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I’m a Millennial (born in the early 90s), and lately I feel like I was “raised” in old queer culture and as a result don’t fit in with young/newly out queers. I realized I was queer in high school, in the mid-2000s, when my family and friends still dropped slurs and criticized gender non-conforming clothing. I came to understand my sexuality by reading queer history and theory, and through sites like AfterEllen (before…everything) — all in secret. I was the classic “watched The L Word in secret and dreaded discussions about crushes” teenage gay just trying to survive the homophobia of high school and (for me at least) college.
Now it’s 2024, gay marriage is long legal, and suddenly everyone around me seems to be so comfortable with queerness, but in a way I find alienating. Several old friends who I have long forgiven for their ignorant, homophobic high school comments are coming out as queer while married to their cis straight husbands. I don’t want them to feel invalidated, so I bury the strange grief and anger that these coming outs trigger. It’s illogical, but I feel betrayed that they got to have a “normal” childhood and now wear a pride flag; I wouldn’t feel this way about just anyone, but these are the people who told me at a young age that my “not talking about boys” made them uncomfortable, and their comments shaped how I now navigate the world with caution. My younger coworkers come out as queer all the time, but we have nothing to talk about despite being only four to five years apart in age. All of their cultural references are 20-year-old pop singers, and they hate media that used to be a touchstone in queer spaces. I was chastised for calling Angelina Jolie a queer icon, for example. I know this isn’t everyone, but I feel like so many younger queer people don’t care about queer culture older than five years and are so unforgiving about the nuances of coming out. On top of that, I am a black woman, and I feel like with queer culture becoming more mainstream I am expected to only have white women and nbs as references, and when I don’t, my sexuality is called into question. I feel invalidated when I have known about my queerness for almost two decades, but because my references aren’t from trends on TikTok, I am suddenly performing my sexuality incorrectly.
I want to be very clear that I don’t judge other people’s expressions of their sexuality, but I am judging myself for being “old.” I was raised on Alison Bechdel and watching Queer as Folk on Putlocker. Now I don’t know how to interact with newly out queer people who have King Princess and their choice of queer content on Netflix. I was made for a world that disappeared, and my peers don’t see me as a “real” gay. I have hurt and shame deep inside because I was taught to be cautious for 15 years and then suddenly (or at least how it feels to me) all the old queer experience touchstones were gone and I was outdated. How do I stop grieving when I know what we lost is probably for the better? I feel horrible because I want to support all this new queer joy, but I feel like an outsider in my own community.
First off, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s hard to feel like the parade has passed you by and you’re left there alone holding on to that last piece of confetti. When that’s how you feel, it’s easy to think you’re the only one, but I can assure you that you are not alone in your feelings. I also think there are a lot of different factors at play when it comes to your feeling of displacement.
I’m a few years older than you, and we’re approaching a very important life milestone: the beginning of middle age. No one wants to hear or think this, but presuming you live to be in your 80s, your 40s are in fact, middle-aged. I think for Millennials more than any other generation, the thought of turning 40 is really unsettling. Because of the collective trauma our generation has experienced at the points in our lives that we did, we are living in a huge arrested development. On paper, we’re grownups, but because of things like the housing crisis and the economy and the pandemic, etc etc etc, we still feel like a bunch of kids playing house. Because of this, we cling that much harder to the cultural touchstones that were the most relevant to us. Millennials are in the unique position where when our nostalgia is held up to the magnifying glass and examined, many of us don’t know how to react, because as much as we know that, yes, it was problematic or not representative, it’s still ours. Reconciling our levels of understanding with our levels of comfort and safety from the things we loved is definitely challenging!
I will admit I’m coming to this advice from the position of someone who has one foot in each side of your dilemma. I too figured out my queerness at a young age in the late 90s, and things were SO different back then. There were so few references to queerness for women, and many of the mainstream ones were white. My earliest examples of lesbians were Carol and Susan on Friends and Ellen. As a Black girl, I didn’t have any references for queer women that looked like me. If I’m being honest, that is still a challenge for me personally. Maybe you’ve found someone out there who makes you feel seen and represented. We came into our queerness at a time where many queer actresses were firmly NOT OUT. It was dangerous for them to be. I don’t know how much you remember the Ellen backlash, but it was brutal and scary. Angelina Jolie is absolutely a queer icon for Millennials; Gia was the movie that made me realize I was attracted to women. I know a lot of other women who will say the same.
I also put myself back in the closet for many years, and when I finally was fully ready to be out, it was 2017. I was coming out into a world that was ready to have me but was so different from what I remembered. There were so many shows with openly queer characters! Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess were pop music icons, and they were out. It’s such a jarring thing to experience when you’re used to the world where you heard your peers casually say “that’s gay” if they didn’t like someone’s sweatshirt or something. And I can understand how it’s stirring up resentment in you. You’re still trying to adjust to a world that feels like it changed really quickly.
Younger queers and folks who are at the beginning of their coming out journey are a tough group to be around sometimes for the exact reasons you’ve mentioned. There’s ample research that shows Gen Z is a more queer generation than any previous generations. Many of them came of age in an era where you could find a queer woman on any variety of TV shows. There was significantly less searching for representation and being satisfied with lackluster representation. That’s not to say they don’t have their own struggles, but when you have a coming out experience steeped in shame, it’s hard not to resent that!
One of the best things I can suggest is finding ways to expand your queer community. Being around people who are closer to your age or experience level will help to combat those feelings of otherness you’re experiencing around your current queer circle. Sometimes there are meetups or events for queer women of a certain age. I don’t know where you live, but I live in LA and there’s a group here that puts together events for queers over 30 and over 40 to be around people their own age. My partner and I have gone to a few of these nights, and it’s really refreshing to be around people who are our age and will understand our cultural references. Plus, they play old Millennial music, and it’s way more fun to dance to the music of my youth than current music.
I wanted to address what you said about your high school friends coming out later in life separately, because my goodness do I understand your feelings. It’s not illogical to have big strong feelings, especially when you know that those people made you feel bad about being queer. This happened to me with my former best friend, and it’s a big part of why our friendship ended. Seeing them have the safety of coming out, especially because hetero-presenting relationships are still the default and queer women who are in those relationships get to move through the world differently, triggers the unsafe feelings you felt. I’m glad you’ve been able to forgive them for their ignorance when they were younger, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t sting a little.
Do you have someone you can trust to talk through these feelings? Whether it’s a therapist or just a close friend who isn’t directly involved, I really think you need to give these feelings space so that you can feel a sense of peace about it. You may never be fully over it, but you may be able to pinpoint that discomfort and work through it a little more.
Being “old” isn’t a bad thing, and there is absolutely space for you in our community. I’m so sorry the people you’re around have made you feel unwelcome because you don’t follow their narrow definition of what being a queer woman looks like. You can listen to whatever music you want, worship at the altar of whatever queer icons make YOU feel good. No one can take away the things you’ve had to overcome to get to the queer life you’re currently living. I hope you have people who respect your journey and make you feel loved and supported for the moments when these other people make you feel less than. And if you need another, you know where to find me.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.