I (28, they/he) have been out as queer for seventeen years, and as trans for twelve. I have had a really difficult time with medical transition due to disability and finance stuff, but I’ve done about 18mo of HRT total and have had gender affirming surgery– this to say that I’m pretty visibly not cishet. I’ve been gay for a very long time, a lot longer than most of my peers and people I’m in community with. While it’s always a little odd to be in an ‘elder’ role when I’m not even in my thirties, I definitely get that my experience isn’t necessarily the most common, and that validation from people you see as ‘experts’ (ha, imagine calling yourself a Queer Expert, how pretentious) feels great when you’re figuring yourself out. I’m generally always down to get a coffee or a beer with someone to talk about gender and sexuality, and I really value getting to be that person. I think it’s really important for everyone to give back to their communities in ways that they’re best suited for, and I’ve always been a very welcoming person, so being sort of a Community Greeter has always been something I’ve found really fulfilling.
That being said, I’m struggling with the sheer number of baby queers who get crushes on me. There’s six that I know of right now, and I frankly do not know a lot of people! It’s not that I’m unwilling to date someone who’s just realizing they’re queer, but it always ends up feeling like none of them are actually into me as a person– just me as a soft landing space, me as a Knowledge Haver, me as an ‘established queer’ who makes them feel like their queerness has been validated. I’m tired of having the same ten conversations with dates and of not feeling like I get any space to continue exploring my own constantly growing identity. I’d love to, say, discuss my currently evolving understanding of myself as both transmasc and lesbian, but I’m stuck in gender theory 201 explaining for the millionth time to the hundredth different person that yes, you can really call yourself trans even though you’re not sure yet if you want to do HRT.
I’m pretty new to the city I currently live in, and so far, haven’t really found a group of queer people with more similar timelines to me to hang out with. Actually, most of the queer people I’ve met here have literally, explicitly interrogated me about ‘how’ queer I am, which is extremely weird and hurtful– but that’s a new experience for me, while the gaggle-of-newly-out-people wanting to date me has been the standard for probably the last five or six years. Not having, like– I hate to use this wording here, but not having ‘adult friends’ to balance the quasi-mentorship/fending-off-crushes dynamic has me starting to feel like a new single parent desperate to talk to someone about taxes.
How can I tell all these baby queers to take a few steps back, that they probably are attracted to me mostly because I’m a generally friendly and approachable person who’s making them feel seen and secure, and that while they’re absolutely just as validly queer as someone who’s been out for half a century, I don’t have any interest in dating them til they’ve been out for at least a couple of years?
Thanks so much,
Always The Teacher, Never The Peer
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Phew. What a tiring and familiar email you’ve sent – not because the question is tiring but because I have also had this experience and it’s a lot. I too was out before many of my age peers and I, too, was in queer community while some of the people born just a few years after me were still busy convincing themselves that their crushes on Joan Jett were actually a healthy admiration of her iconic style (both can be true but… in these cases, generally not). I also want to validate and applaud your ability to recognize that people quite a bit younger than you are probably mostly interested in rubbing their identity against yours for confirmation and validation rather than actually rubbing some other part of themselves against you. It can be challenging to understand how these power dynamics come into play, and you definitely get a ton of points for having figured this out so soon and saved yourself a lot of drama (and probably saved some other people some hurt).
But now, what about your friendships and dating relationships? I think we need a two-pronged strategy here: one initiative to position yourself as Not Available to people who are hoping to solidify or refine their understanding of themselves through a little naked jiggery pokery (fine, reasonable, but not what you’re interested in), and then a different one to make sure people at your own stage of queer-and/or-trans life are able to see you as a viable friend and/or date prospect. I also want to say that it’s actually okay if a part of you enjoys feeling competent and helpful and knowledgeable as a resource sometimes, and other times not so much. That’s called “being able to manage your own energy level” and maybe also “sometimes we vibe and sometimes we don’t,” but let’s start there: you’re NOT a public utility. None of these people get to demand your time. It is of course useful and helpful to be a resource, and many of us need someone to help us navigate our business when we first start coming out, but you – a private citizen – can choose your own level of engagement and it doesn’t always have to be the same.
In making friends as an adult, I think a lot about the research of Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas, who showed that it takes 60 hours of time spent together to cross the threshold into “making friends.” Then I put my head in my hands and sigh, because 60 hours of volitional time together was so easy in university, and now it feels like a heavy lift – how do you get people you just met to commit to spending a bunch of time together when your orbit doesn’t bring you past each other every day, ten times a day? I mention this not to bum you out but to validate: there’s a reason you’re finding it difficult.
