A long time ago, when I was a small child and thought I was a boy who was going to grow up to be like my dad, I tried to play with the other boys. It did not work because they told me they didn’t want to play with “girls”. And that begins the tale of my invisibility problem.
This is a post that I have tried to start writing a few times and have not been quite able to get out what I mean exactly. In particular, how to express myself without insulting other people’s identities. Identity is a hard thing and in minority communities of any kind there is often a dominant model for how to behave, what to wear and how to present oneself. Part of it is imposed from outside and part of it is internal pressure. There is nothing wrong with presenting and identifying as a dominant model in a subculture as long as that is who you are. Perhaps that is who most people are. Perhaps it is not.
In addition I want to make it clear that my friends have been almost exclusively incredibly supportive throughout my life. Sometimes there are times they are not sure what to do and I honestly really encourage anyone reading this blog, and anyone who knows me to just ask me questions rather than worrying about offending me.
When I came out as a “lesbian” (or not-straight, or mostly-gay- I am not exclusively attracted to women), I remember a lot of people just flat out did not believe me. A lesbian, to them, was a very short haired, fat, motorbike-riding, extremely butch woman those days, or so it seemed.
I remember my distress at the time. I wanted a motorbike (I have one now!) and I wanted to date and sleep with girls but I did not want to cut my hair short. I was not butch. While there was a lot of common lived experience of oppression I did not identify with that look or mannerisms or culture.
In fact some semblance of that stereotype persists even now. Even though there are “lipstick lesbians”, androgynous lesbians and many other categories for people to be boxed into than there used to be. Many people I know used to fit into those categories but not all did. There is still a “mainstream lesbian scene” sort of look. If you are in Sydney, it means that you wear a hoodie from Dickies, have hipster hair and piercings, big pants, wear a big thick studded belt and may or may not have some sort of hipster flannel. (Interestingly, a lot of current hipster fashion probably did evolve from lesbian fashion of the early 00’s)
Mainstream lesbian culture is “The L-Word”. Mainstream gay culture is “Queer As Folk”. Mainstream trans* and genderqueer culture is on Tumblr and it is coming to get you.
I am on the feminine side of androgynous. I like eye make-up even now. I used to wear girly tops and men’s jeans. The overall look ended up looking, apparently, much girlier than what a “lesbian” - or even a bisexual woman - was. Even though compared to what contemporary mainstream Australian straight female culture with its drag-queen-esque aesthetic, ultra high heels, short dresses and dramatic makeup and sequins, I was fairly neutrally dressed. I used to get constantly thought of as a fag hag at any sort of gay venue. People would assume that any (gay) guy I was with was my boyfriend even though there was no flirty or sexual vibe whatsoever.
For that matter while I have lesbian friends, some of the lesbian social groups at university did not include me because I had a lot of male friends and straight friends. I did not feel comfortable in the Women’s Room which was where they hung out part of the time. In hindsight I suppose that makes some sense. I was not a lesbian anyway.
But among my gay friends, as someone with a strong but not exclusive preference for women there was an invisibility because until I dated a guy for a couple of months (which was taken as a betrayal of my identity), I was perceived as a lesbian! Then of course various people had decided I was “selling out” and had “turned straight” which I guess was inevitable because I “looked so straight anyway” and “that’s what some girls do- lesbian until graduation”. Clearly they were not aware of the guys I had clandestinely hooked up with in between women because men are easier to pick up.
I remember when I was at university I even got referred to as a “queerphobic cis scumbag” once, for referring to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as different things with different issues. This is the basis of my refusal to use the word “cis” and refusal to identify as “queer” (at least for now). I was pretty angry about that, because even then I was aware that my gender identity was not a cut-and-dried “woman”.
I tried to talk to one of my friends about my feelings of being not-quite-gender-normative. I felt like a guy when I was dating women, I said. In fact I do feel like a guy.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, and it makes no sense,” was what she said, bluntly, and I buried that one for another 7 years.
(In the mean time of course my friend and I both grew up and she is actually one of the most supportive and accepting people I have close to me. In fact almost people have been pretty great. Time is a great teacher.)
