With one in six Gen Z adults identifying as something other than straight, 'elder queer' Sabina McKenna, who came out as Bi more than 15 years ago asks: Should newly out people have more recognition (and respect) for those who came before?
Writer & Curator
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I recently had an encounter, with a ‘baby-queer’, that really got me thinking about what this shift means for the wider LGBTQIA+ community.
They had come out after being in a long-term heterosexual relationship and at first it was really exciting to connect with them on something we never had in common before.
Our kinship quickly expired when, during one of our many discussions about the nuances of queer identity today, we landed on the subject of how much more acceptable it is now than it was previously.
Any attempt I made to differentiate my journey from theirs, as someone who came out as Bi almost 15 years ago, was called out as ‘invalidating their queerness’.
Confused and unsure about what exactly went wrong, I wondered: was I subconsciously gatekeeping, or should newly out people have more recognition (and respect) for those who came before? After mulling over this for weeks I decided to consult some seasoned-queers.
"Seeing new people entering the community feels euphoric," said Comedian and Writer Aurelia St Clair. "We're in an age where more people are aware of the scale of sexuality, and exploring what that means for themselves.
"It’s a positive thing overall, as collectively society seems to be breaking down internalised homophobia, and we're seeing clearer and fairer representations in the media.
"But at the same time, I have definitely witnessed folks who've just come out as being obnoxious. Who might use stereotypes and homophobic language and not in a fun or ironic way. Unfortunately some people just lack a certain sensitivity when it comes to being new in a space and exploring the boundaries within it."
With an assortment of new perspectives in the LGBTQIA+ space - it’s not surprising that it doesn’t feel as easy to relate to each other as it used to, however at the same time, Aurelia emphasised that gate-keeping and erasure are very real issues. So it’s important not to perpetuate harmful attitudes and to grant others the authority to define their own identity.
Considering that, I realised that now my ‘fellow queer’ could be quite literally anyone - even friends in ‘straight-appearing’, opposite sex relationships. Rendering what might have been previously understood as the typical social and cultural markers of ‘gayness’ irrelevant in the current context.
Despite that being unsettling for me to realise - because for previous generations, knowing how to find your people was as much a matter of survival as it was a way to explore and affirm your identity - I was curious to understand what that feels like first hand.
"I feel very under-formed in my identity, so I’m always apprehensive talking about it," said Writer and Producer Maggie Zhou, who identifies as queer, but is currently in a long-term relationship with a man.
"It's not something I take lightly, and I don’t want to use [my queerness] as something for clout chasing or as a strong identification marker, because I realised that there is so much more to being queer that I don't know about."
Maggie came out toward the end of 2020, and wrote a piece - titled ‘Am I queer enough to Call Myself Bi?' Reflecting on her words, almost two years later, she says she feels differently about what she discussed after hearing feedback from some of her friends.
"I stand by the piece, but I cringe a little bit, because a few queer friends spoke to me about it. I wrote about that imposter syndrome you feel when you’re queer and you're grappling with whether or not you fit in.
"And honestly, I had a lot of people in similar positions to me reach out relating to how I felt. So I don't want to undermine the experience. But in the scheme of things there are so many other issues affecting LGBTQIA+ people that this feels like a non-issue."
Of course, the argument of whether some people deserve to take up more space than others is somewhat shallow, considering that for trans, gender diverse and gender non-conforming people, their daily struggle is often about surviving the threat of homophobic violence and structural systems of oppression, that disproportionately affect them.
By recognising our privilege, no matter where we ‘belong’, we can acknowledge our intrinsic differences and avoid perpetuating harm toward others in general.
Although there are many intersections that determine our experiences of identity, I often use the example of colourism to explain this.
As a lighter-skinned black woman, I am conscious of the privilege that my proximity to whiteness affords me and I remind myself of that often.
At the same time, being light-skinned doesn’t mean I am not entitled to identify as black.
And similarly, not being ‘queer-enough’ by someone else’s standards doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to identify as queer.
So how do we exist with more awareness when our spaces are constantly expanding and evolving?
Non-binary artist Francis Cannon shared that it’s more likely about being comfortable with your own fluidity and process of adaptation. And trying not to assume too much about where you are at at any given time.
"I think it was only within the last year and a half that I realised I'm non-binary," said Francis. "So that's still quite new… I'm also in my first queer long-term relationship. So while I think obviously my experience is very solid, important and valid, it’s not the be all and end all and I still want to be in a learning headspace."
"I think that that is where a lot of young-queer people get a bit caught up - thinking that theirs is the only experience, and not really being open to hearing from others, and especially older generations. Social media has made that even more prominent—you are the main character. But people, humans, we need each other; we need to learn from each other, and our community is so much more important than we realise."
Going back to my newly out friend, it’s clear that neither of us intended to invalidate the other. But that perhaps better communication and a bit more empathy would have gone a long way.
The spirit of the queer community, at its core, has always been about inclusivity for all. And with more freedom now than ever to express that, it’s exciting to see the positive impact that has had so far, and of course where it will take us in future.
Writer & Curator