Okay, so: what to do about it? I’m not sure where you live, and I am sure it’s COVID-times wherever that is even if the people around you are pretending it isn’t, but I know that any solution is going to require that you make some intentional and specific efforts to find the people you want to hang out with. It’s time to join gay book clubs and trans gardening chats and queer dodgeball leagues and whatever else your city has where queers have leisure and recreation. Volunteer at the queer theatre, join a political action group, go gay-camping or whatever the people there do, which will bring you into conversation with a wider variety of people. If you have the capacity, have your new friends over for brunch on a semi-regular schedule (first Sunday of the month waffles in the backyard?). Volunteer in the groups you join, which will automatically mean you spend more time with your fellow rock-climbers or live draw-ers or whatever, and at this point what we’re looking for is that you get enough time with those people to start figuring out which of them might be YOUR people. Also, not for nothing, negotiating COVID protocols with people will give you useful early information about their willingness to respect your boundaries and hear your needs, which will be useful later (especially if naked time begins to seem appealing to you both).
Then, Brave Correspondent, you’re going to have to do something a little scary – you’re going to have to tell people right out that you’re looking to make friends. I completely understand that this might sound awkward, and sometimes it is, but the good news is that basically everyone feels awkward all the time and just naming your own awkwardness is actually… strangely charming? Just say it, “I promised myself if I came to this barbecue I would talk to at least two new people. I’m really trying to make more friends here who have been out a while.” Then, keep saying it. Tell everyone you meet you’re looking for new friends and dates and that you’re interested in people who have been out for a while (you can also phrase this as “been in the movement for a while,”). Then when you find people you vibe with, be clear that you are looking for friends and would like to hang out and do things together. If they’re nerdy, show them the research and tell them you want to see if it’s true – if you spend 100 hours together in the first three months, can you become friends? Schedule hikes, wine-tastings, mini-road trips to the beach or a concert or to eat some exciting food, have them over to watch a new movie (or re-watch each others favorites). Make time. You’ll find that after a few longer hangouts you’ll either be excited for more, or you won’t, but knowing it takes time, being transparent about scheduling time, and making the time to spend will get you on your way for sure. Also queers love good communication, so that will definitely be a point in your favor.
As to the people who need or want your Grown Queer Vibes but are still too young to be interesting to you (and are maybe exhausting you a bit), here’s my counterintuitive suggestion – volunteer to be a mentor with a local LGBTQ coming out group. While it will take a couple hours per week, it also gives a boundaried container for that work – you do it on Thursdays from 7-10, not at other random times, and if people try to waylay you after a lecture you’ve both attended to ask you a bunch of things the answer then becomes “I would love to talk about this during mentorship group time” or even “I’m not in the right headspace for that conversation right now, but I facilitate a group for people at the early stages of coming out if you’d like to join us,” and then just…don’t. Also, although “I’m not interested,” is more than enough of a reason not to get involved with someone, we also know from experience that some people can be hard to dissuade and queer/trans communities are so small that sometimes even when the other person is generating the conflict by not taking no for an answer it can still feel c o m p l i c a t e d to say a plain and unadorned No. To be clear, you should be able to and I want that for you, and also in the real world some people think of No as the opening of a negotiation WHICH IT IS NOT but newly-out people don’t always have the best skills at this yet – which is why this method has a double-helping of utility, because now as an official mentor you can simply say “It really wouldn’t be appropriate for me to date anyone in the youth category” (which can be up to 30 in some groups, though 25 is more common) and if they push it further the answer is “I wouldn’t be able to be a helpful mentor if there was any concern that I might be dating in the same pool as I am volunteering, so this isn’t negotiable within my ethical framework.”
The thing is, Brave Correspondent, as a community we are all hungry for guidance and expertise, since most of us grew up isolated from our culture and our community, in heterosexual and cisgender families, and we have to find our way as adults. That’s fine, and it’s reasonable and okay for people to want mentorship – it’s needed. But it’s not reasonable for you to feel like you have to do it constantly (and instead of getting to be an adult with friends). So a combo of putting some clear boundaries around your helping times – be helpful, yes, but you’re not a Vending Machine of Community Care, available upon demand – and making it very clear that you’re actively looking for other older friends should go a long way here. I hope you have great dates and hot times and actual leisure and community there, and that all the right people compliment your outfits and smile at you across the lobby.
love and courage,
S. Bear Bergman gives advice at Asking Bear. He is the author of five books for adults and four for children, most recently an advice collection titled Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way about Caring for People, Including Myself, with illustrations by Saul Freedman-Lawson.