Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lesbian Envy

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Karin,
Wow, you have sort of hit the nail on the head with many of the thoughts I have had rolling around in my mind about my "new" identity when I started to date a cute little butch (who hates that term) that we know. =)
But I will actually say that since dating Toby, I have found that I feel like I often need to asert my femininity more. I suppose this comes from a place of wanting to make sure (from the outside) that I am identified as the more "femme" one. I have no idea why this is important to me, but I suppose when I have been with men, merely having breasts (whether displayed in a lowcut dress or not)has clearly signaled my role in the relationship. It's all very confusing! But thank you for this post, it's nice to hear that there is a bit of confusion from the other side as well!

Karin Spirn said...

It funny, I have heard Elena reflect on this same situation a number of times--except when she was dating Toby, she hated being called a femme. She cut her hair short right when they were together, so I think she had kind of the opposite response: I am NOT the femme one here! It's really interesting to hear your thoughts on this; I've definitely been a little curious about them.

I think it's interesting how our gender identity interacts with our sexual identity. I didn't want to get into myself being attracted to women in this post because I thought it would confuse the issue, but I always think it's funny that when I like girls, I think of myself as the boy; weird how hard it is to get away from those roles.

Toby said...

>>when I started to date a cute little butch....<<
Never mind how I feel about the term butch....little? LITTLE?! Probably the worst adjective in America! (For anyone or anything masculine-identified, at least...)

I love this blog post, maybe because it could only have been written in a cafe on Piedmont Avenue or a few other pockets of Oakland -- and a few other pockets of a few other cities. As you note at the end, what a luxury it is to be in a place where marginalized minorities can become objects of envy!
Rather than answer the complaint about single straight girls having to endure hopeless set-ups with comparable lesbian tales of solo woes (hey, at least they noticed that you might be lonely and tried to set you up with SOMEone!) I will choose instead to remark on the fact that, embedded in the story here, I see a very conscious, articulated sexual identity -- not one with a pre-set label, some sub-sub-category of the gay/straight butch/femme spectrums, but a unique one. Even if it's marked by half-hearted heterosexuality, disinterest in dating, and a touch of the ubiquitous "bi-curiosity," it's YOURS, and you're claiming it! True, all the books, movies, and tv shows about all the kinds of straight you can be (which is almost every movie, book, and tv show) don't have as many convenient terms to choose from, like the book your butch friend was looking at -- but in the end, most labels are limiting, and most people who are even thinking about these things seem to end up devising their own terms to describe their particular hybridity.
Anyway, I'm glad Jessica gave me a heads-up on the blog; I never take enough time to stop and check in on what my friends are writing, beyond Facebook status updates...glad I did today!

Karin Spirn said...

Oh, I'm so glad you stopped in, Toby, and glad you liked the post!

You're right that it is probably as much about articulating my own sexual identity (such as it is)as admiring other peoples'. I definitely didn't love the fixedness of the identities that my friend was reading in that book--she kept saying, "Do you think I should be a stone butch?" and I was like, Are you KIDDING me? Act like a jerk with no emotions to fit an outdated, limiting prototype? PLEASE don't! I found it a really odd stage in her personal development, though I was flattered that she thought I was a good mentor to bring questions like that to. (And I responded more diplomatically, like, "Well, actually, I think those lesbian gender roles you're reading about haven't been so useful since about 1977.")

I do love our little bubble down on Piedmont Avenue and in the bay area in general. I know we are blessed in our little corner of the world...

mlucas said...

This reminds me a little of Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying." I read it a handful of years ago. In it, Jong, a bourgeoisie Jewish woman travels through Europe with her beau. She dumps the bastard and gets on a train. Its all very Henry Milleresque, or Anais Nin on wheels. On the locomotive vehicle the encounters her fantasy, of which she's been talking about throughout the autobiographical novel, sex, no strings attached with a stranger. The train attendant, a handsome young man, makes the moves on her, she repels him, and only later realizes that it was her fantasy that would have been enacted. She didn't want it then, it was only the fantasy that was enticing.

In the same way, I've found myself desiring more assertive sexuality, but when it comes around I feel disappointed, let down. This is not what I want. On the other hand a woman is desirable to me to the extent that she enters into my fantasies.


Matt Lucas

sondra said...

"I think it's interesting how our gender identity interacts with our sexual identity." Yes, can you shed some light on that please?? I remember reading something by David Sedaris where he said that he could tell he was gay even when he was a litle boy because he liked baking cupcakes. Now, I can see how baking cupcakes as a kid might affect one's gender identity since baking is an activity gendered female (or at least kids in middle school think it is)--but what does that have to do with who you're attracted to sexually? I'm so confused!

Karin Spirn said...

Oh, look at Sondra and Matt bringing up the intriguing literary connections!

That connection to Fear of Flying is perfect. I read it many years ago (probably 10 at least), but I remember liking how it critiqued the tradition of surrealist fiction where realizing anonymous sexual fantasies was the most amazing, significant thing that could occur. (Wow, what a nerdy-grad-schooly sentence...I couldn't figure out how to make that sound less annoying, sorry).

And also, I was always a little perplexed by Sedaris's connection of gender to sexuality. I've always gotten the impression that for some gay people, their sexual identity grows out of their gender identity--like my "am I stone butch?" friend who had always felt more like a boy, and in fact (I didn't mention in the blog) actually ended up becoming a boy. But then I know tons of gay people who identify with the stereotypical trappings of their gender and tons of straight people with nonconventionally gendered interests, too.