Archive for the ‘ Queer ’ Category

Danzy Senna on Identity Politics

I’ve already talked about the book To Be Real a few times. One of my favorite essays was the introductory piece by Danzy Senna, also titled “To Be Real.” In it, she talks about trying to find an “authentic” identity to maker her real. She explored the search for a “neat culture box.”

She writes:

“I was left with only questions. To Be or Not to Be: black, Negro, African-American, feminist, femme, mulatto, quadroon, lesbian, straight, bisexual, lipstick, butch bottom, femme top, vegetarian, carnivore? These political identities let me into the maze of American identity politics, and hopefully out the other side.”

I’ve been trying for months to come up with something clever to say about this essay I very much enjoyed. I’ve been searching for some intelligent discourse on the appeal and danger of identity politics. Something about how we are always more than we seem. How we each exist at the sum of all of our identities. Something about how making the boxes too small pushes others out.

I’ve been thinking about this more today, 9 years after the September 11, 2001. With a lunatic threatening to burn Korans and American up in arms over the place of Muslims in American society, it seems more important than ever to remember that people are more than symbols, or labels, or movements.

Needless to say, I still haven’t formed my coherent thoughts. Instead, I will just share the concluding part of her essay.

“…it is not my “half-breed” lipstick-carrying feminist muddle that is too complicated, but identity politics which are too simplistic, stuck in the realm of the body, not the realm of belief and action. I have become suspicious of kente clothe and womyn symbols, the sale and mass consumption of cultural artifacts. My yearning to be real has led me in circles, to red herrings called identity, those visible signifiers of liberation that can be bought and sold as easily as any other object. Breaking free of identity politics has not resulted in political apathy, but rather it has given me an awareness of the complexity and ambiguity of the world we have inherited- and the very real power relations we must transform.”

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Word Search: He/She/Ze, Boyfriend/Girlfriend/???

One of my friends, Lo, is dating someone who prefers gender neutral pronouns. That is simple enough. She will say, “Ze called me this morning” or “I need to call zir back.”

Lo was talking about her relationship and I noted that she kept using the term “my boyfriend.” I asked her why, and she admitted that she didn’t know what else to use.

We discovered a language problem.

In a relationship where one person identifies as something other than male or female, “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” do not work. We decided that the terms “partner” and “significant other” seem too formal and imply a degree of longevity or commitment that might not be there. Omitting the gender and simply referring to them as “friend” denies the shared relationship. “Special friend” sounds ridiculous.

And so, we are posing a question. What terminology exists to acknowledge a relationship with someone who identifies as genderqueer or otherwise outside of the binary? Is there a good word to say “Ze is my ____”? If not, let’s make one up. What would you suggest?

Femmenism

I’ve written over and over about femme identities; about femme invisibility, about my discomfort with a femme identity, about how I sometimes feel really femme, about how it’s how I’m perceived even if I don’t quite identify with it myself, etcetera etcetera.

The essay “Femmenism” by Jeannie Delombard in the collection “To Be Real” by Rebecca Walker explored a little bit of all of this through the lens of femmenism, which she defines as “where the third wave of Western feminism and the third wave of American lesbianism intersect.”

She writes:

“Femmenism is nothing if not contradictory. Femmenism is looking like a straight woman and living like a dyke. Femmenism is being attracted to someone of the same sex who is very much your opposite. Femmenism is calling yourself a girly-girl and insisting that others call you a woman. Femmenism is playing up your femininity even when you know it can be used against you. Femmenism is using that master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Femmenism is political but not correct.”

In a way, her story is also my store. Though I grew up a decade and a half later, I too wanted to spend my childhood in “pastel party dresses and Mary Janes.” My mom was not quite as politically correct as her mother, but then again, I was a child in the early 1990s, not the mid 1970s. While Delombard’s mother pushed “corduroys and hiking boots,” my mother merely suggested, “Don’t you think a pair of jeans would be more comfortable?” Art supplies were the ideal playthings in our household, and when I wanted Barbie dolls, I had to save up my allowance or take advantage of visiting grandparents.

Like Delombard, household duties were divided by ability, not gender roles. My dad loved to clean, and so he did. My mom liked to cook, but she hated getting up early, so dad cooked us breakfast and mom took care of dinner.

