisexual is synonymous with being greedy or being selfish or just being confused.”
Anna Grace O’Malley
“Gatekeeping makes it harder for people who identify as bisexual or pansexual, because the fact that they are also attracted to [another] gender makes it difficult to fit in within the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Growing up [bisexual] I got such awful representation… I was the one that broke up with my partner of the opposite gender to be with my partner of the same gender, or I was the one who cheated on someone to be with a partner of the same gender, I was the one who was asking for threesomes, or foursomes, and I was the hypersexual one, I was the one who died.”
While people who identify as pansexual or panromantic face a lot of the same challenges as people who identify as bisexual or biromantic, they face the added challenge that even fewer people recognize their identity as legitimate.
Pansexuality isn’t a commonly known identity, and many people have never heard of it.
Even among those who have, many believe that it’s fake or that there’s no reason to differentiate it from bisexuality.
Pansexual people may be told that their identity isn’t real or necessary, and might not be allowed to choose the label they’re most comfortable with.
“We’re always told maybe you just haven’t made a choice, or [people] saying bisexuality or pansexuality is a stepping stone to being gay, or a gateway. It’s invalidating those identities because they are not one end of something.”
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me, oh you’re just bisexual, you’re not really pansexual, or a lot of adults think it’s just teens making up new words to be cool.”
TRANSGENDER AND NONBINARY
Transgender and nonbinary people are constantly told that they don’t belong in the LGBTQ+ community because they’re oppressed for their gender identity, not their sexuality.
Even within the community of people whose gender doesn’t conform to the sex they were assigned at birth, there’s division.
Trans people who identify as a binary gender sometimes exclude nonbinary people, especially those who don’t experience dysphoria or don’t want to medically transition.
“A lot of people, whether they’re in the LGBT community or not, just didn’t really care about trans people, and didn’t really want them in the community, because then they would have to actually stick up for them.”
“It really makes it difficult for people to feel comfortable in their identities because they are told if you’re not this specific thing then you’re not trans, you’re not nonbinary. For me, people [say] you still look feminine so therefore you’re not really nonbinary. It makes you feel like what if I’m in the wrong, even though logically I should know they’re just making judgements about my identity when they don’t understand it.”
“Having someone who is supposed to be similar to you, like another trans person, say, well, you aren’t really trans, or your gender doesn’t exist, [is] really undermining, because [they’re] supposed to be one of the people I can trust, or who I feel like would, at least on some level, understand what I’m going through, and [they’re] telling me the same thing that cis society tells me all the time, which is that I am not real.”
Members of the LGBTQ+ community who identify as polyamorous often have to hide their polyamory for fear of being shamed.
Polyamory is seen by some as greedy or immoral, and is often used interchangeably with cheating.
Polyamory isn’t widely recognized or talked about, including among the LGBTQ+ community.
“Personally, I think I am capable of being polyamorous… I’ve tried explaining to people, and they just see it as an open relationship, or a bunch of cheating, or [ask] do you even love one person? It’s something that if people don’t know it, if they don’t experience, they don’t understand… A lot of people don’t talk about it, and there’s not that many people that are open and out about it if they are polyamorous and happy. They lead their life in silence, and trying to be out of the way.”
“One of my friends was told that the fact that they were polyamorous was a shame to the bi community, which it’s not. The most common thing I hear, specifically with bi and pan or polyamorous people, is that they’re greedy. The comment that they got the most often was, oh you just want it all, don’t you? And I was like, if two people happen to make them happy, then why is that a problem for you? Anyone is lucky if they have one person that makes them happy, and the fact that this particular person has two should be cherished and celebrated. Polyamorous relationships deserve as much safety and security in the LGBT community as monogamous relationships do.”
The LGBTQ+ community is often inaccessible to disabled people.
LGBTQ+ spaces like Pride may not be feasible for disabled people to attend or take part in.
LGBTQ+ identities are erased among the disabled community, because their autonomy and license to determine their own identities are taken away and they’re assumed not to be romantic or sexual beings.
“People with disabilities… are so often left out of the conversation because of very outdated ideas about sex and sexuality and romantic orientation, and about how disabled couples… interact with each other romantically or sexually, and aren’t willing to acknowledge that disabled people are and can be sexual beings.”