It has not been the only time though that I have had my identity questioned because of how I seem or look. Even since coming out, I have had the old pictures of myself in dresses shown to me and some people have said that what I am saying does not make sense to them. I dress in men’s clothes but I know that I am perceived, if anything, perhaps as a lesbian, but possibly just as a straight woman with a different sense of style.
There are a few reasons for the invisibility. Most of them are obvious to anyone who has any interaction with modern western culture.
One thing is that feminism has actually done some amazing things for women but that it is only the start of a larger process in society focussed around identity politics. Feminism has paved the way for women to have the freedom to dress however they want and to have a range of gender expression from feminine to butch to anywhere in between. And these are all very positive things, even if there is still a fair way to go for true acceptance of all women with all personalities and behaviours.
Men’s behaviour is more prescribed and is in flux. Yes, there is a range of male behaviour, looks, dress and culture that is “permitted”; there are camp gay men, there are goth men, there are butch macho men, there are men with long hair, men with eye make-up, men who are hairy, men who are not hairy. But the range of expression is narrower than for women. Men do not wear dresses or skirts (unless it is a part of a performance). While camp gay men are accepted, feminine men (camp or otherwise) have their sexual and gender orientation questioned. There is this idea of a “real man” with the focus on the male part of man rather than the adult component. This is not good.
LGBTIQ identity is even more prescribed. As I described above, there are certain modes of “acceptable” behaviour and if you do not fit into that subculture you will not be perceived by the dominant group within that subculture to exist or to be a “real” member. You may be ostracised for wanting to be “like a cis/straight person”. Alternatively you may be ostracised for not being “enough” like other members of the group.
In addition, trans people and culture are only beginning to be acknowledged and recognised by mainstream society. Most of the portrayals of trans people have focussed on oppression, pain, demonisation and martyrdom. To be honest, I do not really want to watch “Boys Don’t Cry”; I am aware of the story and of the pain, and of the violence that trans people sometimes experience but I do not want my story to be defined purely by oppression because to be honest, it is not.
In mainstream culture, trans women are often sexualised and fetishised even in articles in which that is completely inappropriate- the most recent and poignant example being that of poor Mayang Prasetyo, a murder-suicide victim who was killed by her partner.
Trans men are only discussed in the context of either Thomas Beatie’s pregnancies or as “women passing as men” for social privilege because they are unable to work or be promoted as women.
Trans culture in general puts a large emphasis on the “roadmap” of transitioning and on “passing” because of a history of violence and non-acceptance and discrimination by the outside world. There is a lot of pressure to “do it all”, and to pass as well as possible and to make one’s decisions based on becoming, well, invisible. Invisible in a new role. For many people that is what they need and want to do. I can completely understand that. It is the right choice for a large number of trans people. But it is not what I choose to do; even if I become the butchest, manliest looking post-hormones post-surgery man in the world I do not want to erase my history and become invisible in another closet. My decisions are not to be made for society’s sake and for the sake purely of “passing” but to fulfil, if needs be, my sense of how my body feels like it should be in my head and is not.
When someone with a male body wears women’s clothing it is usually assumed that they are either cross-dressing or are transgender because “that is not what men do”. When someone with a female body wears men’s clothing it is usually assumed that they are being alternative or possibly but not necessarily gay. Trans women face more transphobia but trans men face invisibility.
A similar phenomenon occurred within the gay community when I was younger. Men just do not kiss other men unless they are gay. Women kissing is “totally hot” and they are “probably straight” but “trying to get male attention”. Even without the expectations of what lesbians look like, bisexual and lesbian women were invisible.
My femininity in particular makes me invisible because a feminine person in a female body does not suggest intrinsic maleness or attraction to women. I am often read as a straight women (though perhaps less so since a clothing change) even though I am anything but. And I guess that makes it hard for people to remember.
What is a man? What defines maleness? Why do I feel male? What is gender?
I cannot really answer what gender is. However, I feel male, that is why I am male. I do not feel very female. There are feminine men. Some of those feminine men are attracted mainly to women. It is as simple as that.
I am keeping my longish hair. I will wear eye make-up occasionally. I will get rid of most of my body hair. I will still be a guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding, lady-seducing, tie-wearing, sticks-up-for-the-right-thing, outspoken effeminate bisexual doctor who reads and writes a lot.
That feels good. The rest of the decisions can come later.