Define: Outsider Complex

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” —Hafiz

I haven’t found an official psychological definition of the Outsider Complex, but I think it does exist in those circles. Maybe the phrase seems common sense enough that nobody feels the need to define it somewhere. You can tell what I mean by it already, right? The occasionally overwhelming obsession of being an outsider, which sometimes means either putting oneself in a position of being an outsider (be that consciously or unconsciously) and often lamenting “not fitting in” or not being part of the status quo.

Well, let me tell you something: the status is not quo. It seems like just about every marginalized group has their own sense of the Outsider Complex, but I think queers are susceptible to it in our own ways. Especially genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers who grew up in a place that insisted, over and over and over, that fitting in, climbing the social or corporate ladder, following along on the assembly line, is the only way to live one’s life.

And as usual, I believe that if we can name something, define it, study it’s parameters, that when it comes up in our own lives, it will feel easier to deal with, because we have some sort of Big Emotional Reaction and we can point our finger and say, “Outsider complex,” take a breath, and have some sort of context for what’s happening. I believe that making the process conscious will improve it.

I’ve been talking about the Outsider Complex a lot lately. Everybody’s got their own version of it, I think—even most straight white Christian republican cis guys, I would argue, still get their own healthy dose of it, perhaps it’s just an inevitable side-product of this individualist culture. But it’s been coming up for me because Kristen’s version of it and my version are very different. And sometimes, that has created some tension between us, because I just didn’t get where she was coming from.

See, I grew up in Southeast Alaska. If you’ve been following along with my column Mr. Sexsmith’s Other Girlfriend, you know all about it; I’ve been writing about my relationships with places a lot over there. Not only did I grow up very much outside of suburbia, American cities, and even American farmland, I also grew up with hippie parents who don’t buy much into pop culture, I grew up vegetarian, I grew up with a lot of pagan influences. Combine that with my particularly unique name, and just those factors alone gave me a sense that I was different from the time I was little. But instead of feeling like that was a problem, I saw it as a badge of uniqueness. I like being different. I like being outside of mainstream culture.

So yeah, I do have an outsider complex, but it acts a bit differently than other people’s—in particular, than Kristen’s—and different than what I observe in the queer communities as a whole. Generally, I think the outside complex works more as a badge of shame, thinking ourselves inferior because we don’t fit it.

For many of us, hitting puberty and discovering that there’s something “different” about ourselves, even if we don’t quite pinpoint our gayness or butchness or transness until later, was the turning point, the place of no return, before which we were “one of the gang” and just going along like all the “normal” kids, and perhaps we have this deep-set feeling that if we could just get back to that, everything would be alright.

Perhaps that too is partially a loss of innocence process, where we learn something new and we can’t ever go back to when we didn’t know it, even if we wish we could.

Some of this Outsider Complex can also be growing up queer without any sort of queer influence. No older queers, no peers, no mentors, nobody who even said words like lesbian or gay or queer or kinky or butch or femme or trans or whatever. I think that’s changing, more and more, what with that little revolutional technological thing called the Internet, and with the advances in the gay rights and gender movements in the recent years, so perhaps kids today (oh my god did I just say that? I’m old) are growing up with much less of a sense of the Outsider Complex, just by their very different exposure to queer culture.

I continue to see this manifested, though, in so many ways with queers who are adults now, who have been out for a decade or more, who do take part in some sort of queer community: there’s still this sense of isolation, of being different than, of being not fully accepted or not fully understood for who you are or what you love.

I even think it is sometimes used by us in martyr-type ways: oh look how much of an outsider I am, oh look how different I am than everyone else, you couldn’t possibly understand me, woe is me woe is me. In the worst case scenario, perhaps.

It’s something personally I haven’t quite struggled with. And I don’t say that with any sort of hierarchy or judgment attached to it, one is not better than the other, it is just the way it is. Certainly I have my own complexes and issues, regardless of whether I have this one.

