Competitive Queerness Gives Me the Ick

Against the backdrop of our world’s shitty transphobic and homophobic politics, one of the most disheartening and frustrating red flags I’ve encountered within the queer community is competitive queerness. It’s one thing to acknowledge and honor the vast variety of queer experiences and the different ways people have experienced marginalization and harm. But sometimes, often in the context of dating and partnership, I’ve encountered folks who try to pull rank, to be “gayer than thou” however they can. Sometimes it’s on the basis of their presentation; other times it’s because of how long they’ve been out or how many other partners they’ve had or currently have. In moments of generosity, I try to understand the impulse. Mostly, it just bums me out.

I’ve always thought of relationships as being like cells: living organisms, self-contained by only by the thinnest membrane through which fragments of the larger culture can diffuse in strange, sometimes counterintuitive ways. Diffusion happens, as we know, against a gradient. “It’s horrible out there,” I tell myself, “and the inside of our little cell is so gay. Of course things try to sneak in around the edges.” It sounds silly — and it is — but this is the best way I can explain how remnants of homophobia sneak in against the grain of queer partnerships.

I think of the “gayer than thou” phenomenon as an inside-out version of the “oppression olympics.” Rather than the “race to the bottom” that happens when people try to position themselves as the Most Oppressed, here I see people inverting those same interpretations to create a hierarchy approaching an impossible pinnacle of queerness. Then they leverage that hierarchy against friends and partners to affirm something about themselves. This has happened to me several times now, from people I’ve dated casually as well as those I’ve dated more seriously. Even though I’m secure in my presentation and experience, I’ve ended up with partners who want me to know they’re somehow ahead of me. I don’t consider myself femme, but partners who want to feel more masc than I am have called me femme anyway. Even though I’ve been out for a while, people who want to accentuate age or experience will call me a “baby gay.” Once, literally while on a gay date, the person told me that they would never have clocked me as queer. “Jackets like yours used to be a signal,” they said, “but now that’s just how all the girls your age dress.” Until that moment, I’d felt wonderfully, visibly, comfortably gay on my cute gay date. My stompy boots, my beanie, my leather jacket — these were all items I cherished and felt most like myself in. This felt worse than being erased; it felt like being actively and manipulatively misread.

My current crush characterizes these weird remarks as “I was gay before it got so big and played Coachella.” Every time, it’s been a jarring and disheartening way of making our shared marginalization as queer people into a competition, reducing the variegation of our experience to warped and patronizing scorekeeping. I know plenty of other folks have had this experience across a variety of identities, and it sucks every time in every direction. People use this pattern of behavior in biphobic ways, in butch- and femme-phobic ways and in ways that show disdain either for monogamy (insufficiently radical) or polyamory (insufficiently committed). For me, it’s been weirdest when it comes from someone whose presentation is relatively similar to my own — like, for me as a Carhartt Dyke, how is someone trying to pull rank when we can’t even tell whose overalls are whose? But the reality is that this pattern isn’t about any real difference or discrepancy. The point is that the goalposts always move, never in my favor. If our presentation is similar, then it’s about who’s had more partners. If we’ve had similar numbers of partners, then what really matters is how long they’ve been out. Any angles that would count in my favor never count at all.

There were reasons why I liked these people, even when they didn’t treat me kindly or respectfully, and I still feel protective of them when I imagine the ways that they must have been punished for these parts of themselves. When they flex their experience, I want to imagine that it’s a defense of their younger, vulnerable queer self. They’re trying to transform a site of harm into a source of strength. When they pull rank over me about their butchness, their femmeness or whatever, they’re shaking a fist at a world that told them they shouldn’t be proud of who they are.

Except, in this context, it feels like they’re shaking that fist at me instead. The unfortunate reality of this maladaptive impulse is that they turn their punishment around; they solve their problem of too-muchness by turning it into my problem of not-enoughness. As my friend Gus says, this isn’t about shitty queers or even dating shitty people. “Sometimes we speak like we’re the ‘only’ even when we’re literally speaking to ‘another,'” Gus tells me. This residual harm, this chip on the shoulder, this something to prove — they’re proving it to the wrong person. They’re gay-tekeeping.

The counterintuitive and counterproductive ways that these ghosts of homophobic harm infiltrate queer love are hard and painful. I may not be insecure with my presentation or with how I date, but it stings to discover that a partner or crush perceives me as somehow deficient. It stings extra, I’ll own, coming specifically from someone I love and care about, whose affirmation would have meant so much to me. I’ve spent so much time imagining the harms that precipitated this for them, but I’ve spent precious little time receiving any such consideration for the patterns this friendly fire might inadvertently perpetuate for me. When I feel mislabeled in ways that don’t reflect my presentation or experience, I find myself overcorrecting or overemphasizing certain things in a desperate bid to be seen as I am. In response to these kinds of comments, I’ve rearranged my bookshelf to make my familiarity with queer literature, theory and history unmistakable. I’ve become self-conscious about the uncontrollable pitch of my voice and considered some questionable-at-best haircuts. There’s nothing wrong with being femme or with being newly-out, for example — it’s just not where I’m personally at, and when someone misrepresents me, I end up exaggerating my own androgyny or emphasizing my own prior experience past what feels right, just to make them acknowledge it at all.

