LGBT Identity in the Generational No Man’s Land

*Disclaimer: this essay is written from the point of view of someone who is 22 years old, white, Jewish, college-educated, and from an upper middle class background. I am someone whose queer experience aligns with mainstream LGBTQ+ culture, and I recognize that certain statements I make in this opinion essay do not apply to 100% of American LGBTQ+ people. I can not speak to the experiences of those who grew up in communities and families of color, nor can I speak to the experiences of those who are still living in the parts of America where queerness remains unspeakable, and will not attempt to do so without interviewing those folks personally. This piece attempts to speak to the experience of LGBTQ+ youth within their/our own youth and LGBTQ+ circles, as well as the development of LGBTQ+ identity and its relationship to the media and the overarching cultural narrative that accompanies it. Unfortunately, I can not address everything I want to address regarding the complexities of queer identity and its intersections with race and socioeconomic class, nor am I the most qualified person to do so.*

I forgot it was today.

Fifteen minutes ago, I was minding my own business and doing some quality late-night Internet lurking. My phone was about five inches from my face, and my left arm was crushed under the weight of my upper body (but still holding my phone loosely in its grip). I opened up my Facebook app (as I do every hour or so…oof), and was immediately reminded, at the top of my newsfeed under “On This Day”, that today is National Coming Out Day.

Five or six years ago, I would have been already planning my triumphant yet nerve-wracking Facebook post. You know, the one where I would post something along the lines of: “I AM PROUD despite the constant threat of violence and the fact that I can’t get married and lack basic human rights. Just know, baby gays, that it is okay. You have a home in this community, despite what the evil straights who surround us might think.” I would already be wearing my GSA-distributed rainbow pin on my scarf. I would already be emotionally preparing for the subtweets and Yik Yaks and questions about “attention seeking gays” and “faggots” which would undoubtedly be about me and the however-many-other open gays in my Lexington High School cohort. I would already be debating which family members and peers to block from seeing the post, and my stomach would churn with the knowledge that I was very publicly stating something about myself that was still genuinely taboo, even in my relatively liberal Boston suburb.

Today, I realize that I have completely forgotten about National Coming Out Day, and I honestly would have forgotten to acknowledge it entirely had I not seen the reminder of its former utmost importance to me. I also realize that, compared to when I was in high school and even early college, I don’t ruminate over the ways my sexuality separates me from others quite as often — something I never thought I’d say. It feels like yesterday that I was a flamboyant teenage homo, inherently separate from all those around me, different and proud of it during every waking moment of my young life. What the hell changed?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently, as I cross the threshold into true young adulthood, about and my peers’ and my cultural experience of adolescence, and one thing that has stuck out to me is the fact that we happened to come of age during a period of breakneck societal, political, social, and technological revolution. Those just a handful of years older than us came of age during the height of post-Cold War neoliberalism, when social change was slow but steady, computer fonts were awkward and pixelated, memes were made of a picture and a usually shockingly offensive top and bottom text frame. During this more rigid time, ideas of LGBT identities were often strictly limited to gay and straight in the public eye, and even so, gayness was seen as something quite taboo — acceptable in the realm of Say Yes to the Dress, Will and Grace, and Project Runway. The idea of trans and non-binary people existing in the public eye was something most cis people never even thought about. While people of queer identities other than cisgender gays and lesbians existed and thrived underground, they were thoroughly marginalized to the point of invisibility in the public eye.

Now, just a handful of years later, the world is unrecognizable. I don’t even need to go into depth, as we are all here experiencing it, but the world is interconnected to a level which is beyond comprehension. Information is disseminated at a breakneck pace, allowing for people who might not have previously been aware of the LGBT community and its intricacies to be exposed to our culture on a much more personal level, which has led to a massive shift in public opinion. The majority of Americans support gay rights. We can get married now. Ten years ago, openly gay celebrities were often either taunted and ridiculed, or their coming out was put on a huge shiny pedestal for the world to gawk at (see: Adam Lambert, Ellen DeGeneres, etc.). Now, loads of public figures are open about their own fluidity of gender and sexuality, creating a whole new generation of people who are fully accepting of the fact that sexuality exists on a spectrum, and that gender identities are not strictly black and white.

This transition has been extremely rapid, and seems to have occurred largely during this past decade. The difference between 2010 and 2019 is extraordinary, and the years between featured such rapid development that it has completely shifted the public perception of queerness, as well as people’s own interpretations of their own queerness, especially among young people.

These past ten years also happen to span the entirety of my peers’ and my adolescence.

What does this mean? It means that when 14 year old me first told my closest friends that I liked boys, it was still a somewhat dangerous statement. Obviously my experience was nowhere as painful or legitimately terrifying as that of someone who came out during the 1970s or 80s, but it was still scary and carried the risk of bullying, torment, and rejection. I will always remember the jeers and the name-calling. I will always remember the time I was pushed up against a locker by a boy in my class, terrified while he mocked having sex with me while his friends laughed on the sidelines. I will always remember the beer bottle being thrown at me from out a car window, the bottle caps pelted at my head at parties, and all the other painful reminders of what it used to be like. I remember all of it like it was yesterday, because it was really not that long ago.

