This is long, but it’s very important to me. Bear with me.
As some of you know, last month I made a post on Twitter and Instagram on October 11, National Coming Out Day. It explicitly stated that I am demisexual (I’ll explain what this means further down) and pansexual (meaning I can be attracted to any gender). I’d posted passively about my sexuality a few times before, but this was the first time I was unambiguously clear about it.
Coming out online was more terrifying than I expected. I’m someone who is very true to myself and proud of being open about all aspects of my identity, so I thought coming out wouldn’t make me too nervous. I was wrong.
I’ve been out to myself for almost a year, but it took me until the past couple of months to post anywhere about it. Part of the reason for that is that I was worried I didn’t “count.” I thought people wouldn’t believe I was who I said I was unless I’d dated a woman, rather than just had a crush on one. But slowly, I gained confidence. I found encouragement from members of the community, both in my physical life and online. “If you’ve had romantic/and or sexual feelings for multiple genders, you’re welcome as a member of the queer community,” they said. I fit that bill, so I breathed easier.
Needless to say, coming out puts you in a vulnerable position. I knew that beforehand, and I certainly felt that after I’d pushed it out into the world. I reminded myself that any negative feedback I received would probably be from homophobic people, anyway, who I didn’t need to concern myself with.
I definitely didn’t expect negative feedback from a fellow member of the LGBTQ community.
A couple of days later, I received a message from an old friend who is part of the community. Here’s a direct quote from it: “From what I’ve read, it feels like you fall more into the ally/support category than a member…It’s one thing to SAY you’re pansexual, demisexual, gay, bi, and another to actually be in it…Being emotionally, sexually, physically intimate with someone of the same sex, someone who has no sex, someone who is intersex whatever, it’s one thing to say you’d be okay with it or open to it and another to actually do it.”
Note: the purpose of this blog post is not to senselessly bash this person. Part of why this message devastated me so much is because this person is an old family friend, someone I’ve enjoyed spending time with and discussing mutual interests with. Maybe she has no idea what kind of line she crossed. But it represents a larger problem in the LGBTQ community, so I feel that it’s important to talk about.
Now. The message. There are so many hurtful, problematic elements to this.
First of all, this person did not come equipped with some magical list of everyone I’d ever been attracted to and everyone I’d ever dated. Aside from a brief conversation about my engagement, I hadn’t spoken to this person in almost two years. I’d never spoken to her about my sexuality in my life. She only knew the genders of two of my previous partners, who were both male. Apparently, she believed that this knowledge, along with “what she’d read” (she was referring to articles I’d posted related to the LGBTQ community) was enough to justify her assumptions about my sexuality. This was so wildly presumptuous and insensitive that I couldn’t believe I was reading it.
Secondly, it’s ironic that this person approached me with my ignorance about queerness in mind, because in her message, she demonstrated that she has no idea what demisexuality is. Demisexuality has nothing to do with what gender or genders you’re attracted to. Demisexuality is part of the asexual spectrum, which encompasses people who do not experience sexual attraction often, or who do not experience it at all.
I can only experience sexual attraction to someone who I already have an emotional bond with. Before I knew there was a word for demisexuality, I defined it as, “I can only have sexual feelings for already-established friends.” This doesn’t mean I feel sexually attracted to someone and choose to abstain from sex until I trust them—this means I can’t feel anything sexual towards them at all if we don’t know each other well. I’ve never seen someone walking down the street, or a picture of someone I’ve never met, and thought, “I’d bang that.” I can’t relate to that. In fact, I’ve never been sexually attracted to someone before knowing them for at least a year first.
It is perfectly possible for a woman who is only interested in men or a man who is only interested in women to be demisexual. I’ve been experiencing demisexuality since puberty started, thanks.
Another problem was that she assumed my fiancé is a man.
My fiancé, Danny, is neither male nor female, but nonbinary. They use they/them pronouns rather than he/him or she/her. This is how Danny describes their gender in their own words: “I know I have broad shoulders, thick eyebrows, a beard, and other ‘masculine’ crap, but I’m not a man. Equally, I’m not a woman. I’m nonbinary, simple as that.”*
If I were to say to myself, “I don’t count as queer because most people assume my partner is a man,” I would be invalidating Danny’s gender. People might insist we have “passing privilege,” meaning people can see us walking down the street together and not scoff at it. But the idea of “passing privilege” is a long-standing biphobic concept, or, for those who don’t know what biphobic means, discriminatory against people who are not strictly straight or gay. Beyond that, how exactly is it a “privilege” for Danny to get misgendered constantly?
