PERSPECTIVES

Pride Hits Different When Your Relationship Doesn't 'Look Queer'

Published: JUNE 13, 2023
There's no denying that queer people need queer spaces but sometimes those spaces can be hard to navigate for people who don't look the part.

When I go out with my husband and son, the vast majority of people see a "normal" cishet family. At first glance, our marriage doesn't look queer. Some might wonder why my husband is with such an apparently butch woman or why an apparently butch woman like me is married to a cishet dude instead of a woman; very few people, if any, would peg our marriage as queer.

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But it is. I am not, in fact, a butch woman, and neither one of us is hetero.

About a year ago, I came out as non-binary, and as I continued to explore my gender identity, I eventually understood that I'm transmasc. Not a trans man, but more masculine than feminine, though neither masculine nor feminine fits me, really.

One of the things I love about the label "non-binary" is how expansive it is. I still don't really know where I fit in the gender web, which I think of as a web rather than a spectrum because gender doesn't really exist in terms of masculine, feminine and everything in between. All I know is that I'm not cis, and I identify more with masculinity than femininity.

When I came out to my husband, who is definitely a cis man and had always identified as heterosexual, I was terrified that our marriage would be over. He'd dated and married a woman - or so we both thought at the time - and now I was telling him that I really wasn't a woman. I worried that he wouldn't want to be with a masculine person, that his sexuality would be more important than our marriage. Luckily, I was completely wrong. He said my gender didn't really matter to him at all. I was his person and he chose me.

As I settled into my authentic self - dressing in a more masculine style, changing my pronouns to they/them, and eventually starting testosterone, my husband and I had several deep conversations about what my transition meant for our relationship. In one of those conversations, I revealed a fear that'd been gnawing at me since I came out to him: that at his core, he still saw me as a woman even though he knew I wasn't. He insisted that this wasn't true. So, tentatively, I asked whether he still identified our relationship as hetero or if he still identified as hetero himself.

He really had to think about it, and I don't blame him. I'd been struggling with the question for a long time. It was really important to me that he identify our relationship as queer because, in my mind, it couldn't be hetero because I wasn't cis. But I didn't tell him this because I wanted his genuine answer.

After thinking about it for awhile, he told me that he must be some kind of queer; he clearly wasn't only attracted to cis women because I wasn't one. I jokingly asked which letter of the alphabet he identified as now. To my surprise, he immediately answered that he was "the plus” on the end of LGBTQIA2S+. He sees himself as some kind of queer, but he's not quite sure what kind. And to him, the exact label doesn't matter that much. I love that our community has these expansive terms that allow everyone who feels like they could fit to fit, even if they can't specifically define themselves.

I love that our community has these expansive terms that allow everyone who feels like they could fit to fit, even if they can't specifically define themselves.

Feeling Excluded in Queer Spaces

Unfortunately, this expansiveness doesn’t always extend into our real-life communities. When I show up in queer spaces without my husband, I’m welcomed because the assumption is that if I’m there, I’m queer. But when I show up in queer spaces with my husband or talk about “my husband” to other queer folks, the welcome isn’t nearly as warm. Sometimes other queer folks are cautiously polite, assuming we’re allies at the very least. But sometimes, they’re a bit standoffish, and the message seems clear: What are these cishet folks doing in our space?

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I’m far from alone in having this experience. A 2018 tweet by AC Dumlao about assuming a couple at a Pride celebration is straight went viral because so many people identified with the experience of feeling excluded from queer spaces because their relationships don’t “look queer.” The thread highlighted the different identities a couple could embody that fall under the LGBTQIA2S+ umbrella, even though they may be perceived as straight. Thousands of people responded with even more examples of how queer relationships can “look straight” and shared their stories of being excluded from queer spaces because their relationships “don’t look queer.”

Read: Why I Miss Being Visibly Queer at Pride

Why Exclusively Queer Spaces Matter

Even though I’ve experienced this exclusion and it hurts, I understand why some queer folks have big feelings about straight folks - or seemingly straight folks - being in explicitly queer spaces. There’s a long history of queer spaces being invaded by straight folks, especially cishet women. Appropriation of queer culture by privileged cishet people is also an increasing problem, especially on social media. And, of course, we can’t ignore the fact that the U.S. is becoming increasingly dangerous for queer folks.

