Over many an evening together, my roommate Stephen Moles (a gay man), and I have toasted, lamented and bantered about all things queer-y over cookies and vodka. What follows is a jointly edited, synthesized, and generally less vodka-infused conversation (which is not to say a non-vodka-infused conversation) based on those evenings. — Casey
MICROBREWS AND TORNADOES
Stephen: One of the defining traits of the gay community, in my mind, is that unlike many other minorities, gays often grow up outside their community and later acquire a gay identity. Because of this I often feel like relating to one another is more difficult. I’m originally from Kansas, and if I run into someone from the Sunflower State we can talk about tornadoes and wanting to wring the neck of anyone who says, “Well, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” But if I run into another gay man what am I supposed to say? “Well, how about that anal sex? Isn’t it grand?”
Casey: Hm. If I run into someone in New York who’s from Portland, we can squee and bond over missing cheap microbrews and public recycling bins. But when I meet another trans person, attempting to bond over that can be awkward. “So having a body you don’t want to rip yourself out of is pretty sweet, huh?” “Yeah, it rocks!”
A lot of our shared experiences are negative, which makes it tricky, I think. Most of my trans-bonding has revolved around un-fun conversation*S:* Family members who (initially) were unsupportive, health care, safety, etc. I needed those conversations, yes, but they weren’t exactly fun. The parallel of “one big happy gay family,” isn’t really there for us, I think. I feel we’re a little scattered.
S: The gay community has a very public history. There’s Stonewall…
C: Harvey Milk, the AIDS Crisis…
S: And the culture: drag, Broadway musicals, etc. When you come out and create a gay public identity, there’s an expectation that you know about these subjects.
C: For many (not all) people who transition, assimilation into larger society—at least in terms of physical visibility—is part of the goal. If it wasn’t, no one would try to pass. When I was a visibly femme guy, I stuck out in public. Now, assuming I’m passing, I don’t stick out, at least not as much. I wonder if that makes our public identity a little fractured – at least compared to the gay community, where you’re also meeting each other by default (unless you’re into celibacy) and being physically visible is part of the goal—being able to be out and about in public with your partner.
I guess I should note here that I’m gay too, even if I’m, um, sort of new at it?
There’s also the idea that hanging around other trans people gets you read as your assigned-at-birth gender more easily. Not everyone cares about that, but I think it’s a deterrent for some.
Of course, numbers factor into these comparisons too. The Williams Institute estimates 3.5% of US adults are LGB, and only 0.3% are T. Now I’ll bet—without empirical evidence, granted—there’s a higher rate of closeted-ness for trans folks than gay folks, but the difference is still big.
S: How do we increase your numbers? I can turn guys left and right with my mad straight-boy seducing skillz, but you can’t infect the Cissies. (Can I use this as a term?)
C: Cissies. I love it. You’re going to come to regret that one.
THE ROCKING OF FEMININITY
S: Twelve years ago, when I was coming out, the cultural messages were, “everyone, especially your father, will reject you because you’re a fag.” The implicit statement was being a fag = non-masculine = inferior. I read all these coming out horror stories online—people being attacked by their family with a frying pan, being disowned. My expectation was that my mom might be my ally, but my dad was going be disappointed. Ironically, my dad had figured it out way earlier and was supportive. My mom took a while to come around.
C: (Funny, it was a similar thing with my parents.)
S: Masculinity seems to loom over gay male culture. I think that’s because we simultaneously reject and fetishize “normal” life. We’ve absorbed standards from the greater culture—marry a nice girl, pop out a few bio-children, coach your son’s little league games, diddle your secretary on the sly—but we can’t conform to these expectations and that can lead to self-hatred. We believe we’ve devalued ourselves by becoming fags. As such, you get this fetishization of masculinity and straight men.
C: Fetishizing “normal” life gets weird fast. I’m proud as fuck of being trans, but does that mean I’d prefer being trans over being cis, if I had the option? There’s a tension in that I don’t know how to negotiate.
