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What is Queer Imposter Syndrome? And How Do We Overcome It?

By Ashley Floyd, LMFT



an out-of-focus person in a blue button down shirt holding in-focus vintage sunglasses in the foreground

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter phenomenon, or what is more commonly called imposter syndrome, was a term developed by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. The term came out of their work with “highly successful women” who were afraid they were imposters and would be “discovered” as incompetent.

 

In an article on imposter syndrome, Clance and O’Toole state, “[Imposter phenomenon] sufferers do not have a realistic sense of their own competence and are not fully empowered to internalize their strengths, accept their deficits, and function with joy.”1

 

Some of the typical features that accompany imposter syndrome are dread of being evaluated, terror related to failing and feeling humiliated or foolish as a result, guilt about success, difficulty internalizing positive feedback, and overestimating others while underestimating oneself.1

 

What is Queer Imposter Syndrome?

It doesn’t take a large leap of imagination to see how this phenomenon may relate to queer people. However, as recently as 2018, there was no research that “gauged the relationship between the imposter phenomenon and the LGBTQ communities”.2 And, a quick search of Google Scholar and a university database left me grasping for straws – there’s simply no research out there that we can draw from.

 

But! Have no fear. Research is not the end-all be-all of understanding our lived experiences. Truth be told, it’s barely the beginning. We can also turn to common personal narratives, ones I’ve heard in my therapy office and from other queer people countless times.

 

Arguably, the biggest feature of queer imposter syndrome is a fear of being “found out” as not really queer, or not “queer enough”. Put another way, queer imposter syndrome shows up as a feeling that you’re being deceitful in claiming a queer or LGBTQ+ label. You might think to yourself, “I can’t call myself non-binary. I’d be taking space away from people who are actually non-binary,” or, “I feel like I’m asexual, but I’ve had sex, so am I a fraud?”

 

Queer imposter syndrome is the feeling of not being “queer enough” to claim a LGBTQ+/queer identity. One might feel afraid of being seen as “not really queer” and being excluded from the queer community because of their “fraudulent claim”. One might feel that everyone else in the LGBTQ+ community is “more queer” than them or find it hard to internalize the affirming messages of support they receive about their identity.

 

One article I found didn’t use the words “imposter syndrome” exactly, but it did talk about the experiences of plurisexual women and the internalized pressure they felt to prove their sexual identity. For instance, participants described feeling their identity was invalid if they didn’t have romantic relationships with people of different gender identities. Participants asked themselves, “Do I really deserve this label?” and, interestingly, this identity questioning still happened for women who had more relationships with women.3

 

So, even though this study didn’t talk about imposter syndrome directly, it seems pretty clear to me that this is what the plurisexual women in this study were experiencing: a doubting of their own identity and not feeling “queer enough” to claim a LGBTQ+/queer label – regardless of how much “queer experience” they had!3

 

Why Do We Experience Queer Imposter Syndrome?

I’m no stranger to queer imposter syndrome. It took me awhile to confidently claim the non-binary and gender fluid labels for myself. But why? I knew “woman” wasn’t an adequate label for me, so why did it take me so long to quit doubting what I knew to be true and claim this identity with confidence?

 

Someday, hopefully, someone will write an entire book answering this question. The reasons are just that multitudinous and complex. But we can still explore some of these reasons here!

 

Compulsory Heterosexuality

We live in a world that assumes heterosexuality until proven otherwise. When heterosexuality is compulsory and assumed, we are often – overtly and covertly – encouraged to keep non-heterosexual feelings and attractions hidden. And when you’ve been trained to keep those feelings hidden, it becomes really difficult and confusing when you try to identify the truth of them later in life – especially when you haven’t had any stereotypical queer experiences (more on that in the next section).

