The Glass Closet: On Queer Female (In)Visibility

#homophobia #sexualharassment

I had an awful dream recently in which my girlfriend and I were running around in the city, trying to find a place we could be alone. I don’t remember much of it except that we couldn’t seem to find any privacy. The city felt dark and unsafe, not at all the way it usually feels to me.

Finally, we ended up in the dark basement of some huge apartment building, where we found a single bathroom stall. We went into it and started kissing, only to realize that the stall was made out of glass and that the building super was standing outside of it, watching us.

I don’t attach much importance to dreams, usually. I don’t think this “means” anything other than that these feelings have been on my mind, and the dream brought them out in a stark and horrifying sort of way, as dreams do.

Queer women are simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. We’re invisible, though increasingly less so, in the sense that we are almost always presumed straight until proven otherwise, that our girlfriends become our “gal pals,” that our sexual experiences become “just college girls experimenting” or “just girls trying to get guys’ attention.” We’re invisible in the sense that you almost never see queer female relationships in shows or movies or books that aren’t About Gay People (such as Glee and The L Word). (Even with shows like Glee, though, queer female fans often had to fight for that representation, to fight for characters like them to be treated seriously.)

Queer female relationships, when they happen in film or television or literature, are rarely anything other than the Main Point of that work. You don’t get the badass ex-Soviet spy who happens to have a girlfriend. You don’t get the detective on a cop show flirting with the girl at the bar. The surgeon on the medical drama doesn’t come home to her wife and kids, who are upset that they so rarely see her. (Yes, there are exceptions. There’s a reason I’ve stuck with the mess that is Grey’s Anatomy for so long.)

Maybe it doesn’t seem like this matters. “You have your gay women,” you might say, “so what more do you need?” But the fact that queer female characters are virtually nonexistent except in Media About LGBTQ Issues suggests a divide: Media About LGBTQ Issues, and Media About Everything Else (hospitals, crime, law, spaceships, spies, drugs, college, elite New England boarding schools, aliens, Medieval Europe, politics, etc). Do queer women have a place as doctors and detectives and lawyers and spaceship pilots and spies? Or are all those things exclusively for straight people?

Yet at the same time, in some contexts, queer women are hyper-visible. I think of the glass toilet stall from my dream again when I remember how I’ve felt out in public with my female partners. Queerness is a “marked” identity, which means that sometimes it’s way more obvious and noticed and remarked-upon than straightness. When I’m out with a boyfriend, nobody pays us any particular mind. Sure, sometimes people might notice us and think, “What a cute couple!” (or maybe I’m just flattering myself, but really, people have this thought about straight couples sometimes), but certainly nobody’s going to stare, let alone point fingers or giggle or glare disapprovingly.

But if I’m out holding hands with (let alone kissing or cuddling) another woman, it becomes very obvious. The mere act of being affectionate with my partner marks us as queer and makes us vulnerable to all the bias and hatred (and, potentially, even violence) that may result.

Luckily, in New York, there’s obviously a lot of acceptance and people are used to seeing queer couples, and even if they weren’t, New York has a very strong culture of LEAVE OTHER PEOPLE THE FUCK ALONE DO NOT STARE AT THEM. (I love this about New York.)

But even in New York, hate speech and hate crimes against queer people happen. I feel silly to be afraid of it, especially as a white cis person, but the thing about oppression is that it doesn’t just go away because you have other privileges. When a partner and I are walking up to my apartment building, holding hands, I think about the men who catcalled me right at that spot, late at night. One of them said he wanted to come and tuck me in.

It’s enough that they know where I live, but to know that I’m gay, too?

And now I’m in Ohio, where I might have to stay for some time. Here I don’t know how to navigate it at all. Will people admonish me because “there are children here”? Will they tell me I’m going to hell? Throw bottles at me? Am I being completely overdramatic and unreasonable? If so, can you really blame me, considering how deep the well of Midwestern Christian homophobia runs?

It seems that we get the worst parts of visibility and the worst parts of invisibility. Our relationships, when they are represented at all, are never treated casually in the media, like obvious givens. Yet in real life, we can never seem to fly under the radar unless we get back in the closet.

And even that’s not exactly a guarantee. The closet, too, often feels to be made of glass–transparent and fragile at the same time.

Advertisements

13 thoughts on “The Glass Closet: On Queer Female (In)Visibility

  1. *nods* Where I start to have trouble figuring this out is, what about butches? And other gender non-conforming folk ofc, but specifically — I know butches still exist, but they seem to’ve dropped out of how we theorize and conceptualize queerness and visibility. It’s weird and I dunno how to reintegrate that. (And butch visibility varies greatly, too.)

    Hahaha having a comprehensive narrative. Maybe we just have to write about our experiences/perspective, and drop in footnotes about everybody else? I really dunno.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s why I tend to write about my own experience, and hope that others do the same. I consider the footnote thing to be unnecessary and insulting; also, I shouldn’t be expected to Speak For All Queers when I write about a scary dream I had, but I understand why others want to see themselves represented in others’ writing. I just don’t think it’s doable.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It seems to depend on geography. My spouse is FtM but at this point isn’t out and looks like a butch woman. They felt a marked difference in how they’re treated by strangers — strange men, specifically, between our home in a fairly liberal city in “the South” and farther south in the (still liberal) Ft. Lauderdale area. Here, butch/femme is an accepted part of the social fabric. Down there, they got glared at by random men who were apparently threatened by the idea of a woman with short hair and men’s clothing. It made me nervous and kind of blew my mind, that our relative safety up here is so precarious.

