Queer Shame and How Liberal Communities Harm the Children They Embrace

In the past I've described my coming out process as The Five Stages of Grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Sometimes listeners chuckle when they hear the analogy; it is kind of humorous to me now, too. I'm a self-assured recent college graduate with a supportive family, from a liberal, suburban town outside ten miles outside New York City -- The Five Stages of Grief? For a kid like me?

No one ever told me it was wrong to be gay. When I say liberal town, I really mean it. The townsfolk waved their gay pride flags high long before marriage equality came into the national spotlight in the early 2000s. They're type of people who'd point out two men holding hands on the street to comment on "how nice it is to see." I mean this is a place where something like 87 percent of people voted for President Obama in the 2008 election, and they were vocal about it, too. Not only is there a Planned Parenthood one block off the main thoroughfare, but there's an abortion clinic on the main thoroughfare, and there are rarely if ever protesters outside its doors.

The town has packed a staggering amount of diversity into its six square miles -- black families, white families, gay and lesbian families, interracial families, interfaith families, low-income, affluent -- anything in between. The school district buses white children from the more affluent north side into the working-class, black South End, and buses black children out. The magnet school system that warrants this enormous expense gives every kid equal chance to succeed -- it's progressive! (No matter that the cafeteria tables show students naturally splintering first by race and then again by class.)

Even with such a broad offering of interesting people at hand, my parents' friends were almost always other straight, white couples, with few exceptions. So no matter how diverse, accepting or tolerant my family or our community was, I never saw much of anything happening in practice. It was more of a political stance than a personal philosophy.

I'll say again -- The Five Stages of Grief? For a kid like me? But my personal history belies my taste. From the time I was very young I imagined my future as a happy young bride in the arms of a tall, dark-haired, tuxedo-clad groom; the live band playing jazz and soul music at our wedding; flowers lining the aisle and the chuppah (a good Jewish girl); my hair, braided and adorned with white lace; everyone dancing with abandon. Regardless of my decidedly left-wing political beliefs -- pro-equality, pro-choice, pro-education reform, pro-gun control, pro- pro- pro -- I was inarguably traditional, and anything less than a traditional life was not for me. It didn't matter that I supported the right for others to live an alternative lifestyle; I didn't want one for myself.

Thus every woman I kissed was a knife in my husband's back, and every girlfriend thereafter would be a nail in his coffin. As a senior in high school I entered denial and fought viciously against the pain and betrayal I brought upon myself. Even when I transferred from a conservative Jesuit university to a radical liberal arts college, I grasped desperately to the shreds of my dying heterosexuality. But I faced a major roadblock in my commitment to hate my orientation and nurture my disdain for my homoerotic desires: my parents' immediate and effusive pride.

When I finally admitted to my relationships with women after a year and a half of evading their founded suspicions, they were thrilled. After all, if you're judging whether your child has been properly indoctrinated with their parents' liberal values, what better evidence is there than queerness? So there I was, a little traditionalist, paradoxically a bonafide radical and a self-loathing queer, with my parents beside me beaming.

Can you blame me for hating myself? At 18? It would be another 2 years before I reached my liberal arts college and heard the word "queer" for the first time, learned about the variety of identities that it represents. Before then, most people asked me if I was bisexual or a lesbian, my parents included, and so those seemed to me to be the only two options. But I didn't feel I belonged in either category.

I was appalled at the idea of being called a lesbian, and even now some 5 years later I still cringe a bit at the term. I know many people will find this admission offensive, but I have what my friend calls "internalized lesbophobia." To be identified as a lesbian in our society means one of two things: you're a porn star at the pinnacle of the male gaze, or you're a man-hating dyke, the antithesis of what womanhood and femininity are conceptualized to be. Hell of a choice, right?

In the first 3 years after it surfaced, my queerness evolved from my biggest secret to my deepest fear to my worst nightmare, simply because I had not found the right way to articulate it. "Queer" changed everything, not immediately, but completely.

Dominant culture offers us established formulas to understand both gay and lesbian identities. Sure, you can identify as gay or as a lesbian and go against the grain, but it takes a lot of self-confidence, assuredness and give-no-fucks attitude to buck up against the ways in which we're socialized to understand sexuality. Before college I didn't have any of those things. It made me deeply anxious to have either or both of my parents gently inquiring as to how I defined my sexuality.

Queerness, in comparison to gayness or lesbianism, rejects reductive attitudes. The term "queer" as a positive identifier rather than a homophobic slur rose to its cultural prevalence in the late twentieth century in response to the AIDS crisis (Queer Nation, ACT UP, etc.). To be queer was political at the outset, to be unified against the passive and homophobic government that was unfazed by the hundreds of thousands of AIDS-related deaths across the country. Ultimately though, to be queer was to resist definition, and although the AIDS crisis is now decades behind us, the rebellious nature of "queer" has persisted. Now that's something I could try and stomach.