I think about this especially in those dissonant moments of feeling my difference from cis women. Sometimes this is from genuine issues, like not being able to shower in the women’s locker room, or when that emergency room nurse designated me as a male. But sometimes it’s stupid little shit, like someone remarks she can rarely find shoes because she’s a size 10. And I’m a size 14, but that’s because I was born a guy, and it’s this odd tiny reminder of otherness. And it’s not like there aren’t cis women who wear size 14s, but still.
S: For me it’s courting rituals. Many of my straight friends seem to stumble into people they date: Through their hobbies, classes, etc. As I’m gay, dating is usually mindful. Going to specific bars, paying attention to body language and signals, jumping on some dating/cruise site and putting in effort. I think this annoys me because of some schoolboy fantasy of meeting my life love in a comic book store as we reach for the same copy of Legion Lost.
I also notice a streak of self-victimization in queer culture, though I don’t think it’s unique to only us. Self-victimization is abundant in modern society because it’s partially true: most of us are victims of discrimination at some point in our lives. Sometimes these prejudices are very clear cut, but it’s often difficult to differentiate between what’s been caused by discrimination and what’s been caused by the capriciousness of life.
C: It’s a shitty question: Did [insert crappy life occurrence here] happen because I suck or the world sucks? Makes it easy to get overwhelmed and just say fuck it, everything’s stacked against me. (I get in that headspace especially when I can’t figure out if something like harassment has occurred because I’m a woman or because I’m trans. Gets a girl in the dumps.) This isn’t unique to the queer community, but I do wonder if it isn’t particularly poisonous given the high rates of depression among queers.
S: Being in a disadvantaged social position can be demoralizing. Gay love is difficult because of heteronormative society, but does heteronormative society keep us from paying our mortgages on time? I think when we extend this victimization it allows us to avoid self-examination.
C: Well, if you get fired because of discriminatory heteronormative society, then yes, the mortgage is difficult. But I agree with the jist of what you’re saying.
I’ve lamented to you often about queer people eating their own and infighting. I’ve thought a lot about why we can be so mean over stuff like terminology and political strategy, when out there are legitimate enemies who seek to withhold our rights at best, and want us dead at worst. And I think those enemies are exactly it. Of course the infighting is intense; there is so much at stake.
S: I think that getting into heated arguments about “our representation to the greater culture” or “what should the priority of the group be” is legitimate. Queers aren’t a uniform group, not everyone wants to be living in the suburbs guarded by a white picket fence. But then there are personal attacks. Do you remember my ex Jeffrey? He once said to me, with genuine disgust, “God, I just hate it when gay guys act all faggoty.”
C: … that boy was femme to the mile!
S: Exactly! He had a collection of Madonna concert DVDs. It’s not like either of us were butch incarnate, out hunting deer with our bare hands; that statement seemed to not only be about his internalized self-hatred, but also about how he got lumped in with all those undesirables.
C: That’s shitty he said that. I’ll suggest something though: I wonder if that anger was an extension of real disagreement with the dominant representation femme gay guys tend to have in the world. I’m not saying it’s great to say stuff like “I hate faggoty guys,” which kinda just aids your own oppression, I just think nastiness like that comes from real debates that morph into ugliness, as opposed to just our own internalized baggage. And we should watch for that tendency when we disagree with each other.
S: Hmm… interesting… I knew a guy in high school. He was in theatre with me but I didn’t hang out with him much. He came out as bi in college. Much later, I found out he actively avoided me in high school because I made him uncomfortable. I was a reminder of his own sexuality that he didn’t want to deal with. How many times have events like this happened that I don’t even know about?
C: One summer, I was living in my dad’s town and this big guy at the bar started pushing me, calling me a fag, trying to get a fight going. And my older stepbrother Niels defended me and got Big Guy to back off. I mentioned that to my dad the other day and he said “That wasn’t the only time people wanted to mess with you.” Apparently Niels made it clear I wasn’t to be touched. (Thanks, bro!)
