In 1983, poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote, “Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian … There is no hierarchy of oppression. I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group.”
Lorde’s commentary reveals an oft-ignored truth in the LGBTQ+ community: being a Queer person of Color comes with the inability to be just Queer or just a person of Color and with the responsibility to always be a person of Color within Queer spaces and vice versa. Neither aspect of personhood is allowed the ample space to develop on its own, within its own terms. Queer people of Color, particularly those who have additional marginalized identities (whether that be socioeconomic status, ability, etc.), experience inferior treatment from multiple angles as well as face unique forms of marginalization at the intersection of their identities. These overlapping societal pressures and expectations undermine autonomy and the path to self-discovery. Though nothing is in a vacuum and everything is subjected to outside influences, it seems as though the self-development of Queer people of Color is particularly impacted by the intersecting aspects of their identity leading to a stunted or — at the very least — inorganic path to personhood.
Queerness comes with a set of extremely established traditions, at least in the eyes of western society. Arguably the most universally well-known tradition is the practice of “coming out.” Put plainly, coming out is when someone makes the decision to explicitly share their Queer identity. Framed as an inevitable rite of passage, coming out is depicted as the pinnacle of Queer self-acceptance. To “stay in the closet” signals some kind of oppression, due to a lack of safety, community or just general discomfort. Coming out is not framed as something you can do, but something you will do the second you feel safe and comfortable enough. There are two states of Queer being: “out” and “in the closet.” This dichotomy is flawed in its own right. There are many degrees of being “out,” whether that’s being ‘out’ to certain people in specific environments or simply living a discreet life, particularly for those who naturally prefer privacy over vocality. There are nuances when it comes to living “outside the closet,” but for the sake of this piece the focus will be on this oversimplified (and sensationalized) black-and-white dichotomy.
The public importance placed upon coming out is rooted in the fact that, historically, visibility was crucial in the struggle for equal rights and recognition. Refinery29’s Sadhbh O’Sullivan writes, “In order to fight for liberation, gay people would own their identity with pride by publicly owning their gay identity. The more gay people came out, so the thinking went, the more normalized gayness would become.” As societal attitudes towards non-heteronormativity have progressed, the concept of coming out has unfortunately not kept pace. Within current socio-cultural contexts, the perceived necessity of coming out remains rooted in western heteronormativity. For one, it rests on the assumption that everyone is cisgender and heterosexual unless they say otherwise. No one is ever expected to come out as straight. As a practice, the pressured anticipation of an inevitable “coming out” announcement removes agency from the actual person committing the act of coming out and places all the power in the expectant hands of society. It isn’t a question of if someone will decide to come out but when they will, even in cases in which coming out holds no benefits for them. Additionally, coming out creates a set of implications that further limit a formerly “closeted” person’s ability to influence how they’re perceived by others:
- That the person coming out was previously lying about their identity.
- That outside approval and/or acknowledgment is needed to validate their identity.
- That, before choosing to disclose their identity to others, they were deliberately hiding their “true selves.”
Musa Shadeedi sums up how the phenomenon of the presumed “coming out” is rooted in western society succinctly when he wonders “if the LGBTQI community in Iraq knows the meaning of the term ‘closet’ in the first place.” In societies with different values, perhaps where privacy is held over visibility or other deviations from the West, the “closet” does not exist because coming out is not an inevitable event. This isn’t to say that the general idea behind “coming out,” i.e., divulging information regarding one’s sexuality and/or gender, is a western concept, but rather the culture and context surrounding it is. “Coming out” versus being “in the closet” is a false dichotomy pushed as reality for everyone, especially those who participate in cultures that don’t align with the thought behind the action.
