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 thouwp_postshowever 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,wp_postsI tell myself, “and the inside of our little cell is so gay. Of course things try to sneak in around the edges.wp_postsIt 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 thouwp_postsphenomenon 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,wp_poststhey said, “but now that’s just how all the girls your age dress.wp_postsUntil 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.wp_postsEvery 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,’wp_postsGus 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.