At 20, I had passed through my year of rage and began bargaining with some higher power because I loved her, and if I could just keep her, maybe I'd forgive myself for it. I was finishing my first year at my liberal arts college where I had been bombarded by queer intellectuals who asked me to position myself within the academic rhetoric of sexuality. Campus was a bastion of sexual fluidity, and anything less than total self-acceptance was considered archaic and anyone found guilty of defending traditional ideals would be tarred and feathered. I tried to wade through the jargon -- what was a Foucault? -- in search of some authentic identity, skill keen on turning myself straight.

The girl I was dating pushed me to do things like kiss and hold hands in public. Things that are untraditional warrant attention, and the last thing I wanted was anyone's kind liberal gaze -- how "great it is to see" -- lauding us for existing. I conceded slowly because I loved her and as the months passed I became desensitized to my own horror to the point where, emboldened by a drink or two, I could kiss her in a bar.

When we broke up I lost the hint of complacency I had started to feel about my queerness. I slept with one man, and then another. I hated myself for how bored I felt to fuck them. I spun through my 21st birthday in a yearlong depression, flitting endlessly between people of all genders whom I hoped could spell out who I was. But the little hedonist in me answered that question. If I enjoyed kissing women, I'd kiss women. That didn't make me a 6 on the Kinsey scale, and it also didn't warrant a public explanation of my evolving sexuality. Over the past 5 years I've exhausted myself avoiding and debunking other people's labels rather than trying to discern who and what I am. Queer is as far as I've gotten, but it's not necessarily a complete picture.

I am almost 23 and this is the closest to acceptance I have ever come. I know that relative to most other queer kids, I've had it very easy. No one casts hellfire onto me when I say girlfriend, no one prescribes corrective treatments, people don't even analyze what went wrong in my childhood to make me this way. I was my only true obstacle. But I would argue, despite their good intentions, that the kind liberal folk of my childhood pose a danger to the true social acceptance of queerness as much as blatant homophobia might.

My community, if privileged, is not perfect. The ways in which liberal communities perpetuate heteronormativity, while at the same time claiming to be bastions of acceptance, are dangerous. The ways in which liberal parents think about their queer children as cultural capital or political immunity are dangerous. The ways in which queer kids are told to be authentic while being taught what authenticity means are certainly dangerous.

It's all flowers and butterflies when your parents validate your non-conforming identity, but when they use you as trump card to justify their closed-minded ideas the warm and fuzzies start to get a little more complicated. It's the same as if someone white were to make a racist comment followed by "and I have a very good friend who's black." So in my comfortable liberal town, "and my kid is gay" has the potential to rear its ugly head and hurt queer kids as much as it hopes to help them.

Plenty of mothers hang rainbow flags in honor of their children and then make a point to make a positive comment about visibly queer couples. To be a spectacle, even for someone's kind liberal gaze, still makes you a spectacle. I know that I am in an extreme place of privilege in issuing a critique of the way that liberal families and communities often commodify sexual identities, but I worry. I worry that if no one calls these very nice people on their very stinky bullshit, the behavior will become cyclical and continue to slyly degrade queerness for generations to come.

When I was in college I noticed that a lot of young women often made reference to being queer, or were averse to the label of heterosexuality, even if they found themselves exclusively attracted to men. Heterosexuality, in radical spaces, has become akin to closed-mindedness and traditionalism. It's hip to be "open," like "free love" transposed onto the millennial generation. My parents and their liberal community regard queerness the same way. In 20 years, when the straight girls I made out with in college have kids of their own, I don't want them to look at a gay couple on the street and comment on how "great it is to see" in an effort to display their tolerance.

I want queerness to be completely unremarkable. It's innocuous. Regardless of the intentions behind unsolicited remarks, they are equally harmful in featuring sexuality as a minoritizing characteristic. What I'm saying is: whether a stranger is calling me a faggot dyke and telling me I'm going to burn in hell, or they're remarking sweetly about me and the beautiful girl I'm holding hands with, the fact that they say anything about my sexuality is the problem. At least someone who is blatantly homophobic doesn't disavow their role in "othering" queerness.

I don't mean to scold or scorn the millions of liberal, accepting, tolerant parents who make their queer children's lives easier. Without them, queer shame might increase tenfold. Our Supportive Liberal Parents are an asset and I think it's rare that any queer kid would fail to recognize that. In my critique of American ultra-liberalism I simply mean to issue one heartfelt request: I ask that liberal parents and liberal communities support their kids not only in the most visible or vocal way, but also the most thoughtful. Maybe in fifty years there won't be queer kids or straight kids anymore, maybe there'll just be kids -- and wouldn't that be the ultimate realization of acceptance?