So to witness it in others is curious. What’s going on there? I want to ask. And when I see it in others, it breaks my heart a little. How would I ever explain how deeply you do belong? How common it is, to feel this way? How many thousands and thousands of other queers and kinksters and butches and femmes and whatevers just like you there are out there?

Maybe it’s because I spent years reading Wild Geese every single day, memorizing it, reminding myself, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Maybe it’s because I was never indoctrinated into Christianity and have never believed in hating myself. Maybe I’m just really lucky, I don’t know.

So tell me, readers, Redhead Army Sugarbutch Fans, queers of all spots and stripes: Does this make sense? Do you witness this outsider complex in queer worlds? Is this something that you experience? How? Have you been able to address it and get past it? Or is it something you struggle with ongoing?

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

16 thoughts on “Define: Outsider Complex”

  1. I love this piece of writing. I can't add anything really, especially as I am pretty hetero. Though discovering my kink side has sent me down a bit of an 'outsider' path that I wasn't expecting. But I did write something about not 'fitting in' in a more general way so I thought I'd post it here. It's just not nearly as eloquent as your post!

    I am trying to resist the 'outsider' identity as a kink porn writer and kinkster. I don't think it helps to hold onto 'marginal identities' too tightly. I think people use them against you more than you can use them in your favour. I am tired of being called 'sick' for writing S and M porn, I know I have done it but I don't want to respond by going 'ok I am sick and I am staying outside mainstream society with my sick friends'…. I want us all to live more harmoniously than that, as an ideal!

    You might also be interested in the writing of Mark Simpson who writes on masculinity/gay/queer identities :

    Oh I did add something after all. Thanks for such an inspiring post!

  2. Molly Ren says:

    "For many of us, hitting puberty and discovering that there’s something “different” about ourselves, even if we don’t quite pinpoint our gayness or butchness or transness until later, was the turning point, the place of no return, before which we were “one of the gang” and just going along like all the “normal” kids, and perhaps we have this deep-set feeling that if we could just get back to that, everything would be alright."

    I've never thought of my "not fitting in" as a complex. Rather, I've always laid it at the feet of, somehow, failing to learn how to socialize properly. I was *never* "one of the gang", have never made friends easily, and I didn't come across the need to name myself and my sexuality until college. I never felt like I was odd because I was queer or a fetishist, more that there was an invisible barrier between me and everyone else that I just couldn't get past. It was a failing in myself, more than Society's.

    Joining the local Dark Odyssey group helped me get past that somewhat, as did my last serious play partner, DC Boy. DC Boy wasn't phased by menstrual blood or fetishes, and that helped me to see that I wasn't the only crazy loner who didn't have much bodily shame. The Dark Odyssey group has "greeters" who introduce you to everybody if you're shy, and since most everyone is terrible with names the majority of people don't care if you have to be reminded of their name the second week you come. Tiny things, really, but I'd never encountered them in any other group I'd tried to join and took away a lot of the feeling of being a social retard that I'd had before. I'm definitely not charismatic, and I know outside of DO there's not *nearly* as much casual hooking up, but hanging out with people who I feel like won't judge me has helped me to feel more "normal" than I ever have before, even though I now know I am a feederist (which is as "abnormal" as they come!)

  3. Julia says:

    I grew up "being different" for several reasons, the most important one probably being that I played the violin! It may sound weird, but because of this, my life was in several ways set apart from other kids/teens… I had to practise, I had rehearsals and lessons, I took part in orchestra camps during holidays and prepared for competitions. This also meant: while my peers spent their free time in the afternoon (different country, different school system) amongst each other, doing "girl stuff" I guess, listening to music, shopping, whatever… I was interested in and surrounded by completely different things! I would listen to classical music, I wasn't interested in my sexuality (didn't care for boys, didn't realise why), I spent a lot of time around older people, got to travel a bit. Ok, I wasn't part of the cool kids, sometimes that got me thinking. But on the other hand, I didn't want to be, either, because I thought they were plain boring in the end.