Unlike Delombard, I never felt like I had to fulfill a certain gender role due to parental expectations, lesbian community requirements, or anything else. Not to say I haven’t struggled with my sexual orientation or gender expression at times, but I’ve always been pretty comfortable in my own skin- or my own clothes: be that boys cargo shorts or a strapless polka-dotted dress.

Needless to say, I’m still uncomfortable with a femme identity. Is it because it is a label? Perhaps. Is it because it suggests that I am only attracted to its opposite [butch]? Perhaps also. Is it because I fear mirroring heterosexual society? Maybe a little.

Delombard writes:

“If lesbians see butch-femme as a capitulation to heterosexual norms, most of the straight world believes that butch-femme lurks at the core of every lesbian relationship, while the rest see it as a kinky, erotic sex game, better left in the bedroom along with the strap-on dildo, the handcuffs, and the edible underwear. Like pornography, everyone has an opinion about butch-femme, but no one seems very clear about what exactly it is.”

She talks about the feeling that her and her partner are “making up what it means to be butch and femme” as we go along. That, I can relate to. Whatever I am, I feel like I am constantly making it up.

I like this part:

“For me, being a femme means that I take pride in wearing just the right shade of lipstick (not true for me), drawing the perfect black line above my eyelashes (true for me), keeping my legs smooth (sometimes), and smelling good. Being a femmenist means knowing I am just as attractive when I don’t wear makeup, shave, or put on perfume (very true).

Being a femme also means that I want to be with a woman who appreciates it when I do these things; not silently, but openly and enthusiastically. A women who sends me flowers (yes), helps me out of cars (whatever); and know how to take care of all the details, like choosing the right wine, tipping the bartender, and calling a cab (eh). Being a femmenist means both making sure that I know to do all the things myself and getting an erotic charge out of having them done for me.”

To me, this last sentence is key. As politically incorrect as this may be, I fear the label femme because I feel it suggests that I am helpless. Delombard makes it make sense. I can do it myself, I have that power, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate romantic and caretaking gestures.

There is no great conclusion I’ll offer in this post, except that this essay made me feel a little less alone, though not neccessarily less confused. Still, it made me  laugh:

“The same thing happens when my love and I go out to dinner: no matter how we are dressed, invariably the server will take my order first, have my girlfriend taste the wine, and present her with the bill (even when I have requested it, credit card in hand).”

So true, so true.  As is this:

“On the one hand, being a femme increases exponentially my much-publicized invisibility as a lesbian. Almost every day, usually several time a day, all sorts of heterosexual men strike up conversations with me, comment on my appearance, or shout lewd remarks at me. Since to them I don’t look like a dyke or even a liberated woman, they automatically assume that I look the way I do to provoke male attention and approval. […] On the other hand, my lesbian invisibility is suddenly, dangerously, stripped away when I am with my lover.”

On this account, as well, Delombard couldn’t be more accurate.

I may be no closer to reconciling my identity with the femme label, but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in thinking about it. It’s also nice to read a well written personal essay. And it’s nice to remember that femme can still mean powerful, political, and capable.

Hump Day Happiness #9

This week has seemed extra long. Now, as we are officially half way done, I can let out a sigh of relief.

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Through PRIDE month might be officially over, this comic from a softer world rings true.

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Someone on Genderfork shared this little gem:

“I can’t wait to button up your blazer over my breasts, slip on my slacks, spritz on some cologne, pin up my hair, and escort you to prom like a proper gentleman. You in your pink hat with the sparkles, both of us looking downright dapper as we each battle the binary, hand in hand. Can’t wait to dance with you.”

It’s sweet relief from all that lesbian-not-invited-to-prom-in-Mississippi business.

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After having her gender publicly scrutinized for the last 11 months, championship runner Caster Semenya is now cleared to return to competition.

Though the media is not reporting on this case in the most sensitive manner (I.E. “It is still unclear if the runner has undergone any medical procedure or treating during the lengthy layoff that has allowed her to keep running as a woman”) , at least Semenya can return to competing in the sport she loves.

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Finally, not only did Iceland legalize gay marriage, but their prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir tied the knot with her longtime partner (as reported by the AP).

Being Seen

Like many other bloggers, I’ve written about femme invisibility. In the last couple of months, I’ve come to the realization that my visibility, or lack thereof, depends largely on who I am seen with.

