Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I know every LGBTQ+ identity

Brandon Flanery

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     The ever-expanding acronym is now up to nine letters that make up more than 110 different kinds of sexual and gender identities.  

     When I was born, I really only heard gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans. Now, the sexual identity list includes words I didn’t know existed, let alone know how to define (e.g., pansexual and demisexual). The gender identity list includes ones I couldn’t comprehend, the most recent one being nonbinary and all its colors (e.g., genderfluid, gender-nonconforming, etc.).  

     As an outsider looking in, it’s easy to think, “Those queers are all alike.” But the fact of the matter is, we’re not. In fact, as someone in the community, I don’t even understand all the different colors of our mighty spectrum. But beyond understanding, I haven’t been the most gracious. 

     I remember when I first learned that nonbinary was a thing. I walked into my favorite coffee shop where the local coffee roaster, who I knew as a straight guy, corrected me on their pronouns. 

     I remember feeling so upset! 

Rainbow flags are symbols of the LGBTQ+ community.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

     Here was this straight white guy who now had access to my community: a community that has faced prejudice and pain and has fought to be seen for decades (realistically hundreds and thousands of years). After all this fighting and pain and finally experiencing a semblance of victory, here was this punk kid who was reaping the rewards when it cost them nothing. They now had access to my hard-working community because they didn’t “feel like they fit masculinity or femininity.” 

     I was floored. But I would never say it out loud because that would make me sound like a bigot. And if there’s one thing the queer community has taught me, it’s to not sound like a bigot. Bigots bad. Woke good.  

     Even though I had this odd rage toward this random coffee roaster, I knew that underneath my rage, I couldn’t look like my persecutors. I couldn’t assume to know someone’s story better than them. That’s absurd. 

     Underneath my fear of looking like a bigot, I had genuine questions that I was too scared to ask: 

     Who were these nonbinary people and why can’t they just redefine masculinity and femininity? Why does it matter so much? Is this real? Or are you just taking advantage of the fact that now being LGBTQ+ gives you some level of clout?  

     The questions finally stopped when I chatted with my friend, Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza. 

     Henderson-Espinoza is a public theologian who is passionate about activist theology — theology that puts you into action, that causes you to fight for justice for all. Henderson-Espinoza comes from an evangelical background and identifies as a trans, nonbinary, Latinx queer person. They travel around the country educating people about how being queer is okay, about how current, mainstream theology is whitewashed and imperialist in nature, about how having a theology revolving around a loving God should move you to change the world.  

     When I first met them, I was intimidated. They have a passionate personality; they’re not afraid of confrontation, and they know their shit. This person has spent their life researching the Bible and stepping into uncomfortable places to challenge the status quo. The result is that they are not afraid to confront you when you say something that’s not okay, and this happened often when I would continually misgender them, using she/her pronouns. 

     The engagement truly made me anxious because…  

  • I hate confrontation. 
  • I hate letting people down. 

     I was terrified that I would use the wrong pronoun, and my anger toward the person at the coffee shop bubbled just underneath surface, and those silent, bigoted questions buzzed around in my very not-silent mind. 

     “Why does it matter?” “Just pick a gender.” “I have trans friends who transitioned.” “Just be one or the other.” “Is me calling you by your pronouns really that important?” 

     The answer is yes. Yes, it is that important. But I wouldn’t learn why for another year.  

     A few weeks back, I ended up talking with Henderson-Espinoza on a podcast. I had the absolute delight of talking with them for an hour, and that hour transformed what I believe and silenced my loud, hidden questions. 

     Henderson-Espinoza was assigned female at birth, and the terms, pronouns and upbringing all associated with femininity all felt so wrong to them, like an assault on their person. 

     “Nothing in me resonates with the feminine,” Henderson-Espinoza said. “Yes, I’m more masculine, but really, I don’t completely resonate with masculine either.” 

     While talking with them, I realized that every time I used she/her pronouns, I was choosing to not agree with their perception of themself. Rather, I was agreeing with the voices that called them wrong for decades, called them broken for decades. I was aligning myself with the same voices that told me my sexuality was a choice, that continued to ignore my identity and presume to know me better than I know myself. This is so hurtful to me, and ultimately, I was doing the same thing to Henderson-Espinoza — I was hurting my friend.  

     Here’s the deal: while the LGBTQ+ acronym has united us, which is very important so we can stand in solidarity together, it does not mean we’re all the same, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re all educated on every nuance of the beautiful queer rainbow we find ourselves in.  

     My story is not a lesbian story, a trans story, a bi story. Shit, my story doesn’t even look like the story of the other gay guy sitting next to me in class. We all have a unique process and journey. To lump us all together was and is important for the movement — it allowed us to unite and fight for equality for all with one loud voice — but beyond that, we must remember that every person in the LGBTQ+ community has their own story, their own struggles, their own joys, and who am I to assume that I know someone’s story better than themselves?  

     I learned a lot in that one-hour conversation. But probably the most important thing I learned is that we all need to learn and be empathetic and to listen, including those of us in the community. We need to be willing to maybe look like a bigot and say, “Hey, I don’t understand this. Would you be willing to help me or point me to a book?” It’s OK not to have all the right answers. But it’s not okay to presume that you already have them, especially when it concerns someone else’s story. 

     Thank you, Henderson-Espinoza, for teaching me, for confronting me, for being willing to step into the uncomfortable. I’m a better person for it, and hopefully I can love a little better because of it.