Queer Unhappiness and Self-Imposed Respectability

AJ Tanksley
5 min readJan 2, 2024
Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash

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Happy New Year, friends! Going into 2024, I am looking to expand my topic repertoire on Medium beyond autism and the occasional philosophy think piece/poem. Autism will still be a major focus, but there’s a whole world of topics I’d like to explore in more depth. For example: gay stuff!

Queer unhappiness and respectability politics have been on my mind on and off since I left my past job working at an LGBTQ center. At various times in my life, I’ve struggled with feeling like I have to conform to a certain set of expectations in order to be an “acceptable” queer* person.

Examples of standards I’ve held myself and others to of “acceptable” queerness have included:

  • Being able to hold down a job
  • Having socially-acceptable, mainstream haircuts, hairstyles, and hair colors
  • Not using “different” or “weird” pronouns (ie they/them or neopronouns**)
  • Self-policing my behavior to ensure I don’t come off as immature, entitled, or cringeworthy
  • Being judgmental of queer people I find immature or cringeworthy
  • Not being “too” mentally ill
  • Being agreeable to and affirming of opinions that contradict my values

And, the worst one:

  • Being a happy person

These standards are incredibly silly and, for the most part, self-imposed; however, they don’t exist in a vacuum. Just yesterday I stumbled on an Instagram conversation of Concerned Mothers (TM) afraid that public discussions of gender nonconformity and trans identity is making their kids unhappy. One Concerned Mother (TM) even proclaimed that her kid is immensely happy and confident in her girlhood due to her mother’s willingness to shelter her from “weird gender stuff nowadays.”

Truth be told, no amount of gender conformity will make teenagers less miserable. Angsty sullenness is just a major part of the adolescent experience (source: I had loving parents but was still a moody little shit), and identifying oneself within a strict gender binary isn’t going to make one’s teen years less miserable.

I witnessed another example of this mentality in action when I overheard a conversation between two colleagues of mine at the LGBTQ center I used to work at. My colleagues were discussing a parent whose kid had recently come out as trans; said parent expressed concern that their kid would be unhappy forever. Colleague A encouraged Colleague B to use their own examples of career and personal success to assuage the parent’s fears about their child’s misery. Again, there was an assumption made by the parent that exploring one’s queerness/gender identity would amount to some degree of lifelong unhappiness.

These isolated incidents point to a cultural trend towards many non-queer people seeing queer people — and especially trans and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people — as inherently miserable and set up to fail. This overgeneralized lumping-together of the queer experience with sadness and misery has seeped into my own life and values.

I have failed to live up to all of the standards I outlined above in one way or another. I am not one of the shiny, happy queers that achieves monumental success, “overcomes the odds,” “doesn’t let themselves be defined by their challenges,” and wears neatly-pressed shirts. I am autistic, mentally ill and chronically unemployed/underemployed. My shirts are wrinkly, and my pronouns are weird.

I’m also not a very happy person at my core, and haven’t really been so since puberty. I have reached a greater level of serenity in my life than I had at the beginning of 2023, but that’s taken years of ongoing, difficult, and often frustrating work. Being at peace with my life is a little easier now, but happiness is not something that comes naturally to me.

I’ve struggled with a lot of shame about being a “socially-unacceptable they/them-er” for years, and tend to make unhealthy comparisons between myself and my more objectively-successful queer friends. I often wonder if my mental illness and inability to maintain employment makes me an embarrassment to the queer community, which tends to translate into shame and self-loathing about my own queerness.

This is the insidious nature of queer respectability politics: by setting standards for ourselves of what a queer person “should” and “shouldn’t” be, we are more inclined to believe lies about our own worth as people. We also unfairly perpetuate and enforce these standards, which the next generation is subjected to, and the cycle continues.

Based on my lived experiences, a lot of these standards seem to be rooted in the biggest lie of all: that happiness is the key to goodness and success. I’m not sure of the exact origins of this lie, but I do suspect that it is a uniquely-American attitude. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, for one, and as a writer it’s nearly impossible to escape the daily onslaught of online articles and think-pieces on how to achieve happiness. Thankfully, shilling for cryptocurrency and AI software seem to be more in vogue nowadays more than shilling for happiness in the online content creation community, but I digress.

Happiness has a strong cultural association with success, and because I struggle with happiness, I struggle to see myself as a successful human being. Wrap this together with the assumption that to be queer is to be inherently miserable, and you’ve got yourself a good ol’ fashioned ouroboros of shame.

I don’t have any sophisticated advice on how to escape this vicious, internalized queerphobia cycle, as I still sporadically struggle with it myself. Radical self-compassion does seem to help a great deal, as does being willing to show compassion to others who don’t meet our own standards. I fail at both more often than I’d like to admit, so oodles of grace is also imperative.

Above all, it’s important that we resist the urge to see happiness as a measure of success, or to see ourselves as deficit for struggling with unhappiness or mental illness in our own lived queer experiences. Queerness has always been more than whom we fist or how happy we are with our life choices. Queerness is also the inside jokes we share, the dolls we collect, the blood magic we attempt in college (don’t ask), and the Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story wigs we collectively lose our shit over.

Memento mori.

*For brevity’s sake, I’m using the term “queer” to refer to both gender and sexual minorities. I define my queerness by my lived experience as both a bisexual and a nonbinary person, two unique but highly-interconnected identities.

**For the uninitiated, neopronouns are third-person personal pronouns beyond “she/her,” “he/him,” or “they/them.” Examples of neopronouns include “xe/xem/xyr” or “fae/faer/faers.” People who use neoprounouns do so for widely-varied reasons.

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AJ Tanksley

A lifelong learner and poet, AJ (they/she/he) writes about the intersection of neurodiversity, mental health, spirituality, and identity.