When speaking to a Queer immigrant, I found that they regarded the entire idea of “coming out” and being in “the closet” as ridiculous. For one, they thought coming out was pointless because it isn’t a one-and-done thing. “You don’t just make one big announcement and suddenly have the whole world be aware you’re a homosexual,” they said. The pressure surrounding something that is, in reality, a constant process is almost counterproductive when considering the fact that there will always be new friends, coworkers and acquaintances to come out to. In the words of Asiel Adan Sanchez, “Mainstream narratives of coming out imply a white subjectivity, one that forgets the influence of culture, family and heritage. For many Queer people of colour, coming out is a much more nuanced process than a single moment of verbal disclosure.” The current notion of coming out is simply too flat, lacking the nuance required to encompass the wide array of people it applies to. An extremely black-and-white attitude is attached to it, one that doesn’t allow for the grays (or beiges, browns, tans) in between. To put it plainly, coming-out culture is a very white American thing.
To my interviewee, the practice of having to reveal their identity framed their sexuality and gender as something “more, like, if I have to disclose it, it must be the biggest part of me, like I can’t just exist and be gay. I have to exist gayly.” This same perspective came up even when interviewing Queer Americans who prefer private lifestyles. Many of the people I interviewed, including both white people and people of Color, believed that a Queer identity is like a food allergy — that, while important, it shouldn’t be regarded as something that must be disclosed to those who really have nothing to do with it. According to Rensselaer Polytechnic humanities professor Jen Bacon, we exist “within a cultural context that emphatically marginalizes everything ‘Queer.’” The implications surrounding coming-out culture suggest that Queer identity is considered an alien characteristic by the general public.
An added amount of pressure is felt by those who choose between their family and their Queer identity. After making the momentous decision to leave their ethnic, racial, religious or cultural communities to live openly, they have to make it “worth it,” to “be Queer” in every way imaginable and more, and fit into their new community or else risk having to lose their family and community for nothing. Sanchez expounds that for many who fall outside of the white American standard, “when the closet is portrayed as a place of self-hatred, pride becomes an insidious reminder that, in order to be part of the Queer community, you have to be visible, out, and open. We are so often made to choose between our self and our safety.” Coming out is a sacrifice and sacrifices have to be worth it.
For many Queer people of Color — especially those who are first- or second-generation Americans — there is a dissonance that exists between their attitude towards coming out compared to that of the society they inhabit. Many are also met with the pressure to come out despite having family dynamics that lack the space to do so. This, along with the aforementioned dissonance, adds on yet another confusing layer to the process of working through their sexuality and/or gender identity. This confusion is exacerbated for many young people of Color who lack access to Queer communities of their own. With only limited western (and often very white) portrayals of the Queer experience available in media, it’s hard to realize other experiences are possible. In fact, it is hard to realize they even exist when media and societal portrayals are so overwhelmingly white. All of this feeds into a system that exacerbates the issue of lacking diverse portrayals. Queer people of Color who turn to media portrayals for direction on navigating their LGBTQ+ identity are met with a sea of homogeneity. Those lacking alternative guidance see one uniform experience and try to model it, and miss out on the opportunity to craft an experience of their own to add to society’s repertoire of Queer narratives. Along with qualitative evidence, research has provided quantitative proof of how the lack of diverse Queer portrayals in media hinder the self-discovery journey, with quantified results referenced in Sanchez’s article showing how white gay men observably benefit from verbally coming out while others do not. Stephen DiDomenico, a professor at West Chester University, interviewed a panel of young Queer people and found that they felt significant pressure to conform to white conventional narratives. From the very beginning of their Queer experience, Queer people of Color lack access to relevant portrayals of lives they could be living, resulting in them not having the mental and emotional space to properly make sense of their identity, let alone disclose it.
Along with the framing of coming out, another distinguishing marker of Queer communities is “looking” or “sounding” “gay.” Queerness comes with a history of flamboyance, exaggerated “campy” behavior and clothing. People who claim to have “gaydar” rely on distinct visual, audible and kinesthetic markers to determine whether or not someone is a part of the LGBTQ+ community. While many of these markers were created and established by people of Color (with a particularly sizeable contribution made by Black trans women), a significant amount of them have been taken out of their context, appropriated and morphed to fit into a white mold (some timely examples being the appropriation of vogueing and Black Queer vernacular). These markers are, of course, still immediately recognizable within Queer communities of Color. However, in the eyes of the general public, “gay culture” is ultimately just white gay culture being applied to the entire Queer community. According to Buzzfeed, naming your dog “Finn” is gay. Like. Okay?
