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Got To Be Real

Last week I had a conversation with a younger gay man. We were talking about the isolation he feels from so many other gay men.

This person is not closeted, but relatively new to “the life” and still looking for the acceptance he thought was awaiting him once he came out.

Instead of finding a welcoming community, he has found people who don’t understand why he doesn’t want to go to the clubs or participate in other aspects of commercial gay life.

I mention this conversation because expectations in the LGBT community have always been a point of contention. Chances are you know someone who has been criticized as “too gay” or “not gay enough” based on mannerisms, voice inflection, personal style, or their interests. Sometimes this perception results in the end of an otherwise happy relationship.

In my experience there seem to be two main types of LGBT identity types: people who identify primarily with their orientation, and others who feel their orientation is just one aspect of themselves that isn’t more important than other parts of their personality. As examples, the former may live in a gay ghetto and associate exclusively with other LGBTs, while the latter may have a predominately straight social circle with relatively few LGBT friends.

Is one better than the other?

One thing I’ve been surprised by in talking with people on both sides of the divide is the frequency with which people are willing to label those who don’t share their philosophy as being fake. The more LGBT-identified people accuse the others of not fully accepting their sexuality, the more cautious set says people have bought into false ideas of what constitutes LGBT identity and they aren’t being honest with themselves either.

It’s easy to understand both perspectives. With mainstream media portrayals of LGBT people tending to focus on the most stereotypical traits (i.e., the ones straight people are comfortable with seeing), it is possible that people newly out of the closet believe they need to adopt these characteristics in order to be a “real” gay person, as opposed to being themselves. On the other hand, I have had many interactions with people who considered themselves “discrete” but upon futher investigation were ashamed of their sexuality.

So is there an authentic way to be LGBT? Could we all be trying to “keep it real,” but failing to consider, as the old jazz song asked, “compared to what?”

I think the tension is a based in the contradictions of our culture. America prides itself on celebrating individuality but there is a level of groupthink that is present in all groups, regardless of how unique they view themselves . Advertisements encourage us to demonstrate our originality by buying the same product. Indeed, it seems the most successful companies, such as Nike and Apple, are the ones best able to mass market “uniqueness.”

Companies are able to exploit us because of the human desire to be accepted and liked. Pressure to conform to the conventional standard can be very strong, with teasing, ostracism, or, in the case of the Salem witch trials illustrated, violence and executions at the hands of those uncomfortable with people thinking or living outside of the box.

My recommendation to people who find their “realness” challenged by others? Just be yourself. Part of the reason we come out is so we can be more open and honest about our lives. It does no good to be out and then find ourselves trapped in a new closet of conformity where we still behave according to the expectations of others.

There is room under the LGBT umbrella for all types. Not everyone lives like the characters on Queer As Folk; likewise, the DL Chronicles should not be seen as the definitive black gay experience. Regardless of your personality or interests, there is a community of like-minded people with whom you can connect. If you’re viewed as butch and scared to tell people you own the entire discographies of Diana Ross and Kylie Minogue because you’re worried about your masculinity being called into question, perhaps you are not hanging with the ideal group of people. If you’re perceived as femme and people are surprised you like NASCAR, give them a detailed breakdown of the latest race with a snap and keep it moving. Stereotypes are made to be broken.

It may not be easy at times, because there will always be people who have their own ideas of how you should live your life. But remember that the greatest struggles, as well as the greatest rewards, come from being true to ourselves.

From “Blackout” for 5/11/09 by Anthony Rucker


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