March 26, 2010

Flamboyance, Visibility

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and for that I apologize. I’ve been busy working with RENT (which everyone should see, by the way! visit for details), but that’s not a sufficient excuse.

I write today on the same topic I began writing on in January (and never completed): the dark, strange, and often counterintuitive world of “visibility.”

What exactly do I mean by that? What do we even have to gain from visibility?

Let’s call visibility, for now, “the extent to which an average person who is making no deliberate efforts to encounter nor avoid exposure to unambiguously LGBTQ individuals or information.” Blegh, that's a mouthful.

I’m trying to say that being LGBTQ isn’t like being, say, female. Or east Asian. Or anything else that’s usually, though not always nor exclusively, visibly determined. You can’t look at someone and just know that s/he is gay or queer or a 2 on the Kinsey scale or however else a person might identify. And even the fact that I have to word it that way hints at some of the additional complexities, because there isn’t any definitive test to tell people (or yourself, or your parents) exactly what it is you are (trust me, I wish there were). Plenty of people identify as something either misleading or not entirely straightforward—whether the typically ambiguous queer or the closeted folks who still list themselves as “Interested In” the opposite gender—not to say that most of them don’t have excellent reasons, because they usually do.

But it would be a mistake to pretend that everything is suddenly simple as soon as a person has made the crucial (and bold, and terrifying, and wonderful, and everything else) step of saying, “Hello, world! I’m gay!” Sexuality can change. Situations change. Maybe you’ve just moved to Florida and suddenly realize you can be fired for being gay, which can and does happen all the time, so you decide to go back into the closet until the world suddenly becomes a better, warmer, more loving place (hah, I wish).

This… freedom of self-identification, however, is at least a little bit troubling. Maybe it’s just me, but I think sexuality is a pretty fundamental thing. And knowing that how you fundamentally understand yourself—not only how you tell others whom and what you are but also what exactly you tell you about yourself—can change… that’s terrifying to me.

A while back I went through a phase where I really admired individuals who were, say, flamboyantly gay, who made sure there was no doubt in anyone’s mind just exactly how they identified. To some extents, I still do. While it seems like so many of us do our best to blend in, these people put it all on the line and show the world a side of things it probably doesn’t often get to see, unless we’re talking about NYC or Portland or Seattle or San Francisco or some other gay mecca. One of the big talking points at our last BDU meeting was that people don’t feel like the LGBTQ community at Duke is visible.

Are we? Aren’t we? How do we get there? Do we turn ourselves into monuments of fabulousness? It’s certainly a possibility. Do we alter our hairstyles, our clothing, our speech? Do we put up posters saying, “Hey! The gays are here, even if you can’t see them. Don’t put us down?” All of this just seems unfair. Why should I have to make myself visibly gay? How is this still an issue?

What this boils down to for me is this: I don’t necessarily want to fit in, but I don’t want to have to stand out. This week is our Anti-Hate Speech Campaign here at Duke. Earlier in the week we had given out rainbow ribbons until we ran out of them. The next day, I repinned my ribbon to my shirt and went about my business. First stop of the day, coffee. My barista says, “What’s that for? Is it Pride day or something?” I explained the campaign to him, but being the only one wearing a ribbon that day, I felt like I stuck out terribly. I suppose the purpose of the ribbon is to open dialogue. It just feels… uncomfortable to stand out so boldly.

But what am I afraid of? Am I afraid of being perceived as gay? I mean, not really, because I am. All the same, there’s a huge fear of appearing too flamboyant and I can’t even convey exactly why that is.

I’m not trying to blend in, but I don’t think I should have to stand out to be recognized. For now, I suppose the only way to get where I’d like to get is to stand out. If some people don’t want to view the LGBTQ community as full people, then I guess I’m willing to make sacrifices until they will. But it’s a thin line to tread—it seems like I’m expected to show that that I’m gay, but I’m also “cool” or “normal” or maybe even just “not weird…” whatever it is I need to seem like to win that person over. But I don’t believe in that either!

There can be little doubt that I’m actually quite weird. I’m an eccentric, strange, sometimes difficult-to-tolerate person. I’m also exceptional in a number of ways. But none of that has anything to do with the fact that I’m gay, and it just seems silly to me by now that anyone would think it would.

So… standing out? I’ll do it, I guess. Through rainbow ribbons and involvement and posters if not through clothing. It just doesn’t feel fair. Here I am, little old Matt, winning over the world one person at a time. At least I can say that, here at Duke, I know I’m not doing it alone. But for what it’s worth, I’ll say that I think if you’re not fighting, you’re wasting your time. Do it. Fight. From the protection of your closet if need be. Just do it.

1 comment:

  1. This is a GREAT post. I've definitely felt everything from the need to be I'm-here-and-queer in your face and deliberately (perhaps obnoxiously) out at every turn, to just wanting to be myself and live my life without having to explain anything or stand up/out for being same-sex attracted. And of course, there's everything in between.

    I don't think there's a simple answer, but I do think a lot of this anxiety and pressure would be (and should be) lessened by a change in the general population so that straight identity isn't always assumed. Then, it wouldn't always be on us to "correct" these assumptions.