baseball

Three strikes, you’re out: Exclusion from the queer community

I’m a 28 year old bisexual femme woman living in San Francisco.   I had my first sexual experiences with women in college, and while I initiated and enjoyed them, I was hesitant to identify as bisexual because these hookups occurred with men present.  Involving men in the sexual events provided both my female partners and me the opportunity to explore our attractions to each other in a heteronormative context, which felt safer and less intimidating, but also somehow had me feel like it delegitimized my desire for women.  I was also hesitant to identify as bisexual because, at that point in my life, I didn’t want a relationship with a woman and I thought I must be equally attracted and want the same types of sexual interactions with both women and men to be bisexual. 

My last year of college, I entered a long-term monogamous heterosexual relationship and was thus able to shelf all of my confusing feelings for women for quite awhile.  After college, I entered a PhD program in sociology to study gender and sexuality and, while preparing to teach an undergrad class on LGBT identities and expressions a few years later, I came across an article called “Two Many and Not Enough: The Meaning of Bisexual Identities” by Paula Rust.  In this article, Rust argues that it is not experience that defines a bisexual identity, and that one does not need to be equally attracted to men and women nor does one have to want the same kinds of interactions in order to be bisexual.  It was while reading this article that I came to fully accept and own my identity as a bisexual. 

While I had come out to myself, it wasn’t until my relationship ended a year later that I finally came out to others and looked to find a place for myself in the queer community, a community to whom I was already a long-time ally and advocate.* Finding acceptance in this community has proved to be a very difficult process, and three years later I am still struggling.  I attribute my experiences of exclusion to the following three dynamics: distrust of my femme appearance, bisexual invisibility and the delegitimization of bisexuality, and my preference for other femme women.    

* I realize that there is not one queer community, but I am resisting the pressure to further divide and exclude. 

Strike 1: Distrust of Femme Appearance

At worst, my femme appearance can cause my queer brothers, sisters and others to associate me with those who have judged, shamed, and bullied them.  At best, I am assumed to be an obliviously privileged heteronormative ally who could never fully understand the hardships of the queer community.  It is true that my ability to pass as a “normal” straight woman affords me many privileges in our society.  My passability, however, also means that I often am denied access to the queer spaces I so desperately seek.   Common experiences of social exclusion are the bonding adhesive of the queer community.  In true ironic fashion, my inexperience with exclusion from heteronormative society means I am often excluded from the queer community.  

Two weekends ago was Pride in San Francisco, and I spent that Saturday afternoon blanket hopping from friend group to friend group in Dolores Park.  When I met up with a female lover, I felt like several of her lesbian and trans friends viewed me with skepticism and mistrust, as if I was an outsider infiltrating and contaminating their space.  Of course I am sensitive to feeling excluded from queer spaces and it is impossible to tell how much of my fear of being excluded colors my experience and may even create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Regardless, I can objectively state that I was not invited into many conversations or invited to join them in their evening Pride plans.  On a day when we are supposed to celebrate love and our pride for our queerness and our community, I felt excluded, and that hurt.

Strike 2: Bisexual Femme Invisibility and Delegitimization

Working in conjunction with the widespread distrust I experience within queer circles, my invisibility as a bisexual is another force that serves to exclude me from the queer community.  As a bisexual femme woman, I am almost always assumed to be heterosexual.  When I’m out with a guy, even if he’s just a friend, I am assumed to be straight.  When I’m out with a girl, I’m assumed to be straight.  Even if I’m making out in public with a girl, I’m often assumed to be a slutty straight girl.  It is very difficult to feel like a part of the queer community when no one knows I’m queer.  I often feel like I need to shout it from the rooftops wearing my “I’m queer.  Yes, seriously.”  T-shirt. 

I end up coming out over and over again, usually facing people doubting the legitimacy of my sexual identity.  Even my mom, a liberal psychologist without a homophobic bone in her body, told me that she thought I wanted to be bisexual because I thought it was cool.  Biphobia, while often unacknowledged, is rampant.  I know several closeted bi women who publicly identify as lesbians because they don’t want to face exclusion and ridicule from their lesbian friends.  The sexuality of those who identify as “straight” and “gay” is polarized to tail ends of the spectrum as bisexual behavior is effectively policed with shame by both communities.  This delegitimization of bisexuality serves to further conceal our presence in the queer community and contributes to my feelings of being excluded. 

