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(This post is part of a series. You can read the first post, in which I discuss passing privilege, here.)

Many of you probably have at least a general idea of what Impostor Syndrome is but if you don’t I encourage you to go read Bridie Marie’s piece which describes the phenomenon and gives a healthy dose of kick-ass encouragement to help overcome it. What I’d like to talk about here is not necessarily the same but is functionally similar enough in the anxiety it inspires.

Queer Impostor Syndrome

In the great scheme of things I’m still pretty new to the world of intersectional feminism. At the same time, and largely because of it, I’m also still understanding, processing, and actively creating my own identity. Since I’ve been exploring my identity and confronting privilege at the same time I’ve had to remain constantly vigilant that I’m not using privilege to assume a socially marginalized or oppressed identity to which I don’t have a right*. This is basic respect and something we should all maintain awareness about but over time that constant vigilance and empathy has also resulted in what I think of as a kind of “queer impostor syndrome”.

I’ve slowly begun to realize that a lot of the anxiety around my right to my identity has come from trying to reconcile it with my passing privilege and with my commitment to social justice and feminism.

I identify as soft-masculine genderqueer but my entire life I have benefited from cis-privilege and will likely continue to for the large part. At the moment I don’t have a strong preference between masculine and neutral pronouns but that in itself is a privilege considering misgendering is a constant emotional and societal struggle for many trans and non-binary people. I like feeling included in queer spaces but at the same time I know that my privilege protects me from so much of the oppression that many in those spaces face. I worry about taking up too much space.

A strong portion of my gender identity involves the feeling of wishing to relate to and interact with other women as a woman. Even when I describe this part of my identity to myself I intentionally use the phrase “other women” as if I were one myself. I don’t necessarily identify as transgender but this particular feeling is strong regardless. I also realize that I have always benefited from male privilege and, because of my presentation and the way my body is shaped, I will likely only be able to achieve this level of expression with a select few close friends. I understand and fully support the fact that there are very good reasons why someone who looks like me will be regarded with apprehension or mistrust in mostly or totally women-only spaces. I gladly and respectfully seek enthusiastic consent before entering but I also accept that this is a part of my identity I will never be able to fully express.

I identify as hetero-queer but I have never officially had a fully aware non-platonic relationship with anyone who didn’t identify as female. I recognize my capacity for romantic emotional intimacy with men as well as aesthetic attraction though I don’t have a strong sexual attraction to them. I’m also in a committed partnership with a woman that is socially monogamous so I have the privilege of being seen as strictly hetero. While I’ve never experienced any type of exclusion or hostility I don’t feel like I belong in gay/bi male spaces because I don’t feel like I meet a high enough bar to qualify. Also, being sexually attracted to women on top of my male privilege makes me feel even more cautious and anxious entering straight woman, lesbian, or queer/trans femme spaces.

I could go on but I think you get the point. The intersection of privilege, activism, and identity can create a cognitive dissonance resulting in the feeling of not having a right to your own identity. You can start to think “I don’t meet these arbitrary qualifications so I can’t really be queer” or “there are people with intense dysphoria or that have experienced so many different kinds of violence for this identity; what claim do I have?” Those feelings and thoughts can clash with what your mind and heart are telling you about who you legitimately are and, for me, that left me in a state of depression and anxiety (woo, first panic attacks ever!)

The encouragement part

Let me tell you one thing: You have a fundamental right to your identity.

I’ll say it again: Your identity is an individual and inherent part of you and you have a right to it.

Sometimes that needs to be said and repeated because it’s true and we all need to be reminded of it sometimes. Buuuuuuut it’s not really sufficient when it comes to overcoming queer impostor syndrome so let’s try a little harder.

Being aware of privilege and being respectful of the oppression others face is really important for everyone and we can’t really sacrifice that in favor of our own comfort and expect a supportive community in return. If we’re committed social justice warriors then we need to continue to listen to and boost the voices of people who experience that oppression themselves. I identify as a feminist but I am careful not to take up too much space talking about masculinity (or just, you know, talking) because I recognize that most of the time it’s more important to lift up the voices of women. I’m getting better about not mentioning my lack of pronoun preference too much because I recognize that displaying that privilege is counterproductive to other people’s struggle for social recognition.

