Sam explained that he's had very limited experience being around groups of other gay guys and he started worrying about whether he would fit in. He used an expression I hadn't heard before, which I thought captured one of his anxieties perfectly. He wondered if they were going to see him as "gay enough," or as he put it, "Are they going to think I am not gay enough?"
I talked to Sam about wanting to write a post about "identity" and "fitting in" and asked him if I could highlight his question. He said it was perfectly fine and even seemed a little puzzled that I thought his question had any value. (Sam, anything you talk about has value, because you have value.)
But his question got me to thinking about how I felt about all the different identities I carry. I know there's that expression about how useless labels are to some people. We've all probably heard something like, "Why do we even need labels at all? Why can't we all just use 'human being" as the one and only label?"
Well, I think that's a valid point because it's the one "label" we all have in common. But I think we're a little more complicated than that and I'm beginning to think it does a disservice to our individuality to pretend we're all the same. We're not.
And I like my identity as a "gay man." I actually like how that sets me apart from the vast majority of men. I know that some of my perspective on the world is similar to other men -- regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. But being a gay man gives me one lens to see and experience the world that's different, and I love that lens.
For me it was a very powerful and liberating thing to embrace my identity as a gay man, or gay teen. But believe me, when I was 16 years old and started using this label to publicly identify myself, I didn't have too many role models to help me understand how to be in the world, or how to fit in. How do you make yourself a part of a world where some people think you're disgusting and don't even deserve to exist? And on the other hand, where do you get support and acceptance and encouragement and guidance for being all of who you are?
At age 16 I knew some other gay teens, and I was familiar with some gay TV characters, but I didn't have access to the larger "gay male community" that I could connect with. There was a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in my high school, and I joined that, but all of us were sort of at the beginning of trying to solidify what all that meant.
While I hate Sam had his anxiety, I really like the idea behind his question about whether he will be seen as "gay enough." Because behind that question is a yearning to be seen and accepted and valued for who you are by others just like you.
Last summer I wrote a post about the positive power of labels. I wrote, "Using the label "gay" means I have understood something very essential about myself. And speaking the word "gay" is one way to celebrate something essential about myself."
Sam's question got me to thinking about how important it is for all of us to find our place in the larger world we inhabit. But like Sam was suggesting, it's also important to find our place in the smaller worlds we're part of -- the worlds where we are validated and celebrated by others just like us -- who see the larger world through some of the same lenses we do.
And just for the record, my sweet, sweet Sam, Brad and I feel so lucky to be part of your world and for you to be part of ours. Whether you realize it or not, our world is bigger and brighter because you're there.
And, yes, you are more than gay enough.