Strike 3: Femme-Femme Relationship Preference

One last, depressingly oppressive barrier to inclusion in the queer community is my desire for femme-femme relationships.  It is very difficult to find other femmes who want to date femmes, and gender dynamics have often proved difficult to navigate.   My attraction to femmes is on a physical level, not necessarily on a behavioral or personality level.  I want a partner who enjoys playing with the gender spectrum, sometimes taking the more submissive “bottom” role and sometimes taking the more dominant “top” role but most often taking neither. 

I recently joined OK Cupid in hopes of finding a femme partner and my experiences have not been successful.  Many butch women have contacted me, and although I love their attention and the feeling of actually being seen as queer, I have not been sexually interested in them.   Many women in relationships with men have messaged me, hoping that I would join them in a kinky triad, but again I am not interested.  Not one femme has initiated contact with me.   So I’ve scoured the site for potential partners, vulnerably sending messages in hopes of a possible connection.  Out of the many women I’ve contacted, few responded.  Some told me they were looking for a more butch partner, another said she wanted to be the only queen in the relationship, and a few said they were open to being sexual with another femme but did not want to date one.  Only one femme was willing to meet, but after she flaked on our plans twice, I gave up.  I have had such difficulty finding a femme partner, and my lack of experience contributes to my inability to access the queer community.  This exclusion serves to only increase the difficulty I experience finding a femme partner, thus creating a cycle of increasing exclusion.

I have decided to vulnerably share my coming out story and my painful experiences of exclusion because I am committed to raising awareness and sparking dialogue around the challenges queers face in finding acceptance within our own community.  Have you ever felt excluded as a result of your gender presentation or sexual preferences?  How do other identities, such as race and class, also serve as barriers to inclusion in the queer community? Have you ever policed boundaries, segmenting the queer community in a way that excludes members of our queer family? Are you willing to consider the ways in which you may have perpetrated the same intolerance you’ve experienced in your life? Although I realize my experience and these questions may be triggering for you, my intention is not for anyone to feel defensive or alientated.  Rather, it is my hope that this trigger will generate the necessary conversations around this important issue that will ultimately serve to positively impact and strengthen our community.

10 comments

  • Matthew Becker

    Hi Alison,
    Quick disclaimer: straight 30 yr old male here. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your article. I am pretty new to reading about gender issues but I’m very supportive of LGBT rights and I enjoy reading articles like this to gain different perspectives from the different communities and identities.

    One reason I enjoyed this is because, while I don’t identify as queer or any sort of LGBT, I have found my own struggles in becoming close with people who identify as one of those. As a straight, white male who tends to come across as pretty masculine and opinionated (or so I’ve been told), I’ve always felt a sense of distrust and skepticism from a number of gay friends and acquaintances. Some of course are accepting and I don’t worry about how they view me but more often than not, I can feel the distrust in the way I’m viewed, spoken to, and reacted to. It’s frustrating and at times has led me to claim my “queer” friends are more judgmental and less accepting of differences than my straight friends.

    Don’t want to write too much but just wanted to leave some sort of commentary because of how your article made me feel. Nice writing and I’ll be sure to look at more of your blog now that it’s been pointed out to me. All the best. :)

    -Matt

  • LisaM

    addendum:
    I hesitate to say ‘should’…..
    I would have rather stated it as….
    ‘would benefit farr greater to’…..

    (still trying to teach myself that there are no “shoulda”).

    : )

  • LisaM

    It is my belief that rather than seeking out a ‘community’ that separates one from the whole we should focus on being ourselves no matter where we are or who we are around. This, in turn, may allow others to express themselves in the same manner. We seem to seek out those who are ‘like us’, further separating ourselves from others who we may have met had we allowed ourselves to BE “us”.

