Addressing the Very Real Problem of Gaslighting Queer Women
Gaslighting is a hot topic at the moment, often cropping up in conversations about race and gender relations, but not often enough in conversations about sexuality.
The term originates from the 1938 play ‘Gas Light’ by Patrick Hamilton. The play tells the story of a man who slowly changes the lighting in his home, all the while convincing his wife that she is imagining the change in lighting. The term means to psychologically manipulate someone into doubting their own sanity or beliefs, or in this instance, sexuality.
Gaslighting can happen to anyone. In every circumstance gaslighting is problematic and needs to be addressed and resolved, but it would be impossible for me to satisfactorily address the experiences of all of these groups of individuals. Therefore, as a queer woman myself, I have chosen to focus on the experiences of those who identify as women and as queer.*
Gaslighting itself can come in many forms, resembling the confusing nature of this form of manipulation. It can be through smaller comments and ‘jokes’ about experimentation, about being ‘greedy’, or sexually adventurous. Gaslighting can also be more aggressive, more obvious and in your face. It can be the repeated insistence that your sexuality is a phase, or the assertion that you are confused and don’t know yourself as well as you think. Or maybe it’s the argument that you only think you’re queer because you surround yourself with people who identify as such. Big or small, gaslighting is a sneaky, detrimental form of aggression.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with straight, cis people who have some serious reservations about the validity of a ‘queer’ sexuality. These conversations usually go along the lines of the other person asking, often more than once: ‘Are you sure you aren’t just confused? Do you really know what you want?’ I had one of these conversations with my Mum a few months ago.
I had always thought that coming out wasn’t necessary for me. I was certain my parents would accept me no matter what. If straight people don’t have to come out then why should I? Unfortunately it turned out that I was being pretty naive. When I started talking to my mother about my sexuality, things didn’t exactly go as planned. We had a very long and distressing argument, resulting in my Mum telling me that she knew me and she knew I wasn’t queer. She was certain that she would have seen the ‘signs’. Supposedly without these signs it was impossible for me to be queer. It didn’t stop there. My Mum was adamant that ‘queer’ wasn’t a real sexuality. To her it was no more than an ugly, unnecessary label; a buzzword used by young, foolish millennials. She couldn’t believe that it was possible to be attracted to more than one gender. To her the only acceptable identifiers were ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. We settled at a ceasefire. My Mum concluded that she didn’t have to like it and didn’t have to accept it. To me, that translated as her not only disregarding my sexuality but who I am on a fundamental level.
Sure, my Mum belongs to an older generation. When she was growing up, ‘queer’ wasn’t used in the same way that it’s used today, but that shouldn’t give her or anyone a get out of jail free card. Queer women merit acceptance and respect. Too many queer women’s identities are disregarded and ignored in the same way that my mother disregarded mine.
Not long after arguing with my Mum, I watched the episode of Brooklyn 99 where *spoiler alert* Rosa comes out as bisexual to her parents. Her parents react badly. They don’t understand her self-identification as bi and they certainly don’t respect it. Whole chunks of the narrative between Rosa and her parents could have been taken from my own life. Content like this is so important because it serves as a point of reference for LGBTQ youth lacking representation in mainstream media.
When I was growing up, Skins was a massively popular TV show. I’d argue that it’s one of the closest representations of teen life in the UK. During the second generation of the show, one of the main character arcs follows Katie, a young girl who comes out as gay. Katie’s family, and particularly her twin sister, struggle to accept her for who she is. Katie’s twin lashes out at Katie’s girlfriend, blaming her for ‘turning’ her sister gay. Eventually Katie’s twin accepts her for who she is, but Katie’s mother never gets onboard, forcing Katie to finally move out of the house. We never see a proper reconciliation between the mother and daughter. I watched Skins when I was the same age as the characters in the show, going through the same sort of formative changes. I felt a solidarity with these fictional queer female characters because when you don’t have any queer women in your own life to turn to, the fictional ones act as pillars of comfort and understanding. Watching the episode made me appreciate that I am not the only queer woman who has come up against gaslighting. This is an experience shared by a community and representation matters.
Like the narratives of Katie in Skins and Rosa in Brooklyn 99, queer women are often the unfortunate recipients of gaslighting. In many ways, the LGBTQ community is doing better than ever. There exists a greater level of awareness around LGBTQ issues and we are edging our way closer and closer to fully-fledged legal equality. However, fluid sexuality is still a concept that many people find difficult to wrap their heads around.
As a result, queer women continue to be invalidated, undermined, and pushed to doubt their own self-identification. A lack of acceptance of fluid sexuality is not confined to the cis, straight community but can also be found within the LGBTQ community. There are those within the LGBTQ community, cis or otherwise, who shun the idea of sexuality outside of the labels of gay or straight. The stereotype remains that if you aren’t gay or straight then you must be greedy or promiscuous. Ideas like these only perpetuate the practice of gaslighting. It can be difficult as a queer woman to feel supported against the onslaught of gaslighting when even members of the LGBTQ community doubt you.
Everyone has the fundamental right to their own narrative and self-identification. For sexuality, which is often less visible than other aspects of a person’s identity, it is especially important that people accept an individual’s self-identification as valid. An individual’s sexuality is not something up for debate. The whole point of ‘self-identification’ is the idea that only the individual can identify what they feel. You cannot prescribe or externally identify sexuality, it is a part of our internal biological desires. This means that if a woman tells you she is queer, it is not an invitation for you to interrogate her about her sexuality. It is your turn to listen.
I’m a big believer in having open conversations. If you have a genuine interest in educating yourself and the woman in question is comfortable (and you have checked that she is comfortable), then sure, go ahead, ask for some clarification. But it is no one’s right to gaslight anyone by questioning the legitimacy or validity of their sexuality. Questions that relate to ‘experimenting’ or having a ‘phase’ have nothing to do with being curious and a lot more to do with negating someone’s existence. If you identify as a queer woman, then I want to reiterate that you are valid. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone in order for your self-identification to be legitimate and worthy of respect. In order to create a more inclusive future, we are all obligated to take responsibility for our actions. If in the past your actions have included gaslighting, whether purposely or accidentally, educate yourself and listen to the voices of the marginalized. Everyday is an opportunity to learn from one another and be better citizens than we were yesterday. The responsibility lies with all of us.
*Some clarification is necessary for what exactly is meant by ‘queer’ in this article. I use ‘queer’ to refer to those whose sexuality does not fit into the binary of strictly straight or gay. ‘Queer’ has and continues to be used in reference to gender identity in addition to sexuality but in this article I am focusing on women; this is not with the intention of being exclusionary but with the hope of doing justice to one queer group’s shared experience.