    Then, after graduating, I entered music school (university). I'm not quick making friends anyway, but when I did, we of course got into talking about our childhoods and puberty. Turned out that basically ALL of my good friends (great musicians! great people!) were outsiders in school. All of them!! Can you believe it? I was really baffled. How could that be? I thought they were (and are) the most sensitive, emotional complex and smart people, I could wish for as friends – but still we all hadn't fit in during school! It felt so great to finally realise, there were others that cared for the same things, were equally ambitious and filled their days similarly.

    We also concluded that being different was not only a hinderance for us, but also a valuable asset. Have you ever listened to Schuberts "Winterreise"? If you haven't – I highly recommend it! (You shouldn't be too depressed already, though.) Those song(text)s speak a whole lot about longing (Sehnsucht, a concept one can't really translate), lonliness, being a wanderer "on the road", etc.

    It seems to me, having felt "outside" can at times work as a great source of inspiration. Be it for composing or interpreting music, for all kinds of art, theatre, whatever. I'm not saying all artists should be or are constantly unhappy. (Na, that kind of heroism we've hopefully left behind). ;-) But I do believe that we have to be empathetic enough to have known all kinds of feelings, in order to express them through our art. This is why I have come to think that knowing the feeling of "not fitting in", even if it at times makes life harder, can turn into one of the most beautiful sources of strenght in my life.

    I still don't always easily "fit in", sometimes that makes me sad, although not as thoroughly as it used to. In certain situations it's my own "fault" and I choose to be the odd one, sometimes I wish it weren't so. But from the time on I realised the inert power of my disparity, I have come to embrace it as a great strength. Even in writing this I felt it very clearly. :-)

  4. Rockets says:

    Wow, I needed to read this post on so many levels. I really loved it and all the comments so far and I guess I'll try and explain my experience with feeling like an outsider.

    I grew up in a small farming community. As a kid, I was totally a loner at school. I'd read books and dodge other people. Partially because I was shy, partially because I was picked on brutally my entire childhood by neighbor kids who thought something "just wasn't right" with me or that I was too "different".

    In high school things changed. I moved to a school on the other side of town, with new people, mostly strangers. Looking back I realized I changed, possibly to try and fit in I modified myself and abandoned (I thought) aspects of my personality I figured people couldn't relate to, assimilating into the throng of teenagers and disappearing as an individual.

    Later in life, I realized that I was queer. What a revelation. It was a liberating moment that helped me connect many elements of myself that I was fearful to embrace or acknowledge till this point in my life. But still in fear, I distanced myself from nearly all of my friends except one or two because I was tired of pretending to be someone I wasn't. I thought it would be easier to say nothing than to explain a lifetime of miss steps. I just wanted to be me, now that I had a clue who me was. But it didn't work out how I'd figured it would. I became an outsider of life in general.

    I can see how easy it is to embrace being "the loner" as it's something I've done deliberately a couple times when I've felt unable to cope. But choosing to be that person or falling into that role is a cowardly act. A behavior I'm trying hard to alter. It's so easy to be anti-social when you have the internet between you and "your community". It's easy to put up walls, but it's hard work to knock them back down.

    The funniest thing I've discovered along this path?

    In high school, I had lots of acquaintances but only a few close friends. It wasn't until recently (in my thirties) as I've reached out into my past and reconnected with my core groups of high school friends, that I discovered something joyfully hilarious. We were always the group that adopted the new exchange kids every year, the group that would do weird things like, pay our own hard earned money to go into the city to see a play together… the artists, the comedians, the writers, the nerds. Out of 5 of us, 3 are now openly gay. We were a group of outsiders that somehow made our own inside without realizing it. All of us felt like outsiders – and maybe that's what attracted us to one another and made us the perfect friends. Even if we couldn't (or wouldn't) acknowledge who we were as our younger selves, that feeling of being outsiders that most people would agree teenagers experience acutely… bound us together.

