Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Oh, you're not gay? On my invisible pansexuality

My sexuality is fluid and I consider myself pansexual. I am still queer-identified though I have been in a straight appearing relationship with a man for almost four years. Outwardly, we look straight and people make the assumption that I am straight. I wear a rainbow colored bracelet around my wrist for a few reasons -- mostly because I just like rainbow colors, but also because I enjoy having the solidarity with my queer identity. It's like wearing a wedding ring to signal that you're married, I wear my rainbow bracelet to show that I'm queer. It doesn't make me love my boyfriend any less or wish I was dating anyone else. I just really don't care about gender, that's not why I love him.

I was getting my hair done in the Mission area of San Francisco last week, and I was casually making awkward conversation with my stylist to pass the time. I mentioned my boyfriend in passing, and she interrupted me and said "Wait, your boyfriend? I thought you were gay!" and pointed to my bracelet. I replied with, "I'm queer, but yes, I have a boyfriend." She kind of stayed quiet after that and I could see her kind of pondering how that could be possible. It was complete blindness to the concept of a bisexual orientation (or the possibility that I or my partner are transgender). Even though I don't consider myself bi, sometimes I will tell people that I'm bi just to save the inevitable conversation where I explain to them what pansexuality is. I should take the time to educate people, but it can be kind of awkward when I don't know the person.

This is just one example about how queer identities that aren't strictly same-sex can be stigmatized or erased. If other people see me walking down the street with Mr. Boyfriend, they assume we're straight. There is no possible way I could have a boyfriend and be anything BUT straight. Bisexuality isn't really seen as a queer identity, it's just something that you do while drunk. It's not really a Big Deal(tm) that people don't see me as queer when we're together -- being pansexual isn't something I necessarily want everyone to see in passing while they walk by. But assumptions like the one at the hair salon happen all the time. I've had it mentioned in gay clubs before - "why are you here? You're straight!" or from other gay people - "You wouldn't understand because you're straight."

Sometimes, wearing that bracelet helps other LGBT people know they can connect with me. At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this year, I was wearing my bracelet. Someone in the game industry who I didn't know walked up to me and asked if I was going to go to the LGBT Game Developers roundtable. I didn't even know that mixer existed, and if this person hadn't spotted my rainbow bracelet and saw me as a potential attendee, I wouldn't have gone to what was a very interesting event. I've struck up conversation with people at coffee shops about local queer-geared events. Sometimes having my visible 'proof' has been a good way to meet people and find conversation about similar interests.

I own up to my privilege. I know that I'm a middle class white cis woman who is able bodied (at least for now) and has had a lot of opportunities that others don't have. But people can be privileged in some regards and marginalized in others. I don't think it's fair that I have to answer to straight privilege when I am not straight. This is why there should be more careful discussions around privilege when it's not necessarily clear how people themselves are marginalized. I don't know people's income levels, their sexuality, or their mental health status just by looking at them. We love to bucket people into clearly divided groups based on affordances, but we should be mindful that we're not making assumptions about people based on our own stereotypical preconceived notions of what marginalized people look like.


  1. Thank you for posting this. Not only is it a very important topic in the grand scheme of the LGBTQIA civil rights movement, but it also is nice to learn more about you. I'll be completely honest: I did not know exactly what your sexual orientation was. While you're are certainly not required to disclose it, it does make it easier for other people to know where you are coming from, and to refer to you properly and respectfully as the person you are.

    With regards to bisexuality and pansexuality being invisible, YES, I wholeheartedly agree with that. It's funny how a couple can be in a primarily "gay place", like The Castro or West Hollywood, and if they "look straight", then people would automatically assume that they are either a straight ally, or enlightened friends of a gay person (or persons). I believe that most people don't immediately "go" to bisexuality or pansexuality.

    Oh, and I do agree about showing your colors. It's amazing the power just one little rainbow bracelet has! I mean, unless people stop you and ask you what your orientation is, then they may never know. (Unless you "look gay", which is stupid, but the stereotypes do exist.)

    The other really, really complex issue with bi- or pan- is how it relates to marriage equality. Simply put, a straight-appearing bisexual couple can legally get married, even though they are technically "queer". It just shows the absurdity of marriage discrimination.

    Again, thank you for posting this on your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and applaud you for "coming out" to all of us.

  2. So true. It's even more pronounced if you have a kid with your partner. You feel like you have to explain yourself to everyone, it's tiring to say the least.

  3. I don't understand what it means to you to say you don't think it's fair to have to answer to straight privilege. Straight privilege is something you get by falling into people's view of straight. I am a queer identified man in a relationship with a queer identified woman. She has a daughter and we definitely get straight privilege when we are together. I think that I have to work extra hard to feel like I'm not buying into that privilege.

    I also feel marginalized for appearing straight to some queer folks. I am certainly marginalized when "being pansexual isn't something I necessarily want everyone to see" but that is me marginalizing myself (sometimes because I'm too tired to go into it.)

    As much as I feel marginalized and in between and not fitting in and as difficult as it seems to be, I always feel like I need to acknowledge and own my straight privilege, even though I would never identify myself as such.

  4. Pansexual, Bisexual, Queer, Gay, ... G_d save me from the Semantics Wars. [Making warding gestures]

    After endless navel inspection, I've decided it gives me a stiff neck. I've settled on the Popeye Philosophy: "I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam." Mixing metaphors with an old drinking song, "... And those that don't like me, best leave me alone."

  5. Thank you. I actually didn't think about what I was saying until reading your comment. I certainly do understand why I have to answer for straight privilege when I have the privilege of passing as straight. I forgot about the fact that privilege is something you have whether you want it or not, and that its still something I have to own up to.