* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Queer teenagers are trapped in a cage when they are told they need to conform to heteronormativity
L. C. Rosen is the author of Camp (Penguin)
It’s something parents should tell their kids all the time, and many do. Often, it’s said with love, but for some queer kids, it serves as a warning, as a rule: “You can be gay, and I’ll still love you, because you’re special. But if you start to act like the gays I don’t like, that specialness can be taken away.”
Even among the more liberally minded, this sort of specialness is something parents impart on their queer kids. Queerness, they teach them, is okay, as long as it conforms to heteronormativity. It’s fine to be gay, but don’t act it. It’s okay to be into men, but they’d better not be the men we see dancing in their underwear on a pride float. If we see any glitter or makeup on you, you’re now a bad gay, and we don’t love bad gays.
People who say that sort of thing don’t think of themselves as homophobic. They’re in favor of gay marriage. They love that one gay celebrity, or their one gay friend. But, they usually stress, they don’t like gay people who are “in your face about it.” Lesbians who are too butch. Gay men who are too femme. Trans people who don’t pass.
We’ve reached this strange stage in culture when people can be okay with queerness as long as it doesn’t violate straight patriarchal norms. And this sort of homophobia – which is what it is, as well as sexism and transphobia – is insidious because it doesn’t feel like homophobia.
Except it’s more than that. It’s telling queer people that there’s only one way it’s acceptable for queer people to behave. Straight people are allowed more leniency – “he’s really into the ballet, but he’s an OK guy” – and more freedom to be themselves. But if you’re queer, you’re told, that’s the most you can deviate from the norm. More than that, and it’s not homophobic for people to shun or even terrorize you into conformity.
What’s worse is that this sort of homophobia often comes from people we love, and often just as we come out. “Oh, I don’t mind you being gay, because you don’t act like the rest of them. You’re special.”
And when you’re a teenager, terrified about coming out in the first place, that answer – that assurance of love as long as you follow rules – can become your entire identity. And that’s where internalized homophobia starts.
Soon, the “special gay” becomes your entire identity – because if you lose it, you lose the love of people you are grateful supported you. That specialness – that conformity – becomes your value to yourself, and so other queer people who don’t conform, who your loved one would say is “too much” or worse, becomes someone you’re better than. You’re special, they’re not.
There’s nothing wrong with acting a particular way because it’s who you are. But queer teens don’t get the chance to try on identities the way straight ones do. Their identities are always crafted around their queerness, even when they don’t want them to be – they know it’s what everyone else is seeing, and often, everyone else comments on it.
“You don’t seem gay.” Or, “Oh, you’re such a queen.”
When your identity becomes wrapped up in being ‘special’, in seeming straight so that people will love you and that makes you better than people who don’t seem straight, though, it’s not about who you are. It’s about who you’ve made yourself appear as.
Attraction and identity are complicated amorphous things. But when queer people – especially teens – are told they’re only special if they conform to one identity, they’re not allowed to be more than that thing. They’re trapped in a cage made by straight people. And they want to trap other queer people with them so they’re not alone.
Real specialness is about who you are, not about who you aren’t. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to put you in a cage.