There’s no way to win, of course, because in making their problem of too-muchness into my problem of not-enoughness, they elide that as another queer person, I already have my own problem of too-muchness. “Not queer enough” for them is already “too queer” by far for the world at large, so I’m stuck. The thing is, even if I’m not the one inviting this insecurity within the membrane of our relationship, the onus to digest it still lands on me. Because it’s from someone I love, I end up trying to prove myself in ultimately meaningless ways to fulfill their vision of my queerness and to appease the one person I shouldn’t have to. I’m a dyke trying to be in queer love and do fun gay shit with another queer person, and for them to question my credentials is to question my authenticity in the world.

Identity politics are fraught, and it’s hard to untangle it in ways that still feel fair. But I’ve learned the hard way that if someone tries this weird queer negging on me, I’ve got to go. Diffusion only stops when the gradient is evened out. I don’t want the dynamic within our cell to be dictated by events outside of it.

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Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 53 articles for us.


  1. This is SUCH a helpful articulation. As someone who maybe “wins” at some of the metrics (# of partners, visibly butch, clocked as queer by everyone who sees me), I try really hard to preempt and diffuse this when I feel it being present.

    I appreciate the way you both empathetically extended yourself toward others, but also recognized that you deserve the same thing and got clear on what was and wasn’t okay for you. I’m trying to learn that balance.

  2. I recently had a really unpleasant interaction with someone who had essentialist views of lesbianism. I won’t go into the whole ordeal (it was some pretty nasty transphobia) but one thing that hurt me personally was telling this person that I was demisexual and having them turn that against me. They insinuated that I wasn’t a real person, let alone a real lesbian because of that, and that I had no right to “condemn” transphobic lesbians because I don’t “get” how sexual attraction works.

  3. Thank you Yashwina for writing this piece and thank you everyone who shared today. I have also experience this within the community. Am glad we are talking about it. It makes me feel less alone too.

  4. As someone who was queer at the first Coachella, I never understood this type of thinking. I’ve only ever had a few queer friends in my life and I can’t ever remember a time where our queerness was even discussed. Never felt the need to I guess.

  5. Been there in my twenties (long before Coachella) and I’m sad but not surprised to see the urge to “win” at queerness hasn’t gone away. You’re right that you can’t win with these people except by walking away and refusing to play the game. I think that, even more than internal homophobia, some people deal with their insecurity by finding a way to prove that they are superior. It can be queerness or political/moral righteousness or even food tastes, and I guess the person one is dating is the easiest target to find. I hope you find more mature folks to date in the future!

  6. I’ve noticed that in queer spaces I constantly have to disarm people, there is just an overall scarcity mentality when it comes to empathy and people frequently project negative experiences onto others who share aspects of identity with those who have hurt them in the past.

    If I’m in the right headspace I will make an effort to soften, to not take passive aggressive comments about people like me personally, to remember that I am not personally responsible for a stranger with the same haircut as me who was rude to someone else in 2013. It can be sad though to sit and wonder if I will ever get to exist outside these lines.

    • Hooo boy thank you for this! I was That Person on occasion for a good while after I came out. In my experience this attitude is rooted in insecurity and an attempt at pride that misfires really badly. Once I realized this I started working to recognize and unlearn the impulse because it sucks for everyone else and didn’t actually make me feel any better either. I appreciate the empathy you extend when you’re feeling more generous and also agree that you absolutely do not have to put up with that bullshit!

  7. thank you for writing this. i feel ~seen~ and ~heard~ I’m a late bloomer queer that only realized I was gay in the last few years and had no clue how people ‘signaled’ to each other they were gay— I come from a rural background where I never knew any other gay people growing up except my best friend for the longest time. then I moved to Austin, Tx where queer culture is alive and well luckily, but being bullied by my peers for not looking queer enough was hurtful and invalidating to me. even tho I do dress/look queerer than I did a few years ago it still happens but I choose to not give af anymore haha

  8. I think the issue is also that people who judge their partners like this don’t see or want to see and understand the other person but they only see their projection they have of the other person (where the other is less queer and must for example be femme because they are a butch who only dates femmes) so in a way for them the other person are a means to get a need met and not a partner.

  9. Wow, I relate very much with this post. Thank you for writing it, Yashwina and Autostraddle for sharing!

    When I made my first tentative steps out of the closet back in the early 00s and started meeting and getting involved with lesbian and bi women, I was really shocked by the competitiveness and ruthlessness of women and the, to me, unachieveably high expectations they had of others who they sought out for romantic and/or sexual encounters.

    If you hadn’t watched the right movies or listened to the right music or read the right books or hadn’t taken women’s studies courses at uni or didn’t have a gym-buffed body or weren’t planning on postgraduate studies or weren’t a spontaneous and exciting, risk-taker, it seemed to me that lots of women considered someone not good enough. I also felt women treated each other, and especially newbies, like commodities to be consumed and then chucked aside.

    It’s sad to read that queer folk today are experiencing similar…

  10. This article was written for me when I first came out and bought the ubiquitous blue button down with small white dots. It looked terrible and I felt bad in it. Phew!!! Glad that’s over

  11. It is incredibly frustrating that we continue to do this to each other. I feel secure in my sexuality and my coming out story(ies). There are moments when someone I care about says something, even teasingly, such as “I’m gayer than you” or whatever, it makes me feel incredibly defensive.

    Thank you for giving my feelings words!

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