When I was young, I only ever felt like a minority in very specific circumstances, like the time I was crossing the road with my family on our way to the Synagogue for Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year for Jewish people – when a group of white men screamed anti-Semitic obscenities at us from their car window.
Later, I thought about the men and wondered who they were. I wished I had looked more closely at them. Were they skinheads, or just your average white, angry Anglo Australians?
At school, being made to feel like a minority wasn't about being Jewish, since I attended a Jewish school, but rather, because I am a Soviet/Eastern-European Jew. At my school, the Russian kids tended to be treated like second-class citizens. Assumed to be less educated and less classy, the Russian Jews were often condescended, and formed their own group. But I didn’t speak Russian, so I didn’t belong to that group, either.
The next identity to come along and wreak havoc in my life arrived with the realisation that I am quite gay, or at least not very straight. It occurred to me that over 50 percent of my crushes were on people who did not fit the societally-approved category I am meant to be attracted to. I liked men, women, people who were androgynous, and trans people – not that I knew much about trans identities in the ‘90s.
I won't get into my coming out story now, but let’s just say I started coming out in 2003 and it was long, drawn out, and more painful than it needed to be. Big surprise, right?
I never told people what I was coming out as. I told them that I was in love with a human being named Rachel, so they assumed (correctly) that she is a cisgender woman and (incorrectly) that I am a lesbian woman. I did not correct those who made these assumptions because I had not thought deeply or critically enough about my sexuality or gender identity to know any different.
Now, I have started coming out as non-binary and genderqueer. Prompted by critical self-analysis, deep discussions, and therapy, as well as insidious and overt forms of rejection, prejudice and judgement, I've found out that some people who I previously perceived to be allies are transphobic - a harmful and painful realisation.
I started to notice how many marriage equality advocates – both straight and queer –intentionally erase or oppress people whose identities are more marginalised than theirs: people whose identities are best described as fitting under the “B” (bisexual), “T” (trans), “I” (intersex), “Q” (queer), “A” (asexual) or the “+” (other diverse sexual orientations and gender identities).
There are groups of people in the LGBTQIA+ community whose identities are more accepted by our overwhelmingly heteronormative society than others. Some blend into the mainstream concept of what ‘gays’ are meant to be like. Unfortunately, there are a few problems associated with this. Some people might benefit from acceptance but suffer when they are not able to be authentic or honest about all aspects of their identity.
Another issue is that some individuals might start celebrating their personal gains and stop advocating for those who are at risk, which is often those with more marginalised identities. Instead, they might focus any of their political action and energy towards campaigns and issues that are homonormative. This is when people tend to address their own needs and concerns but ignore others in the community who need support, like queer, trans and intersex people of colour (QTIPOC) and allies who critique and protest racism in our communities, people who reject the pinkwashing of Pride, or queer disability activists who challenge mainstream thinking about disabilities and access.
Ever since I started coming out as “NB”, I have noticed more erasure than I ever encountered as an out lesbian or bisexual woman. When some people think I am a cisgender lesbian woman or straight woman, they are far more comfortable with me. If I am open about being non-binary and bisexual, I confuse them. These two identities – which place my gender identity and sexual orientation ‘on a continuum’ – are perceived as indecisive, perhaps lacking boundaries and structure. Many people seem resistant to the terminology, pronouns and concepts of gender diversity and the idea of being attracted to multiple genders.
It’s hard, both on a personal level and as a wider systemic issue. I don’t mind it if it is done unintentionally or as an oversight, but I find it difficult when people continue to call me a "woman" or even "girl" if I have come out to them as NB. I am not trying to catch them out or punish them; in fact, I even use these terms myself for ease sometimes. But it would mean a lot to me if people at least attempted to understand gender diversity and gender non-conformity. I wish people would read a book or look online before asking me to explain the difference between sex, sexuality and gender.
People need to stop linking gender non-conformity or gender variance to mental illness, as it is dangerous, irresponsible and deeply offensive. On a societal level, institutions constantly force trans and gender-diverse people to ‘choose’ between binary genders on legally binding documents. I am already accustomed to this insistence on binaries, as people continue to refer to me as a lesbian despite my outspokenness about my bisexuality. It is hard when you would love to avoid labels and binaries but find yourself constantly forced to use them.
Sometimes, I think of the anti-lesbian sentiments I encountered as a baby dyke in the early ‘00s. Over a decade later, some gay and lesbian people in the community seem to have been assimilated into the mainstream, and are no longer referred to in derogatory terms with the alarming regularity I encountered in the past.
Instead, many of these gay and lesbian people are the ones spouting transphobic rubbish, alongside their straight peers who seem to think that the ‘70s version of the psychiatric DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is still current. They don’t seem to remember that the DSM considered homosexuality to be a mental disorder until relatively recently. I am disturbed to hear the same judgements and stigma, and the social and institutional pathologisation of transgender and gender nonconforming people and identities, being applied.
I will no longer accept this level of ignorance from people. I will not justify harmful behaviour by claiming that psychiatry, neoliberalism and systemic issues are solely to blame. I reject the excuses, especially in our internet-infused society. People have every opportunity now to research, learn, and ask questions. If they don’t do this, and continue to say whatever they want to about identities they do not understand, they are just as bad as the people who yelled out the window about my Jewishness, teased me for my Soviet-roots, or shunned me for being queer.