It’s Not You, It’s Me: Meditations on Imposter Syndrome Within Beijing’s Queer Community

A few months ago, I penned what I thought to be a heart-felt open letter filled with signature witticisms and candor about my Queer identity. I titled it “What Pride Month Means to Me.” According to feedback I received after it had been published, the piece had, apparently, come off as a deeply-considered and measured assertion of my identity, but this was far from my intention. After months of trying to recover from the dissolution of certain personal and professional relationships, and after having been on an almost year-long creative writing hiatus, on one particularly slow and humid summer afternoon while in the office, the piece flowed out, hinged on a line that had come to me while on the subway. I felt my agency slowly return to me after months of fear that I was indeed a failure, my failed relationships standing as a solemn testament to this fact.

“What I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion.”
― Chris Abani

Without much thought, I sent the piece to my friends at Date Night China, who published it without a moment’s hesitation. I paid no more mind to it until the piece itself began doing the rounds in Beijing and ultimately ended up being published on the Beijinger, the largest privately-owned English news and infotainment page on WeChat. It was all fine. Until it wasn’t.

A day or so after the article had been reposted by the Beijinger, a friend at the company texted me, rather alarmed at the vicious comments left in response to my article, this piece that was far from a manifesto of my Queerness, but had been received as a militant and flagrant promotion of a “lifestyle” many appeared to find entirely unacceptable. Many of the comments have not been approved on the back end of the site, he warned, but I just wanted to let you know we are all disgusted by them. I steadied myself and asked to see screenshots of these vile comments where I was evidently being torn asunder, and while I had expected some pushback, – hello? Dude in a dress and heels? – I hadn’t expected the level of hate I was reading. I felt small, insignificant, undeserving, and some part of me, albeit a small part in a moment of weakness, did consider whether all these people who had such horrible things to say about a perfect stranger, actually had a point.

“You know, you can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you.”
― Chris Abani

That is the existence of most Queer people, the delicate balancing of personal truths and public opinion carefully weighed to create a fundamental truth of their existence. After lifetimes defined by trepidation at the risk of discovery by the mainstream heteronormative world, and constantly battling against misconceptions about LGBTTQIA+ individuals by the mainstream such as being labeled as sexual deviants, even pedophiles, we soon face possible rejection from our very own who view us as undeserving – in one way or another – to be welcomed into the warm embrace of a supportive Queer community. The question always remains, “am I worthy, and am I enough?”

Name’s Straight. Very Straight.

Growing up as a gay, femme kid in Africa, I was ripe for the picking – the perfect target for hate and condescension. But even the cloud of overt hate and ignorance came with a silver lining and that was brutal honesty. When people believe you are not deserving of respect or consideration, they truly let their feelings about you be known and these feelings and sentiments can act as a compass to better guide you in life. You never have to guess where you stand, even though where you stand is often in a horrible, sometimes dangerous, even life-threatening position. Be it as it may, I consider myself lucky because, unlike my other Queer friends back then, I never had to hide, and never had to be a James Bond-like character in my own life, constantly creating elaborate fictional characters just to receive a modicum of respect.

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I would watch and listen to my friends as they would unburden to me, revealing just how difficult it all was, how exhausting it had already been for them, and what a bleak future they expected to have just for the sake of keeping their true gender and sexual identities hidden. Futures that included wives and children, and a same-sex lover of course, for which they would have to continue the elaborate charade of lies for as long as they lived, or until they got found out. Beyond having imposter syndrome, they would be actual imposters in theirs and their future families’ lives.

“The question is, how do I balance narratives that are wonderful with narratives of wounds and self-loathing? And this is the difficulty that I face. I am trying to move beyond political rhetoric to a place of ethical questioning. I am asking us to balance the idea of our complete vulnerability with the complete notion of transformation or what is possible.”
― Chris Abani

Even though I have lost touch with many of them, I see their prophecies fulfilled in Beijing, where many of the members of the Queer community are only ever open with a handful of people within the small Queer scene, and under very specific circumstances. Many are in heteronormative relationships and lead fairly “normal” lives in the daytime, pursuing careers chosen not out of passion or talent they possess, but for the sake of further concealing their identities. They live in constant fear of discovery and what that might mean for them, be it estrangement from their families or potentially losing their jobs. And even in those rare moments when they allow themselves the freedom and joy of being “themselves” around others like them, there is still a fear that on that rare occasion, their authentic and constructed worlds will collide in the form of a work colleague walking into the “wrong” bar where they would be discovered or someone somewhere will say something to someone, and word will eventually reach unintended audiences.

‘An Identity. Shaken, Not Stirred’

And in true “the grass is always greener on the other side” fashion, one might be led to believe that those of us who are “open” and living our “authentic” lives face nothing but calm seas and blue skies as we sail through life, but that assumption would be wrong. At a time when identities are not only proliferating, but are experiencing a renaissance and celebration of sorts, many of us feel entirely uninformed, ill-equipped, or just not “enough” to join in on certain identity-based discussions or inhabit Queer spaces in China and beyond. Whether it be non-Western Queer individuals who feel they have to take the lead from the west and therefore “westernize” their Queer identities, or Queer westerners in China who feel it is not their place to so much as share their western views and ideas on the same, there seems to be a constant supply of self-doubt, and a diminishing of the self for the sake of a hitherto unknown greater good. 

“Sometimes it is enough to know that it is difficult.”
― Chris Abani

Just months ago, a friend close friend came out to me as Bi. This was not a secret to her other close circle of friends but we were only beginning to get to know each other. I welcomed this news with wondrous surprise and asked her to share her views on identity in an article and throw in anecdotes of her experiences just for fun. She eventually did, but not before we had had a rather disheartening conversation on whether or not she was indeed “qualified” enough to speak on the Queer experience in China since, in reality, she had only ever truly been with one woman. Never mind the fact that sexuality is not defined by the total sum of sexual partners one has had of one gender and orientation, or another. She was willing to discount her personal experience for fear that she was a fraud for having only been with one same-sex partner her entire life, which is also a Queer experience that deserves to be highlighted. 

In this world of assumed acceptance and inclusivity, it is becoming harder and harder for average, run-of-the-mill Queer individuals to feel that they too deserve a voice in the ongoing debate and that their experiences are not only valid but also deserve to be celebrated. Many of us, as defined by voices within and without our community continue to regress to our younger selves, constantly struggling for approval and validation, deathly afraid of any misstep and the consequences therein. But unlike our childhoods when we were too different, too strange, too unique, too….something, now we aren’t cool enough, different enough, sexual enough, open enough, and simply not Queer enough. And the ghosts from imposter syndromes past have come back to haunt us, convincing us that we are all those horrible things others, and even we, think and say about us. Whereas in childhood we longed for nothing more than to sit at the cool, straight kids’ table, we now so desperately want to sit at our own table but there appears to be less and less room for us. And unlike 007 who ends up with a perfect martini, we end up with a sense of self that is not only shaken, but battered, bruised, and left out to dry as we are reminded we are not “normal” enough for the mainstream, but not quite special enough to be among our own kind because, to be anything other than the perfect Queer, is to be an imposter usurping the place of others more deserving than we. 

Photos: Spacedisruptor

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