      Like

  2. I feel this, really hard. Someday I want to go to a sci-fi movie and see the lead female character pining for a woman instead of a man. (I made myself both happy and sad imagining Jurassic World with Katee Sackhoff or Freema Agyeman instead of Chris Pratt.) The day that happens, I will cry. I will cry for days.

    Like

    • And on that note I’ll just point out that as far as I can tell no-one has ever even so much as proposed filming Marooned in Realtime, the very novel that introduced the Singularity concept into sci-fi, despite widespread lamentations about Hollywood’s seeming inability to do anything interesting with the idea.

      Surely this has nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with the fact that the murder victim central to the plot happens to be lesbian.

      Like

  3. [ … ] Media About LGBTQ Issues, and Media About Everything Else (hospitals, crime, law, spaceships, spies, drugs, college, elite New England boarding schools, aliens, Medieval Europe, politics, etc).

    Some British and Japanese television series did manage to be reasonably okay along those lines. I think things like Glee do reflect some influence from those quarters on U.S. television though obviously not nearly enough of it.

    Like

  4. “Do queer women have a place as doctors and detectives and lawyers and spaceship pilots and spies? Or are all those things exclusively for straight people?” I really like this part. Yeah, we’re so marked that our attraction to women has to be relevant to our adventures, or they won’t let us have ’em. Sadface.

    Like

  5. Feeling all of this. It’s weird and precarious as anything, isn’t it? Ah, the joys of being the Other!

    And the joys of having to feel out how you can exist and present yourself based on geography – small town vs big city, then WHICH big city, and sometimes even what PART of which big city … it’s dizzying and unpleasant. And you’ve got that on top of your ‘standard’ bundle of womanly precautions; the metrics you have to keep in mind of time/place/surroundings for Personal Safety As A Lady crossing over with Personal Safety As LBTQ. (leaving out the g in this specific instance since cis men don’t run into that intersection…)

    And this –
    “But the fact that queer female characters are virtually nonexistent except in Media About LGBTQ Issues suggests a divide: Media About LGBTQ Issues, and Media About Everything Else (hospitals, crime, law, spaceships, spies, drugs, college, elite New England boarding schools, aliens, Medieval Europe, politics, etc). Do queer women have a place as doctors and detectives and lawyers and spaceship pilots and spies? Or are all those things exclusively for straight people?”
    Haha, yup. Yuuup. I think it’s why I form such strong attachments to pieces of media that DO just kind of incidentally have queer women in ’em, in relatively major roles, where that isn’t the focus. See: the Dragon Age game franchise; Si Spurrier’s comic “The Spire.” … And then I have a hard time of thinking of anything else that’s not that super specific kind of – STORIES ABOUT GAY PEOPLE, THIS IS AN LGBTQ STORY, LOOK, WE’RE DISCUSSING LGBTQ ISSUES HERE!!!!!!! The sort of treatment that gets you shuffled off to the “Gay & Lesbian” corner of the bookstore or whatever instead of mixed in.
    I feel like sci-fi as a genre has genuinely and markedly improvedon this front, at least in the short story arena. Been reading a lot of the more recently-founded-but-biggish-name publications and there’s way more inclusivity than used to be obvious, and it’s really wonderful reading a story in a general interest sci-fi mag and running into a lesbian or genderqueer character or whatever. I wish that could branch out into film/TV more than it has. Ah well.

    Like

  6. “Do queer women have a place as doctors and detectives and lawyers and spaceship pilots and spies? Or are all those things exclusively for straight people?”

    That whole section was great and really hit home for me because you’re right, it’s rare to see a queer female character on TV where the queerness isn’t the focus. To that end, I have found a recent television love that does this superbly well, and I’d like to put forth a whole-hearted recommendation. The show is Person of Interest, it airs on CBS, and will be available on Netflix in September.

    What Person of Interest does really, really well is representation without fetishization. There are queer characters both in their main cast and in guest spots (one particularly memorable episode featured a female doctor whose wife was in danger and the gayness just wasn’t a thing at all). It’s like queer people just exist in their world. You know, like the real world.

    Two of their lead female characters (of three) are queer and while it’s not shied away from, it’s not the focus, either. These two women are both hugely complex characters (one is a genius computer hacker who starts as a villain and has this beautiful redemption arc, the other is a former government assassin with an Axis II personality disorder who manages to care enough about her friends — including genius computer hacker — to do a Big Thing) and their queerness is not a primary trait. They are many other things first, but at the same time, the queerness isn’t an afterthought. It’s part of them, just it’s like it’s part of any queer person, but it doesn’t consume them or their respective narratives.

    The writers also handle the relationship between them very well. I don’t want to give out too many spoilers in case you might want to watch, but it’s very rich, and there’s definitely payoff (aka it’s not queerbaiting).

    I will stop yammering now, but I really encourage anyone who wants to see queer representation done well on television to check out Person of Interest. A+++.

    Like

  7. Afterparty by Daryl Gregory is a recent example in sci-fi literature. The two main characters are a scientist who developed the drug that drives the plot, and her legitly diagnosed paranoid ex-CIA girlfriend she met in a treatment facility (both of their conditions brought on from an overdose or dependency on differing designer drugs), and it’s not made a big deal that this is a Queer book, they’re both comfortable in their identities before the book begins, they don’t deal with any particular prejudice for it… it’s just a relationship like any other with normal fears like fears one person may be more into it and being used by the other, and lies and things unsaid, just in a near future adventure about trying to track down the source and stop the spread of a drug that makes you see God.

    Like

  8. The main character of Ghost in the Shell is bisexual and polyamorous, though this usually gets so softpedalled you’d scarely even notice.

    I’m sure that aspect of the character will survive the Hollywood remake…[/sarcasm]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s