thoughts on queer visibility from intersectional point of view

Hi. I am an Asian-looking woman in her 20s who’s been living in Germany for the past 11 years. And I’m also queer.

I wasn’t born knowing I was gay. In fact, being anything other than heterosexual simply wasn’t a concept in the country I grew up in. I started questioning my (hetero)sexuality when I had already been living in Germany for six years, and it took me another five or six years to the point I am at today.

But by the time I first started noticing my attraction to girls, I was already familiar with racism and the feeling of being the “other”. It’s a disconcerting feeling, like a bucket of ice-cold water being thrown over your head every day when you least expect it. It’s also a constant companion, because you can never escape it as long as you are among white people. It’s the feeling of alienation and isolation and paranoia. It’s Du Bois’ double-consciousness and estrangement from yourself.

This feeling of otherness has accompanied me every single day for the past 11 years. One of the reasons why it’s inescapable and such a huge part of my identity is because of my appearance. A race visibility, if you will. I recently learned that an adult needs only 120 milliseconds to register another person’s skin color. Only after that you notice the gender, age, etc. I can’t change the way I look, even though during my teenage years, I would have scraped my skin off if that meant that I’d turn into a white-looking girl. I don’t know how to explain the crushing – and this feels literal – sense of alienation, of isolation. The desire to jump out of my skin, only literally.

So when it comes to being an Asian, a foreigner, I was thrust into the battlefield way before I was ready, and it’s a battle I take up every day. Because being a person of color is a visible thing, sometimes painfully so. But how about being queer?

Admittedly, the majority of the years I spent in confusion about my sexuality (which will come and go, I am sure), I did so in my head. It was an internal battle, and even when I did first come out as bisexual (because that’s how I identified myself as for that period of my life), it was only to a handful of closest friends, plus my mom and my sister. Most of them were like, oh okay, and the topic never came up again. Because how do you portray your sexuality?

In our heteronormative culture, most of us are assumed as being straight unless told or shown otherwise. I am dead sure that I pass as straight for 99% of the time, benefiting from straight privileges. This experience of passing – it’s so different from my experience as being an Asian that I am flabbergasted. On the one hand, it’s so nice not to have to spend the time and energy on trying to diffuse the feelings of otherness. On the other hand, though, the otherness doesn’t disappear just because they are not visible. What’s more, this invisibility might even have a further consequence, and that’s questioning the legitimacy of my identity.

Being queer is something I had to establish first. Because it isn’t tangible, I tried to ignore it, run away from it, trivialize it. And most of the time I did so by keeping quiet about it. Even now, heteronormativity is so pervasive that I catch myself thinking that I am not really gay, of course I am straight, I’m doing all this just to get attention! (And then I imagine myself in a heterosexual relationship and hit myself on the head. Of course I love women. Duh.) You know what helps against this constant questioning of yourself? Talking about it. Talking with others about your experiences, their experiences, your feelings, their feelings. Connecting with other people and sharing stories help me realize that confusion is normal. Feeling conflicted is normal. Best of all, all forms of loving is normal: same-sex, different-sex, non-binary, pansexual, asexual…

In order to have these conversations, though, you have to find other queer people, and “out” yourself in the process. (The only way I can think of is to go about wrapped up in a giant rainbow flag, so if you have any ideas about how to display queerness, please let me know in the comments.) I realize that being out is not something that every queer person can safely choose. We all have to decide for ourselves when and how to come out. To be very honest, I myself am not sure whether I am prepared to be confronted with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) homophobia every day.

But here’s the thing: I won’t have to confront homophobia every day, because, compared to being a person of color, being gay is less visible, especially if you are not in a relationship. At the end of the day, I am torn between wanting to be visible – to own that part of my identity – and my desire for a less exhausting life. Because it does drain you of energy, this constant awareness of being the “other”. There’s no easy solution for this, only personal choices.

Stay safe. Be brave.

