Ladies as Gents: On Lesbianism and Default Masculinity
Let’s kick it Aesop style for a minute:
Last weekend, I went to a wedding. I wore a total steal of a green dress and the blingiest necklace I own. (Also flip-flops covered in sequins. Win.) I had an utter freakout beforehand related to body image and gender and class. Then I went to the chapel, hugged the groom, hugged the bride, and had what amounted to a marvelous time with good friends.
As the night progressed, I earned a compliment on the dress and a few on the necklace. Then I just got to be, while wearing them. Which — I realized — is not an experience I commonly have.
When you come out as lesbian and don’t present as femme — dresses and lipstick and high heels and all — you run a pretty constant risk of being taken for a non-girl. In fact, certain people in my life — certain totally awesome, totally well-meaning, totally off-base-about-these-things people in my life — expend considerable effort reminding me I’m not a girl, as such. These are the people who, no matter how many times I don a dress, still feel the need to dramatically retrieve jaw from floor at the sight. No matter how many times I tear up at a movie — or a wedding — these friends still feign shock. I have a friend who talks of her Mary-in-a-Dress photo the way I imagine a tabloid journalist might detail her winning shot of Saskwatch. The feminine Mary is a Loch Ness monster. Even when my friends encourage femininity — say, pressure me to attend a formal or wax poetic about my purely hypothetical wedding plans — I’m presumed to be the One Who’ll Wear the Tux. As a lesbian among straight folk, I transgress more gender expectations by dressing like a girl than I do when I literally cross-dress.
I’m presumed more boy than not.
I don’t point this out to passive-aggressively call out friends via my blog. On the contrary, I recognize that this response may well be something they’ve learned from me. Maybe they’ve simply honed in on my discomfort around gender and are attempting — through their shock — to mirror my confusion with their own.
Still, their sense that I’m masculine is some degree misleading, some degree mislead. I’m no more sagging cargoes and leather jacket than I am spike heels and minidress. I’m more “chapstick lesbian” — as Ellen puts it — than boy; I’m jeans, flip-flops, and t-shirts, not so much androgynous (read: both genders) — as in-between. Most consistently uncomfortable. And whether it’s because the default gender is masculine or because the default lesbian is butch, my unintelligibility tends to read as “unfeminine.”
This is the binary in action: There are only girls and boys and boys like girls. So, if you like girls, you’re automatically more boy than not. Crap effects on gender identity? Check. But crap effects on sexuality as well. In the confines of the gender binary, the desire of women for women is entirely erased. Porn sets aside, women do not desire women. The only way to make sense of lesbian desire, within the gender binary, is to appropriate a heterosexual narrative: to position the butch lesbian as a heterosexual male. And, as I mentioned in my previous post, a large chunk of male sexuality narrative remains the ill-conceived “men have this uncontrollable sex drive that trumps all self-control and respect for other humans.” So, to review, I can either have no desire to fuck, (because I’m a woman and that’s how women are), or I can be more man than woman, and therefore want to fuck women in a way that’s objectifying and violent and without regard for their needs. (Because this is — apparently — how men are, and girls what like girls are like men.)
Choose your own mindfuck, y/y?
The notion of the lesbian as automatically masculine erases queer women’s (already shaky) right to femininity. Coming out, even when I did it less than a decade ago, meant hearing — from straight and queer friends alike — about my parents’ right to grieve the straight girl they thought they’d raised. The notion that my lesbianism would understandably devastate my parents (however temporaily), inevitably raised questions about what I’d lost by being queer. And while old stories about the wedding I’ll never have and the kids I’ll never raise are growing increasingly outdated in my generation, the loss of (expected) femininity is not. When I came out, those things I was raised, as a presumably-straight girl, to expect — courting, cuddling, protection — became things someone-like-me could not desire. My own interest in femininity — or lack of it — became irrelevent; I was expected to balk at the dress, the rom-com, the manicure. I was expected to find swimsuit spreads more erotic than offensive, (my desire-as-boy trumping any offense I’d have taken as-girl.) And — if I desired a girl — I was supposed to devalue her, by first devaluing and erasing the sense of girl in myself.
This is my experience — not universal, certainly, but not nearly rare enough. Why are any of us still having these experiences, still encountering this meaning? The lesbian does not need to be the boy any more than the boy needs to hate the girl — or the girl needs to hate herself.
The piece I wrote for Scarleteen argued in favor of rewriting sexuality, starting from the blank page. I’m back to that again: We need narratives of sexuality that are about people relating to each other, not about a guy who fucks a girl. Because that narrative harms each of us — no matter how far removed from it we seem. I’m not heterosexual; still– this is my brain on heterosexism. This is me, a decade into lesbianism, still digging at the walls of our cultural closet, — searching for an out.