The experiences of many people of Color echo that of TikTok user Ivy in that nonwhite people are often automatically presumed straight. Even Queer people of Color living openly and outwardly expressing their Queerness every day aren’t given the privilege of visibility because the only recognizable Queer aesthetic is one that comes with the prerequisite of needing to be able to pass the paper bag test. An experience shared by many was echoed in a roundtable on Queer visbility: “I don’t know that white folks know what Queerness looks like in and for people of color. Because they’re not looking for us to begin with.” They’re straight until proven otherwise.
Interestingly enough, TikTok provides compelling first-hand accounts of how Queer culture is framed around the structures of western society and whiteness specifically. A video made by TikTok user Caden @slurpyprincess perfectly captures how white gay culture takes the place of the “Queer experience” umbrella. Captioned “wish y’all would put yt (white) before Queer when y’all make vids like this,” Caden dueted another tiktok made by a white Queer person implying all Queer young adults experienced a fascination with a certain song. This is just one example of many of how white Queer culture is generalized to apply to the entire community. This experience was echoed in my interviews, with Queer people of Color recounting feeling pressure to portray themselves within the boundaries of white gay culture. Many of them recounted adopting and exaggerating stereotypically “gay” characteristics all for the sake of being accepted within their respective Queer communities. For my white interviewees, coming out broke the barriers that clouded their visibility. While they also had their own individual struggles and challenges, they felt life before and after coming out was observably improved, contrasting the narratives of racially marginalized people. They said they were able to live openly and be recognized for who they are without needing to overcompensate and “act more gay.” Even after publicly coming out, Queer people of Color are met with a more intense challenge of proving their Queerness than their white counterparts because they often don’t adhere to societal markers of “Queerness” that are formed around white gay culture.
The Queer identity of people of Color is sometimes treated as something conditional, especially when political and international events are considered. “Pinkwashing,” a term describing how Queer-related issues can be weaponized to shift the conversation surrounding organizations or countries, contributes to this. This issue was brought up with a Palestinian interviewee, who felt their Queerness was erased by people advocating for Zionism and the occupation of Palestine by attempting to villainize Palestine. Said villainization efforts often included heavy implications that Queer people are not being harmed by the Israeli occupation and, instead, are being harmed solely by Palestine. The interviewee felt like “Schrodinger’s Queer,” as if they were only gay when it benefitted a political argument.
Along with external factors affecting their access to self-exploration, self-expression and self-esteem in general, people of Color also deal with the psychological challenges of existing within a time where the third-person voyeur phenomenon is having a more marked effect on the population than ever. People of Color already experience higher levels of scrutiny because their marginalized identities come with the responsibility of having to represent their ethnic communities within spaces where they have little representation. Though many can find non-white-majority spaces with less scrutiny, most people of Color living in western society find themselves in white environments in some capacity or another.
While Queer online communities can be an invaluable part of the Queer of Color experience, they don’t come without downsides. Psychologist Sophie Wallace-Hadrill claims that the rise of social media heightens the feeling of being watched, leading to negative self-talk and even self-doubt, especially for younger demographics, as “self-conscious emotions are linked to inferences about how others may perceive and evaluate the self.” Existing becomes a constant performance with no room for error. While the rising rates of social voyeurism apply to everyone, they are just one of many challenges Queer people of Color face in their path to simply live their lives, especially compounding on to pre-existing feelings of being overly scrutinized in their daily lives.
For people who inhabit marginalized intersectional identities, every step of the Queer journey comes with a roadblock. Only upon decentering white western culture can Queer people of Color enter a space where they have the ability to fully explore their identity and finally be able to exist without having to navigate challenges that should not be synonymous with the Queer of Color experience. Then, finally, they will be able to both live their truth and rest in it, too.
MiC Columnist Huda Shulaiba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.