The bunch of us who came out in the late 2000s and early 2010s had the Millennial experience of early adolescent gayness. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (a revolutionary but now very dated bop) had recently come out, inspiring me and other young gays to be brave about our identities in a country which was still dead set on preventing us from accessing equality. However, as the media only aimed to portray gayness in a highly fetishized, one-dimensional way, trope was laid out for us to fill — the scarf-toting, “yasssss” screaming, fag hag-surrounded, sassy but lovable homo, the kind portrayed by characters such as Emmett in Queer as Folk. I remember having the distinct sense that this was my destiny: to fulfill a stereotype, but work as hard as possible to make that stereotype into a positive portrayal rather than a pejorative.

Throughout the course of my high school career, social media exploded, and with it came an increase in public awareness of LGBT culture and activist visibility. In 2011 and 2012, I was tormented by classmates for being gay, and “f*ggot” was a word I heard far too often. By 2015, the hate was still there (a boy from my high school called me a “f*ggot” on twitter as recently as 2016, when I was already in college!!!!), but it had been dethroned from its predominance by the overwhelming acceptance and even good-natured idolization of cis-gayness that so characterized the Buzzfeed/CollegeHumor era. I remember feeling like I was on top of the world. Gay was cool now. Equal sign profile pictures proliferated. Everyone rushed to post their Pride Parade Instagram post. My overwhelmingly straight peers wanted to hear about my gayness and my fabulous gay adventures and my fashion advice (that I was completely unlicensed to give, as I dressed very questionably in high school). Marriage was passed. Hillary Clinton declared her presidential candidacy. All was well.

Then came Pulse, and Trump, and #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo, and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, and waves of real grassroots upset that radically changed the ways the general public thought about gender, sexuality, race, class, and their intersections. In the face of the end of the world as we knew it, “truth” became a relative term (for better or for worse, as we have now seen), identities became more fluid and malleable, and the conversation became more multi-dimensional and intersectional, out of sheer necessity. While I, an affluent white suburban gender-nonconforming gay, had possessed the notion in 2013 that my struggle against torment and humiliation epitomized “The New Civil Rights Movement”, myself and others like me were (thankfully) enlightened to the fact that our gayness and gender nonconformity and the inherent struggle therein did not absolve us from our other privileges that we enjoyed. While startling at times, I recognize now that this change represented the phasing out of the isolation of the Millennial queer youth experience, and the replacement of it with the expansive acceptance of the sexuality and gender spectrum and the widespread queer identification that so characterizes the Gen Z queer youth experience.

Since this shift began, conversations surrounding sexual and gender fluidity have become normalized and accepted as fact in many youth circles, and I have noticed more and more of my friends coming out — except this time, many of them are folks who had previously considered themselves straight, but had repressed their attraction to other people of their gender. Many of them, including myself, also have also begun to realize that they are, in fact, nonbinary or gender nonconforming, and that their/our ingrained conception of gender had previously warped their/our perception of their/our own gender. As more and more public figures have begun to come out as fluid, bisexual, nonbinary, gay, lesbian, pansexual, you name it, the conversation has become so normal and so second nature that I have actually begun to assume that people I met (in liberal circles) would be LGBTQ+ in some capacity, or at least well versed in our culture due to media exposure. With this noticeable and precipitous increase in the quantity of LGBT people around me, I have, in the past year or two, begun to think less of myself as a separate, uniquely gay entity, and have begun to conceptualize myself as someone just like those around me — fluid, but simply placed at my own point on the spectrum of gender and sexuality.

And that brings us to now. I am exiting my adolescence in a period of time that would be totally unrecognizable to my 14-year-old baby gay self. My peers and I have had the unique experience of growing our queer identities through both the “radical pride in traditional LGBT identities in the face of tremendous adversity and oppression” which so characterized the Millennial queer adolescent experience (as well as those who came before), as well as the acceptance of fluidity in identity and permission of exploration which so characterizes the Gen Z queer adolescent experience. And, to be honest, I believe that bestows on us the obligation to, if we feel able, bridge the nascent gap between those who developed as queers exclusively on either side of that cultural shift. Since we can relate to the sentiments and experiences of both sides, we have the unique ability to act as mediators between two giant factions of LGBT people who experienced, and continue to experience, two distinct LGBT cultures. Misunderstandings and internal divisions along racial and generational lines have always been rife in the LGBT community, and as people who are natively familiar with both the LGBT cultures of Queer as Folk and Euphoria, we must attempt to bridge the gap between the two.

Coming Out, in the public eye and in youth circles, used to be thoroughly transgressive and universally risky. Then, it was celebrated, but still attention-grabbing. Then it moved towards ubiquitousness, and the conversation turned to its necessity (or lack thereof). And then…it became what it is now: something that, in many environments, is so normal that it often is stated for the first time as a casual matter of fact rather than a declaration. And although I sit here, still extremely young but prematurely misty-eyed and nostalgic for the very recent days when I could say “yaaassss” and immediately grab the attention of every straight girl and woke straight boy, I say…thank goodness for that.

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