Okay. So, recently, as in a few weeks ago, I got married. I married a gay guy, and I did it for reasons that are advantageous to both of us, and they have nothing to do with feelings. It is, essentially, an arrangement that gives me health insurance (so I can get an invasive surgery that I need to get) and gives him significant material benefits that I won’t bother to go into here.
Although it’s a good story on its own (I met him on a Tuesday, we married on a Wednesday, we had to do the whole ceremony and we giggled the entire time, we even drew up a pre-nup and had it notarized all within eighteen hours between meeting and marrying), I’m bringing it up because it has made me think about something that had already been percolating but that this “getting married” really made real for me. It’s made me think of a LOT of things, actually, including the absurdity of government having a hand in this kind of ridiculous institution. But what I want to talk about here is queerness, femininity, and “visibility.”
See, when I got married, I had to get a ring. I had to get a ring because I had to go with my husband into his place of work and waltz around as his wife for two days while getting his marriage all legitimized and getting my and his benefits solidified. My ring is a $20 simple sterling silver band that’s slightly too big because the kiosk at the mall didn’t have my size so I had to go a half size up. And I kind of love this ring. I don’t love the RING, itself, as a piece of jewelry, I mean it’s fine and all, totally unoffensive, but it’s not particularly lovable in itself. What I love about it is what happens to me when I wear it. What happens is, when I’m wearing it, I feel like I have this inside joke with myself that no one else gets. Not that anyone really notices it, or thinks about it much if they do notice it, but that’s almost precisely it — in a way, it’s like the ultimate symbol of straightness, of heteronormativity. A wedding band, right? And so when I wear it, I “pass” as a regular ol’ married woman. I’m a wife. I’m a straight, blond (oh yeah, my hair is blond now), young, hazel-eyed wife. But the thing is, the joke’s on them because they don’t even know there’s any joke. On the surface I would appear to be one, totally comprehensible, sensible thing and yet? I’m so *not*.
And I guess what it did for me in a way was release me from this idea of “visibility” as my aim. It’s like, ok, I look fucking straight. So? And, to whom? Why? And does that even matter? And the answer is, no, it doesn’t. I actually don’t give two shits whether I’m comprehensible, and I don’t think that comprehensibility or visibility as an aim of queer politics is even particularly desirable. I mean, look, I spent years trying to figure out how to be queer, how to be the “right kind” of queer for the straights, how to be the right “wrong kind” of queer for the other queers, how to (and yes, this is a pattern in my life) liquify myself and take up the shape of whatever space I’m in so as to fit right in. To me this has been partly about attaining a sense of belonging (where since adolescence I’ve tended to acutely feel like I dis-belong). And it’s also been about safety, majorly. Like I’ve got this deeply internalized sense that passing and fitting in are the best way to stay safe. Physically safe, sexually safe, emotionally safe.
So what the hell is my point? My point is, I guess, to repeat what I said before, that I don’t think that comprehensibility or visibility really ought to be a desirable aim of queer/femme politics. Like, what does that say about my relationship to the world if the way I organize myself in it is to best appear a certain way to it (or parts of it)? What that says is that my sense of self comes from outside, comes from how others perceive me, or rather comes from how I imagine others perceive me. And that’s bullshit because, honestly, I don’t think there’s any such thing as an “authentic self” or essence of self that can be authentically reflected or portrayed by your outer appearance. I don’t think there’s any way that every part of who we are will ever be visible to/perceived by/comprehensible to “the world” or “people” or whomever we are aiming to be seen/perceived/comprehended by. And like, if you think about it — when we try to be visible or try to be comprehensible, what is it we’re really reaching for? How do we measure what constitutes visibility? What are we reproducing in that effort? When we aim for inclusion, what remains excluded? When we use certain markers or norms or standards as a way to stay safe, what are we committing those who don’t/can’t access those same standards to? How are these standards also silently determined by whiteness, straightness, cisgenderness, upper-classness, ableness? Am I making any sense?
What it’s about, to me, or ought to be about, is just whatever the fuck we want. I just want to feel moderately okay in the world, and I want to measure that feeling according to my own feelings about and perceptions of myself rather than others’ feelings/perceptions of me. Like, I don’t want to seek to look a certain way in order to feel safe or to belong. Instead, I’d like to seek to look a certain way because it makes me feel bold. And by bold I don’t mean daring, flashy, fancy, etc. I just mean, I want to strive for a feeling of taking up space in my body such that my body feels strong, solid, present, and so that I can in turn try to think beyond a politics of comprehensibility and make room, in my own mind, for the immense possibilities that queerness presents to the world in all of its bodies.
