girls in tight dresses, who drag with mustachesWhen we look into each other's eyes with
That two lesbians passing in the street
I know exactly what I'm looking at look
- That Look, Rachel Jury
I change styles like I change my mind,
I tried to change a tyre but I'm not that way inclined.
- I Won't Change You, Sophie Ellis Bextor
The New York Times has an interesting article on cars and gay stereotypes, that's gotten me thinking about the steretypes I fulfil as a lesbian. Here's a confession - my partner and I had our first date at an Ani diFranco gig. Whenever I tell people that, they roll their eyes and say "Of course you did." However, if she said that - and she probably wouldn't, for fear of looking like a dyke cliche - she wouldn't get the same response.
When I was fourteen, shortly before I came out to my parents, I cut my shoulder length hair into a crew cut. I told my mother I wanted to look "elfin, like Audrey Hepburn." Really, I just wanted my appearance to reflect what I was feeling. I wanted my hair to raise the questions about my sexuality that I was afraid to raise myself. Ten years later I've let it grow out, but I'm not feeling any less of a cliche. My music taste leans towards the 'angsty chicks with guitars who don't shave their armpits' genre. I have two cats who I unashamedly refer to as my children. I watch The L Word and mourn the loss of Buffy, Xena and Star Trek Voyager from our screens - Sarah Jane Smith, the leather jacketed women's libber, is my favourite Doctor Who companion. I eat quorn and read feminist literature and I have three pairs of Doc Martens and more than one rainbow badge. I'm pretty damn gay.
However, that description sums up a lot of straight women I know, and it doesn't come within a country mile of describing my girlfriend (except the cats part. But they love me more). She doesn't define herself as a feminist, but she does define herself as a Conservative. She likes Ani but wishes someone would introduce her to a razor. She's non-scene, and uses the word 'gay' as an affectionate but mocking epithet - but she likes women. If Eddie Izzard is a male lesbian, then she's a gay heterosexual. There's a scene in But I'm a Cheerleader - see, I said I was a cliche - where Clea Duvall's character introduces herself by saying "I like girls. A lot. Oh, and I'm a homosexual." Although this scene is set up to parody your average AA meeting, it says a lot about how queerness is defined. It's about the clothes you wear, the activities you engage in - Megan, the lead character, gives the film its title when she insists that she can't be a lesbian because she's a cheerleader, as if those things were mutually exclusive. Why do some lesbians refute these signifiers, and why are some drawn to them?
In the NY Times article, queer theorist and drag king Judith Halberstam argues that "not all gays want to be normative." We're allowed to relish our Otherness, to have the thing that marks us out be celebrated rather than concealed. Whilst I can pass for straight, I don't want to. The keyring that says 'I can't even think straight', the badge with two intertwined venus symbols, they're all precautions against misinterpretations. The image people may form of me without them isn't offensive to me, it's just inaccurate. I've blogged in the past about how the clothes women wear signify certain things to different people, and that the message one person gets isn't the message that is intended. I'm happy to use my body as a billboard to advertise who I am, because it means that I'm controlling the perceptions people make of me. A gay journalist and former engineer in the article is quoted as saying that “traditionally we are used to being defined by others. Driving a stylish car can be a way of taking control back and saying 'this is who I am'.”
Performance poet Rachel Jury explores this in her poetry collection, Laughing Lesbians. She acknowledges the complexity of the issue - in one poem, the title of which shamefully escapes me, the narrator takes a 'How Gay Are You?' quiz only to discover, much to her surprise, that despite identifying as a lesbian she's actually quite straight. But another poem, That Look (which can be found here, at the wonderful Word Power website) uses the same theme of queer signifiers to give a sense of hidden community and attraction.
Of course there are different types of signifiers for different dykes. I may fulfil some stereotypes, but I fail completely in others. I know all the words to Little Plastic Castles, but I don't understand the offside rule and I can't change a tyre. My girlfriend understand both, and has been referred to as "the son-in-law I thought I'd never have" by my father (although not within my straight sister's earshot). I've frequently heard femme women complain about not being taken seriously by 'real' lesbians, or being assumed to be bisexual - or worse, bicurious.
I applaud the spirit behind the NY Times article, because it challenges the heteronormativity of the mainstream press. Part of me thinks it would be nice to get past all that, to just be people instead of gay, straight, whatever. But part of me enjoys the sense of community I get from being this particular minority - when Tina said in a recent L Word episode that she missed "being part of something secret and special" when she became involved with a man, I understood what she meant. I was also sick a little bit in my mouth, because there really are less nauseating ways of expressing that.