Sam W replies:
I have a weird identity problem that nobody I know seems to share. I have lots of LGBTQ friends, and it seems like lately it's a bad thing to be straight. I identify as mostly hetero, at least for now, but my friend group almost looks down on straight relationships, the way that many bigoted communities view LGBTQ people. I sometimes feel embarrassed about my orientation around my closest friends! I have no idea what to do. I don't think that the fact that I'm straight detracts from how weird and wrong all this is. Perhaps I require a different perspective? Please help!
To start off with, I can assure you that you're not the first person to be in this situation. So you don't have to feel as though you're the only straight person traveling in queer circles who's ever felt uncomfortable with the way straightness is discussed. And believe me when I say the advice I'm about to give you is very much colored by my own experiences (I mean, all advice is to some extent, but let's just say your question rang a lot of bells for me).
As a quick aside, I'm going to use queer as my go-to term here. I find it encapsulates the widest number of identities, especially in terms of sexual orientation, which is what you seem to be referring to (an obvious caveat is that not every LGBTQA person identifies as queer). You don't mention gender identity specifically in your question (and I know some trans folks don't associate with the term "queer") but what I'm about to say applies regardless of which specific, marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity your friends identify with.
Now, you don't go into specifics of what exactly your friends are doing, so I'm going to offer up some different scenarios (some of which are, given the patterns that exist in our current world, more likely than others). Are your friends harassing and picking on straight students because of their orientation? Are they writing mean things on their lockers or trashing their stuff? Do they shout rude things at straight couples holding hands, or ask invasive questions about the sex lives of their straight acquaintances? If so then yes, they are doing the same things that straight students do to queer students, and you should intervene and try to get them to stop. If talking to them directly about their behavior doesn't work, I would involve a teacher or other adult at the school.
But, if I had to make a guess, your friends are probably not behaving that way. If they're anything like the vast majority of queer folks, they're mostly making jokes and comments about straight people and how much they're annoyed by them/wish they would stop doing x thing/ wish they would all go away.
Essentially, they're venting. And the reason they're doing so near you is that you're their friend (or you're all hanging out in a safe space together). They're using this feeling of safety as a chance to say all the things that politeness and/or a desire to avoid a nasty conflict, keep them from saying in the moment where they first think them. And if this is what's happening, and you spend the majority of you time with these friends, then that may indeed give you the sense that it's "bad to be straight."
But here's the thing: when your friends talk about how annoyed they are by straight people, or how much they hate them, those emotions have less to do with the identity of straightness and more to do with how they are/have been treated by straight folks. I doubt they think straight people are inherently sinful, or unnatural, or faking their identity for attention or to cause trouble (all of which, BTW, are things people assume about those with queer identities).
Instead, "straight people" is essentially shorthand for the nasty behaviors that your friends have been on the receiving end of. To be sure, there can be unpleasantness and bigotry directed from one part of the queer community to another, but the majority of nastiness that queer folks (your friends included) face comes from straight people. So, when they say things like "I hate straight people," they're expressing their anger, frustration, and exhaustion with the stuff they face everyday, be those micro-aggressions like looks or comments from people, or bigger aggressions like ostracization or violence at the hands of their family or their peers.
But it's a hell of a lot simpler(and for some people more cathartic) to say, "I hate straight people."
Keep that thought in mind when your friends vent, and resist the the impulse to jump to the "not all straight people" reaction (they know, okay, they know you're not all like that). Listen to what they're saying. Are the things that bother them things you do, maybe unintentionally, but do nonetheless? If they are, then make an effort not to do those things anymore. You can even ask for advice on how to avoid grumble-worthy behaviors. They're not under any obligation to educate you, but since you're they're friend they're more likely to be receptive to you asking for help than some random stranger asking for advice. If you don't do the things being grumbled about, then you can assume the grumbling is not directed at you. This process of being able to hear the criticism, evaluate it, and then shake it off as necessary is actually a really helpful skill to learn as an ally.
I find that jokes are often a manifestation of a similar feeling to that of the grumbling. "Straight people jokes" more often than not flip the script on the expectations of how we talk about sexual orientation. They draw attention to the ways that queer folks are stereotyped or misunderstood by pointing out how absurd those same lines of reasoning are when applied to people whose identity is seen as the default rather than deviant. Laughing at messed-up ideas is in many ways a tool for people who are marginalized. It both diminishes the power of the idea by mocking it and allows some relief from all the unpleasantness that's the result of that idea. Because sometimes the choice is between laughing at the ridiculousness of someone asking "who's the man?" in a lesbian relationship or tearing your hair out in frustration. And many people prefer a good laugh to premature, self-induced baldness.