 

In this compulsory heterosexual world, we feel required to provide “proof” in order to claim queerness. For example, to “prove” bisexuality, we often think we need to have romantic and/or sexual experience with people of multiple genders. Even if you experience attraction to multiple genders, it may still not feel like enough “proof” and a lack of experience may lead you to fall into the trap of queer imposter syndrome. But, as we saw in the study above, even experience/“proof” doesn’t inoculate you against queer imposter syndrome!

 

So, what are some other reasons we experience queer imposter syndrome? If we can be attracted to and sexually experienced with people of multiple genders and still struggle to claim a plurisexual identity – or, if we can feel out of place within a binary of gender and still struggle to claim a non-binary label – or, if we recognize that we do not align with our sex assigned at birth and still struggle to feel “trans enough” – what makes us still feel this way?

 

Biases and Stereotypes

Our own biases, stereotypes, and assumptions may be playing into experiences of queer imposter syndrome. Drawing from the section above, we often feel the need to “prove” our identities, and to “prove it” we often look to stereotypical queer behavior or what we assume an LGBTQ+ person looks like or acts like.

 

We think, “I’m not masculine enough, I can’t be a lesbian,” or “I like feminine clothes, I can’t be agender,” or “I don’t use they pronouns, I can’t be non-binary”, etc. without realizing that thoughts like these are rooted in our own assumptions about what certain types of queerness look like.

 

I know this played a part for me. I consider myself largely feminine. 80% of the time you’re going to find me in stereotypically feminine get-up: long hair, a crop top, make-up, the occasional stiletto. Since I was assigned female at birth, during my gender exploration journey, I thought to myself, “I can’t be non-binary, I’m not like actual non-binary people, who are androgynous-looking and shun all aspects of the binary.”

 

Looking back… oof. This thought was rooted in my own assumptions about what it meant to be non-binary. It completely ignored my own internal experience and the personal experiences of other non-binary people. When we think we’re only “queer enough” if we look, act, think, or feel a certain way, what stereotypes, biases, and assumptions are we making about other queer people?

 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “So, what can I do about this?” First, let’s look at some other reasons queer imposter syndrome shows up. But you can jump ahead if you reallyyyy want and read the section How to Overcome Queer Imposter Syndrome below.

 

Fear of Exclusion

Our queer imposter syndrome may also be coming from a place of fear. What happens if the people in my community look at me and don’t think I belong there? That can be a terrifying prospect. When we’re so afraid of being rejected or excluded from a space that feels important and meaningful to us, we may choose to spare ourselves the heartbreak and convince ourselves not to try in the first place.

 

That may look like telling yourself you don’t really belong there anyway. Our protective mechanisms can be sneaky, convincing us that we’re not “queer enough” for queer spaces when, ultimately, we’re protecting ourselves from the devastation of rejection. Put another way, we convince ourselves we’re not “queer enough” to avoid being perceived as not “queer enough” and rejected because of it.

 

It’s a heck of a lot easier when it comes from ourselves. We can fall back on the fact that we haven’t really tried and maybe we are queer enough, without ever having to put ourselves in a position to face possible exclusion. Rejection, for some of us, is a heck of a lot harder to feel than fear, so we let the fear keep us safe.

 

Sensitivity to Privilege

Another reason we might struggle with queer imposter syndrome is a sensitivity to the privilege we have. I often hear this stated as, “It’s not my place to take up space in the (fill-in-the-blank) community.”


We think that because we “pass” as straight (for example, being in a straight-presenting relationship), or because our gender expression matches our assigned sex at birth, or because we aren’t “read” as queer by people and don’t experience blatant discrimination because of it, that we don’t deserve to “take up space” in the LGBTQ+/queer community.

 

People will experience more discrimination and violence, based on their identities, their presentation, or their relationships. For example, two men kissing in public are much more likely to be harassed or assaulted than a “straight” couple kissing in public. Transgender people are significantly more likely to experience violence than cisgender people.

 

Being aware of your privilege, wherever it exists, is a good thing. Recognizing where others may face discrimination, distress, and violence – where you don’t – can help us be more empathetic and can fuel us to seek change. But what do we do when this (extremely important) awareness prevents us from living our truth? Prevents us from living an authentic life? The Re-Conceptualize Queerness section below speaks to this question directly.

