Strategic Essentialism and Queer Identities: Validation or Exclusion?

From general terms like queer, to gay slang like cishet, there are so many labels now that the majority of people, both inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community, have no idea most of them even exist. And yet, queer people often find that their label, or lack thereof, defines them both within and outside of the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, in many ways, this can be empowering, giving queer people validation and an opportunity to express their identity. However, the minefield of personal opinions, ignorance, casual homophobia and exhausted indifference which surrounds the concept of strategic essentialist queer identities means that the topic becomes a lot more complex. Despite being proud of their identities, a lack of understanding and even homophobia can lead to strategic essentialist views of LGBTQ+ people that are deeply problematic.

Being defined by your sexuality can be incredibly validating as an out-and-proud queer, as having that part of your identity recognised by others can encourage you to feel confident and supported to fully embrace it on an individual level. As a queer person coming out, accepting this part of yourself can be difficult; many queer people battle with internalised homophobia and denial about their sexuality. But once you’ve reached the point of being able to ‘come out to yourself’, or, in other words, finally accepted yourself for who you are, it can be significant for other people to see you by this new identity. Once people see you as your sexuality, there’s no longer any need to hide that part of yourself and conform to societal expectations, as there is no longer a worry of what people may assume about your sexuality.

Embracing your identity by accepting and working with other people’s strategic essentialist views of your sexuality can be a very positive thing in terms of feeling understood. However, the lack of awareness and understanding of different labels and/or queer identities can make being defined by your queer identity challenging, as it can perpetuate prejudices and ignorance, whereby people feel no need to look beyond the label. In particular, biphobia and bi-erasure are big topics of contention at the moment, as bisexuals are often excluded due to not fitting within the binary construct of being either straight or gay. Commonly, bisexuals are seen as promiscuous or indecisive due to ignorance surrounding their sexuality, for many, this can make them reluctant to embrace being defined by that label. Similarly, general stereotypes about being LGBTQ+ can make it hard to express that side of your identity as you can feel judged for either conforming to or rejecting the stereotypes surrounding your sexual orientation. On top of that, casual homophobia and off-hand comments about your sexuality can make you feel both misunderstood and even targeted by people who define you by your sexuality.

On the flip side of this, though, being viewed as your sexuality within the LGBTQ+ community confirms your inclusion in that community. It helps you to find your group within the community, who can be instrumental in both helping you to accept your identity and deal with prejudice as well as educating you on the community and life as an LGBTQ+ person. Within the community, everyone is seen as their sexuality to some extent, as it is partly what establishes the community, making this self-definition feel normal and unimportant. There are, of course, problems with being aligned with the LGBTQ+ community as well, even though some may want to believe it’s all glitter and rainbows. Our society is still a heteronormative one, meaning that being anything other than cisgender and straight irrevocably defines you as ‘other’. Whilst outright discrimination is starting to become more of a thing of the past, this doesn’t mean queer people are accepted with open arms, there still is a sense of cautiousness towards members of the community which can make queer people feel uncomfortable and self-conscious in expressing their identity. Using gay slang and talking about LGBTQ+ topics such as drag or even just a same-sex crush can make you feel like you’re isolating yourself, or pushing people away, as they may be uncomfortable with these topics. Some people may hold onto such strategic essentialist views that they can’t see past the fact of your sexuality to realise that, though you might be interested in LGBTQ+ culture to some extent, this shouldn’t define your entire identity to the point where you can’t interact with people outside of the community.

At the end of the day, many queer people just want their sexuality to stop being an act of protest. Recognising that being queer is part of your identity is an important step to accepting yourself and integrating into the LGBTQ+ community can help in that process because you are seen as your sexuality. However, being defined purely by your sexual orientation, which is, ultimately, only a small part of what makes up your identity, is frustrating as sometimes it seems like people can’t look past your sexuality and their own prejudice to be able to see you just as yourself. The fact is that trying to occupy the in-between of not being solely defined by your queerness and simultaneously embracing that part of your identity will continue to be a struggle until heterosexuality stops being the norm.

– Katya Green

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