    I've come so far to get back to where I started. In the light.

    Great post Sinclair

  5. I never really thought of it as a complex or even as something others suffer from, but yeah I guess I have that. And yet, because I suffer from it I want to say “but mine is different than eveyone elses.” But in thinking that I realize just how much it fits in with what you’re talking about.
    I’ve always been different. My divorced parents, my hippie mother, my odd habits, my focus on sexuality, and my queerness. I’ve never fit in anywhere, not even with outsider communities. I don’t fit with the queer circles, I don’t fit with the sex bloggers, I don’t fit with the atheists, or any other group that I may identify with in some small way. All throughout my life, and probably most obviously in high school, I’ve been friends with a couple people from each group type, but never a whole group. Its a lonely life. I don’t know whether its because I’m just not that likable of a person or if I just don’t like a lot of people. But I do know that some part of me wishes for popularity.

  6. Fran says:

    I feel you Mr. Sugarbutch…..

    It is in our own, individual best interest to figure out how to belong to ourselves…mostly. Without that relationship everything else flounders.

    Having said that….to my knowledge you are blessed with the ability of sight and hearing, yes? You do not require the use of a wheelchair to move through the world, yes? So right there your access to queer events and spaces is drastically different from those who do no possess those abilities. Sometimes, wonderfully, queer shows employ an ASL interpreter…sometimes, too often..they do not.

    Sometimes I am asked to read or perform at a venue which has a semi-high stage…not high enough for able-bodied people (esp masculine folks in pants and sensible shoes…) to jump up onto….but nearly impossible for a femme in a short skirt, wearing heels, with severe full-body arthritis.

    You see where I am going here……yes? Because I can go on and on and on and cite many other examples….and

    I would say each of us needs to examine our relationships to our privilege and our relationships to our own power. Most of us are more privileged AND more powerful than we ever cop to.

    [I would also add that it’s a bit unfair to cite Christianity as a vehicle for self-hatred above any other organized religion or belief system. Christians can teach their kids to love themselves as well as Jews, Atheists and Pagans, and they can teach their children self-hate as well any other group of people.]

    What I remember most about that lovely night I had dinner with you and Kristen last summer is what lovely company you both are, infinitely interesting, kind and funny. Really, it was delightful and I hope to do it again soon.

    I also remember the shit Kristin and I got for walking up to that dyke bar in our heels. I remember the bartender looking to you to order for us….and I remember that being the norm for me in dyke bars no matter the city….if I am accompanied by a butch, or FtM friend, or even a gay male friend I will get served. If I am with femmes only or by myself…I have make a scene, wave my money and even then wait a while.

    I don’t waste a lot of time thinking about that – because frankly it’s more important to me to remember the good company and fun I had that evening.

    But outsider status can be harmful….life threatening. To be an undocumented “outsider” in Arizona right now would be terrifying for example…..

    To be the MtF sex worker in my neighborhood in the South can be deadly….being an outsider can be deadly for that woman.

    Oscar Grant was murdered by a BART cop….executed for no reason. And that cop was not convicted of murder. There was video evidence of the execution….Mr. Grant’s family….the people of Oakland….outsiders.

    There’s actually no group I belong to which doesn’t try to invalidate some other group I belong to. As such…I have stopped identifying with groups…instead I have decided it doesn’t matter much what anyone calls me. I know I belong to myself. I belong to myself and the people who have shown up when I need them, my chosen family. My Hella Pretty Army. They are from every walk of life imaginable and I am comfortable with that. It’s taken 10 years of queerness and nearly 5 years of crippling chronic illness to get to this point.

    Because sometimes being an outsider means you are a border dweller….a translator…sometimes lonely but able to move through worlds that would be otherwise closed to you. There is hard earned value in that.

    But that does not negate my frustration when I see a queer person in a wheelchair turning away from a venue that does not provide access for him or her.

