You Don’t Need Straight Privilege to be Happy
M y girlfriend and I are both classic femmes: long hair, powerful eyebrows, and good lord we look great in a dress. This year for my birthday we hit up Williamsburg’s hottest new Italian restaurant. I live in Brooklyn, home of artisanal foodies, sexy Yogis and ironic mustaches. And tonnes of queer people. So when we strutted into the restaurant looking like pin-ups and my girlfriend took my hand, I should have felt powerful and proud. Instead, I felt exposed and uncomfortable. I knew that everyone in the restaurant would look twice at us: perhaps supportive, perhaps titillated, perhaps just plain curious. I took my hand away.
Ironically, I am passionate about lesbian visibility. When my UK editor sent me the mock-up of their cover for my new book (each country does a different version), they’d deleted this line from my bio: “She lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and a fridge full of cheese.” I immediately asked for it to be put back in. “Queer visibility is very important to me, personally and politically,” I wrote to my editor, “I do believe having positive role models makes a real difference and is part of my overall values.” Coming out on my book jacket is something I’m not only excited to do, but feel a responsibility to.
We can’t be what we cannot see: my girlfriend nervously clicked bisexual on her online dating profile after a three-day first season Orange is the New Black binge. A guy friend has come to terms with his bisexuality because of James “I’m everywhere!” Franco. I love being gay mostly because I am deeply, head over Vans in love with my girlfriend who is an angel sent from heaven and makes me smile just by existing. I want to share that love with the world.
I wish I didn’t sweep the subway car when she rests her head on my shoulder, I long for the day I can nibble her neck and not think twice. But I do. Because it makes me feel uncomfortable and nervous that some dickhead will ruin our special moment by hollering at us from a passing car or I’ll come up for air and lock eyes with some weirdo staring at us… again. I can’t because (some) men still view lesbians as a sexual fantasy with little delineation between the women doing it explicitly for their pleasure and the women minding their own business. I can’t because lesbian is still a joke, a source of derision or disgust. I can’t because (some) men view women and women’s bodies as something they have a right to leer, target or control, be it through laws or catcalls, aversions to abortion or breastfeeding in public. This is why lesbian visibility and treating gay women with respect is an issue for all women. The level of abuse and sexual targeting lesbians experience is reflective of how the culture sees women, as a whole. It is outrageous, ludicrous and deeply heart-breaking to see how much lesbian sexuality — two women loving each other — has been co-opted by men. Yet again, (some) men make something that has nothing to do with them all about them. Straight women will not be treated with respect until lesbians are. It’s that simple.
In those moments when my girlfriend and I walk side by side without holding hands, we pass as straight. We look like roommates or friends. Sometimes we’re mistaken for sisters: just this past weekend someone insisted on how much we look alike, even after being told we were dating (it was awkward). I don’t like it. I don’t need the armor of normativity. But I have it, an unwanted gift I can’t return. In these moments, I am not pretending to be straight. I don’t check out guys or toss my hair when they pass. If people think I’m straight, that is their own incorrect assumption, based on a cliched understanding of lesbianism. I feel guilty for stepping out of my experience as a gay person, and letting other people’s misconceptions protect me. It saddens me that I am more comfortable being out on a book jacket than at a restaurant.
I challenge myself all the time to show affection even when I worry it’ll make me a target. But I’m trying be be okay with understanding my own boundaries and not punishing myself on the daily. I did that for a while and it just made me frustrated and sad. Because this is what I now know:
Gay people are survivors. We always have been, even though we don’t see our love and lives reflected in the majority of movies and songs, billboards and books (at the risk of stating the very obvious, we don’t need Straight Pride because the world celebrates that every single day and has since the beginning of time). We survive in different, complex ways even (especially) in 2016. And I am determined to survive and be happy. I am happy. Even though we have so far to go, even though gay marriage isn’t even legal in my home country of Australia.
You don’t need to experience all the benefits of straight privilege to be happy just as you don’t need to be white or male or able-bodied privilege to be happy. But I’m going to keep working towards a world where we get it.
Oh, and my bio on the book jacket? They put the line back in.