Stereotypes & Identity


Stereotypes & Identity

by Renee Zalles

I am 22, and though I have previously come out to my parents as bisexual multiple times, recently I told them that I have been with a girl for the past six months. My mother’s reaction was that she didn’t believe that I’m actually bisexual. Her reasons she gave me for this were: 1) I had never shown any “tendencies” and 2) All women have an interest in other women, but most choose not to act upon it. How can I even begin to help them understand that this is my identity and it is not a ‘choice’?
— Anonymous

Renee Says:

When I first came out to my parents, my mom’s “gaydar” was off the charts. She thought everything I was doing was related to being gay—wearing a pink scarf, not shaving my armpits, you name it. There wasn’t much I could do without it being under severe scrutiny for these “signs” she had somehow created in her head. It was as if she’d read a “Gay Stereotype Manual for Parents.” On top of all the other stresses of coming out, these frequent interrogations were the last thing I needed.

Despite the stress and general animosity of that time, or perhaps because of it, I think I could have told my mom 10 times a day that “this is my identity and it isn’t a choice,” and it still wouldn’t have gotten through to her. However, I think this can be pretty normal in a situation where people are experiencing new things. My mom didn’t know a lot of gay people at the time so she was going off the only associations she had—stereotypes. But of course, the problem with stereotypes is that they don’t paint a full picture. 

In your situation, it definitely seems unfair to assume that a person who doesn’t embody a certain stereotype isn’t bi. I can imagine it’s really frustrating to constantly try to explain to your mom that identities come in all different shapes, sizes, styles, and personalities. Additionally, I think it’s probably hard for her to discern what the difference is between admiring other women around her versus actually being attracted to them. Given the fact that you’ve already tried to explain your identity to your mom before, I have a suggestion that is completely different from your current method:

Stop talking about it for a while.

I was 17 when I came out, and I was very shy. I had no idea how to stand up for myself and I was super non-confrontational. I still am, to a degree. At the time, I felt this was a really bad situation to be in because it made it really difficult to confidently explain my identity to my mom. However, I now see that it may have been a sort of blessing in disguise. The way my mom learned to accept me was not by me continually beating her over the head with my identity, but instead by me just living my life, which slowly showed, rather than told her, that being gay can be totally “normal.” 

In the end, it’s kind of like learning anything new. It’s way easier if you immerse yourself in it, rather than be told how to do it. Teachers would be really bad at their job if, when their students asked how to do something, they said, “Oh, here, let me just do it for you.” Nobody would ever learn anything. Humans tend to learn by first-hand experience, rather than by somebody else telling them how to think, act, or solve a problem. In this situation, it sounds like your mom might have a slow learning curve, and you may need to be patient, but I think she’ll come around when she’s ready. People can change, but usually it doesn’t happen overnight. 

You can be yourself around her without constantly having to explain it. Just go about your daily business, talk about your partner like you would anybody, and I think your mom’s stereotypes will slowly evaporate. I want to clarify here that although this method worked unintentionally for me, it doesn’t mean that doing so indicates you lack confidence. I think you can make a confident, conscious decision to be silent, without appearing passive or malleable. In fact, I think the silent road is often the higher road. It took a while, but my mom’s stereotypes and discomfort with the situation totally cleared. And this year, I’m looking forward to bringing my girlfriend home for Christmas, no questions asked, no stereotypes assumed; just love.

Renee Zalles has a BA in English Lit, a MFA in Advertising, and a PhD in being gay.

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