These words started coming to me in fragments last night, at bedtime. I went to sleep anyway, half-hoping that I would forget them.
For a few hours it worked. But now they are coming back again, like an insistent wave warning of a rising tide, and there’s nowhere else for them to go but out.
I watched my boyfriend walk up to her and ask her to dance, and my stomach plummeted out of my body.
No, not for that reason. We’re poly. Even if we weren’t, dancing with other people is a normal thing. So let’s just get that out of the way.
It was because that was one of those moments when the reality of your situation gets outlined for you in indelible Sharpie. I have never, and will never, in any context, be able to ask a woman to dance so casually. The idea of doing that is so far removed from my everyday life that it hadn’t even occurred to me, as we both sat there talking to this sparkling new person or at any point after, that that was a thing I could do.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said, explaining that with partner dancing things don’t necessarily mean anything, that I could do the same thing.
But when you’re queer, things are always in imminent danger of being viewed “like that.” An innocent gesture easily turns into “Uh, sorry, I have a boyfriend,” or “Oh did you think I was gay? Oh my gosh, no,” or “You’re disgusting, get away from me,” or worse.
A progressive straight friend with closely-cropped hair remarks that she feels so bad that her queer lady friends sometimes assume she’s, like, into them that way or something. Another tells me that her fuckbuddy asked her if she knows I’m bi, because “I bet she totally has a crush on you.” I keep all women I’m not explicitly involved with at arm’s length, averting my gaze respectfully when they casually change in front of me, keeping compliments vague.
And yet, just as easily, a romantic slow dance with your lover turns into “gals being pals.”
These days I’m not sure which is worse, or which has ultimately cut me deepest.
So I suppose it’s jealousy of a sort, after all. Not the jealousy of wanting your partner all to yourself, or the jealousy of worrying that you’ll be replaced with someone prettier or smarter or less weighed down with the sort of baggage I’m describing. It’s the jealousy of it will never be this easy for me. No matter how much easier it gets, it will never be like it is for a straight man.
Yes, I know, it’s hard for straight dudes too. I’m sure most of them can think of many times when they’ve felt paralyzed at the thought of asking someone out or expressing interest in them or showing vulnerability to them. I empathize with that and I also firmly believe that the experience of queer folks is different.
It doesn’t matter if the other person is openly queer themselves, even. It’s not just about fear of homophobic backlash or an especially cruel rejection. It’s the pervasive, gnawing, choking feeling that what you want is simply impossible. It feels like trying to make two parallel lines meet. Like climbing all the way to the top of one of M.C. Escher’s dizzying staircases. Every time I’ve expressed desire for another woman — and don’t misunderstand, there have been plenty of times, despite it all — I’ve felt like laughing at myself. Not funny ha-ha, but ridiculous ha-ha, like what the fuck am I doing ha-ha.
To me, being queer is living with this kind of cognitive dissonance forever — that something feels so natural to me, and yet I am convinced of its impossibility, and that conviction is firmer than almost anything else I believe, and has hardly been tempered by years of loving, dating, and sleeping with women, of knowing many happy lesbian couples, some married, some with kids, some with cats, some building their own houses, some polyamorous with others, some on their own, all real, all living proof that queerness is a flesh-and-blood thing, not a dream and not a fantasy.
And yet, it doesn’t feel real to me at all. My own desires aren’t real. I could no more cross that room as casually as my boyfriend did and ask a woman to dance than throw myself into the air and dance upside down on the ceiling, enchanted and alone.
Reliving that moment again and again, I keep having the same thought: I am so sick of myself and myshit. I wish I could inhabit someone else’s experience for a while. I wish that someone else could be a straight, cisgender person.
So this is how men always end up dancing with, going out with, sleeping with, making a life with the women I’ve loved. They can imagine possibilities that I can’t. They may worry that they aren’t interesting or attractive or intelligent or masculine enough, that she won’t be interested, that things won’t work out, that whatever whatever, but unless there’s another major axis of marginalization involved, they typically do not question the entire concept of relating to a woman in this way. It doesn’t occur to them to question it. Just like it didn’t occur to me to even ask her to dance.