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labels and confidence

More than four years ago, when I first started to realize that I was attracted to girls and women, I tried on one label after another to see if one fit me perfectly. Questioning, bi-curious, gay, bisexual, and probably some more. These labels seem to come with neatly typed-up instructions onĀ How to be _______. At that time, I refused to see how complex humans are and that we can’t fit into a fixed number of boxes because there are always going to be people who feel like strangers in those boxes.

I didn’t mind people who refused labels. I didn’t think they were confused or anything. They seemed pretty convinced of who they were, theirs just weren’t one of the “typical” sexual orientations. But I still wanted to fit in one of those boxes as smoothly as possible. For me, having a label ready meant I knew who I was. I firmly believed I had to know who I was. I mean, if I didn’t know myself, who did? If I knew myself, I could confidently present myself to the world. I could deal with whatever crap that was thrown in my way because I knew myself and thus believed in myself. I thought I couldn’t support myself 100 % if I didn’t know myself. And for me, having a label I identified with meant knowing myself.

There are lots of questionable thoughts in the second paragraph. It feels a bit like deconstructing my own thoughts, but what I’m doing now is an important process nonetheless (for me, I mean. I have no idea of knowing whether any of this is relevant to you.).

Anyway, none of the labels sat comfortably with me. The funny thing is, by trying to break out of heteronormativity, I had designed just another rigid box for me to fit into. I had certain preconceptions of what it means to be gay or bisexual or straight. I had a hard-and-fast rule for each of them and didn’t even consider the infinite shades of in-betweens.

It’s not about what the label means, it’s about what you make of the labels. That means that my bisexuality isn’t going to match 100% with your bisexuality. If we had a room full of self-identifying bisexuals, we would probably all define “being bi” a bit differently. Heck, I thought I was straight for the first sixteen or seventeen years of my life. Then I thought I was “just” bi-curious. Then I thought I was gay. Then asexual. Then back to hetero. My sexual orientation fluctuates, and today that feature is my identity. Yep, I’m the person whose sexual orientation changes all the time. For the general public (if anyone asks), I’m bisexual. But it’s my way of bisexuality. In this regard, no one can tell anybody what is a “valid” sexual orientation (or gender identity, or racial identity, or ethnicity, or whatfreakingever) and what isn’t. We are not the ones experiencing what X is going through, so how can we condemn that what X is going through is “not real”? It sure as hell is real for X.

Labels are just that: labels. Whether you put “bisexual” or “gay” or whatever on my forehead, I still remain the same person in essence. Of course, the public perception changes as it reacts to the various labels. But the person underneath the label remains the same person.

I’ve been struggling with labels for years. I thought I didn’t have an identity if I couldn’t showcase a certain amount of labels. Somehow it seemed incredibly lame to just offer, Well, I’m me. But who is “me”? We offer labels as “facts”, as if they are supposed to give an insight to who we are. “I’m an American. I’m an accountant. I’m a man. I’m a fan of Manchester United. I speak Amharic. I’m divorced. I’m a sax-player.” Is this what we boil down to?

I don’t have a national or cultural label for myself. I can tell you I’m legally Korean. But I don’t feel Korean.
I don’t have a label for my sexual orientation.
I don’t always have a label for my gender.
For years, I called myself a “reader” but sometimes I don’t read at all for weeks and months.
Daughter, sister, grand-daughter – they are all tied to the gender. And I don’t always feel like a daughter.
And the most common feature: I keep changing all the time.

So I can’t define myself. Until a few weeks ago, however, I always felt the need to define myself. Because if I couldn’t define me, I couldn’t be me. Right?
But that’s not true.
I’m still me. Even if I don’t have a fixed contour, I’m still me. I still breathe, laugh, sleep and cry. I’m just one shiny box among seven billion other shiny boxes. And I’m not going to force my shiny box on anyone else. So why should you force yours on me?

Inspired by Jen’s video.