I debated a lot before I decided to post this blog entry. I have been active in the LGBTQ movement for thirty years now. I know the damage that anti-gay attitudes do to people are not heterosexual. Gay kids and trans kids still kill themselves at alarming rates. Queer folks are the target of an incredible about of violence and discrimination. And despite meeting the equality goal of being able to legally marry (a very middle class goal), we still have miles to go before queer folks will be able to exist without the threat of violence, being fired, and being harmed in a dozen other manners.
Despite that, I decided to post about identity development and phases. I feel like I can speak as an elder of the community, because once you are queer and over 40, people think you look like Gandolf the Grey and have the knowledge of the universe at your wizened fingertips.
When you are gay and turn 40.
Continually Changing Identities
I have seen a development in gender and sexual identity in the past ten years that needs to be addressed. People claim one identity, then radically shift and claim another identity. Then do it again.
This is mostly a manifestation of normal identity development. When people enter their teens, they start trying on different identities. Kids will be goth, or emo, or jocks, or punks, or whatever identity attracts them at the moment. The become very committed to that identity for a period of time, then change. We all know the goth chick from high school who grew up to be a soccer mom with three kids living in the ‘burbs and her wardrobe is now all pastels. We consider these phases a natural part of development and the photos fodder for giggles when the person is well past that stage.
Until this century, people tried on sexual and gender identities as well, but we did it silently. When I came out in 1989 I knew other gay kids. I only knew one out lesbian and she was in a different school district. I knew a dozen gay kids at my school but they all pretended to be straight. The struggle was silent or only revealed to a few close friends.
The result of this secrecy was a lot of dangerous and self-destructive behavior. Friends tried to (and some did successfully) kill themselves. Some met older men in secret. Some were raped or beaten. But we did not talk about this outside a very closed circle. These were definitely not “the good ol’ days.”
Gay for Today
Today, we have made some progress. People are more open about sexual identity and gender identity and relationship styles. Much of this is good. However, the struggle to find an identity is as open and exposed as the punk kid who now runs a Fortune 500 and wears Brooks Brothers suits.
A lot of people see this flitting between identities as “fickle” and “immature.” In a way, it is. You have to grow into who you are. Its a normal part of identity development. It is okay to try on a bunch of identities to see what fits. In my generation, we called them LUGS (lesbians until graduation) and joked about a girl-on-girl “college experience.”
While my generation was allowed to have the “college experience” as a way of “finding ourselves” and not be horribly mocked, this generation is being forced to declare loud and repeatedly how they identify. Social media creates platforms where people feel it is necessary to declare, “I’m gay!” or “I’m poly!” or “I am trans!” then, when their identity shifts (as is completely normal and has been happening for generations), they have to recant and then uncomfortably explain that the while they were adamantly lesbian, they now really like sucking dick.
A Socially Healthy Response
So, what do we do? First, we as a society, need to recognize that gender and sexual identity is not a bifurcated thing that gets set at birth. Most people have a strong tendency toward hetero- or homosexual. Most people have a strong connection with their gender, be it cis- or trans. Many people learn monogamy first then many experiment with other forms or relationships.
Healthy people grow, change and evolve their identities over years. Having a very strong and loud opinion about gender and sexual orientation is a normal part of the late teens and early twenties. Wanting to shout on all social media outlets the new-found identity is completely normal (annoying, but normal). Chastising people for proclaiming one identity they changing down the road does no good for anyone.
We need to stop demanding that people declare their identities on so many forums. Providing alternatives of “evolving,” “questioning,” and “not stuck in the binary” as gender and sexual identities would allow for the type of growth necessary for identity development (and might reduce the perception of being fickle).
Regardless of what the identity is, someone needs to be supported in their quest to understand themselves. Someone tells you their preferred gender pronoun, use it. Someone tells you they are gay, know that at that moment, for that person it is real and meaningful. Someone demands they are adamantly heterosexual, let them know that that is okay, but oppressing others who are not will not be tolerated.
Just like the kids in high school who are tied to a punk identity or a jock identity or anything else, these identities are real and meaningful, if only for a brief period of time. Telling someone “its a phase” will only make them feel isolated and resentful toward you.
I was lucky. I knew I was queer early. I knew my gender and the gender of romantic partners didn’t matter to me. I knew I didn’t always feel like “a girl” but I did not have pressure to declare myself “trans.” That was a gift. I spent a couple of years working to figure out if I was trans and found that I wasn’t. If I had the pressure of Facebook, Twitter and the rest demanding a public identity, I would probably not be so lucky.
This will be hard to understand. Gender identity, sexual orientation, and relationship styles evolve for people. In that way, many of us have “phases.” However, where ever we are at any one point in our life, those identities are real, meaningful and need to be supported.
The world is getting trickier to navigate. The bottom line is, we are all evolving and we are all deserving of love. Even those of us who are queer and in out 40s. We wizards all need some love.