Passing as straight is a privilege I'm embarrassed to own up to
I was 14 when I decided to start calling myself bisexual. I never really felt it fully encompassed my sexual attractions and have since went on to call myself pansexual, but it was the best I was going to get in the mid-'90s.
I was never afraid to go to the pride parade or the gay bars I frequented in the early 2000s. Maybe it was because I never personally knew anyone who had been killed, because mass shootings weren't on a rotating news cycle, because bisexual victims were never talked about, or perhaps it was just naive, youthful, invincible thinking, but whatever it was, I never thought the hate people had for me would lead to my death.
It's not that I was completely oblivious to the reality that many gay, lesbian and transgender people were targets of violence. I read about Harvey Milk, Brandon Teena, Roxanne Ellis, Michelle Abdill and Matthew Shepard, but I never made the connection that it could be me. I knew I was hated, on multiple levels, but I never thought it would kill me.
At least not until Sunday morning, when I woke up to news that there was a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. As I read the news from the safety of my home, for the first time I realized that every time I went to the gay bar, I was at risk. I felt unsafe. I felt uneasy. I felt the need to connect with others feeling the same things.
It didn't take long for me to realize that although the attack has been named the largest in recent U.S. history, the fear I was feeling was something other people in the community feel every day.
I was reminded that the identity I am hated for is hidden behind a relationship with a man, and that keeps me safe. As much as passing for straight isn't a privilege because it means that I am not fully seen, it is a privilege for the same reason — staying hidden keeps me safer. Passing for straight is why I never really got a taste of the fear that comes with being a target, until Sunday morning.
I mean, sure, I knew all of this on an intellectual level; I read the news. I know that trans women of color are being murdered. I know that marginalization and privilege are as complex as our identities. I know that overall I have a lot more privilege than most and that my safety, despite the pervasiveness of homophobia in this country, is a reflection of that.
I knew that my queer identity was rarely seen, which comes with a type of pain all its own, but I never really connected it to a choice I made.
Instead, I just felt sorry for myself for being isolated from myself and my community and for being stuck in a life where people think I'm straight and let me know how much they hate others like me without realizing that they hate me too. And I felt sorry for the shame I felt when I stayed quiet instead of sticking up for the lesbian at work or the bisexual woman an acquaintance thought couldn't be monogamous.
I'm questioning why I stay hidden today. I'm wondering how I got so comfortable not participating in my community and instead just remaining connected to it in name alone when there's a box to check off or when I feel like mentioning the first person I really loved. I get to choose whether or not I will put myself in harm's way by going to a gay bar or to the pride parade. I get to have some control over whether I will be at the wrong place at the wrong time, because for me the wrong place is only those places that out me; for others, it could be anywhere they go. They have no choice, but I do, and it is definitely a privilege.
I'm writing this with the realization that I am taking up space that would be better used by people who experience the fear I feel today every day, but I worry that after this is all over, those of us with more privilege — whether it be straight privilege, straight passing privilege, white privilege, cis privilege or any other privilege that factors into who becomes a victim and who doesn't — will settle back into our less dangerous spaces and forget to listen and amplify as often as we should when we stop being so scared.
Or at least that's what I'm afraid I'll do. So, I'm just putting it out there that I don't want to anymore. I'll hold myself accountable.