Friday, April 13, 2007

girls in tight dresses, who drag with mustaches

When we look into each other's eyes with
That look
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.

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At 12:41 PM, Blogger Liz said...

Back when my hair was very short, and when I didn't own any dresses, a friend told me I was "like a straight lesbian". I took it as a compliment. But I also wondered what a straight woman "looks like".

Points for the Sophie Ellis Bextor quote, too.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Girl Politico said...

I am not a boi wannabe! I know, you're not saying I am, I just want to be clear.

Excellent piece dear, and if ever I tell the story of our first date, I tend to get "What were YOU doing at an Ani DiFranco gig?" in response.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger strange [pills] said...

If I could string a sentence together on this matter I would comment on this very excellent post, but I can't really so I shan't.

I must say, though, that both your and Lola's abilities to mention the cats in every single blog entry you make is both endearing and a little terrifying!

tender x

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Alexis said...

Interesting article (I got really annoyed with it for its assumption that all queers are rich enough to choose their car for its lifestyle connotations though!) and great blog post.

I tend to still think of myself as someone who doesn't read queer, but I think by this stage I probably out myself the moment I open my mouth and mention my studies, if not before... and I'm fine with that. I think my off-and-on desire to claim the label 'femme' is about wanting to have that nonnormativity without giving up the qualities that generally make me appear 'straight' even though I don't think of them that way.

But it isn't like I don't know any straight people who feel more or less the same...

At 9:01 PM, Blogger A said...

and I have three pairs of Doc Martens and more than one rainbow badge
i'm just got my fourth

This was first of all a fantastic post, great title too. Secondly I think it's really interesting, because no one assumes that I'm into girls, because despite my love of boots, real boots like Docs or Bloomies not heeled little fake boots, I don't exhibit any of the "normal" gay signals. And I want to in a way, so I really agree with the embracing, because there is a difference between gay and straight in our society, and it's ingrained, the thing is trying to teach our children that you may know that girls a lesbian but you don't judge or on that. Those run on sentences are my semi-coherent respons.

At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

OK I'm really confused. I'm a straight man who went to an Ani DiFranco gig. What does that make me?

Anyway now that I know that you have to be an oficial signed up lesbian to like her songs I'll head off to throw away the ten cd's of hers that I've bought in the last 10 years.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Girl Politico said...

In fairness, Jeff, I think Kaite's point was that if you're a girl who likes Ani then people assume you're at least bisexual. She is a lesbian point of reference, as it were. Which doesn't mean straight men can't like her, just that they're likely to be a minority of her fanbase.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous jeff said...

And the point I was trying to make (admittedly in a clumsy sort of way) is that "lesbian points of reference" is just another name for stereotyping.
What I can't understand is why a "community" so keen to criticise "heteronormativity" is keen to establish and live with an equally stifling and necessarily excluding set of "lesbionormative" values.
"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"

At 6:23 PM, Blogger Kaite said...

"lesbian points of reference" is just another name for stereotyping.

Well, yes - that's the entire thesis of my post. I wanted to emphasise, however, that there is an upside to said stereotypes - a sense of community, a set of signifiers that makes identification easier.

As for 'lesbionormative' values - I think 'homonormative' is a preferable term, both ideologically and grammatically - being equally stifling and exclusive, I think you're missing the point of heteronormativity/heterocentrism - it means the blanket assumption of heterosexuality. No-one would argue that the possession of an Ani cd automatically makes one a lesbian, and you're living proof of that. It's just that she is part of a specific lesbian subculture - she hasn't just been coopted by it, she publically identifies with it.

And whilst I accept that anyone can, does and should listen to her music, that doesn't alter that fact that she represents a certain set of values as far as a certain community is concerned. It just happens to be one that you're not part of, and I'm rather uncomfortable with a white man who reads as heterosexual's percieved inalienable right to be included within it.

You can like Ani, you can wear Doc Martens, but that doesn't mean that you have to be - or in your case, can be - a lesbian. And if your sexual identity had the same history of threat as ours does, you might begin to understand why we're so protective of it, even when we don't conform to it.

At 2:51 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

"and I'm rather uncomfortable with a white man who"

I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable but I'm struggling to understand why my ethnicity should be relevant - particularly as it seems to be one we share. But since I can do nothing about
my gender or my ethnciity I don't intend to apologise for either.

"And if your sexual identity had the same history of threat as ours does you might begin to understand why we're so protective of it."

Well I don't want to get drawn into a game of "I'm more of a victim of Society than you" but
as it happens I'm horribly overweight. As a result I've had to endure my share of shouted insults in the street. You might want to ask your girlfriend about the effects of that.

Without going into similar detail, at different times I've also encountered discrimination (in the form of suffering insults, losing career and social opportunities and on one occasion physical violence) because of my accent, my class, my education and my choice of clothes. Oh yes and I was bulllied at school.

So I think I can truthfully say that, while it may not be because of my sexuality, I have a pretty good idea of what it feels like to be "under threat" purely because of who you are or appear to be. And a good idea too of just how hard it can be staying true to yourself in the face of it.

And its because I've experienced being the victim of prejudices and stereotyping that I don't think the way to counter that is with stereotypes of my own.

I suspect that the value of communities isn't something we're going to agree on, and not necessarily because either of us is wrong . I'm not by nature a joiner of groups so always tend to view them, and those who join them, with some suspicion (stereotyping I know but though I try to be intellectually consistent I don't always succeed).

Groups can provide benefits but that often comes at a price to the members. It's really just a matter of whether the price is really worth paying? I tend to think not but that's just my opinion.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Kaite said...

The point is, your possession of something that is frequently adopted as a lesbian signifier is irrelevant. Listen to it, throw it out, I don't care. This isn't your debate.

At 10:20 AM, Anonymous lism. said...

Kaite, this was a brilliantly written article. I wish I had commented and said so earlier before the thread was hijacked by people who took offence to your little aside and missed the point entirely (at what point did you claim that you had to be a "singned up lesbain" to like Ani DiFranco?) but anyway...

You already know that, roundabout when we first got to know each other, the idea of a group willingly choosing to conform to a stereotype, attending things like BLOGS and the like, made me uncomfortable. From my point of view, it made me uneasy that people would look on their sexuality as something to define themselves by. My sexuality has never been an issue - but then, when you're a bisexual who has been exclusively in heterosexual relationships pretty much forever you never had to deal with people pointing at you in the street because of whose hand you're holding.

However, I've started to realise that everybody wants to be part of a community, even if it's to a community of outsiders. Are my band badges really so different to a rainbow symbol? Absolutely not - I'm proud to be associated with the indie music scene in Glasgow in the same way that somebody else might be proud to be associated with queer culture.

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Ravenmn said...

Here via th e carnival at belle's.

A friend of mine who chooses, as you do, to opt into some of the lesbian stereotypes: buzz cut, no make-up or shaving, etc. once told me that she was raised in a very conservative community. These stereotypes were the only way for lesbians to identify and find each other in that repressive environment. Although she is currently living in a more welcoming space, she chooses to honor those "clues" that helped her survive in a more repressive space.

Fulfilling a stereotype has become useful and enjoyable for her.

You write: "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."

I don't believe you can control other people's perceptions. But you are providing clues for folks who are aware of the stereotypes. Frankly, I was clueless of the GBLT community until I was well into my 20s. Duh!

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