Camp Pride: Queer Upon Approval
About the Series: Camp Pride
Here at Camp Thirlby, Pride lasts year long—however, this month we want to highlight the stories of queer individuals and how they came to terms with their complex stories and identities. Part of our mission during Pride is to feel proud of all aspects of our identities, no matter how messy they can be. These contributors not only shared their stories, but also spoke them, allowing you to listen and/or read their deeply personal, at times intimate, but always very queer journeys • Illustration by Geordon Wollner.
Being bisexual has historically been called “playing for both teams.” Setting aside that binary language (boo), it feels a lot more like being a benchwarmer on all sides—never quite a part of any team.
In fact, being bisexual feels a little like I’m constantly playing defense in trying to justify my actions, my relationships, and my appearance to others. Often, my defense isn’t strong—I don’t always fit expectations about sexuality in heterosexual or queer spaces—and sometimes it feels like I’m both letting down my team and being defeated by the other team because of my weak playing.
Setting this contrived sports metaphor aside (who knew I was capable of such a thing?!), the message still stands. Bisexuality as an identity I inhabit has always been accompanied by confusion, contradiction, insecurity, and invisibility.
Bierasure (bisexual + erasure), as defined by GLAAD, is a form of invisibility in which the legitimacy or existence of one’s bisexuality (for an individual or in general) is questioned, either by those within or outside of the LGBTQ+ community.
This can take many forms: bisexual people are seen as “secretly gay,” “secretly straight,” “just in a phase,” or “doing it for attention.” They face backlash from within the queer community and outside it, which can make finding and accepting your bi identity considerably difficult. Bierasure ultimately can lead to something I feel a lot: a constant and fearful need for outside validation of my sexuality.
For me, knowing and accepting I was bi was a considerably long process. I probably could have identified myself as queer by senior year of high school, when I would make out with girls “just for fun” (okay, sure). The signs were there even as early as elementary and middle school. There were the subtle things, like middle school me playing I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry in the car with my mom to try to gauge her reaction, and the not so subtle things, like exclusively watching lesbian porn from ages 10 to 17. Regardless, I’ve been queer since forever.
But thanks to a nice cocktail of Catholic repression, insecurity about my body and sexuality, fear of being labeled an attention whore, and my Italian- and Irish-American suburban high school, my coming out process (both to myself and others) was a little on the longer side.
My friends always joke that as soon as I came out, I wanted people to know I was queer because I started wearing my keys on a carabiner on my belt loop. To be fair, they’re not totally wrong—by officially coming out, I did feel the need to prove I had ~revealed~ my true self, that something had been hidden inside me that I could now show. As a mostly-femme queer woman, I’ve pretty much always been read as straight, so I wanted to send out a warning call, if you will, to all the queer folks out there. I have other little things—short fingernails, long armpit and leg hair, a nose ring, and a few choice pins on my backpack. These are my small things, my ways to feel like I’m truly queer when I feel others doubting it or myself doubting it. They are how I feel visible when I feel invisible a lot of the time.
Being a bisexual woman especially comes with the need for explanation. There are of course actual face to face explanations: correcting people who assume I’m straight, correcting people who think I don’t have sex with men, you get the gist.
What are perhaps worse to me are the inquiries about bisexuality not said aloud, experienced through subtle judgements, like:
Why is he at pride if he has a girlfriend?
Why does she not want to be called a lesbian when she’s sleeping with a woman?
Why are they going to a bar for gay men if they’re not one?
I’m afraid of these questions and how my appearance and my actions and my image read as either “too queer” or “not queer enough” to others. I’m afraid of being mistaken for a straight girl, mostly, but I also don’t want to be called a lesbian—that’s not who I am.
But it’s not just the implicit judgements—language also plays a huge part in the erasure I experience. I can’t even count the amount of conversations I’ve had with friends where I’ve been asked about “boys” and not just my love life, or about “sucking dick” and not just my sexual experiences. It’s these times where I either feel like I can’t kill the mood and correct someone or I don’t really want to be the odd one out, so I go along with it. I don’t blame my friends—it’s hard to unlearn what we’ve all been taught about sexuality and about each other. It’s not really their fault if they’re not thinking in inherently queer terms when I am. Still, it can be hard not to feel a twinge of exclusion.
