Identifying As Queer In a Straight-Passing Relationship Exposed me to the Isolating Reality of Queer Invisibility

Since high school, when I came out as a lesbian, most parts of my life have at least been informed by and at most completely revolved around my identity of being queer. My work, friendships, and community all have components of queerness included. I played on a gay rugby team in college; much of my published work is about coming out, queer sexual health, and how to be a good ally to the queer community; and the TV shows I’m most likely to binge, like The L Word, all feature queer characters.

But now, for the first time in my life, I’m in a monogamous relationship with a heterosexual cis-man. While this relationship is still absolutely a queer relationship because I, a queer person, am in it, it is a straight-passing relationship. Meaning, when he and I are seen together, we are both perceived to be heterosexual—and that distinction matters.

Immediately, even in just going out to dinner, I noticed our straight-passing privilege. While in relationships that weren't straight-passing, my date nights were often tainted by stares from other diners, waitstaff mis-gendering my partner(s), and the fear that accompanies the simple action of walking home from dinner while holding hands. None of these overt challenges are present in my current partnership, but that's certainly not to say that being a queer woman in straight-passing relationship isn't without it's drawbacks.

That's because on the other side of this privilege is queer invisibility: I present and identify as a woman, so when I hold hands with someone who presents and identifies as a man, I am assumed to be straight, attracted only to only men. So when I am with my S.O., my identity as a queer person is rendered invisible.

I present and identify as a woman, so when I hold hands with partner who presents and identifies as a man, my identity as a queer person is rendered invisible.

Queer invisibility is a function of both biphobia (prejudice toward bisexual people) and monosexism (the belief that everyone is and should be attracted to one gender, and the system that supports and rewards such beliefs), says social worker Sula Malina, a therapist in training at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City. In other words, they say, society is quick to incorrectly conflate my current partner (a cis-man) with my sexual identity.

What does this look like in practice? Let’s return to the dinner-date example: When in a relationship that reads as queer, looking at and nodding to another visibly queer couple is often met with an enthusiastic smile, a nod back, and recognition of sharing an identity marker. (Basically: "Look, people like us!") But the first time my current partner and I went out, a lesbian couple sat across the way from us. When they caught me notice them kiss, rather than seeing my stare as appreciation for their public affection, they were made visibly uncomfortable by what I can only assume they thought was my blatant gawking.

Of course, the fact that this duo felt at best uncomfortable and at worst in danger as a result of my actions is far more impactful to their experience than my experience of not feeling seen as one of them, by them. But this was the first time I realized that I would have to work to actively acknowledge my straight-passing privilege and grapple with the queer invisibility that came with it. If I didn't, I'd risk feeling alienated from both myself and the queer community at large.

“Not being recognized as queer—especially when you were used to being read as such—can lead to problems with identity. This invisibility can even lead to mental-health issues and disconnection from your true self and identity.” —Shannon Chavez, PsyD

“Not being recognized as queer—especially when you were used to being read as such—can lead to problems with identity,” says Shannon Chavez, PsyD, psychologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist with K-Y. “This invisibility can even lead to mental-health issues and disconnection from your true self and identity.” Since understanding this, I've worked to actively affirm my queer identity and connect with the queer community in a way I never did when I was in queer-presenting relationship structures. Malina suggests strategies like joining a queer sports team, making and nurturing queer friendships, reading up on queer history, volunteering time or donating money to LGBTQ+ organizations, and listening to queer podcasts.

But all of these worthy ideas were already part of my specific queer existence—so I turned to reading lesbian erotica to feel connected to my identity on a nightly basis. With the turn of every page, I simply felt more queer, and Malina says this makes sense. “Just the reminder that other people have similar sexual desires as you can be powerful and bring you a sense of pride, inspiration, and comfort in who you are,” they say, adding that finding pleasure in solo sexual experiences and exploration (whether with erotica or otherwise), can serve as an important reminder that your sexuality isn’t defined by your partner. It can exist outside that relationship—no matter your sexual orientation or relationship structure.

So now, when my partner is watching Ozark, I'm reading Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body or The Leather Daddy and the Femme, by Carol Queen, PhD. When I'm sitting next to him in a park, I proudly devour Fiona Zedde’s To Italy With Love or Eve Ferris’s Reunion. And on nights when I’m in the mood and he isn't, I whip out Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year Volume 4, edited by Sinclair Sexsmith or The Night Off, by Meghan O'Brien.

Of course, I still struggle with not feeling or appearing queer (or queer enough) from time to time. But I feel great that I'm working on that with intention every single day—and that my bookshelf is benefitting as a result.

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