Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Performing Gay" with Audience Participation

And now for something slightly less dramatic! Tired of discussing rape, I would now like to broach my own experience of performative homosexuality--a topic still serious but sometimes very funny. To begin, let's get some definitions out of the way. Although some queer activists would bridle at my suggestion that homosexuality is a performance because that *gasp* implies that we exercise choice over our sexual orientation, I'd argue that the very nature of my bisexuality is predicated on choice. Bisexuality is a radical assertion that we might choose from all the people available regardless of gender, is the radical choice to associate with a marginalized community even though we could easily stay in the straight one. Since I inhabit the straight and queer communities, I frequently switch back and forth between performing straight and gay. Honestly, if I go on a date with a man I'll probably wear a dress. If I am going on a date with a woman, I'll probably wear a blazer (although I've been told this isn't really very gay-looking, but that is neither here nor there). My point is, I am aware of how I perform sexuality mainly in the interest of the person performing with me--that is, my love/lust interest. But what about all of those other people we're performing for? How do they affect our performance? I do think about my family and friends watching me, but I've become blissfully unaware of Larger Society as an audience. Lucky as I am to inhabit mostly queer-friendly space, I often forget that greater audience may be watching.

Last week, though, broke the fourth wall. I went out bar-hopping for the birthday of one of my friend's brothers who is also my friend. Imagine the picture of all of us: the birthday boy a Straight Dude, a semiprofessional athlete with a heart of gold who also happens to look like a tall Aryan poster boy. He wants to go to bars I've never heard of. Most of those of us tagging along are from his sister's posse--a big group of lesbians. Awesome. So all of us lesbians and the two all-American boys head to a bar called "Big Daddy's." It is exactly the set-up for a hilarious joke and it doesn't fail to disappoint.

See, I sort of have a date to this birthday party, and she's a she. I'll call her Danielle. At Big Daddy's, I guess it is sort of obvious that we are there together. We sort of dance together and are somewhat affectionate. My back is to the group of guys who are apparently staring at us, so I have no idea that they are doing so, but I do notice she seems uncomfortable. When our group decides to leave, I walk ahead of her and I feel her grasping for my hand behind me. Apparently the guys staring at her mouthed "You're hot" and started motioning for her to come over to them. So she grabs my hand, which is when one asks, "Oh, it's like that?" This is when I pay attention and we both say "Yeah," and the guys are all like "Really?!" and we nod and then one smiles approvingly and says "Mmm, well y'all make it look good." This is when I throw up a little in my mouth.

No, actually, we just walk out and go to my car. I don't really care that I have this guy's approval, but Danielle is pretty uncomfortable. I think it's funny. Eventually we both manage to laugh it off as "This is why I don't go to straight bars!" and it doesn't really ruin anything. I mean, it's not like I'm unaware that many people consider lesbianism a less "real" form of sexuality that is mostly done for porn. Okay, this is just one more reminder.

Later, though, I do wonder about the thought processes of these men and what they say about broader society. It crosses my mind that people might not be so interested in us if we weren't feminine and petite. It certainly seems they'd notice us less if she weren't black and I weren't white. How much of the commodification of non-White sexuality is happening here? Mainly, I wonder why these men think it matters to queer women what they think of them.

When lesbians perform their identities in public, they remind us that they do not need men for certain essential things. This is the reason a lot of radical lesbian feminists have written about their sexuality as a political act against patriarchy. Whether we mean it that way or not (and I don't), I think some men are threatened by this reminder that some women do just fine without them. They then insert themselves into the situation as a reminder that they are participating whether you have asked them to or not. You may not have asked for an audience, but now you've got one. Perform!

Whether or not those guys meant it, I left the bar feeling like they really thought I was acting like a queer woman, not that I actually am one. It was the first time in a while that the performance has been questioned or critiqued. It was a good reminder to smile for the camera.

1 comment:

  1. C always has to tell me when people are looking at us when we're out. I've become totally oblivious to this over time. Guys hit on her sometimes, but never on me, or on both of us together