So if you’ve read my profile, you know that I’m queer. I’m out and have been for, oh, over a decade now. When I first came out, I identified as bi, but now I embrace the word “queer” for a lot of reasons, most having to do with not wanting to identify with a binary system of sexuality. I jokingly call my partner “Mr Machine,” and he is male, but we’re not married, for a lot of reasons, most having to do with not wanting to participate in an institution that would discriminate against us if we were with other people.
All this preamble is to say that I haven’t written a lot about queerness here, which seems to lead some readers to think that we’re all straight as arrows. I came to FA after I had started dating Mr Machine, and in fact dealing with apparently-straight-privilege is part of what made my body anxieties grow and grow and grow a few years back, which led me to FA in the first place. I felt much more pressure to be thin dating a man than I had dating a woman—and none of that pressure came from the man in question AT ALL. I suddenly found myself wondering if people looked at us and saw an “imbalance” of attractiveness: What a hot guy with a plain girl. How can a skinny guy date someone fatter than him? He must just like her for her tits, because she’s not that pretty. I suddenly began seeing myself not through my own feminist, woman-loving eyes, but through the male gaze that became more explicit to me as my ability to set off someone’s gaydar became way more implicit.
So this post might make Mr Machine feel a little funny*, but I want to talk about how having sex with women is good for my self-esteem.
Seeing the world through a queer eye makes me look at other women without the pathological measuring up/judging/comparing that I have been trained to perform since girlhood. Especially when I am actively dating a woman, I look at women and don’t think about how they differ from me and whether that puts us higher or lower on the hierarchy of acceptability. I look at women and think, How lovely you are. And there is a point, for me, when that can become How lovely I am.
When I was in college, I had a serious (but fun!) relationship with a woman who was also white, tall, and brunette. Our friends joked that we had Identical Lesbian Syndrome because we were roughly the same height and weight and had dark curly hair. The truth is, we really didn’t look alike in either our figures or our faces, but hearing that other people thought we did astonished me, because she was the most adorable, desirable person I could imagine. People told me all the time that I looked like her—even though, to myself, for years I had looked like a clearly undesireable person with a flabby body, bad skin, and way too much hair, who would never ever be pretty. When I was dating my non-identical-gf, we could trade clothes with each other… so that implied my body wasn’t as grotesque as I had imagined. Our bodies were differently proportioned… but when we were naked we looked more alike than different.
It would be difficult to overstate how simultaneously liberating and confusing this was for me. Here was someone whose body I adored for the same reasons I had always hated mine: its softness, its roundness, its abundance. Her body was dramatic and singular, yet every time I looked at her and praised her, there was some part of my mind thinking, “And that is also true of me.” Having a strong relationship and good sex was positive for me in the way it often is, but this particular relationship made me look at myself differently; it was like having a different mirror.
That’s a psychological and erotic aspect of my queerness and body acceptance. But there’s also a strong social component to being visibly queer: people treat you differently, and they make different assumptions about you. Obviously, some of those assumptions are very harmful and add to the pervasive homophobia of our cultures. But sometimes they can have a different effect, given the expectations of femininity that are placed on straight women in a patriarchal culture. A good friend of mine who is gay told me once that before she realized she was gay, she felt like a failed girl, like there was this whole elaborate set of rules that she didn’t understand—but once she was able to articulate to herself that she was gay, she realized that she wasn’t a failure at all. She had just been playing a different game all along. Identifying as queer has had a similar “opting out” effect for me, but it is distinctly stronger when I am with a woman than when I’m with a man, even a queer hardcore feminist man like Mr Machine. We both know that we’re opting out, but not everyone else does…and the pressures of those seemingly invisible gazes accrete surprisingly quickly. This, of course, is also a privilege: in a homophobic culture, we can pass as straight (or, perhaps, straight enough): we don’t fear violence or discrimination as much as we would in same-sex relationships; we could get married if we needed or wanted to; even unmarried, we’re unlikely to be turned away from a hospital room or not taken seriously by our families or employers. When I hold hands with Mr Machine, I am seen (and see myself) through the lens of both straight privilege and the male gaze: the two are intertwined, a two-way mirror that is a default state for apparently hetero women. My body may be wrong, but my “lifestyle” looks right.
The problem with this aspect of bi privilege/straight-passing privilege, of course, is that it does not reflect who I am. I’m not straight. My history is not the history of a straight woman. My desires are not the desires of a straight woman. Hell, I don’t think my current relationship is the relationship of a straight woman. I love my queerness, and my queerness helps me love and understand my body. It informs everything I do, not because all queers are as obsessed with sex as their wingnut persecutors seem to think, but because in my lifetime, despite great social advances, being queer has been a non-normative experience. It took a lot of unlearning to accept my body and deprogram myself from the intense misogyny of the beauty ideal—but I didn’t have to learn to love other women’s bodies. What I had to do—and what, I’d argue, we all have to do—is learn to look at our own bodies with the generosity and, yes, desire through which we view others’ bodies, female or male. We must allow our own bodies the pleasure and grace that we see, by default, in those we desire. We must allow ourselves to be the subjects and objects of a non-patriarchal gaze.
*in his pants