I didn’t really get along with the kids in the town that summer, but I chalked it up to being an outsider and such. I never dreamed being femme-y had something to do with it, I thought it was just that one guy. I guess I still don’t know for sure, but it makes me wonder.
S: Being “other” makes the world shift around you in ways that are noticeable, but where these shifts are coming from can be difficult to pinpoint.
C: You mentioned internalizing that idea of “non-masculine = inferior.” Julia Serano talks about how femininity is almost universally devalued, and that attacking femininity is “fair game” whether the person it’s attached to is male/female/gay/straight/trans/cis. Serano makes the point that traits associated with femininity (such as emotionally opening up instead of staying stoic) are often marks of strength and courage, and beyond that, rocking femininity is in itself a powerful act because it’s devalued.
I definitely feel that. For most of my life, expressing femininity required strength to overcome a lot of fear, and femininity is powerful for me, not weak. Yet I still find myself self-hating for it sometimes, probably not unlike your boy of olde.
S: The other day, jabbering with a friend, I gushed about my body scrub from Sabon. Afterwards, I apologized for being “really gay.” Why the fuck should I apologize? Lavender Patchouli Dead Sea Salt scrub makes me smooth and fragrant!
Rocking femininity is a bold and powerful act. Just look at how people are treated when they even play around the edges of the gender binary: they are shunned and ridiculed.
METROSEXUAL, A TERM OF MORONS
S: I credit this to one of my sociology professors from undergraduate, "When you meet someone, you may later forget their name, hair color, or even what they sounded like but you never think “Hey, what was their gender again?”
C: Like it’s inseparable from being aware of their existence. And our brains go wonky when we can’t figure out a person’s gender. I’ve been asked “Are you a boy or a girl?” a few times and I’m not a fan of this tendency, but when I see someone whose gender isn’t obvious, I still feel my brain going “BRAAPP BRAAPP FIGURE ‘EM OUT NOW BRAAPP.”
S: I feel like gender is such a slippery subject: We know what it is when we see it, but how do you define it? It’s the same with sexuality.
C: I feel like anybody who tries to come up with a concrete definition of either gender or sexuality usually ends up with their foot in their mouth eventually.
How we attribute gender, though, is different, and it’s all secondary sex trait*S:* Voice, height, bosom, facial hair, physical mannerisms, shoulders, hips, etc. Our brains use these things to attribute gender, but you can’t see a person’s sense of identity or chromosomes or (usually) genitals when you first meet them. And it’s damn crazy how the slightest things tip that attribution over. It was when I started straightening my hair that I started to pass at least some of the time.
S: Ah… you’re right… there are lots of little things like that which seem to push people one way or another. Grooming (or lack of it) seems to have a lot to do with perceived gender. (And even sexuality sometimes. Remember that most moronic of terms, metrosexual?)
C: Like your body scrub being gay.
S: Seriously. How do you attribute sexuality to salt?
C: Or gender to frizzy hair?
BEING A KILLJOY
C: I wonder if all of this will improve over the decades, as more fluid notions of gender and sexuality sink in. Sometimes I think we forget just how far we have left to go. I dream of a day where we can explore our own shit without hang-ups, but I think that day is far off.
S: I hate to be a killjoy but isn’t acceptance by the general population somewhat cyclical? The Roaring Twenties was an incredibly liberal time, but the Great Depression wiped that out. It’s taken a while to circle back around.
C: Ech, yeah. I fear that. What could happen that’d tip back the gains. But I’m not just talking about acceptance by the general population; I’m talking about self-acceptance.
S: I always fear losing the progress that we’ve made. Also, what would this ideal world really look like? One where we’re sexblind? I find it difficult to imagine a world where gender and sexual proclivities don’t come into play.
C: I want us to at least not hate ourselves. And I want us to not eat our own.
S: My ideal world has rocket packs. Gay rocket packs.