To give some context, I’m aware that I’m privileged enough to live, work, and go to school in places where queerness is usually accepted, while so many have such deeper levels of fear about their sexuality. Going to a small liberal arts college where the LGBTQ+ community is prominent and celebrated has its perks, obviously. I’ve never worried about rejection from friends, I haven’t had to fear for my safety on campus, and I’ve been able to engage with other queer people throughout my whole college experience. But with these benefits comes a culture of intense queer-policing—the requirement of proof of queerness. The fact that I waited years into college before coming out had mostly everything to do with the fear I wouldn’t be “queer enough” for my very queer campus dominated mostly by cisgender gay men. Would people accept me if I didn’t dress gay enough, or if I didn’t have hookups to cite as proof I was attracted to more than just men? I often envisioned friends, acquaintances, and strangers gossiping about what I looked like, who I was sleeping with, or what label I used. I feared (and still fear) the judgement of queer people more than that of those outside the community.
Last summer, I was walking with a queer friend to get dinner in historically queer Provincetown, MA, when he questioned, “Why are they even here?” referring to a straight-passing couple on the other side of the street. Setting aside the assumptions that both individuals were cis and that each identified as ‘male’ and ‘female’ as they may have presented, the thought that one or both of them could be queer folks in a heterosexual relationship weighed on me. Were others constantly judging any relationship I was in, assuming I was either a lesbian or straight based on my partner? Was I only defined by who I was fucking or loving? And what did that say about the assumptions within the queer community about visual presentation of gender? I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and somewhat betrayed. How could this queer space be “our” space if people would potentially say the same of me another time?
The judgements passed on bisexual, pansexual, or queer folks who might engage in heterosexuality are also a large part of the reason I came out so late. I know the privilege of being perceived as a heterosexual woman or a heterosexual couple is significant. But walking down the street holding hands with a man shouldn’t define who I am.
Sometimes I feel like a drifter—queer but not queer enough, straight but not quite straight. Even if they’re not, it’s hard not to feel that the communities I’m a part of are often judging me. Sometimes I feel like a secret shapeshifter (Animorphs anyone?), molding myself into whatever version would be best for the people, place, and time. In a queer space I find myself making ~gay~ jokes, incorporating more flannel into my outfit choices, and wearing less makeup. In a more heterosexually-dominated space I can transform into something a straight man wants to look at and a straight girl wants to go dancing with.
This shapeshifting hurts to notice sometimes when I realize that my identity remains in flux in part because of the erasure I’ve experienced. But I’ve come to learn that it’s not that my identity is torn between worlds—it’s a part of all of them. Despite having felt invisible in a lot of places, I’ve also felt seen in multiple places in a way other people can’t experience. There is beauty (and privilege, of course) in being someone who can shapeshift based on time and place, who can drift between groups.
Still, the unfortunate truth is this: people like labels and boxes with firm edges. They don’t like seeing me in makeup and a bodysuit headed out to a frat with armpit hair. They don’t like me talking about being queer and then also finding out I’m on the birth control pill. On all teams, people don’t like my blurred edges.
What I hope for my future is to at least mind-read less. I’m working on not assuming that people are always judging me or perceiving me in a certain way. Admittedly, some of the invisibility I feel comes from my own internal insecurity. I can’t control people’s judgments of how I look and live, but I am in control of my identity, how I define it, and what it means to me. I can decide to get up off the bench and command the field myself, playing in my unique way, I guess. I mean, you get the point. Sports metaphors aren’t my forte. Point is, I’m bi and I’m proud!
Happy Pride, babes!! Remember to:
End erasure and lift up all queers this pride season!
Honor the trans WOC who started the Stonewall Riots!
Respect queer elders and don’t take pride for granted!
Reflect on the commercialization and mainstreaming of pride!
Love each other and stay safe!
About the Author
Elena Phethean (she/her) is a junior from Pleasantville, NY studying Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Community Health at Tufts University. There, she is the co-coordinator of Tufts Sex Health Reps, a student group bringing comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education and sexual assault prevention to campus. She also loves music and sings with her a cappella group, the Tufts Jackson Jills. As a queer woman, she is especially passionate about women’s/gender minority health and queer sexual health outcomes, as well as working with survivors.