The Postmodern Queer Identity Movement

“So, what’s with all those lesbians marrying men?” the father of a gay son asked me at the recent annual meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). He had been talking with a group of parents who were trying to make sense of why their out and proud queer kids had suddenly started dating people of the opposite sex. They worried that it was internalized homophobia in action. PFLAG has always taken the stand that sexual orientation is not a choice, but a birthright. Now these parents were more confused than ever: Should they march in the Gay Pride parade with their I Love My Lesbian Daughter sign and send her books on loving her lesbian self, or should they wait out this “gay phase” and hope their gay son would marry a woman and produce some grandchildren?

For years, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals repeated like wind-up dolls: “Love is love, no matter what body it comes in, and we deserve equal rights.” But the new “fluidity” of sexual identity leaves us in a state of linguistic confusion. Should an out, gay man who turns around and marries a woman continue to call himself gay? Should an out lesbian who turns around and marries a man continue to call herself a lesbian? This new breed of queer people struggle with what to call themselves, and the gay and lesbian community has strong reactions, no matter what label they end up taking on. As Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan writes of her own shift from kick-ass queer to married-to-a-man in Bamboo Girl (No. 8, 1999), “What does this mean? Am I still queer?”

There’s a certain point in economics when the really conservative theorists start to sound a lot like the really radical theorists. The same could be said about postmodern-day queer identity, which is starting to sound like the Christian-based Conversion Movement–the people who run those full-page ads in newspapers all over the country inviting queer people to convert to heterosexuality. But if it’s not a matter of internalized homophobia driving proud and out lesbians and gays into the arms of the opposite sex, then what is it?

The most common explanation is that all along these people were “really” bisexuals who came out as lesbian or gay because they felt little support or respect for their bisexuality. And though the gay and lesbian community started to cop to its anti-bi attitudes in the mid-’90s, there is still some stigma attached to the label. Alcantara-Tan resisted the “bi” label for herself: “Being bi isn’t a derogatory term at all . . . but that is not how I choose to identify.” Her reason: “There are too many ‘queer’ marches and events that only include lesbians and gays; bi and transgender people are peripheral. That’s always the vibe I’ve gotten, and perhaps that is partly why it was so easy to say ‘I’m a lesbian, that’s it’ when I was in a lesbian relationship (needless to say, I also felt strongly lesbian and I still relate that way a lot of times).”

As psychotherapist Bret Johnson explains in In the Family (July 1998), gays and lesbians often go through a second coming out, from lesbian or gay to bisexual–sometimes decades after their first coming out. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, coming out meant making a break from heterosexuality,” he writes. “But in the late 1990s, we are witnessing a break from gayness and lesbianism.”

But, he adds, “the new wave of coming out almost looks like going back in. . . . It’s as if we’re seeing a challenge to the old, modernist way of thinking ‘This is who I am, period’ and a movement toward a postmodern version, ‘This is who I am right now.'”

The queer community is a “huge pack,” writes psychotherapist Marny Hall in In the Family (April 1999). “Our survival depends on belonging. We’re so worried about breaking up with the pack that many of us stay closeted about the variety of relationships we have.”

Still, being a married bisexual person “does put you in a position of privilege,” write Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot in Anything That Moves (No. 20, 1999). “Now what are you going to do about everybody else?” they ask. “How can you practice responsible ownership of that privilege?” They offer four ideas: Stay visible; fight for all relationships and families to be treated equally in your workplace; practice good marital status etiquette–be sensitive to the fact that not everyone else can get married; and see yourself as part of the family diversity movement.

Speaking for those who don’t want the old labels to lose their original meaning, Sky Gilbert, writing in THIS magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2000), challenges queer people to hold onto our labels and not become homogenized–not leach the labels of their original, potent and political meaning: “The existence of a sexual continuum does not strip sexuality of its politics,” he points out. It’s a good point. Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was a gay man; same-sex couples can’t be married; and it is still dangerous to be out in the military, among other places.

“Until a leather dyke and effeminate queen are delivering the nightly news, labels ought to be ubiquitous,” writes Gilbert. “And queers should claim them, embrace them, and revel in the differences they signal.”

Perhaps this needs to be balanced with what Bret Johnson notes about the new generation of queer people he works with in therapy: “They don’t want to fit into any boxes–not gay, straight, lesbian, or bisexual ones. They want to be free to come out as who they are, when they are ready to decide that, and then they want to be free to change their minds.”

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