Staring out the window of the coffee shop on Piedmont avenue in Oakland, I can’t help but notice the prevalence of what seems to me to be the predominant cultural group in a town known for its diversity: lesbians. They flood the sidewalks, walking purposefully or browsing casually, carrying book bags and wheeling baby carriages, drinking coffee, laughing, hugging and holding hands.
The lesbians are easy to spot, because they are the most stylish women on the street. Their clothes fit well, move comfortably over their bodies as they walk. Their haircuts are jaunty and well-kept-up and purposely asymmetrical. Their sneakers are ironic. Everyone admires their good looks as they pass by.
Or maybe it’s just me. I’m always jealous of the lesbians, especially the couples, in a way that I am not jealous of the many equivalent heterosexual couples passing by. When I see a man and a woman pushing a stroller down the street, I think, He’s restless, she’s bored, they love the baby but are also stressed out by him. I know logically that the lesbian couples must face the same realities and challenges of couplehood and parenthood. But somehow I imagine that, because these relationships do not represent the societal norm, that they aren’t subject to the same monotonies and ruts that typify heterosexual relationships. You don’t just wake up one day and find that you’ve fallen into a lesbian relationship: This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! No, a lesbian relationship is a conscious choice, and therefore it must always be well-thought-out and worthwhile.
I’ve always been jealous of lesbians. From my perspective, their sexuality seems so straightforward, because they are constantly in the position of having to assert it. If they want women to know they are available as partners, they must dress or behave in ways that communicate their sexual preference. If they want their coworkers to stop trying to set them up with annoying guys from the office, they can say, “Thanks, but I’m a lesbian.” If men want to date them, they can confidently say, “Sorry, I’m a lesbian.” I can only imagine how simple and satisfying that must be.
In contrast, while I’ve only dated men, I have a very hard time identifying myself as a heterosexual. I suppose I probably am one, mostly, but I don’t think I’m a very good one. I don’t find myself attracted to men very often, perhaps once a year or so. It takes me a lot of effort to get interested in men or decide I’d like to be in a relationship with one of them.
I imagine that if I were a lesbian, I would never be ambivalent about who I was attracted to, because it would be part of my declared identity: I am attracted to women, damn it! And I imagine that, since their sexuality is so central to their identity, lesbians get to exist in a permanent state of adolescent-style girl-craziness. Which many of them do, at least amongst my friends. But of course I’m only noticing the ones who are like that, because they are vocal about their lustiness, whereas I don’t tend to notice the ones who, like me, barely date, though I know one or two of those types of lesbians as well. But when I am sitting in the coffee shop envying the cute dykey women in their funky sneakers, I imagine that they are all accomplished daters, female Casanovas, confident ladies’ ladies.
If just the fact of being a lesbian isn’t affirming enough, there is a wide palate of lesbian subcategories to choose from. One young friend of mine used to fret over this decision for hours: “What kind of butch am I?” she would agonize, thumbing through a book about radical gender identity that was ten years older than she was. “Am I a stone butch? Or am I more of a soft butch?”
“I think I’m more like a stone butch,” she would speculate, “because everyone thinks I'm a boy. But the book says that stone butches don’t take their clothes off or let anyone do anything sexual to them. That’s definitely not me.” Finally, she read about a type of butch who was highly masculine but didn’t mind taking her clothes off or receiving sexual pleasure, and she happily took that on as her identity.
My friend Charlotte also describes herself as a butch (I presume her love of girly hobbies such as fashioning arm warmers out of tube socks or making clever little zines to entertain her friends would characterize her as a soft butch). She styles herself like a 1950s sitcom husband, with button-up shirts and sweater vests and a trim haircut that emphasizes her square jaw line. Charlotte’s girlfriend calls herself a femme. She likes to wear low-cut dresses, stiletto heels, and fancy lingerie.
The two of them often talk about butch/femme dynamics. They have one story where a carful of seemingly heterosexual young women gawk in envy as Charlotte walks around the car to open the door for her lady. Presumably, they have never experienced such an act of chivalry from the men that they have dated. In fact, those women might not even want their boyfriends to open the door for them, because it would suggest that, as women, they are helpless. But when both partners are women, then the traditional masculine and feminine courtship behaviors are a matter of choice, voluntary and arbitrary roles in a game of gender that everyone can agree is socially constructed. The roles that seem so limiting and obtrusive when they are imposed by nature, or tradition masquerading as nature, are suddenly creative and inspiring.
My friend Luke has a similar jealousy of gay men. He is an unwavering heterosexual, but he credits the development of his sexual persona to inspiration he found from gay men, especially the fictional characters on the television show Queer as Folk.
“The men on that show are so confident about their sexuality,” he would tell me. He was particularly inspired by the central character, a promiscuous playboy. “He has no reservations about going after whoever he wants. He’s completely self-assured and entitled. I used to watch that show and think to myself, that’s how I want to be.”
Functioning in a heterosexual world, Luke had always felt conflicted about pursuing women. He felt crass and objectifying for his tendency to want to have commitment-free sex with most of the women he encountered.
In contrast, the men on Queer as Folk never needed to worry about belittling or demeaning another gender. Since they were all men, they were all socially and biologically equals. There was no reason for remorse or ambivalence for objectifying someone who had an equal capacity for objectifying you right back.
Luke asked his gay roommate whether being a gay man was really the wild smorgasbord of anonymous sex that the TV show depicted.
The roommate nodded sagely. “It’s crazier than that,” he said. “It’s crazier than you could imagine. Think about it. We’re talking about sex that only involves two guys. Of course it is.”
When Luke told me the story years later, his eyes became wistful. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “Two people who could both appreciate the pleasure of anonymous sex, without it having to mean something?”
While our aims are different, ultimately Luke and I fantasize about the same thing: a sexual identity that is clear-cut, unproblematic, well-defined. Heterosexuals don’t get to define themselves by their sexuality; or at least, it is seen as uncouth to do so after the age of about nineteen. Our sexuality is the assumed norm, and we never feel the need to say, “As I heterosexual, I feel…” or “Perhaps it’s my heterosexuality that makes me perceive the world in this way.” And so we muck around in a hazy swamp of what is supposed to be normal, and therefore does not need to be examined, discussed, or defined.
Our envy is born of privilege. Just as Anglo-Saxon Americans avoid the stigma of being ethnic, but also the benefits and pleasures of having a recognized ethnicity—so heterosexuals, whose sexuality is supported by every American institution from marriage to taxation to health insurance to death, miss out on the pleasure of having to construct an identity around a renegade sexuality. What we give up in self-knowledge, we gain in the blissful pleasure of never really having to think about it.