Historically, I have dated women on the “feminine” side of the spectrum. They had long hair, they wore skirts and dresses, they carefully applied mascara. When I was out with these women, we were perceived as best friends, sorority sisters, or drunk college girls looking for attention. Even when I was holding hands with or kissing a feminine girlfriend, we were met with comments of “I know you aren’t really gay, you are both way too pretty” and “So, am I the threesome you are looking for tonight?”

With Dora, no one knew what to think. She had long hair and noticeable breasts, yes, but she also wore men’s shirts with ties. In the eyes of society, and indeed my family, we were an ambigious duo. Were we best friends? Were we romantic partners? Our actions were usually what gave us away, but if we behaved ourselves, our relationship remained shrouded in mystery.

When I was seeing the boy, my perceived sexual identity was constantly fluctuating depending on how his gender was read. One minute, we were a straight couple. The next we were a butch/femme lesbian couple. And back and forth. Endlessly. I was both visibility queer and heteronormative, often at the same time.

This is all part of a larger trend. As I date women who lean towards the butch side of the spectrum, I find myself more visibly queer. When I am walking hand in hand with Linds, her with her short mohawk and cargo shorts, me in tight jeans and a fitted tank top, we are gay. We are gay, and you can see us. We are visible. We are role models to young teenagers looking for something, someone, anyone, with whom they can identify. We are saying “We’re here and we’re queer” without saying anything at all.

We are also targets. In the Piedmont Park area of Atlanta, someone zoomed by in an SUV, rolled down their window, and screamed “Fucking dykes!” Such words had never been directed at me before. I know Linds has heard that before. That and far worse.

I admire her, and everyone like her, for being visible. You are what people see when they think “queer,” and thus you are the ones who must constantly stand up for yourself. You are targeted far more than I will ever be. I can fly under the radar. It can be difficult to not be seen by your own people, and while that can hurt, I rarely worry for my personal safety. The preacher on the street corner spouting hatred doesn’t direct his tirade towards me. When I shop in the men’s department, salespeople assume I’m shopping for my boyfriend. Drunken frat boys might hit on me, but they never threaten me. (None of this is to say that any one group of people has it any easier or harder than any other group. Quite simply, we have different experiences and face different challenges. If you haven’t watched Ivan E. Coyote’s “To all of the kick ass, beautiful fierce femmes out there…” you need to do so ASAP. She words it way better than I ever could.)

Last night, I talked to Linds about this blog post and asked how I should refer to her. I explained what I was writing about and she asked, “So how do you feel about being  visible because you are with me?

Well, I love it and I hate it. I love that I am finally seen for who I am. I like that my sexual orientation is not being constantly questioned. It also makes me nervous. I’m used to the safety that invisibility offers. I feel like she can never visit my workplace. I can’t introduce her as a friend first and a girlfriend later; the girlfriend is already assumed. I worry that we are mirroring heteronormative society, that people will think she is the “man” and I am the “woman.” I also don’t want too worry too much. It is amazing. She is amazing. And I want to enjoy every minute of it without bringing in my academic background in Women’s Studies. As a dear friend advised, I can’t write a dissertation on my own relationships.

Looking back, I’ve always been attracted to slightly butchier women. The summer before 4th grade, I worshiped Dolphin, a girl scout camp counselor with spiked blond hair, baggy cargo shorts, and a British accent. At twelve, I told my mom, “I met this really cool girl named Robyn. She’s fifteen, and she has short hair, and wears boys shorts that she draws on with Sharpies. She doesn’t shave her legs and doesn’t care what people think of her.” (I should have known I was a lesbian then. And as fate would have it, Robyn and I dated four years later.) So while that attraction has been there for over a decade, I was always reluctant to act on it. Dating femme girls was safe. I could be gay, but not too gay. Call me a bad queer, but that concern totally influenced many of the decisions I’ve made over the years.

I’m feel more comfortable with my own identity these days, as well as with the varying ways that people may perceive me. I still wish that more people would trust me when I say I’m queer without requiring external evidence. I’d like to not always be defined sexually solely by who I’m dating, but also by what I say. On the flip side, I also recognize that change is slow, and this is the world we live in. All in all, I’ve been very lucky indeed.

Finally, to those who have made me a little more visible over the years- Robyn, Shane, Dora, and Linds- I thank you. I’ve learned from your challenges and I hope you’ve learned a little from mine. And hot damn, the world needs more visibly queer couples like us.

Pronoun Games

I’d garner that most queer people have played the pronoun game. I know I am guilty, sometimes more than others. The last few weeks I’ve been especially guilty, and it seems to me there are multiple pronoun games I’m playing.

