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July 25, 2011 / missmarymax

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.



Leave a Comment
  1. Amelia Jane / Jul 25 2011 8:37 pm

    It’s a total logic fail. I’ll always remember this quote from an interview at Gay Pride; the interviewer asks the gay couple “So, I have to ask, which of you is the girl?” and they look at her and say “No, we’re both guys, that’s what makes us gay.”
    If you’re a girl, who likes girls, then you like girls, because they’re girls, so it makes MORE SENSE to think that lesbians will be girl-y, even, from a binary perspective, because girls who like girls like girls because they are girls so lesbians would be girl-y in order to attract girls who like girls because they are girls doing what girls do. amirite?
    I identify as genderqueer and don’t feel particularly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ as well as being pansexual, but because I have short hair and wear jeans a lot, I get asked if I’m a lesbian or stared at as people try to figure out if I’m a boy or a girl. I get sir-ed a lot. Although once I got ma’am-ed, and I look about twelve, so not very ‘ma’am’ status anyway. Seemed more like the chap was trying to see if I’d say ‘BUT I’M A BOY’.
    I fully agree with rewriting sexuality and blank-slating it.

    • sui solitaire / Jul 29 2011 3:05 am

      I think that getting “sir-ed” is kind of the funniest thing in the world.

      • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:07 pm

        I think it CAN be. But it depends on the person/ context/ etc. So for instance, if I’m a MTF transperson or a nonbinary person getting “sir-ed” might be devastating. If I’m a person whose body image issues are strongly tied to a sense of not measuring up to standards of femininity, again, “sir” might be deeply painful. I’m glad it’s a funny thing for you; I wish I could say the same. File under: someday?

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:05 pm

      Oh, Amelia. This. Every word of it. Is why I love you.

  2. genrefail / Jul 29 2011 2:37 am

    I’ve experienced this attitude a great deal where I work. I usually live in Georgia at a women’s college where I am certainly not isolated from the queer community but while in Colorado for work I am often struck by the world. Everyone I talk to at work has the idea that all lesbians are butch and take the fact that my hair is buzzed and such as an indicator that I am trying to be manly. They don’t understand why I am uncomfortable with assigning a gender-oriented pronoun to guests when they enter the restaurant rather than calling them ‘guys.’ I go with ‘folks’ or ‘y’all’ instead because I don’t like saying ‘ladies’ and none of my coworkers understand it or they write it off as my being overly sensitive to other people’s gender identity.

    So it’s not just you. This issue spans a great distance and so many people are touched by it. Thank you for your thoughts on it.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:11 pm

      Thank you so much for responding. Your comments about work are so familiar to me. I work customer service and the binary is ever-present there; my coworkers spent a great deal of my first few weeks trying to “covertly” identify my orientation (not to mention my race), which was uncomfortable at best. Since then, I think they’ve accepted the not knowing or decided to their satisfaction without my input, but I come up across the gendered nature of politeness/ respect ALL THE TIME. I really want to be clear about how much I respect customers, especially those who (for various reasons) I suspect don’t receive that kind of respect from customer service people on a regular basis. But the default way to do that is terms like “sir” and “ma’am” that are fraught, for me AND potentially the people I’m saying them to, with problems. I have yet to find a good solution to this. I can haz gender neutral etiquette?

  3. maddox / Jul 29 2011 2:54 am

    Agree on the above comment – if you’re a girl who likes girls….. etc etc etc… the natural assumption would be you’re more girly, not less. Brilliant.

    Of course this isn’t true in either direction, so what gives? We’re just more complicated than girl and boy.

  4. sonicrhubarb / Jul 29 2011 2:54 am

    ‘This is my brain on heterosexism’ Ha! That reminds me of those scrambled egg commercials from the 90s: This is your brain on drugs…which is quite an apt comparison.

    I have never thought about it from this perspective. As a masculine presenting individual, the assumption is that I must be a lesbian, because clearly that is the only thing that makes any sense. Everyone just assumes that has to mean to I am attracted women. As if my desire to not wear a dress has any bearing on who I want to experience orgasms with! People just never let anybody just be, do they? I don’t understand the constant need to assume; I don’t ASSUME who other people enjoy having their orgasms with.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:16 pm

      Those moments when people actually FOLLOW my random references to 90s pop culture. Oh how I love those moments.

      I really appreciate the other perspective. I have a friend who dealt with it from that end as well, and while I tend to forget all the ways this crap can manifest (given that there are so many & I tend to be focused on the ones currently making MY life hell ;)) it’s certainly equally fucked-up all around.

      So, what do we do? Do we create Heterosexist Abuse Resistance Education? I vote for a bunny logo and, like, actually effective programming.

  5. sui solitaire / Jul 29 2011 3:06 am

    I love this post, and once again, my mind has been wiped blank. You’ve inserted too much thought-provocation into it. Good going, Mary 😛

    ♥ love you 😉

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 8:17 pm

      I swear, you’re on a mission to single-handedly raise my self-esteem. Blessings. Thanks for being one.

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