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From isolation to acceptance: Environment and shaping queer identity

While individualism is celebrated in modern culture, we can’t deny the significant role of environment in the formation of identity. 

People tend to behave in congruence with their surroundings. 

It makes sense, given we’re social creatures; in tribal times, and now, our very survival relies on group belonging. 

Our need for safety and security might not be a life-or-death decision, but we still look for these from the environment, through psychological comfort. 

For the LGBTIQA+ community, the role of environment prompts many questions. 

What are the layers of support in one’s coming out journey? What’s the role of government in ensuring a vibrant queer community? What’s our responsibility as citizens? And how can we encourage our leaders to do better? 

Social identity

Any exploration of self should be prefaced by social identity theory – the framework in social psychology that shows how a part of a person’s identity is derived from a sense of who they are in a group. 

First, there’s personal identity (how we perceive ourselves), then social identity (how people recognise us, such as through marital status, occupation, and religion), which leads to social categorisation and being assigned a distinct social group of ‘we’ vs ‘they’. 

The social identity map describes three tiers: core, chosen, and given. 

It’s important to note that society can double as a positive and negative reinforcer of identity. 

Collectivism is just as important as individualism. 

If we feel isolated, out of place, or unaccepted in the collective identity, it conflicts with our personal identity. 

This is why Pride Month and the visibility of the queer community are so profound for understanding one’s sexuality, especially in early formative years. 

Researchers have realised that different variables within our physical surroundings can change how we perceive our lives. This helps to reinforce our existing thoughts about our identity. 

Environments at odds with ourselves

According to sociologist Sintechè van der Merwe, the family and household play a key role in shaping how we see the world and ourselves. 

“As we grow up, we’re exposed to various factors that influence our identities in fundamental ways,” Sintechè says.

“In the family, we start understanding what is meant by gender, social class, and race. 

“The way we interact with these different concepts depends on those who socialise us, as well as their values and norms they hold.

“Descriptive norms refer to what most people in a group do, think, or feel – whereas prescriptive norms describe what a group approves of. 

“Thus, if we’re socialised in an environment that is at odds with our sexuality, race, age, ability, or disability, it could cause considerable stress. 

“This ‘otherness’ could lead to personal feelings of rejection and exclusion and affects people psychologically and physically.”

This is particularly true for the LGBTIQA+ community. It explains why it’s more vibrant and celebrated in cities than small towns. 

“Many major cities are known for their heterogeneous makeup of cultures, sexualities, gender, races, languages, and ages,” says Sintechè. 

“Even though large cities can be isolating for some, they can provide a degree of anonymity where one can truly be oneself without fear or judgement from others. 

“Since large cosmopolitan cities offer a haven to those who are perceived as ‘different’, it’s often within these spaces that ‘othered’ individuals can find each other and establish like-minded communities.”

This is why many people move to big cities to discover more of their queer identity.

Once this confidence is gained and validated through environment, people tend to return home to help develop the LGBTIQA+ scene. 

Social media, Sintechè believes, is also a powerful tool in this sense, because it can provide a sense of belonging for people who might be continents apart. 

Acceptance and love

One thing’s for certain: this personal evolution can’t be rushed, and everyone’s journey is different. 

It’s natural for people to want to improve the environment they came from (or maybe never left). 

There will always be advocates, newfound queens, ready to change the world once they’ve conquered their own. 

But we can’t ignore the responsibility of government in making sure local queer communities are seen, heard, and safe. 

Leaders need to do more to make cities and communities more appealing to young professionals, by investing in emerging industries and making events more accessible and affordable. 

Policies should be updated to become more LGBTIQA+ inclusive, and adequate funding should be given to support queer businesses, events, and mental health. 

Ideally, we also need to see more queer people in leadership. 

A rainbow flag is more than paraphernalia. It says: ‘You’re safe, you belong.’ 

It evokes a feeling of acceptance, of love, of ‘I don’t care what you are, just be you’. 

From the city streets through to the top of government, reinforcing all shades and orientations is something we can achieve together.

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