Every culture has them. And we know what ours are.
They’re the stereotypes, the popular definitions, the expectations, the images of what a lesbian, gay man, bisexual person, transgender person, queer person, or any of the others in that alphabet are supposed to be.
They’ve been used against LGBTQ+ people to portray them as useful caricatures that eliminate LGBTQ+ people’s individuality, even their humanity, so they aren’t seen as individuals but something alien to the mainstream, something deviant, something scary. Discrimination needs to do that in order to justify the victimization of any group of human beings and soothe the consciences of the bigots.
What Pride parades often attempted to accomplish was to show the world instead the variety of what it means to be an LGBTQ+ person. None of the stereotypes used against LGBTQ+ people fit everyone or even most people that paraded past us.
And that’s the reality. But so much is built on the idea that there is a stereotype, a way to be LGBTQ+ that identifies people who are.
Those religionists who fight against LGBTQ+ human rights love to push and play on those stereotypes. They enable the religionists to define LGBTQ+ people as others, as those people, and even inhuman and ungodly by touting restricted, stuck, gender-rigid, patriarchal, sectarian dogmas.
Yet even those who identify so can begin to think that if I have come out as LGBTQ+ or whatever, there is some sort of way that I must perform that identity. Even though every coming out story is an individual one with no set formula, and no manual as to how one should have come out, there’s a danger in believing that when one does, there must be something real in the picture we’ve been given by our culture.
And if I don’t meet up to the expectations, there must be something wrong with me. Others of my own group might even criticize me for not meeting some of those expectations as well. And then I’d be an outsider to them too.
Stuck with stereotypes that stick?
As a number of very supportive mothers of gay men, some even active in groups doggedly fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, have said to me: “I knew my son was gay early because he was so gentle, kind, caring, and uninterested in the usual boy things.”
But there it is, you see.
There’s an assumption there about what a gay man should be like as if no heterosexual man would be gentle, kind, caring, and uninterested in the accoutrements of conditioned straight masculinity. And that’s an example of how certain characteristics conditioned to be thought of as “gay” stick even among those who don’t use them negatively.
I want to ask, then: Do we who are supportive, unconsciously pressure youth (or adults) who come out as LGBTQ+ or others to be, to perform, to come to their identity in a certain pattern? Do those who come out feel pressured to come out a certain way and express themselves a certain way when they do?
This is a delicate subject, for there are those who will find themselves fitting the stereotype in one way or another. That’s one of the very human possibilities for anyone who has thrown off the restrictions of the “straight” role. TV, movies, and life itself, have shown us heterosexual people dressed in drag.
But are we somehow giving people the message that if you really are LGBTQ+, etc., there are conditions expected of you if you so identify? Are we ourselves not comfortable letting each one explore, discover, make mistakes at, revise, or redefine what their coming out means? And if in that process they don’t end up “where they’re supposed to” as someone else defines them, are we just has happy for them?
No transgender ‘recipe’
We know that there is something personal to any coming out story. Each one involves an individual journey with ups and downs, mistakes and successes. No one ever does it perfectly.
We know that the word “transgender” covers such a variety of manifestations of that identity that recent attempts to legalize discrimination against those who so identify use mostly false images to characterize what all “transgender” people are supposed to be like. It’s easier to discriminate when a whole group is painted with the same brush, especially one that also misrepresents them.
But there is no tried-and-true transgender recipe, no owner’s manual, no simple set formula, for the realization, the process of coming out, or even how a person who rejects the rigid gender binaries or maybe accepts them and comes to terms with them, defines themselves in the context of their own heart.
It’s just not for us to tell other human beings how they must be to fit into our definitions. It is for us to recognize that there is nothing that one has to do, or be, or perform, to come, or be, out.
And we need to speak up about that as people, young and old, struggle to find their own place in LGBTQ+ communities against the odds. We need to say: There is no way you have to be, nothing to which you have to conform, to be LGBTQ+.
We also must face the fact that coming out as any of these identities does not guarantee that we have dealt with our emotional and psychological issues. It’s just one thing to check off our list on the way to a healthier humanity.
On top of the emotional baggage that millennia of oppression have heaped on LGBTQ+ people, we also have the same emotional and psychological issues of anyone brought up in a society that continues to emphasize profits over people, consumption over contentment, and judgement over justice.
When someone has rejected so much of what society expects of everyone, we need to celebrate their journey and let them know that theirs is their path and that we support it. It is a journey, not a tour pre-planned by anyone, any institution or any community, even by those in LGBTQ+ communities themselves.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.