Photo: Grabowski Foto / Shutterstock
By: S.E Fleenor/yourcupid
When I first became serious with my partner, who at the time identified as a cis man, people were shocked. I was out and proud and fiercely queer.
As I grew closer to my partner, though, I felt like I dropped too low on the queer-o-meter, like my decade of dating almost exclusively women was outweighed by the gender of my current partner.
To this day, people who would have historically read me as queer seem befuddled when I out myself.
“So are you poly or what?” “Do you have a lot of threesomes?” “But isn’t your partner a dude?” “What’s the deal with ‘partner’ anyway?” “You’re straight now, right?”
I feel equal parts frustration and shame in the face of these invasive questions. All I can think is, “Why can’t I just be queer enough?”
The public perception of queer relationships can exclude queer people
“Very few people feel queer enough. Very few people feel trans enough,” says Sorin L. Thomas, MA, LPC, LAC, CGP, ACS who is the founding and executive director of Queer Asterisk Therapeutic Services, a counseling, educational, and community center for queer and transgender folks and their families based in Boulder, Colorado.
“I like looking at it from both angles: Do I feel like I can claim that I’m in a queer relationship and also what do other people have to say about that? Am I queer enough to be in a queer relationship in their eyes or not?” Thomas clarifies that it’s unfortunate but true that people value other’s perceptions of them “even in how they reflect on themselves: ‘Well other people think I’m not in a queer relationship, so I must not be in a queer relationship.’”
The impact of not being recognized for who you are can be psychologically and emotionally damaging, especially for LGBTQ+ people who are excluded from queer communities. “It’s another way that a human being is made to feel that they don’t belong,” says Thomas. “When people are exiled from community, it’s one of the most devastating [experiences].”
And, when that message is internalized, it can be deeply damaging. “It erodes our sense of self and belonging,” says Thomas. “And belonging to a social network is essential to survival.”
The elusive nature of belonging in queer communities
How do we measure belonging?
Well, trans and nonbinary youth who have their chosen names respected are less likely to experience depression, suicidal ideationm and suicidal behavior, and trans folks who feel they belong in a trans community experience better mental health outcomes.
Dating and relationships can be a minefield of transphobia and misgendering for trans and nonbinary folks both when it comes to seeking a partner and within relationships, which can make a sense of belonging elusive.
Bisexual people experience worse mental health outcomes than gay lesbian, or straight people and “frequently report belonging in neither heterosexual nor gay and lesbian communities, while access to bisexual-specific communities is severely limited.”
When queer communities refuse to recognize some people and relationships as queer, it has negative impacts on the people in those relationships.
Erasing identities affects queer people
Shawn Wheeler, a cis, male, pansexual, bisexual woodworker from Providence, Rhode Island, is uncomfortable with using the word queer to describe himself, but feels very strongly that it is the correct word to describe his relationship, even if it isn’t always read as such.
In many situations, Wheeler’s partner decides not to correct those who misgender him, but it can be challenging for Wheeler. “I’d almost rather be hated by people for being queer and get harassed…because we’re a gay couple than be seen as straight,” says Wheeler. He knows he doesn’t get to out his partner, but when his partner is misgendered, Wheeler’s sexuality is also erased. It’s a difficult and unexpected refraction of erasure.
Shanna Katz Kattari is a nonbinary, queer, chronically ill, white, Jewish, middle class, disabled, polyamorous femme who is an assistant professor living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. They often feel erased as a queer femme person.
“It has made me lonely,” says Katz Kattari, noting that when they attend queer events they are read as a straight ally. If they host queer events, however, they are read as a member of the community. “The amount of extra labor that goes into that is really exhausting.
“We assume that because someone is in a relationship with a partner of a different gender, they must be straight,” they say, discussing one of their partner’s transitions and how it changed the way people read Katz Kattari. But they don’t agree: “Every relationship I’m in is going to be queer in some flavor because I bring my queerness to the relationship.
Hana Low, a biracial, Chinese, queer, nonbinary, vegan nurse of color living in Denver, Colorado, has a slightly different perspective on what it means to be in a queer relationship. “Being in an intimate relationship with a straight person…can be difficult. Even if they’re a really kind person, they just don’t understand a queer experience,” says Low.
They have found relationships with straight people to be incredibly isolating, though they note they loved their exes. “To have a shared experience of what it means to be queer or what it means to be trans and nonbinary makes the [relationship] much richer.”
Vanessa Roberts also understands the feeling of being erased. “As a femme biracial woman, there’s not a space I walk into where I feel like people read me as a queer woman.” There are “intersecting assumptions that Black people don’t do gay and because I’m so comfortable with my femininity, I couldn’t possibly be gay.” Roberts is biracial, Black American and German, pansexual, cisgender, queer, and the executive director of Project VOYCE Denver, Colorado.
Roberts’s partner presents as masculine and is often misgendered as a man. “We pass as straight, but at least we’re still interracial,” says Roberts with a laugh.
“People have been getting my identity wrong as long as I can remember, particularly as an ethnically ambiguous person of color. Especially as I get older, I don’t care,” says Roberts. “It doesn’t change my internal narrative. If someone sees me as straight, that doesn’t make me doubt myself.”
Queering relationships and breaking free of others’ perceptions
Shea martin, a queer, gender nonconforming Black educator and researcher living in Vermont, wants us to think more critically about our relationships and queerness. “There’s so much misogyny and racism and transphobia in the queer community…I don’t think if you’re in a relationship where you’re promoting the ideals of cis and hetero relationships, you can be queering relationships. Can you be in a queer relationship? Yes. Are you queering relationships? No.”
As a counselor and as a queer person, Thomas echoes martin’s words while knowing how damaging isolation from queer communities can be for queer people—and how necessary community is to resilience, sense of self, and survival. “When we don’t have it, it’s really hard to take care of ourselves and feel known,” they say. “And something uniquely different we can do as queer folks who have experienced oppression is not perpetuate that shit.”
“Whatever you’re doing can be in alignment with your gender identity and whoever you’re with can be in alignment with your sexuality,” says Thomas. “Instead of being defined by what we’re doing, we can define ourselves—then whatever we’re doing is a reflection of who we are. If I’m queer, then, whatever relationship I’m in is queer.”
Reclaiming queerness for myself
Today, I’m a different person in a different relationship. I understand my bisexuality differently; I understand what it means to be nonbinary differently. I’ve learned to accept, embrace, and celebrate my transness.
At the same time that I’ve been coming to understand my gender and sexuality, so too has my partner. They now understand themself to be a pansexual, genderfluid,person.
And our relationship? Well, our relationship is an queer as it’s ever been—even if that’s hard for some people to understand.
We’ve found a new balance in our queerness, a new intimacy, a new kind of trust in ourselves and each other because of our queerness. No small part of that is due to the way we’ve stopped paying attention to what others think of us. It’s liberating to know my queerness is mine and can’t be taken from me by anyone.
In martin’s words: “I can’t operate and embrace my queerness at the speed other people are embracing it. I’m queer and I’m in a queer relationship and I’m going to enjoy that.”
S.E. Fleenor writes novels and articles centering on queer identities, feminism, pop culture, and literature. Their work appears in The Independent, Buzzfeed Reader, Vice, them.us, and SYFY WIRE, among others. They co-host Bitches on Comics, a pop culture and comics podcast, and are an editor for DecodedPride.com and QueerSpec.com.