Right, so the wedding ring. Yeah, it makes me feel like laughing hysterically when I have it on because everything it is supposed to symbolize — undying love and commitment to another person for a lifetime — is just totally irrelevant for me in my life right now. Instead, for me, it symbolizes this juxtaposition of who I was raised to be versus who I am; it symbolizes my own freedom from the ties of certain expectations; it symbolizes my commitment to myself that I am capable of making my own way in the world; and it symbolizes that I don’t give a fuck whether I’m “visible” or whether I’m “comprehensible” because honestly, it’s too much goddamn work and it’s not work that I even support.
There’s a lot more I could (and maybe will) say about this stuff in relation specifically to femme politics and femininity. But I’ll save that for now.
The end! You may now congratulate me on my recent nuptials.
EDIT: Someone just alerted me (god y’all are quick, that was like half an hour) to this post on femmetech.org on “deprivileging in/visibility” which is very much along the lines of what I’m getting at only she does it much better and with way less rambling. I don’t agree with everything she says but I do with a lot of it and I’d like to think about it more… hmm…
Today was the first day of my summer practicum — at a grassroots coalition of women prisoners. This summer so far (oh my god, I can’t believe it’s already almost halfway over) I’ve been devouring everything I can on prisons, the PIC, the military/police/penal state, race gender and prisons, the War on Drugs… The more books I read and documentaries I watch and conversations I have the more overwhelmed I feel and also eager and urgent about the problem of our prisons (particularly in California) and the havoc they wreak on those inside and on those of us outside. I feel stuck about how to write about those things on this blog but I do want update here more often than once a month, which is what I’ve been doing… I’m thinking maybe I’ll try to do once a day, just whatever’s on my mind.
What’s on my mind right now, other than women in prison? Well, I’ve got a 12-week-old kitten named Gilda batting at and chewing on my hair right now, which I read on the internetz means that she loves me; evidently she’s grooming me. She is a menace, a devil and an angel all at once. She is happy and loved, and also keeps us up half the night. We don’t have the heart to lock her out of the bedroom from the beginning of the night, but it inevitably means that we are up at some point in the night to her batting at our ankles and pawing at our faces and squirming in our bed, at which point we grumble and try to ignore it until we’re fully awake and finally get up and throw her out of the room. (Not literally.) Still, I am in love with her and when ML and I drove down the coast on Sunday to wander the salt marshes and go to the beach, we both missed her! A cat! I’ve never understood the pet bonds that people develop because I’ve never had a pet before, but I get it now. She’s a member of our family.
However, I promise I won’t bore you daily with tales of her mischief. Maybe weekly though :)
One of the more established interns at the prison coalition is queer, and I feel like I have a “be her” crush on her. Have you ever had that problem, where you can’t decide whether the gal you think is really hot is someone you want to “be” or someone you want to “do”? It took me a bit when I was younger to sort that out, and sometimes I think there’s still some gray area. Well, Ari is a “be her” crush, I’m pretty sure. Not that I know for sure that she identifies as femme, maybe she does maybe she doesn’t, but she is obviously queer, and not butch or masculine and I studied her trying to figure out what the cues were for me that she’s queer because it was so obvious to me. Other than my gaydar, I think it was a combination of a subtle energy and some visual cues: the slightly asymmetrical haircut with a tiny shaved part on the front of one side and bleached wingtips on one side; several small tattoos; skinny jeans with muscle tank + a few dangly necklaces… It’s interesting though, because despite the “be her” crush I think that I won’t really ever read that way. I’m too girly-feminine. I don’t mean pink and bows and hello kitty, I mean just a more conventionally feminine presentation. I don’t have tattoos and despite the fact that I know I mentioned here a while back that I was thinking of getting one, I’ve pretty much established now that I’m not. I feel torn between wanting to adopt a marker of something that is pretty ubiquitous among “my people” now (by which I mean my queer demographic, not all LBTQ folks in general) and wanting to also not just follow along in that regard. So until I feel more secure in my own queer presentation and don’t feel as concerned with whether I’m mark-able as queer, I think I will hold off. For me, being visibly mark-able isn’t really a good enough reason on its own to get a tattoo. In addition to not having tattoos, though, I tend to think that I otherwise lack some of the subtle identifiers that even I don’t quite know how to place. What is it that marks people? I know I’ve talked about this before; it still occupies me!
