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What to Do When Someone Tells You You’re “Not Gay Enough”

Welcome to Down to Find Out, a column in which Nona Willis Aronowitz addresses your biggest questions about sex, dating, relationships, and all the gray areas in between. Have a question for Nona? Send it to downtofindout@gmail.com or fill out this Google form. (It’s anonymous!)

Since I started accepting that I was queer and having queer encounters, I have been told numerous times that, as a super femme cis woman, I’m “not gay enough.” I’ve heard this from MULTIPLE queer partners (I stopped seeing them in part because of this). I know there is no right way to be a queer person, but I constantly feel unwelcome in the community that I am a part of. I’m desperate to fit in and show I’m proud of my queerness. What can I do?

—Devan, 26

It sounds like you already know this, but let me say it loud and clear: There is no such thing as not being “gay enough.” Many people in the LGBTQ community feel the same way you do, whether they’re fellow femmes who don’t “appear” gay, bisexual people in hetero relationships, gay men who don’t fit stereotypical standards, and so many others. In fact, gay people who don’t express their gayness with an explicitly “queer aesthetic” often experience what some psychologists call “queer imposter syndrome.” Not to mention that the privilege of “passing” as straight can lead to feelings of guilt, confusion, and anxiety.

Even though this rejection may give you the urge to make yourself scarce or change your style or gender expression in order to fit in, doing the opposite is what’s best in the long run. A couple of columns ago, Kira, a “femme-presenting queer,” told me about her “extremely awkward ‘look, I’m gay!’ phase,” which included a “shaved head, rainbow accessories, wallet chain” — style choices meant to signal something to others that just “didn’t feel right” to her. If being super-femme feels authentic to you, stick to your guns.

While it sounds like you’ve learned to fully accept and love your queer femme self, it can be demoralizing to still encounter persistent doubt on your identity. There’s a cognitive reason for this doubt; people have a desire to put people in clear categories, so we often reach for stereotypes as a “shortcut.” Marissa Tolero, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with women and queer folks, says there’s a cultural reason specific to the LGBTQ community, too.

The common notion that queer people “all need to be different in the same way actually comes from a protective place,” says Tolero, who’s also a queer femme cis woman (and totally relates to your dilemma). “So often it feels like us against the cishet world. We’ve needed to band together for survival. When some of us don’t fit perfectly into that and we challenge that stereotype, we’re ostracized from our own community because [many queer people think] ‘You’re standing out, and you’re going to put us in danger.’”

Understanding this impulse can help you find empathy for the people who’ve rejected you, and therefore give you a constructive way to push back at those hurtful comments. “When someone does say that to you, compassionately point out that it actually perpetuates the oppression of all queer people,” Tolero says. You can say something like: “I get why you would say that, because we have been taught what queer ‘should’ be, but I’m a living, breathing, complicated, beautiful queer femme, and I’m actually proud of that.” The more you model different ways to be queer, the easier it will be for other queer people to accept you — and for other femmes to accept themselves.

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