Recently I received a message from a dear friend, Amy, on Facebook. We’ve known each other for over 20 years and have always shared a close bond. Since my move to Madison, most of our conversations have been via social media. Here’s what she wrote:
I have a sincere question and I believe you are the right person to ask. I notice that a lot of your posts (and that of other gay people’s) are about being gay, coming out, etc. … It seems as though being gay is almost a persona or a greater identity than who you are in general. Like, one is not “Jimmy” or “insert name here” but “gay Jimmy.” I am a nurse, a mom, a Catholic, a Caucasian, a woman, and I’m also straight. But I do not identify myself as those things either singularly or collectively. Can you help me to be more understanding of the professing of such status/being as superceding other identities? I know you’ll enlighten me like no one else can. Thank you!!
After reading the question, my initial reaction was, “Really? I have to answer this question in 2010?” Then I began looking beyond myself and closer at the question. I did get why she might not understand, so I decided to create a virtual round table discussion with some friends and colleagues, both gay and straight, to hear how this collective group would respond.
Jack Pepple, a librarian in Madison, started with several interesting points. “Social media basically demands the use of identifiers and labels since it all happens in virtual reality. The actual person is sometimes not even presented in a picture. So, really, this is a medium that is not only rich in identifiers but deliberately makes use of them as its function for helping people share identity-based interests, likes, hobbies, and perspectives.
“I also think it’s interesting to deconstruct the notion of somehow being ‘unidentifying,’ with regard to her various labels. Her identity as a nurse is proclaimed through her uniform and simply by talking about her workday. Likewise for the other labels: any mention of her husband, lets us know she is heterosexual; any mentioning of her child tells us she’s a mom; and listing that she’s in attendance at Mass or celebrating a Holy Day tells us she is Catholic.
“When we are talking to a person in front of us, we don’t have to use identifiers in every sentence, such as, ‘Bob how is Cecelia, your wife?’ We can just say, ‘Hey, how is Cecelia?’ We are able to use other identifying clues and make assumptions that we are being understood. Being heterosexual is assumed to be the norm, hence gays tend to feel straight people are always identifying themselves as straight, not with the ‘official’ label, but with everything else said in a conversation or context.
“I wouldn’t expect your friend to know the history of sexual identity politics, though I would expect she knows that gay people weren’t always tolerated. That being said, she must understand that, especially in ages past, gay people were not always easy to identify. Yes, we exist in every culture throughout time, but we are a tribe apart. Sometimes we had to hide. Now it is liberating to self-identify and celebrate as a culture of our own.”
Susan Hoey, a copywriter in Dallas, added, “Coming from a straight white woman, I don’t think most gay people bring up sexual orientation any more than straight people—I think straight people just notice it more, as it goes against their default assumption. Straight women often list themselves as ‘wife,’ or ‘girlfriend’ without even realizing they’re revealing their sexual orientation as loudly as any gay person.
“Being straight isn’t an ‘identity’ for us as it has never been challenged by our parents, friends, and society in general—it’s taken for granted. Of course straight people don’t ‘identify’ as straight—we’ve never HAD to speak up, never had to write articles or challenge school boards, or fight the courts for recognition.
Being able to say ‘this is me and this is who I love’ has been part of who we are as human beings since the first poems and songs were written. With 21 centuries of only straight verses and songs, people can be a little surprised when shown an alternative.”
Michael Piazza, a minister in Dallas wrote, “In our case, who we are is not always apparent as it is with women or people of color. In this case, the majority tend to think that our sexual orientation is only about the gender of the person we sleep with. Sexual orientation permeates every part of who we are, but again that is not apparent to others.
“Also, we are clear that silence (the closet) has empowered oppression and so to resist that reality we who can be out have felt an obligation to do so consistently and assertively. We speak up for our sisters and brothers who can’t and hence every self-expression (every time you are gay Jimmy) is an act of resistance, liberation, and hope for you and those who will come after.”
Stephani Faurot-Reuter, a Commercial Make-up Artist in the film industry from Los Angeles, added, “I agree with Michael, it probably is more to break the silence or ‘closet’ and to be more open so that those who are less comfortable with the LGBT world can feel more comfortable to learn about what it is to be gay. For instance … your friend obviously felt comfortable asking you the question because you were so open and unashamed about it. We only hate what we fear so if more people are more open about being gay then maybe there will be less fear and therefore … less hate.”
So, Amy, I hope this helps. I cannot assume you would know the answer and understand I have a responsibility to find the answers for you and with you. I appreciate your trust in posing the question. I believe there is always room to grow and learn. Although my initial reaction was one of defensiveness, I learned through the process as well. Thank you, Jack, Susan, Michael, and Stephani for your insights.
Amy, because you see and respect me as more than gay Jimmy (I’m also a dad, a therapist, a husband, and a friend) I, too, see you for all of who you are—labels and non-labels, both assumed and unassumed.
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