Within the LGBTQ community, there’s a concept called “straight passing privilege.” Straight passing privilege implies that individuals in the community who are in opposite-sex relationships or present as more femme or masculine depending on their gender have privilege denied LGBTQ individuals who are in same-sex relationships and present as queer. At face value, there’s merit to the theory. Individuals who are in same-sex relationships are often barred from showing affection in public and individuals who are assumed to be queer are treated worse depending on the individual interacting with them. However, assuming that someone is straight when they are not, regardless of the gender of their partner or their gender presentation, is a form of erasure.
Being assumed to be any sexuality can become exhausting, but when you’re queer, pansexual, or bisexual and your identity is repeatedly erased by claims that you “look” straight or that you’re gay because of the gender identity of your partner, already present fears and feelings of isolation can be exacerbated.
Kenneth, for example, has had trouble explaining his identity now that he’s transitioned from identifying as straight to queer: “In the second semester of last year, I started identifying as queer. For all first semester, when talking about my sexuality, I told people I was straight, and I’m fairly confident most of my friends here still think I’m straight, and I feel like it would be awkward going around and telling everyone I’m not. My family also still thinks I’m straight, and while I wish I could explain it to them, I don’t feel that I can, mostly because I know they wouldn’t understand. My mom’s one of those people who’s fine with homosexuality, but she’s referred to bisexuality as a “phase” and often mocks the other letters in the acronym. I realize that outwardly I present as very straight, mostly because I have a long term, serious girlfriend, and we’re in a fairly exclusive relationship. She identifies as pan, and has actually been the one who’s been the most encouraging when it comes to exploring my feelings towards non-female people. Honestly, I find it easier to let people assume I’m straight, but if they ask I do try and explain.”
When I came out as bisexual, I faced a similar conundrum. Most of my peers and loved ones had either assumed I was gay or that I was straight. “Bisexuality” wasn’t an option, and they expressed as such to me when I attempted to define my identity. Although being gay in a heteronormative society is far from privilege, my gay and lesbian friends reacted similarly to my straight friends when confronted by with my bisexuality. Their reactions, and my own insecurity, only exacerbated the anxiety I was experiencing over my sexuality.
That erasure isn’t just felt-there is measurable damage dealt to individuals who identify as bisexual, pansexual, and queer when their sexuality is erased. They face higher rates of poverty, higher rates of discrimination in housing and the workplace, and mental illnesses such depression. That’s not privilege, that’s oppression.