The majority of my good friends are gay or lesbian. On rare occasion, they persuade me to go out to the club. When I join them, I prefer a club that caters to queer folk. Apart from the club scene, I’ve supported events such as Philadelphia’s LGBT Women of Color Conference and the Trans Health Conference. I’ve led small workshops and engaged in passionate dialogue regarding LGBT rights and our responsibilities. I have attended open mic nights with all Black lesbian poets. And I recently completed a course titled African Americans and the LGBT Experience at Temple University. So…am I in the life? Some would say so. Does my sexuality dictate a certain lifestyle? Maybe.
I didn’t hear this phrase “in the life” very much growing up. This could be attributed to the fact that I didn’t grow up in a vibrant gay community. Where I’m from, most of us who were questioning our same sex attraction did so alone, engaging in our own quiet internal battle. There really wasn’t a “life” to be in. If there was, I did not know anything about that scene. I recall first hearing the phrase in a film about gay Black men. More recently, I’ve witnessed the term being used as a way to demonize Black bisexual men. It has also referenced closeted Black gay men who “sparked” the rise of the down low myth.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, I ran across several lesbian ads labeled, “do you want to be in the life?” I always wondered what that truly meant. Some would say that I am in the life, but I’m faced with heteronormalcy much more than anything. For example, the majority of my coworkers identify as heterosexual, and when I turn on the television I see White heterosexual lives played out. And most of the settings that I’ve consciously or unconsciously placed myself in have rarely mentioned the Black LGBT experience. So the use of the phrase “in the life” could represent a need to find an affirming space for our Black, same-sex loving selves.
One day while confiding in a therapist, I expressed worry about never being able to come out to my grandmother. When he asked why, I responded that I was not confident that she would agree with my lifestyle. He raised an eyebrow and tapped his clipboard in a cliché manner before stating, “Oh, so you consider your sexual orientation to be a lifestyle choice?” I had a very difficult time answering because I’ve come to understand that I made the choice to allow myself to honor the same sex attraction I felt since an early age. This choice was a very important one that cannot be invalidated by politicians or religious zealots who try to dictate anyone’s definition of choice surrounding sexuality. What matters is that we recognize that our lives are interconnected, thereby requiring a love ethic that supports our intersectionalties and differences whether we are “in the life” or not.
Some people view their sexuality as a major part of how they live their lives. Others, like myself, have realized that although our sexuality affects the way we live, it does not necessarily suggest a particular way to live. So I live the best way I possibly can…being open and active in my community as a Black, same-sex loving woman.
Since moving to Louisville, I’ve made a conscious effort to interact in the LGBT community. In doing so, I’ve gained a heightened awareness about the community, and I’ve mingled with a diversity of queer women within and outside my peer group.
Lately, I find myself doing double takes upon hearing the phrases “in the life” and “gay lifestyle” or “lifestyle.” I’ve added these to my list of words that make me cringe or side eye. The majority of my twenty-eight years were spent in straight, conservative, shallow, or southern spaces. So this expression is fairly new to me.
I first heard “in the life” and “into the life” from women nearly twice my age. They used it to express a personal deliverance—as if they’d literally crossed a straight to lesbian threshold. For example, “When I came into the life, I partied every weekend.” Or the phrase was used to signify affiliation. Example, “You know, some women in the life feel like they can’t date masculine women.” Also, they said it so naturally that I inadvertently thought to myself, “When did I come into the life?” Overall, the phrase seemed old to me, representing a time when people didn’t (or couldn’t) explicitly say “gay” or “lesbian.” So, I attributed their uses of the expression to age.
It wasn’t until I heard those within my peer group use the terms “gay lifestyle” or “lifestyle” that I felt alarm. Hearing those words, I felt a sense of urgency to…think. I’ve always associated the word “lifestyle” to a set of habits or a particular economic status. Even when I consider the nominal definition I still wonder, “How do you live gay? Is there a gay habit…a gay moral standard…a gay economic level?” Yes, there’s an aspect of the definition that pertains to choice. But regardless of whether my love for women was a choice, which of my behaviors inducted me into the life? The attraction…the sex…the relationship? And what subsequent choices am I making to remain in
I have a few more questions:
- If you identify as lesbian, are you automatically in the life?
- Once you’re in the life, can you get out? How? Re-identify as straight?
- What if a woman identifies as straight, but shares deep interpersonal connections and spends all her time with gay friends? Is she in the life too?
I’m still wresting with “in the life” and “lifestyle.” But I stand firm on the following: “gay lifestyle” is slick divisive. “Gay lifestyle” implies that everything I do is somehow foreign and different than my straight counterpart—as if our existences aren’t parallel simply because our attractions differ. •