I can’t use Danny’s pronouns in most normal conversations because many people a) have no idea some people use they/them as pronouns or that people can be neither male nor female, or b) think nonbinary is a “fake” identity that originated on tumblr (it didn’t). To those latter people, I’d recommend listening to an actual nonbinary person’s experiences regarding their gender before jumping to conclusions like that.
Anyway, here’s what happens every time I talk to one of these people about Danny: “My fiancé studied abroad in London and I joined my fiancé there in April. Oh what does Danny study? Danny studies English, and Danny minors in Creative Writing. Th…*mumbles* used to minor in Computer Science but Danny decided to switch over.”
Good thing “fiancé” and “Danny” are both words I enjoy using. But still, I walk away from these conversations wondering if anyone noticed how ridiculous I sounded because I was trying to avoid using any pronouns.
Some might ask, why not just use “he” to make it easier? Because that feels wrong and invalidates Danny’s actual gender. It feels like I’m talking about someone who isn’t Danny, because the Danny I know isn’t a man. If you’re straight and cisgender (meaning not transgender) and/or can’t imagine what this is like, think if someone said you had to refer to your girlfriend as a “he,” or your boyfriend as a “she.” It would feel wrong, wouldn’t it? Like you’re completely misrepresenting the person you love.
It’s even worse when people make references to Danny’s “maleness.” This sometimes happens in the context of someone speaking about our relationship. A lot of these statements are meant as compliments, but they end up making us both uncomfortable because they make incorrect assumptions about Danny’s gender. Examples include:
“As long as you’ve got your man by your side, you’ll be fine!”
“Don’t you just love a man who can do [x activity]?”
“We should have a girl’s day, no boys. Sorry Danny!”
“I know you’re not taking your husband’s last name, but the kids will have his name, right?”
“I know you’re an independent woman and all, but when it comes down to it, I’m sure you’ll look to your husband to financially support you when the kids come along.”
Sexism aside, this makes me want to scream every day, “WHAT MAN? I DON’T HAVE ONE OF THOSE.” Which wouldn’t be entirely fair, since most of these people have no clue they’re saying anything harmful. Society is mostly to blame for reinforcing the idea that you can only be a man or a woman, that someone is a man if they look a certain way, that a straight relationship is the default, etc.
Luckily, the person who sent me the message backed off a little after I mentioned Danny’s gender (although she didn’t back off entirely, and I wish she had). She said she’d messaged me out of concern that I was jumping on the “fashionable LGBT bandwagon.”
And here’s where I talk about gatekeeping.
If I had only ever dated men, and had only experienced romantic and/or sexual attraction to people who aren’t men without dating them, this would not have been enough for the person who messaged me. Despite my crushes on women and nonbinary people, I wouldn’t have “counted.” A lot of people in the community hold this opinion, that if you’re not “queer enough,” any queer feelings you’ve had don’t matter. This is damaging and needs to stop.
Can you imagine if people held this opinion about straight people? I have a friend who, last she told me, is confidently straight but has never been with anyone. Does that give me the right to tell her all her attractions to men have been invalid because she hasn’t been with any of them?
Gatekeeping, or barring people from a community because they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria, is unnecessary and harmful. If someone knows the definition of pansexual and feels it matches them best, then they are pansexual. They might stick to that identity or later realize that a different one fits them better. Regardless, if they say they’re pansexual, believe them. No one understands their sexual and romantic feelings better than they do.
As for this “fashionable LGBT bandwagon” nonsense…
I disagree that people are changing how they identify themselves because of a trend. Yes, more people are coming out nowadays. There are also more resources now and there is more acceptance of LGBTQ people than there used to be. Maybe more people are coming out now because the environment is safer. Maybe more people are coming out because they feel encouraged to be open to what they feel rather than assume they’re straight because it’s the default. “Straight until proven gay” is itself, I argue, a homophobic mindset. It keeps LGBT identities locked in place as “alternative,” as “other.”
TL;DR: Don’t assume anyone’s sexuality. Don’t assume anyone’s gender. Don’t lecture someone about whether or not they belong in a community. And definitely, definitely don’t act like you understand someone better than they understand themselves.
*I had Danny read this whole post for accuracy before I made it public.
**Avatar by Charlavail