Now, I'm not saying all this to negate how you might be feeling. It sounds like some of the things your friends are saying are hitting pretty close to the bone for you. When you belong to a dominant identity, it can be an unpleasant shock to hear that identity criticized or mocked, because it very often isn't. And hey, nobody likes feeling made fun of. But I hope a point I've made clear is that a hurt feeling now and then for you is not "just as bad" as the stuff your friends a most likely dealing with.
It can also help to consider how your negative feelings are connected to the idea that you have to totally and completely belong within your current friend group. As you've pointed out, the difference in your orientation means that this just isn't possible. That's nobody's fault, but it does have the potential to make you feel out of place from time to time. So I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to try dividing your social time up a bit differently. If you're not a part of them already, try finding clubs or other groups to spend time with where you have several big points in common with the other people involved. Balancing your time a little more evenly between a space where you feel more the insider and space where you feel more the outsider may help resolve some of the emotions you've been dealing with.
If it's the case that your friends are actively making fun of you or your relationships, it's okay to speak up. These are your friends after all, and they probably don't want to make you feel ashamed of your identity. And there's a good chance that they haven't really noticed that what they say has been making you feel bad. So if you say, "hey, when you talk about me/ thing I like in X way, it makes me really uncomfortable" I think the odds are good that they'll say "oops, sorry" and be respectful of your request in the future.
If you're planning on bringing your feelings up with your friends, keep what you're saying focused on things that happen within your group. Do not, I repeat, do not say to them that they're treating straight relationships the way bigoted communities treat queer relationships. Because unless you live in a pocket of the universe that's very different from the one I do, this statement is simply not true. And your friends are unlikely to react well to it.
Because they've heard that argument before. The one that says that, when they express their anger and frustration over being treated poorly, they're being just as bad as their oppressors and they shouldn't fight hate with hate. The one that says that when they make jokes or comments in order to let off the steam that they really should, won't they please, consider the feelings of straight people.
And those arguments miss the mark on so many levels. In spite of what certain pundits, writers, and shock jocks may insist, we are not experiencing a massive societal shift in which queer people are the oppressors of the straight people. There's this twisted cultural notion that says that as soon as marginalized groups gain a voice, or advocate for themselves, or even just go about their days refusing to conceal or apologize for their identity, that the rights of members of the dominant group are being stomped on.
I think this notion arises, in part, from a belief that there must always be a set amount of oppression and rights in a society. So when a group begins gaining more rights that it had previously, there's a tendency to assume that members of the dominant group will have to lose them in order for the "natural" balance to be maintained.
But I also think that people who do not belong to a stigmatized or marginalized group want to act as though or believe that they do. Because they perceive oppressed people as getting special treatment, or more sympathy, or being able to lay claim to a noble cause. So they believe that if they can turn up evidence (no matter how paltry) that straight people are being oppressed, they will get all the special treatment that queer people are getting. You know, like the higher suicide and homelessness rates, or the having to get into a legislative battle to get married or keep your job.
This idea about oppression also gets filtered through a lens that focuses too tightly on individual interactions, rather than on broader social patterns. What I mean by that is this: suppose we have two kids who are both being teased by their peers for their sexual orientation. One of them is straight, the other gay. The straight kid is probably only hearing negative things about being straight from one or two peers. The rest of the time, they're encountering message from the media, and from the adults in their lives, that still positions straightness as normal, as good, as natural. Nobody on T.V is pontificating on how straight people are a corrupting influence on society. If they're religious, they don't have to hear their pastor or other faith leader speak about how sinful heterosexual desire is.
But the gay kid? Not only are they being teased, but if they go for help they may find that the authorities are just as bigoted as their peers. The sentiments they hear from the people picking on them are likely being echoed from many parts of their life, be it their family, their church, the ambient media, or the values of their community. Instead of the mean comments being drowned out by the beliefs of the wider world, they're amplified and reinforced.
And that's why it's a false equivalence to say that a someone feeling bad for being straight is the same as someone feeling bad for being gay.
I know you probably didn't write in expecting a sociological rant, and I'm sorry if some of this comes across as harsh to you. But you are not the first person to express the sentiments that you did, and you will not be the last. So I wanted to address some of the assumptions underlying the feelings you're having, rather than tell you not to have them. Because I think the discomfort that many straight allies feel around their queer friends is linked to some of the misconceptions I mentioned, and it causes them to mistake individual discomfort for oppression.
So, talk to your friends about how you're feeling. Don't be accusatory, and don't fall back on the logical fallacies I mentioned above. These are people you care about and who care about you, and odds are that this will open a discussion up between you that might help both sides feel more comfortable when you're all together. Because there's still a long way to go before equality is achieved, and understanding each others experiences, and knowing how they differ, is one step towards that equality.