What are Social Expectations ?
I am not a “good lesbian”. Not only that, I’m not a good straight person either. How do I know? Because I’ve been told nobody can tell I’m a lesbian until I open my mouth. If you read between the lines, that means I can’t pass as straight but women who love women may scratch their heads too. Apparently, I fall into the ambiguous range of Kinsey Scale of Social Expectations. Silly me, I didn’t even know that such a scale existed, but apparently one does. So what qualifies me as a “good lesbian”? To straight people, it is my ability to cover my sexuality. It’s how I downplay my lesbianism in the face of social expectations. To a lesbian, it's being an unashamed woman who loves women. Regardless, I’m not a good lesbian.
So what are social expectations of me as a lesbian? I still don’t know. When I came out twenty years ago, I was doing so within a system of oppression by which LGBT persons were coerced to act in certain ways. Think about that: “A system of oppression by which LGBT persons were coerced to act in certain ways.” That sentence is loaded, isn't it? It implies that:
There were social expectations on how a lesbian should act.
There were social expectations on how a straight woman should act.
A person has to self-identify as either lesbian or straight and allow that to be the reason for their behavior.
There must be occasions when people must be treated as lesbian or straight.
Well, you might say, “But that puts social expectations on both straight and lesbian women”. Not so much. Think about what I saw on the news and within my social group, especially when my friends flaunted their lesbianism. People threw slurs, they spat, or they felt it was their right to tell them they had a mental defect flaunting their doctorate from the University of Perpetual Ignorance. In the 1990s, when I came out, there were substantive threats of punishment for failing to follow social expectations and be a “good lesbian”. The stakes were never higher. Sakia Gunn. Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Adbill. It was a life or death choice for lesbians. Conform or risk your life.
Examples of Social Expectations
Now, I don’t want to get all academic but I may have to; so forgive my inner nerd as I lay out some examples of social expectations. Studies show people will employ stereotypes to judge angry-looking women as more likely to be lesbian. I’ll attach the study at the end in case you’re into that stuff. Neutral and happy-looking women’s faces are more likely to be judged straight ergo straight women are supposed to look positive and happy. Where does that leave me? The line-straddler. I have a neutral look. Not overly happy, not overly angry. Neutral is normal to me. Who walks around either all happy or all angry all day? That’s crazy. But I shouldn’t complain. In 1992, a study of nursing students found examples of social expectations of lesbians to be predatory, blatant, a bad influence, wanting to be men, and spreaders of STD’s. What makes this study so shocking is that nurses take a code of ethics which states: “The nurse provides services with respect for human dignity and the uniqueness of the client unrestricted by considerations of social or economic status, personal attributes, or the nature of health problems."
Living in Hetero-Normative Social Expectations
I am not a “good lesbian”. When I have to, I keep hetero-normative social expectations relatively intact. I learned how to straddle the line. I can simultaneously signal my sexuality and cover it at the same time. I can fill the social expectations society demands and be true to myself. I have to. Because let’s face it, I know many people who have lost their job flaunting their sexuality, but know none who lost their job by keeping it hidden.
Now, I know you must be thinking “You’re a sell-out” or “You’re not living your truth” or
“You’re catering to hetero-normative social expectations''. But where would the LGBT community be without trying to assimilate into the social expectations of a hetero-normative world? The right to marry, the right to adopt, and the right to enjoy spousal benefits were all legal enjoyments written into law by cisgender heterosexuals for cisgender heterosexuals. The LGBT community didn’t write them. If we, as a community, didn’t demand to have the same laws and protections of our cisgender heterosexual counterparts, would there even be a line to straddle? No. I would have been shut out and excluded and, like in some countries, persecuted or killed. By straddling the line of social expectations, I reduced the stigma of “other” and increased the recognition of “equal”
The Future of Social Expectations
I am not a “good lesbian”. I still feel alienated by the social expectations of a hetero-normative society. I am not a “good lesbian”. I don’t flaunt my sexuality and claim my space, but I don’t back down either. I do feel like I am living my authentic self but I’ll wonder if coming out under oppressive social expectations changed my opinion of what authentic living is. I guess it will be up to younger generations who never knew a life without gay marriage or gay adoption. It will be up to them to develop a different set of social expectations. Maybe social expectations of acceptance and integration? Or maybe they will keep the status quo. But, as long as I live, I will make sure we never go backward. Even if I have to straddle the line until I die. Because I already told you. I am not a “good lesbian”.
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Bjornsdottir, R.T., Rule, N.O. Emotion and Gender Typicality Cue Sexual Orientation Differently in Women and Men. Arch Sex Behav 49, 2547–2560 (2020).
Michele Eliason PhD , Carol Donelan MA & Carla Randall MSN (1992) Lesbian stereotypes, Health Care for Women International, 13:2, 131-144