 

How to Overcome Queer Imposter Syndrome 

The advice below should be seen as general and not prescriptive. While I am a therapist, I’m not your therapist (or maybe I am, and in that case hi!) so I can’t give you specific advice or know exactly where your struggle with queer imposter syndrome comes from. The reasons above are a few reasons I’ve heard from others, but there are doubtless countless more.

 

Read the advice below and take what resonates what you, leave what doesn’t, and remember that what works for one person might not do the trick for you (and vice versa).

 

Educate Yourself on Queer Identities

Educating yourself on queer identities is one way to help acquaint yourself with the wide spectrum of queer experiences. This helps to combat queer imposter syndrome by showing you the vast array of experiences and reminding you that no two experiences are the same. It helps us combat the biases and assumptions we have and affirms our own unique sense of queerness.

 

You can educate yourself on queer identities by reading queer stories (books, poetry, blogs), watching queer content (social media, TV shows, movies), learning about the complex interactions of gender identity and expression (the genderbread person is a good place to start), or learning about the complexity of attraction (much of our knowledge on this coming from the work of asexual and aromantic people).

 

Know That You Can Do Whatever the F*ck You Want 

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (and so has Drew Carey), “The rules are made up and the points don’t matter.” So many of the “rules” we have around what we “can” and “can’t” do are completely made up.


A trans man can’t dress femininely. A non-binary person has to use they pronouns. You can’t have sex if you’re asexual.


WHO SAYS?

 

These rules are made up. F*ck ‘em. Do what you want.  

 

Do the Deeper Work

You may need to do some deeper work to understand where your experience with queer imposter syndrome is coming from. Some of the confounding factors that we didn’t even touch on above might include religious trauma, homophobia/transphobia, internalized homophobia/transphobia, fear of familial/social/occupational backlash, insecurities and self-doubt, people-pleasing tendencies, etc.

 

Understanding your personal internal world can be really helpful in unpacking and processing and healing. Therapy, journaling, and meditating can all be helpful in this process. Our journeys are unique and doing this kind of work can help us tap into the deeper-rooted parts of ourselves and understand our experiences with queer imposter syndrome on a more profound level.

 

Re-Conceptualize Queerness 

Sometimes, we need to reconceptualize how we view queerness and the LGBTQ+/queer community. It really helps me to remember that the queer community is not a physical space. My presence does not reduce the amount of space that everybody else gets. I don’t take away from someone else’s queerness by claiming my own. There is room for everyone who calls it home.

 

We can be aware that our queerness doesn’t look like someone else’s, that our experiences may be different than someone else’s. And, even if you don’t feel “as queer as someone else”, there is still room for you. The space is infinite and individual experiences are innumerable. You’re allowed to embrace your authentic self. It doesn’t detract from or diminish the experiences of others. I promise.

 

 

Queer imposter syndrome entails a fear of not being "queer enough" and a fear of being “found out”. Understanding this phenomenon and where it comes from within yourself can help you live authentically. As a therapist, I'm here to support those on this path. If you want to explore this for yourself, reach out for a journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and celebration. You can fill out the contact form here or call me at 608-291-6336 to schedule a consultation.

 

Sources

1Clance, Pauline and O’Toole, Maureen (1998) “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement” The Hawthorne Press, Inc.

 

2Joshi, Aishwarya and Mangette, Haley (2018) "Unmasking of Impostor Syndrome,” Journal of Research, Assessment, and Practice in Higher Education: Vol. 3 : Iss. 1 , Article 3.

 

3Cipriano, A. E., Nguyen, D., & Holland, K. J. (2022, March 24). “In Order to Be Bi, You Have to Prove It”: A Qualitative Examination of Plurisexual Women’s Experiences With External and Internalized Pressure to Prove Their Identities. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Advance online publication.

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