I was having a drink with a good friend of mine, when she asked me why gay, lesbian, and bisexual people* made “such a big deal” of their sexual orientation.
I asked her to clarify what she meant, and she said that she would never identify herself as straight.
I asked, “Are you exclusively attracted to men?”
She said, “Yes, but I would never introduce myself like, ‘Hi, I’m [Name] and I’m straight.’ I just think of myself as [Name].”
I fumbled in looking for the words to express my frustration with this question. She’s always been supportive of me, even when she doesn’t agree with everything I think, say or do, and I knew that this question was merely coming from a place of curiosity and simple ignorance.
And I’ve been thinking about this question ever since. I knew what she was referring to. Why do we make such a big deal of our sexual orientations? Why do we take part in pride parades? Why do we make certain deliberate choices about what to wear, how to talk, how to act? Why do we keep posting about it on our Facebook walls? Why do we keep coming out to people? Why do we keep talking about it?
Sometimes the people asking such questions actively want to silence gay, lesbian, and bisexual voices. And sometimes, as in the case of my friend, they’re just confused by why LGB people behave differently about their sexual orientation than straight people behave about their straightness.
Here’s why we make a big deal about it:
Straight people don’t usually have to announce their straightness, because the perceived “default” sexual orientation in this world is still heterosexuality. Most people will be assumed to be straight unless they announce otherwise, whether verbally or through non-verbal cues.
In contrast, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have to announce themselves at every turn if they want to be perceived as being anything other than straight. This can be done through coming out (over and over and over again) and through playing to various queer stereotypes, in what we wear, in the haircuts we sport, in how we talk, in how we act. But mostly it just involves a lot of talking about our identities. If you’re a femme lesbian, for example, most people will still assume you are straight. If you are a bisexual man and begin dating or marry a woman, most people will assume you are or have turned straight. The only effective way to combat someone’s misperception of you is to correct them (over and over and over again.)
Straight people also don’t usually have to announce their heterosexuality in order to find friends, colleagues, and potential romantic partners who are either of their “own kind” and/or are supportive of the straight community. The majority of people are straight and almost all are totally supportive of straight identities, straight marriages, straight pastors, and straight Boy Scout leaders.
In contrast, if a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person wants to befriend, work with, or sleep with someone who is also LGB and/or who is supportive of the queer community, they have to make their own identities known in some way. But since there are many people who are either not LGB or not supportive of the queer community, this makes every coming out experience carry some risk. When we identify ourselves to find other people who will love us, we also often (sometimes inadvertently) identify ourselves to those who hate us.
Sometimes this risk scares us so much that we stay quiet, and when we eventually do come out, or when rumors circulate about us, people say that the act of keeping silent was a deception.
So when you see us making a big deal of our sexual orientations, know that we’re trying to make the world a safer place for people like us. Know that we’re trying to find other people like us. Know that we’re trying to educate the world about people like us.
And know that the day the world is free from heterosexism is the day that we think about no longer making a big deal of our sexual orientations.
*In this post, I focus exclusively on three sexual orientations, since the question posed to me was rather narrow and did not touch on other sexual orientations or on gender identity at all.