But don’t worry, there’s still hope for defeating queer impostor syndrome! It just takes a little more thoughtful action and creativity.

1) Find ways to connect positively with your identity

Especially for those of us who work in social justice activism, we read and share a LOT of stories about oppression and violence and basic human shittiness from around the globe. We do this because visibility is so incredibly important for generating change but it can also leave us with a wholly negative view of our own identities. Going out and finding safe spaces, on the internet or in person, where people express and relate to aspects of their identities in positive and affirming ways can do wonders in balancing out the stream of negative association. For me this was searching for and discovering a community of tumblr blogs of other genderqueer people that were all about support and acceptance and celebration. Seeing people happy, positive, and supported helped me believe it was OK for me to feel that way too!

2) Challenge yourself to positively express your own identity in whatever ways you feel comfortable or safe

A lot of times when we get queer impostor syndrome it’s because we’ve started to externalize our identity instead of internalizing it – for example: being non-cis = experiencing violence; I haven’t experienced violence so my identity isn’t valid – and we need to bring it back into ourselves in some way. For me that involves curating a tumblr and pinterest blog where I challenge myself to freely explore what aesthetics most accurately embody and affirm my soft-masculine and/or feminine identities. I’ve also chosen to participate in Femmebruary which is a daily challenge to make positive expressions of feminine identity part of your routine for the month of February. This has helped me discover the joy and satisfaction of allowing myself to value and express myself authentically and kindly!

3) Find ethical ways to talk about your feelings with others and accept support

This one can be particularly hard because, a lot of the time, a direct result of queer impostor syndrome is feeling like your feelings aren’t valid or worth talking about (“There are so many bigger problems and I’m worrying about not being entitled to space in marginalized or oppressed communities? With all the privilege I have?!”) But those feelings of anxiety are in you and they need some form of controlled release. Practicing self-care is important for everyone but it’s particularly important for us advocates and allies. As Lucy said on the subject of self-care:

if you neglect your individual needs, you’re going to be pretty terrible at taking care of other people.

Letting your anxiety build can not only result in social justice fatigue but also depression and anxiety that can affect how you relate to yourself and your perception of your own personal value. Do you have people in your trusted community with similar identities and privileges? Try to talk with them openly about your feelings and anxieties, I’m sure you’ll find that you’re not alone and that in itself is a comfort.

If you don’t have people in your community with similar privileges to yours you can still talk with others but it’s important to be respectful of your friend’s boundaries. Before talking to someone about your feelings make sure to “ask to ask”** – you can say “I’m having some emotional trouble pertaining to my identity that I’d like to get some advice on or just talk with someone about but it also includes discussing my own privilege; is that something you have space to help me with at the moment?” If they don’t, respect them and try something else.

If you don’t have anyone in your community you feel comfortable or safe talking to you can still release the tension of your anxieties by writing about them (journaling, blogging, etc.) Whether it’s private, controlled-access, or public the act of writing can be therapeutic in that it forces you to directly process your feelings and articulate them. Even if they’re random, seemingly incoherent thoughts, allowing yourself the right to talk about them, even if just to yourself, can be a valuable step in overcoming the anxiety.

So try to be kind to yourself, friends. You’re valuable and deserve to be your most authentic self!


* And even then Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous is completely right to ask: “Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience. Really. Think about it. Don’t just get offended and start crying about identity-policing. Really consider what that means.”

** You should “ask to ask” regardless of who you’re talking to as a show of respect for their emotional boundaries but it becomes especially important when the dynamic includes a difference in privilege, ie: a male feminist talking to a female feminist or a white person talking to a person of color, etc.

PS: I know I usually have pictures in my posts and I don’t really this time so here’s a cute puppy in a hammock. You deserve it : )