People of color are often kept out LGBTQ+ spaces, and there’s a division between LGBTQ+ people of color and white LGBTQ+ people.
Pride and other elements of LGBTQ+ culture are overwhelmingly white. Queer people of color have very little representation, and face racism within the LGBTQ+ community.
“When I was in college, we had affinity groups. I belonged to the Latina group, Mujeres on Campus, and I was very active there. The queer group, Rainbow Alliance, met the same day, same time, so you literally had to choose which group you were going to belong to or be active in. And at a certain point I realized that it was so representative of the whole experience that I was having. You really did have to pick. You were one or the other… The politics of race don’t go away just because you’ve got multiple identities. So all the screwed up stuff that we do in terms of race relations here applies.”
“I feel like [race] is especially related to representation and tokenism in the media because a lot of LGBT characters are white, and it’s like, if they’re intersectional, if they’re people of color, they’re too much of a minority to really be considered believable. Because of that lack of representation, it’s harder for people of color to come out as being members of the LGBT community.”
“In media, most representation of the LGBTQ community is of non-people of color. When [people] see themselves or other people on TV, [it] normalises that identity or that person, and not seeing yourself on TV or in stuff you grow up with is invalidating.”
“Some of the lives that people lead as minority on minority on minority… if they feel unwelcome somewhere where they want to be included, then they feel like an outcast, and that’s very alone, and that’s very dangerous. It’s hard for a lot of people because they don’t feel safe. If you feel like such a target in your own society… it just makes life harder and harder.”
There are divides between lower income and middle class/ upper class LGBTQ+ communities. Lower income people aren’t adequately represented.
Lower income people who identify as trans face extra difficulty because they often can’t afford to medically transition, and others may invalidate their identities because of this.
There are few conversations about class in the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve had people tell me that, because of my circumstances, I am not really male because if I was, then I would be actively seeking out ways to transition… Not only is that transphobic, even if is coming from someone inside the trans community, it’s also extraordinarily classist, because you can’t just look at somebody who is trans and just doesn’t have the resources to transition. For some people, it’s like, I can get testosterone for this month, or I can get food for this month. A lot of us can’t afford [to] transition, a lot of us can’t afford top surgery, or bottom surgery, and sometimes we don’t even want it, and when the conversations about class and about distinctions with class aren’t being brought into it, then that just increases the levels of gatekeeping, because poor trans people, and poor trans people of color, poor LGBT people, are not being addressed or accounted for.”
The strife within the LGBTQ+ community begs the question: when you divide and divide and divide, what will be left?
For those who rely on the support of a community, this division poses a real threat.
“You need a community that accepts you and that sees that you are what you say you are and that you deserve respect and support,” said Kate Valentine.
Exclusion is dangerous, especially when those being excluded are already vulnerable because of their identities.
“It keeps people lonely, and confused, and feeling like they can’t belong somewhere,” said Liz Olsen.
When people are excluded from the LGBTQ+ community, it’s impossible for the community to present a united front as it seeks acceptance in wider society, and for it to represent the needs of everyone in the community.
“Ultimately, if you are left out of the group that is demanding action, then the policies that are delivered only are useful to a segment of the population,” said Dr. Judith Raiskin, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Women’s, Gender And Sexuality Studies Department at University of Oregon.
If the LGBTQ+ community wants to gain acceptance in popular society, it also needs to work to foster acceptance within itself.
“When you come to the LGBT community, you expect that that’s a place where you’re going to find refuge, you’re going to find acceptance,” said Ash Herner-Betts. “When there are people who are coming after you and your identity in the community where you’re supposed to feel safe, you might think that maybe it was right and you are wrong, maybe you aren’t LGBT, maybe you shouldn’t be in this community.”
Gatekeeping imposes a strict standard of queerness that doesn’t account for everyone.
“That’s not your right to say you’re not queer enough, you’re not part of this enough,” said Alex Holland.
The question of what identities should be allowed into the queer community is ultimately a question about power.
“We always have to question… who’s in power and who gets to decide who’s in power,” said Adriana Burgos. “[It’s about] who gets to decide who you are and what you lay claim to.”
And what haven would be safe without that right?