We grow up in a straight world. That is news to precisely no one. LGBTQ people like me spend a good part of their lives grappling with society's heteronormative effects on our inherent queerness and sense of self.
When an international campaign for marriage equality kicked off circa 2012, there was a clear message that gay people – myself included – were trying to tell straight people. "We're just like you" was salient throughout the op-ed pieces, the speeches, and the press interviews.
I want to bring you back to something Barack Obama told ABC News in May 2012. "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," he said of his then-evolving position on marriage equality – he previously only supported civil unions for gay couples, not full marriage rights.
Obama said his personal journey towards his acceptance on the matter came about after thinking of "members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together."
The New York Times called this "President Obama's Moment". I, then a 20-something gay man in a same-sex relationship, was proud of Obama, as were most of my peers – the chino-wearing, rosé-drinking, brunch-eating, middle-class gay men we all were. "Somebody understands us," we all communally cheered. "The most powerful man in the world has accepted us and thinks we're all equal!"
Looking back now, I'm ashamed of having this line of thought. Queer people weren't being acknowledged as being unique and thus still deserving of basic human rights. We were being accepted as "straight presenting" enough to warrant those rights.
As far as Obama's audience – not just the American public but the world – was concerned, the fact that some of us were in committed, monogamous relationships with houses and children and respectable careers made us worthy to the heterosexual world. All of our inherent queerness had been taken away.
The things that make LGBTQs some of the most interesting and intelligent people around – our non-conformity, our general Live Your Best Life attitude – had been straightwashed. And we, queer people, having been denied so much since the dawn of time, still lapped it up.
As a writer, I was so excited by the prospect of full legal marriage rights that I wrote article after article disseminating this same message to straight people: I'm just like you, so I deserve everything you do.
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Marriage equality laws were passed in New Zealand a year later in 2013. After three years in a committed, monogamous, hetero-presenting relationship with a man, I married my husband in November 2014. We were the exact representation of the accepted same-sex couple Obama spoke of. We had assimilated. Our homosexuality, and love for each other, was okay because straight people could understand us; we weren't a threat to them.
Years later, my shame in this way of thinking bothers me. I wish I'd been braver and written columns which sent another message: we LGBTQs ARE different, we have our OWN world and experiences, and we are STILL deserving of equal marriage. I never had the guts to write that because I felt so thankful being fed crumbs by straight society even though I really should be getting a whole meal.
A 20th century ideal of sexuality has become one without labels. There should be no need to "come out" or define yourself as one thing or another. In theory, it's a wonderful thought.
If being gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, fluid, questioning, or anything else under the queer spectrum weren't something for which we could be discriminated against (whether socially, politically, legally, or religiously), labelling ourselves would not seem necessary. We could all just "be", right? I break from many progressive LGBTQ pundits on this. I think labels are important.
Labels of queerness are part of who we, LGBTQ people, are. They're not EVERYTHING we are. But they do tell a story. There's pride in identifying with one or another. Absorption into the mainstream has its benefits for minority groups like queer people, but to suggest sexuality doesn't matter in one's identity is another way of straightwashing.
If you're the straight observer, when a person takes on the label of gay or bi or trans is has no impact on you. But for the person who holds that identification, to remove the need or desire to label themselves is to ingest them into wider society as "just another person". It removes the importance of the value they bring, the heritage and diversity they contribute, and only helps them be forgotten by the majority.
Or, rather, it helps their perspectives become invisible, so they don't challenge white heteronormative conventions.
We shouldn't want to be invisible. The perspectives of every LGBTQ person are valid, and straight people need to hear them because there's much to learn from them.
Personally, the labels of "gay" and "queer", with which both I align, are vital parts of my personality. Being gay is not ALL of me. But it's a big part of me.