Queer imposter syndrome is the cis-hetero patriarchy talking.

By Gabrielle Kassel
June 25, 2020
Credit: Savana Ogburn / Refinery29 for Getty Images

If you're eye-balling this, I'm gonna make the bold assumption that you've at least been wondering what queer means. Or have asked yourself, "am I queer?" Or wondered, "am I queer enough to call myself or think of myself as queer?"

Welcome! I'm thrilled you're joining me in this corner of the internet. This article was written just for you.

Allow me to introduce myself: I'm Gabrielle Kassel (she/her), and I'm a queer bisexual dyke. And while I can type those words with pride and confidence now, I didn't always feel like I deserved to label myself as such.

Allow me to share with you my coming own out story, how I've struggled with not feeling queer enough, and tips for fighting queer imposter syndrome.

Remind Me: What Does Queer Mean?

Queer means different things to different people. Usually, what it boils down to is not the status quo. For instance, someone who is not-cisgender or not-heterosexual might identify as queer. (Note: Cis-gender means a person's identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.)

That said, someone could be gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, omnisexual, or non-binary (or any combination therein) and not identify as queer, says Bahiyyah Maroon, Ph.D., queer African American anthropologist. Rather, queer is a way of being in the world, she says.

For me, queerness is all of the above: who I am, who I do, and what I believe in.

How I Learned I'm Queer

If you asked my mom, she'd have said I was a late bloomer. If you asked my friends, they might have said I was a prude. But in reality, neither was true.

Unlike many queer kids who try to make the storyline they're sold fit—you know the one: a girl marries a boy and they fall in love and stay together (monogamously) forever after—I never went for a boy. Rather, I was the girl who went to school dances alone, the one who left parties when it was time to play spin the bottle, and who was ultimately disinterested in sex or romance.

Then, one night during my junior year of high school, the rebel of my high school DM-ed me, and thus began my foray into the world of sex and dating. (Ever seen the movie Thirteen? For the purposes of this story, go ahead and visualize Evan Rachel Wood's character Tracy, but with bigger muscles). A few weeks later while we were taking a late-night drive, she popped a mixtape titled "Girl Crush" into the CD slot, pulled over, and asked to kiss me.

I nodded my head and just like that it all made sense. I came out as gay shortly thereafter, and then in college when I learned the word queer I took that label on, instead.

From Out & Proud Queer to Queer Imposter

After coming out as queer, I lived what can only be described as a Very Queer Life. I earned a bachelors of arts in Queer Studies, I played on a rugby team in which 49 of the 50 players identified under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, I began writing about queer sex for the internet (case. in. point.), and turned to Instagram to preach the ~good queer word~.

But then, nearly a decade after first coming out as a woman-loving woman, I developed feels for and started full-on dating my workout buddy—a cisgender dude whose interest in queer issues can be defined with a big whopping zero. And while there absolutely is/was room for me to identify as queer and have these feels, I began to feel like I was living a double life.

On one hand, I was out and proud and queer online. While on the other, I was in a "straight" (or more accurately, straight-passing, meaning on the surface we appeared to be a hetero couple) relationship and becoming less and less connected to my queer identity as a result.

I felt like a fraud.

I Was Experiencing Queer Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is defined as the psychological phenomenon of self-doubt that causes a person to feel like a fraud, according to Psychology Today. While you may have heard of imposter syndrome as it relates to someone's professional identity, it can apply here, too.

Queer imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are not queer enough.

"Queer imposter syndrome is homophobia in action," says Corey More, a trans non-binary sex worker and sex educator. The dominant culture tells us that queer has to look, act, be, and fuck in one specific way because cis-heteropatriarchy wants to be able to identify queerness. They want to be able to point at it and yell: Other! "But just as you don't have to look or be a certain way to be straight, you don't have to look or be a certain way to be queer," they say. (Related: Bethany Meyers Shares Their Non-Binary Journey)

Unfortunately, I'm not alone in feeling "not queer enough." Queer imposter syndrome is especially common for femme-presenting folks (like me!), as well as those who are occasionally attracted to a gender other than their own (for instance, bisexual or pansexual folks), says Maroon. (ICYDK, femme-presenting means exhibiting behavioral characteristics associated with "feminine" visual presentation in a given culture.)