All of the women I’ve loved, or even thought I could fall in love with someday, have woven their lives together with a man’s. That doesn’t in any way call their queerness into question; I don’t play that bullshit. There are many reasons why most queer women who have the capacity to love men end up doing so. Sometimes it’s just happenstance; sometimes it’s just the bleak statistics of it. Sometimes the world is a homophobic shitshow and maybe you want to marry someone your parents will actually welcome into the family, I don’t know. A lot of the time it’s the exact sort of thing I’ve just been so painfully laying out — anything other than life with a man at the center of it, whether you’re monogamous or polyamorous, feels about as realistic (if also as awesome) as turning the United States into a socialist utopia.
It’s not a conscious choice, understand. At least not for most of us. It’s just the well-worn groove you settle into, the gravitational well you find yourself contently circling around.
I would know, I’m doing the same thing.
So I think that for the women I’ve been with, I was a bright comet passing occasionally through their skies, interesting to watch but without much pull. They were already in orbit around somebody else.
I know I’m not alone in this. I know I’m not alone in this. When we feel safe, away from straight people and cis men, many of us quietly admit to feeling this way and having no idea what to do about it.
It’s pretty rare for us to put it out there like this, as it inevitably leads to the usual inane prattling from Straight Allies (“Aww, you’ll find that special someone when the time is right!” I’ve found many special someones; that doesn’t fix internalized homophobia) or the occasional wiser-than-thou queer lady who insists that she doesn’t know what we’re talking about, back in her day girls just went for what they wanted and everything eventually turned out fine.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe I’m just suffering from a deficit of imagination and/or initiative. A little voice in my head that I suppose once belonged to some internet commenter or other (or perhaps my mom) but now sounds indistinguishable from my own also tells me to be grateful for what I have. What I have is an abundance of love in my life, and if I’m counting love that isn’t just romantic — which I certainly am — then I have love from people of all genders, and maybe that should be enough.
After all, I’m told, gender is a construct, and if I have loving partners and healthy relationships, then it shouldn’t matter what gender anyone is. Polyamorous people in particular aren’t supposed to care, lest we “play into” the stereotype that bisexuals just want to collect a partner of every gender or whatever.
So I act like I haven’t noticed what a monumental part of my self, my sexuality, and my ability to envision my own relationships as I want them was taken from me at birth, and I carry on.
Underneath the act, though, this awareness itches and grates at me like a splinter just beneath my skin. Do I keep trying to dig it out? Or do I live with the wrongness that shouldn’t be there?
I am tired of digging, and I imagine that the people close to me are tired of it too.
Being intimate with men is hard, for more reasons than I could ever unravel. One of the hardest things about it is having to reckon up-close with their privilege. Watching them receive praise and recognition for ideas and skills that you also have. Seeing them earn more money just a few years out of school than you expect to earn midway through your career. Knowing that they don’t have to choose which grocery store to shop at based on how little sexual harassment they’ll experience there. Seeing them make decisions about food and dieting without the baggage of having spent years being told that if they don’t lose that fat ass, no one will ever love them. Watching them stroll up to the girl you’ve been stealing glances at and ask her to dance like it was nothing. Like it was nothing.
For me, the knowledge that I will never be able to do that so casually, that a man will always be a likelier and more convenient partner than me, that I can’t even fully believe in my own identity, is an anguish that no parade or Supreme Court ruling can repair.
So there. I feel like I’ve ripped the guts out of my own body and arranged them on a platter. My secret is that I’m a failed queer. I can’t even envision my own liberation, much less cross the room and make it happen.
I’m still not sure how to reconcile this with the fact that I’ve somehow been dating women for years nonetheless. Maybe because I know how much fear and self-doubt has flavored those otherwise-joyful experiences, and because I remember how long it took — years, often — to even say anything. To even imagine.
Slowly, but surely, I ascend that impossible staircase.
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