I am a straight woman.
That’s what I would tell myself.
I am a woman and I like men.
This fiction overwhelmed my early childhood self-identification as a boy (or rather, “not like other girls,”) and formed the shell of an identity I assumed as my body changed from child to woman. From the moment I found myself fantasizing about sleeping with another girl in my seventh grade class – as a man – I repressed my truth furiously.
But this isn’t a coming out story. What I want to address is how cognitive biases conspire to keep our truths hidden. These cognitive distortions keep us closeted to ourselves, preventing our true desires and identities from emerging from what The Doctor would call the howling dark. Aside from the obvious reason one would want to escape from such a place (Daleks!), there are many real harms to staying closeted. For me, the scariest memory is how I would catch a glimpse of myself and feel an overwhelming revulsion. It creeps back when my hair gets too long. Compulsed femininity soon follows.
One cognitive bias at work here is known as confirmation bias. If you believe in the power of prayer, you’ll remember the prayers that were answered more easily than the bazillion that you forget. If you have a pre-existing belief about your gender identity and sexuality, you will remember better those things that confirm it.
People who comment on how cute you look in that dress, for instance, would be confirming that you perform best as female. If, like me, you are convinced you should be and will be attracted to men, you will remember best the men you did like, ignoring the majority of men who were not sexually attractive to you. The important thing is that the people you try to like are in the arbitrary associative category, “men,” which overlaps somewhat with the category of “male.”
The important thing is that you could theoretically find some male-bodied people attractive – even if they tended to be unavailable or seriously inappropriate (eventually, I figured out I was attracted to women, and suddenly I understood the femininity that all the men I had dated had in common). You have dated some male-bodied people. You seek out male-bodied people to date. That’s enough to confirm your stance that you are, indeed, attracted to men For now. This works in tandem with the bias known as the illusion of control. In this case, it manifests in the delusion that sexuality is a matter of choice. If there is one man, any man out there, who is attractive to you, then you can choose to be straight.
Over time, another cognitive bias kicks in: the sunk-costs fallacy. You find someone. You move in with them. Perhaps you even have children with them. No one wants to throw away several years of family life. The fact is, though, that these are sunk-costs, and will not be affected by future actions. That you’ve been married for ten years does not by itself mean that you should continue being married. This loss aversion can greatly dissuade a person from thinking about the possibility that a fundamental life change is in order. The cognitive dissonance and threatened grief can be overwhelming, as can the mental effort required to pretend that you aren’t interested in people outside your culturally mandated sex-gender category.
Confronting the closet door means abandoning the fantasy of cisgendered, heteronormative bliss; it means admitting to some fundamental errors in your belief system. It’s not unlike abandoning your faith in an afterlife – what have you been dreaming of all these years? How much has been sacrificed to keep this fantasy cisgendered, heterosexual self alive?
There are other reasons to avoid confronting the truth about yourself. LGBT people are stigmatized with a range of negative stereotypes and representations. The correlation bias means that people are prone to assuming that correlated characteristics, however arbitrary, are likely to exist in the same person.
An abductive train of thought could work backwards: I don’t fit gay stereotypes, and therefore, I am not gay. It may even move beyond abductive reasoning: I don’t want to fit gay stereotypes, ergo, I am not gay. Then the illusion of control kicks in: If I prevent myself from fitting gay stereotypes, I cannot be gay. This is an iterative chain of logic. To borrow an example from Natalie’s coming out story:
But the conspiracy theories, in terms of personal significance, is dwarfed in irrationality, cognitive distortion and self-deception by how I convinced myself for twelve years following the initial revelation of my transsexuality that that wasn’t what was really going on, that I must have made a mistake (over and over and over), that I couldn’t possibly be the T-word and…
…ultimately convincing myself that I was really just gay. So I came out as such.
The choice of words – really just gay – shows the reluctance to violate what is seen as a more fundamental taboo (gender identity versus sexuality). It’s somehow better to be just gay than to be transsexual, in much the same way that it’s better to be just a butch lesbian than to be male-identified, or to be just straight than to be gay.
This extends to your self:admitting to yourself that you are gay means not just admitting to the threat that the other stereotypes apply to you, but also would involve admitting that the stereotypes are plainly untrue. At the same time, this can be seen as purely self-serving, as a gay person benefits from fighting these stereotypes.
Complicating matters, sometimes the stereotypes are true! For some, coming out as gay is only the first step. To be a gay woman is to confront a whole host of negative stereotypes, one of which is that gay women merely want to be men. Coming out to yourself again as a transman can feel like betraying the movement and undermining the many women who are happy to be women despite being angry at sexism.
I have been told by several intelligent, feminist women I greatly respect that I am reifying gender roles or somehow perpetuating the stereotype of what it means to be masculine. All I know is that it is important to be skeptical of dichotomies made up of arbitrary, associative categories. People deal with cognitive dissonance in creative ways, often involving several of these biases. The best way to counter these is to broaden the categories and smudge the edges as best we can.
The psychological need to meet cultural norms is very powerful, but as skeptics, we should be mindful of the many subconscious needs (such as the need to feel like one is socially acceptable) that drive our thought processes in often extremely illogical ways. Just as we are skeptical of the face of Mary on toast, it’s important to question beliefs about the face of me in the mirror.