My hair is continuing to grow; I now have a platinum streak on a dark cherry angled bob. I’m continuing to try to get to the bottom of what I, personally, am drawn to in terms of style. Pin-up, yes, absolutely; I’d like to incorporate that into my daily get-up more. I know I feel happier and more together when I do, when I take the time to dress myself with care. It’s a matter of time, I guess. But I should do that.
What are the things you do, on an average, casual day, to articulate (visually) your gender? Whether femme or other?
This evening I was getting my hair cut. My hairdresser of choice works at a particularly queer salon in the Mission (natch). As I was arriving, there was a young woman who, by all appearances, was very queer, in a San Francisco Mission dyke sort of way. I know that statement is problematic, but bear with me.
She was tallish, lanky, boyish. She had a kind of swagger. She had a visible full sleeve tattoo. She was getting her hair cut at a fucking queer ass salon. And her haircut was the queerest of all:
This was her haircut exactly, except her hair was dark brown with bleached streaks. SO FUCKING QUEER.
And then, this happened:
Her: “Oh my god, I love it!”
Hairdresser: “Awesome I’m so glad! It suits you great.”
Her: “Squeeeee! My boyfriend is going to love it too, oh my god he’s going to freak out.”
Hairdresser: “Well you should bring him in here, we have a lot of clients who are trans men.”
Her: awkward pause. “Um, excuse me? What? My boyfriend is not trans.”
The hairdresser didn’t miss a beat, luckily, and the awkwardness was kind of smoothed over, but I had two interesting reactions:
1) Chillax, dude, no need to get that defensive about someone mistaking your and your boyfriend’s sexual and/or gender identity! It’s frakking San Francisco!
2) IF YOU’RE NOT QUEER, AND ARE IN FACT HOMO- AND TRANSPHOBIC, AND ACTUALLY EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT, DON’T FUCKING APPROPRIATE THE VISUAL MARKERS OF OUR IDENTITY.
Part of me suspects that’s entirely off base. Whatever, she can dress and style herself however she wants, right? And honestly, who the fuck knows where the fucking faux hawk comes from? I sure’s hell don’t. It’s probably not the queers.
But, I don’t know. Part of me also wants to defend that reaction. It’s San Francisco, and with such a visible queer/dyke community here, and particularly the Mission, that kind of visual marker is pretty much unmistakable as being queer.
It’s like this: it’s our fucking picnic. You’ve got so many that we aren’t invited to. Leave us alone at ours.
I have similar reactions to the appropriation by white people of cultural aspects and traditions of people of color, at least when it’s done in a way that’s just like “hey cool I wanna be like that” and not in an educated, fully interested way. And also similar reactions when straight folks decide they can be both straight and queer, unless they’re really done a lot of self-work on that. Do these parallels work? Is my frustration justified?
Or maybe I need to practice withdrawing judgment, and assuming the best of people. Might make me feel better, too.
I’m over how my uncle talks about “the gays” as if we were some exotic species, and asks me weird personal questions about my relationship that he doesn’t ask my sister about hers (with a guy).
I’m over having phone conversations with mi’lady about what we’re up to with our respective families that include sentences like “this would be awkward for you” or “I don’t quite know how you would fit into this.”
I’m over trying to explain to old friends from high school why I don’t want to hang out with their ultra-Christian crowd.
I’m over having my sister tell me that she’s got it worse because “at least people don’t constantly ask you when you’re getting married.”
I’m over my mom saying “just get over it, of course people act weird about something they don’t get.”
I’m over being told by my dad, yet again, that he doesn’t see how people can have the “same kind of relationship” with non-biological progeny.
I’m over how my brother finds guys who really “shove it in your face” that they’re gay distasteful.
I’m over feeling self-conscious about recommending a book or movie to someone if it happens to have a queer character or sub-theme (because what if I’M one of those people who “shoves it in your face”?).
I’m over “OMG that’s SOOOO GAY!”
I’m over being left out of conversations about what everyone in the family is up to “because it could be uncomfortable.”
I’m over censoring myself in order to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable about something that’s so vital and important to who I am.