    This, of course, can be an uncomfortable process. This discomfort, however, brings forth those fears in ourselves that keep us from BEING in the world. maybe we don’t want to cause discomfort in others, maybe we don’t want to experience the discomfort resulting from the fear of what others may say or do that expose our differences. MAYBE we have deep fears or uncertainties within ourselves that are not wanting to be sucked to the surface and be exposed so that we can face them, accept them and then….let them go….let them die away…that part of our ego that does not want us to be happy, have community with others ‘outside of our box’.

    Just be Ali….
    The people who are supposed to be in our lives are there when it will be most beneficial to us.
    As I am often told, ‘Nothing is too wonderful for you’. Nothing is too wonderful for ANY of us!!!!!

  • Salami

    fogarty! this is a fantastic article!!!!! i love it and want to send it to lots of people i know. thank you for your vulnerability and for laying out so clearly the issues that you personally face. these are things many people deal with but NO ONE TALKS ABOUT – and its about time they are talkeld about. i face my own issues as an androgynous/butch bisexual woman because most people don’t believe i can be attracted to men looking the way i do, and a lot of straight men don’t approach me likely because they are socialized to only be interested in femme women. this hasn’t always been true, but most of the time, these are the issues i face. i also don’t feel like i have a community and thus i’ve identified as a lesbian most of my life. we should talk more in person!!!!! i miss you….great job, keep writing! lovelove

  • Miss Bee

    Alison, I have also observed some of the challenges and road blocks that you have in gaining the trust and acceptance of the queer community as a femme. My own personal opinion is that femme is an innate expression of ourselves that is unrelated to who we have sex with or even love; it is an amplified expression of ultra-feminine gender. I believe one can be femme whether they are gay, straight, bi, queer, or even asexual. I believe one can be femme if one is a cisgendered man or woman, a trans gendered woman, or a gender fluid person. These are my personal opinions and I understand that not everyone shares them. Many people, especially of older generations, define femme in the context of butch and exclusively in the context of cisgendered women. While my own experiences and beliefs about gender don’t mesh with this concept of femme, I appreciate the history behind this concept and I have a great deal of respect for the people who do adhere to it, especially people of older generations. It is thanks to those people that today you and I have the freedom to tell the whole world on the internet that we are women who are into other women, that we can even publicly discuss topics of gender.

    For me, although I share your enthusiasm for inclusion for femmes of all kinds, I feel that your article misses the mark just bit. I’d like to gently suggest that the exclusion you are experiencing is less related to your expression of femme, and more related to your understanding of the queer community. Much of your article focuses on how you feel excluded and in this article I feel as though you are asking the queer community to make space for you. I feel that at the same time you gloss over the “Common experiences of social exclusion” that you have not shared without pausing to consider why those experiences are important to the people you feel excluded by. You spoke of being at SF Pride and not being included in conversations with your queer and trans friends. I’ve sat and listened to my older queer friends talk about Pride parades where they had bottles thrown at their heads. You spoke of your femme privilege and how that privilege also excludes you from the community you feel connected to, and having to come out over and over. I have to escort my butch partner and trans femme friends to use the women’s restrooms when we are in public for fear that they will be either harrassed or arrested. They too experience a daily battle of coming out that in many ways can be physically dangerous for them. You spoke of the negative experiences you had with your college educated mother; a mother who (I assume) still speaks to you, who has not disowned you and I would presme is supporting you in one way or another in the pursuit of your own degree. I would wager that this is much more than can be said of many of your queer and trans friends.

    When I came out as femme I was partnered to a straight man for 5 years. Like you, my family is largely college educated, as am I. It took me a lot of work to gain the trust and acceptance of the queer community, even when my relationship with my partner ended and I began dating butches exclusively. The queer community saw me as a “obliviously privileged heteronormative ally who could never fully understand the hardships of the queer community” and in all honesty I have to say that they were right. Coming to terms with my own privilege was difficult but I have found that the trust and respect I’ve been able to gain in the queer community has been less the result of the relationships I am in and more the result of my attempts to understand and respect the community I felt connected to. I don’t share many of the experiences of my peers because my class and privilege have allowed me to avoid those experiences. I honor that others have and continue to have to fight a hard fight for the freedoms of all queer folk. If a little exclusion is the worst I’ve had to experience as a result of being a queer femme, well that’s a privilege all in itself, isn’t it? I would gently, gently suggest that if you shift your focus less onto asking the queer community to make space for you, and focus more on understanding and having respect for the existing space you are trying to find a place in, you might have more success.