How I Overcame Queer Imposter Syndrome and You Can, Too

Truthfully, it was a long process to get here. These days I feel just at home in my queer identity, as I did when I first learned the label in school nearly 10 years ago. So what have I done—and still do—to combat these feelings of fraudulence? I'll tell you what I didn't do: Swear off cis-dudes entirely (in fact, my current makeout buddy is a dude). Instead, what I did (and continue to do) are the following:

1. Remember that there is not one #lewk to queerness.

Media has spoon-fed us an image of what queerness is "supposed" to look like. (Think: The idyllic standard that is Ruby Rose.) But "the idea that queerness is aesthetic is antithetical to the entire idea and utility of what queerness is," says More. In other words, queerness can look however you want it to look.

One way I actively remind myself that queerness doesn't have one particular look is by filling my social feeds with queer folks.

Maroon agrees that this is a good strategy, emphasizing that your follow sprees need to include BIQPOC. "People of color have been at the forefront of queerness since [the beginning]. It's important to acknowledge that queerness never was just for white people," she says. (Related: Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias—Plus, What That Actually Means)

If you don't know where to start, here's a non-exhaustive list of BIQPOC advocates, experts, and educators to get you started:

Maroon notes that this social media strategy can also be validating to folks who identify as bisexual or pansexual but have not dated or slept with folks of similar gender and feel like frauds as a result. Bearing witness to the wide variety of experiences, looks, and relationship configurations within the bi and pan community can serve as a helpful reminder that there’s (many!) more than one way to be queer.

2. Proactively interact with other queer folks.

In college, being on a queer rugby team was a huge part of why I felt comfortable and confident in my queerness. Nowadays, sharing platonic intimacy with other queer people on the regular is an important part of my ~queer existance~. "The queer community is a really powerful group that can help anyone under the LGBTQ+ umbrella feel more at home," says Maroon.

While I'm no longer interested in rugby, these days I partake in LGBTQ+ CrossFit events, attend my local climbing gym's monthly LGBTQ+ nights, am part of a queer book club and queer documentary-watching club. And when The L Word: Generation Q was airing, hosted a weekly viewing party. (Related: How to Celebrate Pride In a Meaningful Way)

For me, going to events and joining organizations catered to the entire LGBTQ+ community is most helpful in combatting queer imposter syndrome, but someone who often feels “not bisexual enough” or “not pansexual enough” in these spaces may benefit from joining communities specifically for other bi or pan folks.

3. Remember that struggle does *not* have to mark your queer experience.

When I started dating cisgender men, I was struck by how much, well, easier it was. No, not emotionally or mentally easier. But how much easier it was to exist as a couple in love in public. Gone are the sneers, the stares, and muttered threats that I experienced while dating women and non-binary folks.

Maybe this lack of surveillance should have been a reprieve. But ultimately, it intensified my feeling of not being queer enough. In other words, if I wasn't experiencing homophobia on the daily, was I really queer?

More offers a similar experience: "One of the things that keep me feeling trans in the world is that I have to interact with cisgender people and having to navigate the fact that I might be clocked as 'not cis' by them." But when the COVID-19 pandemic started and social distancing protocols were put into place, they stopped leaving their home altogether. Not having to interact with (the aggressions of) cisgender people actually led to them feeling less trans, they say. "Sadly, I realized that one of the main things that keep me feeling 'queer enough' is the fear of and experience of social violence," they say.

"I want to remind all queer people: You don't have to experience violence to be who you are," says More. "The idea that violence is part of a queer experience is not a queer idea it's a state idea." (Related: Why Asking Your Date If She's "Queer Enough" Is Really Not OK)

I Am Queer Enough...and You Are, Too

The bottom line is this: You do not have to act, look, love, or f*ck a certain way to claim queerness. And any imposter syndrome that tells you otherwise isn't because it's true—but because the cis-hetero patriarchy tells you it is.

I am queer enough. And if you vibe with the word and identify as queer, you are queer enough, too.

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