Monday, February 22, 2016

Out or Not?

One of my mentors broke down the whole of LGBT expression and identity into two categories. To him, there were queer professionals and professional queers. We know which is which without having to use too much brain power. Boy George is a professional gay, as is k.d. lang. Your trusted physician or pharmacist is most likely a gay professional. Only a few of us have the ability and desire to shape public perception this openly. I personally see these individuals as a necessary evil, since they frequently overreach. At times they have embarrassed me and others.

This argument may be an oversimplification in terms, but it works well enough for now. I've never had the confidence to be as outspoken as some. If I were to be fully gay, I think I would shrink from being labeled a gay writer or a gay anything. I choose not to drape myself in a rainbow flag and rarely attend Pride. Nevertheless, there is a part of me who would gladly be identified in bold terms and in hyperlinks at the bottom of a Wikipedia entry.

I've always been torn between which path I should choose for myself. Bisexuality is invisible enough by itself and I know this far too well. If I speak up and self-identify, others know about it in the form of my personal presence. Ever since I can remember, some intangible something has fueled my interest and enthusiasm, and even now words often fail me. Often I am seeking to elucidate the part of me that identifies more strongly with women than with men. And yet, my pursuits and interests do not always make me as feminine (or more so) as any woman. Those who I have deliberately informed about my sexual orientation are not surprised if they have given the matter some thought. That said, I escape detection from most everyone else.

I think there's a place for outspoken LGBT expression, but aside from a few subtle references here and there, I'm never going to wear it like a badge. Whether this is fair or not, a part of me is simply not interested and very much conflicted. In the whole of my adult life, I've known men who, like some women, secretly harbor desire for unattainable relationships. That's safe for them, though it promises absolutely nothing besides fantasy. This is the opposite extreme, and I'm not nearly as repressed as they. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Those who pursue this course live lonely lives.

Many people don't realize how educated I have become in a specialized field. They fail to notice, as well, that I am no stranger to queer-friendly terminology and even have a personal history to share, if I wish. Let me put it another way. An acquaintance of mine once pursued a career as an engineer. As is true with many in the so-called STEM fields, she was enrolled in a field vastly outnumbered by men. For her own reasons, she chose a different path altogether, changing majors in midstream.

Her adviser, also female, was irate. Her prized pupil was viewed by her instructor as almost traitorous. The student was not doing her part to swing the gender balance towards a fairer, more equal setting. What the adviser did not recognize is that her own private dream was simply not the same as her young protege. The pupil did not owe her professor or American womanhood anything.

This is an example of what happens when we view any issue through only one lens. I myself have been shamed by impatient reformers in the same way that befalls brave gender pioneers like these. The same tactics are used by radical outers, shoving the closeted outside into the bright sunlight. The good news is that a new permissiveness has gratefully made it easier to exit the closeet. Now we are fighting to give someone the right to be out or not out, which to me will always be a personal decision.

I don't want to view myself only through the lens of sexual orientation and expression. Activism often invites this kind of navel-gazing, but I don't want the whole of my identity to hinge upon one metric alone. In 2016, it may be finally legal to marry someone who shares your gender, but it is entirely possible to lump all sexual orientation into two and only two categories. Frustratingly enough, I do the same thing myself. If a woman is dating another woman, I automatically assume she's a lesbian. If she's dating a man, I assume she's straight.

Being mislabeled doesn't bother me as much as it once did. I can own who I am, finally. Well-meaning heterosexuals that try much too hard to be inclusive get to me most these days. But in the same spirit, I'm sure for people who identify as transgender that I've been guilty of the same offense. I want to be a good ally and I want them to know that I've clearly done my homework. Without meaning to do it, I've committed the same overreach. A more successful strategy for myself and everyone else is being much less concerned with exteriors, even though this seems to be a challenge for everyone.

Exteriors are what this entire post seeks to address. The most powerful forms of communication arise when we see our commonalities, not our differences. Liberals overdo this sort of thinking very easily, consumed as they are with being inclusive and diverse. Individuals who identify as a minority once again face the same conundrum.

How open and out do I want to be? Should I demand recognition on my own terms, or instead take a step back and examine how I am perceived? These are rhetorical questions. The only valid answer is this: it depends.  

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