    All of that aside, I would like to say that I “see” you, in all of your beautiful bisexual femme self and I have no doubt that there is a place for you and you will find it some day.

  • Sallie

    Thank you, Alison, for mirroring my own experiences. I had hoped, though, that bisexual women coming out recently would have more accepting experiences than I did in the 1980s.

    I too, at first, rejected the idea I was bi because I accepted the ignorant notion that I had to “choose” one or the other gender. Finally, in my mid-20s, I decided such a choice was not necessary. My first bisexual pride button said only “Politically Incorrect.” I was active in feminist and leftist activism. I figured people would get it. Some did.

    I’m old enough to have seen “B” be the first initial added to the subsequently ever-growing LGBTQA. It is sad those of us who claim any but the L or G must still fight for acceptance among others who identify outside of heterosexuality.

    I am also a femme interested only in femmes. The femmes I have asked out have turned me down (might have have personal, who knows!)

    It is unfortunate the “femme” and “butch” define so much of queer women’s experience. Aren’t rigid gender roles part of what we are trying to transform?

    As for the attitude that cisgender bi’s can’t “understand” or “appreciate” or “share” discrimination against gays and lesbians — a) bullshit b) I also thought we’ve left behind our contests over who is more oppressed. It is sad to find that the same-old same-old discrimination among us remains.

    Thank you for your article, and here’s hoping femme-on-femme loving can thrive outside het perspective.

    Blessings,
    Sexual Psychic Sallie

  • Sister Ivory

    Thank you for very eloquently putting this into words. I’m 29, femme, into femmes, and living in SF. I do very frequently feel deligitimized in the queer community, to the point where this year I didn’t go to Pride because of it.

  • Hayden

    I am sorry that any of us have to feel excluded.

    I’d like to talk about two things; community and exclusion.

    I have heard the arguments about the idea of a LGBTIIQQA (did I miss any?)community for a long time. We talk about there being a community that is united, and about how many feel there is no community.

    I think we might not be focusing on the right questions about the community.

    Nor do we ever define what community means. Which means that every single one of us has different ideas about what it means.

    And what are the different levels that community are built upon? For LGBTIQQA the biggest common denominators are sexual preference, sex and gender. Are those enough to really build community around? Maybe.

    Maybe we need to have a collective next step on the way to community. I think that is to live as better people with one another. I want to know that the people in my community have my back, that I can trust them.

    Part of the challenge is that we are trying to build a community from individual interests and our mutual interests tend to be sex, partying, popular culture, and political action. I don’t know if any of those have enough stability to create community around.

    On the point of exclusion, I certainly have felt excluded by subgroups within the umbrella community. I doubt that I would feel included in some groups because of my boy cooties. I also feel excluded sometimes from many of the men’s groups as well because I do drag and for other reasons. Some of those reasons are my own emotional, psychological, spiritual baggage.

    And, somehow, I don’t expect anyone else in the community to change to make themselves accept me. I would love that, and I think it is possible and natural for people to change, but I don’t expect it. What I am able to do is waive my freak flag fully and freely, and I am finding that community is finding me.

  • Leah

    Thanks for the article. It’s difficult to put into words what it’s like to be rejected from a community that you so identify with. I myself have had many of the same experiences. Mistrust, disdain, and outright shunning because the person I fell in love with happened to be male. It’s as if the 10 years I spent dating women are devalued as a “phase,” when to me they were the formative years of my relationship-building skills. Yes, if a bisexual person chooses a mate of the opposite gender they are socially more accepted. But it’s not “copping out,” it’s love. Love should not be cause for exclusion from any community. You’d think that the gay community would realize that quite clearly.

  • CTP

    Sounds to me like there’s a need for a femme-femme dating site. I firmly believe than no one is “the only one out there who….”