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.