First, there is the game of avoiding pronouns; “I am seeing someone new.” Depending on how good you are, this can come across as varying degrees of awkward. Instead of saying, “She took me out to dinner,”I could say “Someone took me out to dinner,” “My partner took me out to dinner,” or  “We went out to dinner.” I frequently play this game at work; for example, “I got a nasty message from my ex” or “I have a hot date this evening.” I leave out the pronouns. No one suspects anything. Right?

The second game involves using the expected pronoun, but for some reason I’ve justified as valid. For example, my doctor knows I have had sexual relationships with women. On a recent doctor’s visit, I justified using female pronouns for a FTM partner because my doctor is concerned with my sexual health and pregnancy prevention. Even if said partner identifies as male, my doctor need not worry about the risks that come with a “typical” male partner. I can say “she” and move on with the visit, while receiving proper care. Sure, I could also explain the whole situation, but then I become “educator'” when I don’t care to be. And quite frankly, it doesn’t matter that much. I’m there for an annual exam, not to explain my entire dating history, my sexual orientaiton, and other’s gender identity. Of course, I have mixed thoughts on playing this variation of the pronoun game. On the one hand, it protects me and my privacy. On the other hand, I am avoiding conversations and discussions that might make it easier for other queers down the road.

The final pronoun game I’ve noted is the game of straight up lying. This is when I magically transform my girlfriend from a “she” to a “he” because I don’t want to be judged, because I feel unsafe, or because the actual pronoun is irrelevant, but I want to share a story. This is when I tell the old man sitting next to me at the folk festival wearing a Harvard hat that my ex-boyfriend got a research job there and that he is moving in three months. In reality, it’s actually my ex-girlfriend and she is moving in three weeks. The old man has a confederate flag sewn to one sleeve and a cross around his neck. He doesn’t need to know and I don’t want to tell him. I feel most guilty when I play this pronoun game. I know I’m playing for purely selfish reasons. I should be open, proud. I should be busting down stereotypes. Instead I’m presenting as straight instead of lesbian or lesbian instead of queer.

What about you? What pronoun games do you play? Why do you play them? Do you feel guilty or are they a necessary evil?

Only My Mom: Talking about Guys

I spent Easter Sunday with my mom. In between bites of delicious Indian food, I told her,  “I kind of went on a date with a guy.”

My mom, being the brilliant woman that she is, responded, “Kind of a date or kind of a guy?”

Now, in many cases this would be offensive. In this case, it was simply hilarious.

I burst into laughter. “Both,” I said.

And that is how I told my mom that the person I am “hanging out with” is transgendered.

She took it well, as I assumed she would.

Now, I was terrified to come out to her as a teenager. I knew I’d dash her hopes and dreams of a white wedding gown. I knew she’d never let me spend the night with a girlfriend again. When it came down to it, she was the one who asked me the question, “Do you like girls?”

For the last five years, my mom has embraced my lesbianism. She hasn’t said a word when women spent the night or (better yet) stayed til 5 am and then disappeared. She’s invited girlfriends to birthday dinners, Christmas celebrations, Passover Seders, Thanksgiving meals, and family vacations.

After this new piece of information, she asked the logical questions: Has he had any surgery? How does the transition process work? What do you mean by T?

I explained to her how far along he is in the transition process. I explained how I feel like I’m having to learn a new language. Even though he has a largely female body, I’m learning to flirt and interact with a male.

Mom asked, “So how does this work if you are a lesbian?” It’s always fun to talk semantics with family members, as some of you can surely understand. Without going into excruciating detail, I explained to her that lesbian is a convenient and easy to understand term. People know what it means, and since all of my relationships until now have been with women, it worked well enough. I also explained to her that I understand sex, gender, and sexual orientation to have degrees of fluidity. It’s more about the person that anything else, although I certainly have preferences, and those preferences are subject to change. I also reassured her that biological penises still freak me out.

While I know my mom has always harbored a faint hope that this was all “just a phase,” I think she realizes it’s more than that.

She shared a surprising memory with me. Apparently, as a kid, I’d say things like, “I don’t know who I’ll end up with one day. It will just depend on the person.” My mom chuckled, “I guess nothing you say should surprise me anymore. You’ve been giving me hints since you were a kid.”

As much as my life is changing right now, I am one lucky woman with an amazing set of parents.