Recently I have started to believe I am suffering from a severe case of queer exhaustion.
It comes from being the only queer person in a room. Or being outed at work to some co-workers I don’t know that well. Or having a well-meaning straight person tell me repeatedly that her kid “definitely isn’t gay” but he really cares about “those issues.” Or reading news about anti-LGBT legislation, that seems to be growing everyday.
At a recent party I was joking with my one other queer coworker about Mean Girls, and how we were both “too gay to function.” A straight coworker who was standing there immediately replied to our laughter with “You know I never said gay as an insult, even when I was a kid.”
Okay? I thought. Congratulations, you’ve reached the most basic level of human decency by not using someone else’s identity as a slur. Then I realized, maybe he thought we were saying gay as a joke, to make fun of ourselves. Maybe our long hair had tricked him into thinking we were straight women, laughing at “the gays.” I’m still not sure what he meant.
All of these incidents are tiny and from people with good intentions, but they add up and take a toll on my spirit. I’m tired of being used by straight people to make them feel like they’re good people because they are nice to a queer person. I’m tired of being erased by people who don’t think a woman who dates women looks like me. I’m tired of feeling like I then have to explain to these people why what they said was hurtful in my work place, and in my personal life, and to strangers I just met.
I am incredibly grateful that I came out at my liberal, historically women’s college, where the queer population is large and varied. Being queer has first and foremost been a joyful identity for me. I love being queer. If I could go back in time and choose my sexual orientation, I would pick being queer every time. It is the lens in which I see the world, and the vehicle that has pushed me into being a more compassionate person, and the means through which I have found my amazing partner. It’s like finding out there is a fourth primary color that everyone knows about, but pretends doesn’t exist. I didn’t come out to people outside of my college, because I wanted to protect that feeling of joy. But then I decided I wouldn’t downplay the person I was in order to make other people comfortable.
One of the tenets of my femme identity has always been practicing compassion and empathy for others. Even before I knew what femme identity was, I liked to be someone who others knew they could go to with their feelings and not be judged. For me, the basis of all relationships is the ability to be vulnerable with another person and trust that you will be received with love. When I started to think about being femme, not just as a way of presenting my gender, but as a way of being, I started to think about how I can practice empathy, not just with folks I’m close to, but also with people who hurt me and disagree with me.
And it’s hard. I am trying to learn how to be compassionate with those who offend and also give myself the room to feel angry when I am erased or tokenized or when I give my trust to someone and feel let down. Sometimes it involves explaining to people why their good intentions can still cause pain. Often it involves retreating to my queer community, to be reassured that I’m not being “too sensitive.”
Right now I am trying to learn the boundaries between caring for myself and allowing other people room to make mistakes. It can be exhausting when those mistakes are made with something I hold dear, like my queer identity, but I believe it is ultimately worthwhile.