I’m over small-town USA.
I’m over how being around our families completely squelches our ability to be sexual with each other, even by distance.
I’m over being irrelevant to her Playing Straight life.
I’m over playing it straight in my own life.
I’m over sleeping by myself.
I’m fucking over it.
I can’t wait to go home. Four more days.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, for months, really, and then when G posted about it recently it was just the shove I needed to actually sit down and write it.
There are so many layers of femme (in)visibility to me. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by straight people, by society at large. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by fellow queers. There’s how we’re seen by fellow dykes. And how we’re seen by each other. And of course, there’s how we see ourselves. And in all of this, there’s the personal, and there’s the political.
But I don’t really know how to write about it except in terms of my own experience. And of course, my experience isn’t representative of anything except itself. But I think there are probably parallels and similarities to and “mmhmm”s and head nods from other femme-identified folks out there.
It starts with not being able to see myself. That must be at the very root of it. As a little girl, I loved to play house, and I always wanted to be the mom. I loved to play school and wanted to be the teacher. I loved tea parties and dollhouses and dresses and patent leather shoes, I loved American Girl dolls and dress-up and imagining my future wedding. I was obsessed with Queen Elizabeth II as a little girl (I had a book about her written by her nanny) and with figure skaters and ballerinas. I fit snugly into my gender box. No questions asked.
Come junior high, I decided to start having crushes on the boys in my classes. Each year on the first day of school, I would scan homeroom for that year’s candidates. I carefully weighed my options, and within 20 minutes or so had selected the object of my external focus for the year. Seventh grade: Dillon. Eighth grade: Ryan. Ninth grade: Jason. In tenth grade I started dating, but never really cared much for the guys. In fact I think I was somewhat scared of them. Touching them, kissing them, doing stuff with them made me feel weird and nervous.
I’m not going to go over my whole coming out story here, but suffice it to say it took me quite a long time to come out to myself. I started questioning that year, tenth grade. I had a friend who I was in love with, but I couldn’t quite believe it. There was no way I was gay. It just didn’t make sense. I was a girl. I was supposed to like boys. That was that.
Understanding of sexuality is so, so so tied up with gender. That’s really what makes femmes so invisible. To ourselves as well as to others. There often aren’t any outward signs that we digress from the norm. They’re all inward. And society tells us (all of us, not just femmes) all the time that the inward things? Are figments of our imagination. Depression, addiction, anxiety, sexual orientation — it’s fabricated, it’s (no pun intended) just in our minds. You can’t get an MRI that says “whoops, there’s some depression in there, we’ll have to medicate you” or a pap smear that tells you “yep, yer gay alright, no two ways about it.” So unless you look different, unless there’s some physical proof of it (whatever it is), there’s plenty of room for people to doubt you. And judge you. And feel justified in doubting and judging. Because all that stuff? It’s in your mind. So I can tell you you’re wrong.
That’s what I, as a femme, was up against. Convincing myself that, actually, no, I’m right. That gut feeling that made me ask my mom, as an 11-year-old, whether it was normal to like other girls? That was right. Even though I liked ruffles and paper dolls and the Sound of Music. It took me so. long. to learn how to trust that feeling. I guess I’m still learning, really. In my first years after coming out for good, I went through all kinds of identity shifts, trying to settle on the self-expression that felt right for me. I just didn’t think it could be that I was both totally feminine and gay. I thought I was just fooling myself that I was gay. To be honest, I sometimes still do have those moments of doubt. “How is it possible that I’m gay?”
And, dude, I’m gay. I fuckin’ love pussy. The best compliment from mi’lady is when she looks at me in wonder, after a good fuck, and says, “you’re so gay.”
In fact, I think that’s probably the best compliment from anyone. Even people who mean it as an insult. To be recognized as gay makes me puff out my chest and stand up straighter. Really. I just want to belong here. I want people to know that I’m a member of the club. Sometimes, I do get some sort of signal, a wink maybe, and I just about die, every time. Especially when it’s the older, butch lesbians, in their late 30s and 40s. A wink from them is so gratifying. Not transgressive, not presumptuous, not inappropriate. Affirming.
I’ve spent up enough time and energy proving myself to myself, you know? I don’t have much leftover to try to prove anything to anyone else. So I don’t try, not much anyway. And for the most part, I don’t let the invisibility get to me. But those moments of visibility are all the more precious because of it.