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Representation, Perception, and Responsibility: by Neen Cohen

Let me take you, if I may, on my journey of learning and understanding what these terms; representation, perception and responsibility, mean to me. Maybe some of it might ring true for you, or maybe it will help show you a perspective you never thought of before. Either way, let’s get into it.

When I came out – back in the ice age – representation for any ‘gays’ was minimal and token at best. But, as a youngen I was excited to see ANY representation. Oh, how that idea would come to bite me in the butt. I learned very quickly what ‘bury the gays’ meant and every time I grew more and more disillusioned about my own place in the world and a little more broken. (I am looking at you Buffy – Tara’s death is still a weeping wound to this day). Maybe you can relate?

Then I saw a little more visibility, and I grabbed at it with both hands, but in the end that just made me feel even more unseen. Because there were so few nice bookish lesbians, (except of course those they buried) just people continually acting badly, and that representation proved such a hard one to fight against. So, I’ve felt how not being represented can make a person feel invisible and it can attack ones sense of worth, self, and overall mental health. For a long time, I thought to be seen I had to also dress and look a certain way. Because these were the only ways I had seen myself represented. And those representations were purely binary – was I femme, or I was butch. But, I wasn’t either, was I? But this perception was accepted – at least outwardly – in the world, both in and outside of the rainbow community. So maybe, I just didn’t belong anywhere. It is NOT a good place to be. But perception was everything. So, I tried out the femme, and I tried out the butch. In the end I tried to mix and match what I felt comfortable with and again I became isolated and unseen as I couldn’t find a single representation of myself. Varied and continual representations are vital, because just as there are all kinds of people in the world there are all kinds of LGBTQIA members as well. There is a reason LGBTQIA youth are at such high risks of self-harm. I remember feeling the loneliness.

It's amazing how representation also leads directly into the perception of what society deems acceptable. There is a line in an Indigo Girls song that I think every time I hear someone explain what perception of Queer they are OK with seeing. Tolerance it ain’t acceptance. Mere tolerance for any member of our rainbow family is not acceptance of ANY of our family. It’s even harder to see this shallow tolerance within the community. The perception of presenting a certain way to validate your queer card is beyond detrimental. Over the years (the last 8 years specifically) a perception that seems to raise it’s ugly head over and over again is that a person’s sexuality and identity is tied solely into who someone is currently dating.

I married the person of my dreams 11 years ago. I got to declare my love and excitement of waking up beside my best friend every single day. And then 8 years ago he realised he was actually a man. From the outside looking in, I am often perceived as a heterosexual female. This is not the case. Since then, I have been called a fake lesbian, a transphobe, and a liar because I have not changed my sexual identity since my husband embraced his true self. All because of the perceptions of what I am supposed to look like and who I am supposed to be with.

I now label myself as Sapphic. Because with time has come the acceptance that sexuality can and often is fluid. Sapphic feels more comfortable for me, not because of my husbands gender identity, but because I accept every sapphic member of the rainbow family as my sister. I embrace them whole heartedly and know that who they date has nothing to do with me or the label I feel comfortable with in myself.

Having lived through the loneliness and isolation of a lack of representation, of negative and detrimental representations, and the perception of who I am because of how me and my husband look in public, I have a responsibility to help others in my community know they are not alone.

Yes, I personally think we all have a responsibility to help the less visible members of our community. We need to let them know, loudly and often, that they are not any less a member of the rainbow family, because of how the world perceives them. It is our responsibility to show our siblings that no matter what, they belong with us. If the world perceives them a way they don’t identify as within themselves we will stand beside them and tell the world they are wrong. Whether it be because of who they are currently dating, how they dress, or the gender assigned to them at birth. We are responsible for helping to strengthen the rainbow, not tear it down.

I have seen such wonderful examples of true acceptance, specifically within the sapphic writing community over the last few years, and it warms my heart. But there is always space and room for more acceptance, more variety of voices and representations and more amazing human beings standing up for each other.

So I say, lets stand together, lets embrace each other, and let’s find that gold at the end of our rainbow.

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