    My immune system is tanking so hard that perfumes and colognes make my throat close. The Femme Collective has asked people to be aware of that at Femme Con this year, because there are increasing numbers of us with that kind of severe allergy. But you and I both know perfume will be sprayed. And cologne too. That’s denying my access to breathe Sug…..that’s pretty fucking serious to me.

    Yes, outsider status can easily delve into woe is me. And, just as easily be ignored by those on the inside. I bet you know lots of folks who have lost friends or groups of friends for dating or breaking up with the “Wrong” person, and consequently some other “Right” person decides the community must make the offender an outsider. Outsider as punishment.

    In fact – the tremendously talented, queer, chronically ill writer Peggy Munson says: “The isolation of the chronically ill is nothing more than socially sanctioned torture.”

    “Torture” The human animal so badly needs other human animals that one of the most painful things that can happen to us is to be banished, to be pushed outside of……………..

    I can testify to that. My body is deteriorating slowly, and painfully and mostly with just me to keep it company.

    Isolation is torture.

    And that is how we punish queers who date our exes?

    So – always, always… beloved friend I ask for all of us together to offer our biggest thinking….I’m sure I’m missing something and I am going to take this away and think on it…..but I don’t think this is an issue of “this” or “that.” I think it’s a more complicated: “And” and “And” and “Sometimes” and “And.”

    “How would I ever explain how deeply you do belong?”

    Maybe, for starters the next time you jump onto a stage, looking all dapper in your pants and shoes take a second and wonder how a disabled femme might get up there, or a dapper butch who has MS and is in a wheelchair….and if there’s no way for them to physically get to that microphone to speak and be heard what does that really say about who’s in and who’s out?

    Don’t worry so much about explaining. Be an ally who shows up….showing up lets people know that you think they belong. It lets us know in a powerful way. xoxo

    1. Thanks, Fran. I came here to say essentially this:

      "[I would also add that it's a bit unfair to cite Christianity as a vehicle for self-hatred above any other organized religion or belief system. Christians can teach their kids to love themselves as well as Jews, Atheists and Pagans, and they can teach their children self-hate as well any other group of people.]"

      …but much of the rest of what you said also really resonated with me. Thank you, again.

      As an aside, Sinclair, I did grow up "indoctrinated" into Christianity, in a feminist, non-self-hating household. I think of my Christianity as central to my desire not to "other" others, in fact — core not only to my own civil rights struggles but to the need to stand with people whose civil rights struggles are not mine. I understand that others were not as lucky as I was, in the form or content of their "indoctrinations," but I was jarred to read that part of your post.

      1. Sinclair says:

        You're right, I apologize; there are plenty of really wonderful ways to use the Christian doctrine. I wish that was presented more as the rule rather than the exception, but I still understand what you are both saying, and I certainly didn't mean to offend. Sorry about that. I'll watch my words a bit more.

  7. randy says:

    Um, I hate to say it, but straight heteronormative folks feel like outsiders too.

    It's the nature of our minds, language, and society at large.

    The beauty is when you realize that EVERYONE is an "outsider", IE, we all belong and are included in the same group.

    That's what makes us beautiful, our uniqueness, our special perspectives, our differing contributions.

    Thankfully, there are plenty of people open minded enough to appreciate even the most unusual, non-group-thing, variety of expressions.

    From what I've experienced of course…

    1. Sinclair says:

      Yes, of course; this is part of our culture in a huge way, this sense of belonging and this constant sense of being an outsider, no matter who we are. My point is that some subcultures enhance and encourage this more than others.

      1. randy says:

        Well yes, of course, but I don't believe that has nearly the amount of impact as the self reflection, do you?

        I'd also suggest the overall affect has more to do with puberty than anything else.

        I was just conversing about this with a friend whose daughter appears to be an extrovert (as in the Jungian definition, not just "social") despite both parents preferring solo time.

