The Feminist Closet
Which is part of the reason why June 26, 2015 was a life-changing day for me. As a queer woman who’s considering marrying another woman, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality opened doors for me. And beyond guaranteeing the right to marriage, the Supreme Court ruling made national news, increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ people and issues. One study showed that the passage of marriage equality in individual states led to a decrease in the overall teen suicide attempt rate and an even greater decrease among the lesbian, gay, and bisexual teen populations in those states. Marriage equality has had a quantifiable positive effect, even on populations not immediately affected by the ruling. Clearly, it’s an important step forward.
Before I continue, I want to point out that I am speaking from a privileged position because I’ve never been seriously concerned about the logistics of marriage. Marriage equality came about when I was only 16. Unlike many before me, I won’t have to move to live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, and I won’t have to worry about whether my marriage will still be recognized if I move to a different state. Because of the efforts of the movement that began decades before I was born, if I do decide to marry, the process will be a lot smoother than it was in 2014.
Having discussed all the wonderful parts about marriage equality, it’s important to realize that marriage isn’t the end-all-be-all of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. It never was, it never will be, and any suggestion that it is is naive at best and detrimental to the movement at worst.
Unpacking the institution of marriage reveals its roots in heteronormativity and sexism. The history of marriage includes traditions of women being passed around like property from their fathers to husbands. Even seemingly sweet gestures, like the groom asking the bride’s father for her hand in marriage or the father walking the bride down the aisle while the groom stands alone and independent, all reinforce women’s dependence on men while men remain independent and authoritative.
I’ve been asked this countless times. The first time was when I was 15, and the most recent time was just a few weeks ago. I have a complicated relationship with the term “lesbian,” and whenever I get asked this question, my response varies—ranging from “kinda” to “not really” to a flat-out “no.” I’ve tried out the term a few times and it doesn’t seem to fit me well, so I tend to avoid it when expressing my own identity. But, reflecting on this terminology made me think about about the ways we use language to identify ourselves.
Language can be useful in naming experiences. For example, if someone tells me they’re a lesbian, I immediately understand that they are a woman who is attracted to other women. Obviously, there’s more to that person than just their identity as a lesbian, but that seven-letter-word has given them a quick way to convey a general sense of one part of their experiences. Language can also be useful in creating communities. If this person who self-identifies as a lesbian finds another person who also self-identifies as a lesbian, their shared usage of the term represents some shared identity that they now have the language to discuss. They can access resources and join social groups geared toward lesbians. Language can be incredibly useful and positive for some.
But, language can also be tricky. Some LGBTQ+ people identify strongly with a specific term (such as bi or trans or gay), while others may choose to not label themselves. This could be because they don’t want to feel boxed in, or because they haven’t found a term that they feel best represents their identity and experiences. Some people may not have a word to describe what they are, but they know what they’re not. In my own experience, I’ve come out many times as “not straight,” and sometimes I’ll explain further, and other times I won’t.
Language can also be complicated by the fact that identity can be fluid, so a person’s gender or sexual orientation may change over time, across a wide spectrum. In a broader context, I’m a very different person than I was five years ago, and there are some aspects of my life that were essential when I was 14 that no longer apply to my present life. That doesn’t mean that I was lying before or that I’m confused now; it just means that I’ve evolved over time, and parts of my identity may have shifted. The same goes for gender and sexual orientation. While some people’s gender and sexuality are constant, for others, gender and sexuality can change. No one should feel chained to identifying a certain way just because they’ve “always” identified that way.
So what does all this mean for all of us?
Last year, one of my classmates asked me this after I had repeatedly stated that I find people of many different genders attractive. I was a bit taken aback by the question, which was dismissive of everything I’d just explained and also relied on the assumption that sexuality is a choice. How am I supposed to choose?
LGBTQ+ people have existed for the entirety of human history; in the last few centuries, many have lived their lives unnoticed or forced to hide. Others who spoke out or lived openly faced discrimination, violence, and even death. Visiting this museum allowed me to get a closer look at this often unrecognized history. I gained a greater appreciation for the work that trailblazers did so that I, as well as future generations of LGBTQ+ people, can have an easier life in a more accepting society.
Naturally, I was not looking forward to section. Our Teaching Fellow started class with the disclaimer, “Assume best intentions, and say whatever’s on your mind.” Many students took his advice and spoke exactly what was on their minds, including bi-erasure, a strict gender binary, and the link between homosexuality and mental illness.