Read: Pride Safety 101: How to Stay Safe While Celebrating

Queer folks have every right to be cautious and suspicious about who’s entering their spaces, and they have every right to be upset about straight folks being in explicitly queer spaces. It’s crucial to have spaces that are just for queer folks, spaces where their experiences and safety are centered. In these explicitly queer spaces, LGBTQIA2S+ folks can feel safe in a way they can’t in the rest of the world. They can be authentically themselves without the fear of being, at best, alienated and, at worst, attacked or pressured to conform to cishet society. They can let down their guard, be with people who understand their experiences on a visceral level, and experience true, unadulterated queer joy. And queer joy is essential, especially now when the systems of oppression upon which America is built seem hellbent on eradicating not only queer joy, but queer people.

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Queer joy is essential, especially now when the systems of oppression upon which America is built seem hellbent on eradicating not only queer joy, but queer people.

Expanding the Definition of "Queer"

But as essential as queer spaces are, the queer community still needs to grapple with the fact that there’s absolutely no way to tell who’s “really queer” and who isn’t, and couples that “don’t look queer” absolutely can be queer, even if their relationship is cishet. Bisexual and pansexual folks are still bi and pan even if their partner is the opposite gender. Even if they choose to identify their relationship as hetero because of that, they are still queer. Binary trans folks dating other trans folks or cishet folks of the opposite gender may identify as hetero, but they’re still trans. Non-binary folks may present as the opposite gender of their partners, but they’re still not cis, and many of them don’t identify as hetero.

Our explicitly queer spaces need to be as expansive as the labels we use to identify ourselves. Queer isn’t defined by your current relationship or who you’re currently having sex with, and it isn't bound by the limits of sexuality or gender. Queer is an identity in itself that persists regardless of who you’re dating or fucking or how your gender or sexuality changes. As a community, we have to expand our definition of queer spaces to include all queer folks.

Our explicitly queer spaces need to be as expansive as the labels we use to identify ourselves.

Pride and Queer Spaces

And that brings us to Pride. Pride parades and festivals used to be a way for queer folks to create a queer space out of public spaces, a way for queer people to invade spaces that are always assumed to center cishet folks and say, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going anywhere.” There was incredible power in creating queer space in public spaces, especially for those of us who’ve been banished from public spaces for being queer. And that power was radical, even transgressive in some cases.

But Pride as a construct isn’t radical, transgressive, or even an explicitly queer space anymore. The festivals, celebrations, parades, rallies and marches organized within a specific queer community can be radical, transgressive, queer spaces, especially in the states where queer rights are being demolished. Pride as a whole, however, is not. Pride has been commandeered by capitalism and cishet norms, and the vast majority of Pride celebrations are now as mainstream as any other holiday parade.

Read: 14 Pride Purchases That Support LGBTQ+ Communities

Pride celebrations all over the country and world are “officially sponsored” by businesses, from local to massive corporations. Multinational corporations rainbow-wash all their products for a month and donate to queer organizations just to gain social capita. Ultimately, their aim is to make money off performative support of LGBTQIA2S+ communities.

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The push to exclude queer kink from Pride celebrations is the perfect example of the gentrification of a once radical and transgressive event. The BDSM, leather and even furry communities are deeply embedded in queer culture. But as Pride becomes more cishet and less queer, explicitly queer members of these communities are told they’re “too inappropriate” for Pride celebrations, which have become “family-friendly” events.

The fact that Pride isn’t exclusively queer anymore intensifies queer folks’ desire for exclusively queer spaces that aren’t filled with platitudes, performative support and cishet culture, especially during Pride month. This, in turn, intensifies the gatekeeping around who is and isn’t queer.

Coming Full Circle

So, we’ve come full circle, to my husband and I, and all the couples like us, who are wondering if we’ll be welcomed into queer spaces that are gatekept with increasing vigilance.

As you enter and exist in whatever explicitly queer spaces you manage to create this month, please check your assumptions about the other people there.

My queer siblings, I hear that you desperately need spaces that are your own. I hear that you need to be in community with other queer people. And I hear that you’re pissed that Pride isn’t for you anymore. I am too. But as you enter and exist in whatever explicitly queer spaces you manage to create this month, please check your assumptions about the other people there. Because my husband and I need these spaces as much as you do, especially after attending a rainbow-washed, family-friendly Pride festival in our oh-so performatively progressive hometown.

Looking for some queer erotica? Read A Spectacular Multi-Spectrum Cosmic Circus And Other Queer Acts.

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Photo for Robin Zabiegalski
Robin Zabiegalski

Robin Zabiegalski (they/them) is a queer, non-binary writer and movement instructor. They are currently a Health and Wellness Features Writer for Static Media, and their writing has been published on xoJane, Heavy.com, Health Digest, Glam, Kinkly, The Establishment, Sexual Being, The Tempest, and other digital media publications.

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