        As I pointed out, she's likely to flip, as so many children do, at puberty. Right NOW she prefers interacting with everyone she meets, engaging them in conversation, taking part in their activities, but once those hormones hit, suddenly she might become self conscious, moderate her actions in regards to her perceptions of various groups judgments regardless of how the individuals in the group feel.

        Just as, well, pretty much 100% of people who have gone before her! ;-)

        On a bit of an aside (although I'm rushed for time here so excuse me if this makes limited sense), a period of time I dated someone of mixed race, with significant African American background. It was interesting to see perspectives of things that were perceived as racist or prejudiced, because of identifying as a minority, rather than actually BEING such.

        Not to trot out tripe pop-psych BS, but a Dr. Philism that proves true, people respond to how we behave and present. When you behave as an outsider, specifically enhancing those attributes of your relationship with another, they will react to you as an outsider, whether you are or aren't!

        This is one of the first things TGs and TVs learn for public acceptance. Don't worry about passing because in so doing you won't pass because your worry will show. Instead, regardless how you look or feel you present, believe in your role and you'll be accepted as such.

        So I'm afraid I still disagree that "some subcultures" enhance and encourage this in a "some subculture" definition, if that makes sense. I agree that some cultures (for example, some regions of the country are more stereotypically less accepting of homosexual relationships than others) and that may carry over into different individual groups.

        But it doesn't seem to me to be an attribute of certain subcultures. Either way, it does seem to be something more impacted by personal growth to me…

        Does that make sense? Am I just being naïve?

  8. Kissiah Aiken says:

    I've been the outsider all my life. My family treated boys way differently from girls and I am the girl. I am also lesbian, raised in Fort Worth Texas. The only people I heard mention someone being gay were people telling bad jokes or using various gay epithets to hurt others not to mention racial slurs. I knew it was wrong all along, but I didn't say anything. I went along, trying to be one of the family despite them. Or to spite them, I don't know. I hid who I was. When I stopped doing that and moved to Dallas I found I could be my, non-bigoted self, I could be different than my family. Then I fell in love with person who is trans, FtM. I find I'm still the outsider because so many lesbians now think I'm a traitor. So, I'm used to being different, the outsider in a group. It's not all bad, it gives me a chance to watch and to learn (or unlearn things) while not feeling pressure to be the same.

    C'est la vie!

  9. spiderwomann says:

    I read this post directly after reading your post on the femme conference……and while I could say a lot more about feeling like an outsider because I'm queer (and kinky), whats been the most present for me in recent years is feeling like an outsider to the mainstream queer community because of my (mostly) femme identity/presentation and because of my desire to be sexual with people of various genders. I'm a dyke who feels radically, deeply queer, and yet being seen by others as a femme and a bisexual routinely works to marginalize me from the very people I yearn to embrace as my community…….for me, that's significantly more frustrating and hurtful than feeling like an outsider from the hetero world.

  10. Cassell says:

    This was especially opportune for me.

    There are so many labels I can attach to myself, and my life has been so dramatic that sometimes it feels unreal even to myself. I describe parts of it, and I am like drowning in the past.

    I had some new friends over for dinner last night, and one asked about my history; as I told him about being raised in the Middle East by military parents turned academics and described the meaning/motivation behind my artwork, that feeling of being an outsider washed over me. It generally makes me feel ashamed and raw.

    One of the ways in which I was an outsider within my family, was in my role as agitator and "pathological liar". I was the one cast out…the one that sucked up all the blame for my family's inability to nurture and love. The one who exaggerated our situation in order to garner attention. I can see myself recasting myself in this familiar role with friends and the rest of the world, and understand it intellectually, yet emotionally the role of outsider is deep in my bones.

    I've been recognizing that even as someone who is often very reclusive, I do have a valuable role within my queer, kinky community…that I am perceived by many folks as being a vary important part of a community. I want to change my role within my community. I am no longer happy as the outsider, and need to find ways to value my colorful past, and my equally colorful present.

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