The Corridors of Queer by Ember Swift
We all know the story. A woman, married to a man for 20 years, goes to a party. There, she locks eyes with a woman with a confident stance and comfortable shoes. Sure, she’d had some schoolgirl crushes on women, but this makes her tingle in a way she’s never felt before. They talk all evening and exchange phone numbers. Eventually, the woman leaves her husband and the two women move in together. Two years later, they get married. It’s legal in Canada, after all.
The GLBTQ community embraces her. The more the merrier. We are a small rank in the big, bad hetero world and we need numbers. Her new lesbian friends aren’t that open to hearing about her ex-husband, though, unless she’s expressing disgrace for having been with him in the first place.
Time passes. It’s getting easier to call herself a lesbian. That’s what the community wants from her. Why not? She wouldn’t want to be with a man again.
Now, let’s switch channels.
An out, queer woman who has been in an open relationship with a woman for nine years goes to China. She notices a beautiful, long-haired woman walk confidently into a music venue. Tall and slender, floral jacket, her profile shows dimples, a killer smile. Then the woman turns around and she realizes that he has a small goatee. Perfect skin. They lock eyes. Sure, she’d had a few temporary male lovers she’d laughingly deemed “genital research,” but none stood out, until now.
She didn’t expect to see him again, but several months later, there he is, two days into her second trip. They become friends and, eventually, lovers. Her open relationship in Canada ends. Two years later, they get married.
The heterosexual community neither embraces nor rejects her. It’s indifferent. She feels invisible. No one really sees her. Some of her friends know about her queer identity, but she notices their discomfort when she references it. She recognizes the glance of homophobia when it turns her way.
Yet she still identifies as queer and always will. It’s about a personal identity and not about her partner. Yes, she’s in love with her partner, but she knows that she’s capable of love and attraction for women and always will be. She won’t dishonour her experiences or that truth in herself. No way.
In the heterosexual community, no one pressures her to identify as straight, everyone just assumes she is. It’s annoying. But she’s living in the now, honouring love. And why not? That’s what she’s always done.
The woman in the second story is me. When I came out about my marriage to a man recently, it felt exactly like coming out about my attraction for women when I was 19--scary, but necessary. I received a lot of responses, including many from women with similar stories. Immediate camaraderie. Five of those women from five countries (England, Canada, the U.S., Australia and China) agreed to talk to me about their experiences. Why, I asked them, don’t stories of queer women who end up with men get talked about more openly?
One notion is that an ‘us-against-them’ mentality still exists between the two communities: straight and non-straight. It’s a black-and-white dichotomy that leaves no room for those who wear grey. So when someone chooses to engage with a member of the opposite team, they are seen as switching sides, abandoning the fight, changing uniforms—as traitors. It’s sad in a community whose core values are diversity and acceptance.
“First Canada and now women?” wrote a fan I’d never met in an email to me, “Can you spell ‘A-B-A-N-D-O-N-M-E-N-T’”? Apparently, my life amounts to two error messages with one click of fate’s mouse.
I made a decision to follow my heart but the social effect has been like downloading the wrong software for my operating system and then crashing the whole motherboard. Yes, there have been congratulations and confessionals, too, but they were flanked by staunchly worded delete requests from my mailing list. Having a public persona gives you a clear perspective on the pulse of one’s greater community, that’s for sure.
Similarly, the women I spoke with almost all expressed a feeling of rejection by their GLBTQ circles. They felt that their friends’ lack of effort to stay in touch created a gap that grew over time. One woman, who had temporary relationships with women in the in-between years after the birth of her son and before the subsequent birth of her daughter was told by a lifelong lesbian friend that she was getting back together with her male partner in order to achieve ‘genetic consistency’ for her children.
It’s bewildering. Love needs no apology, nor does identity, even when others see the two as contradictory. I still wave my rainbow flag; it’s just harder to see. Worse is that when they do notice, many of the people in my immediate vicinity don’t get it. It’s just a pretty flag blowing in the breeze.
My interview subjects acknowledged that it can be confusing and hard to wrap one’s head around. A queer woman married to a man? What? This problem stems from the identification of others through the lens of partnership, when, in fact, identity is an individual’s right to determine, not an outsider’s.
My partner is not queer, he is straight. He is married to a queer. I am not straight, but I’m married to a straight guy. The fact that he understands these distinctions and respects my right to define my identity is part of the reason we’re together. (And let’s not forget the dimples!)
Regardless of how we identify, people generally have a hard time understanding unconventional journeys. The women I interviewed said they avoid talking about their past relationships with their straight friends. Some choose to “put it behind them” because “it’s easier,” while others choose to reject sexual orientation as part of identity altogether. “I’m in a heterosexual relationship,” one woman says. “That’s what it is. Not who I am. I am guided by my heart. I identify as happy.”
I wonder whether rejecting the notion of identity might in fact be an identity in and of itself–a non-identity identity. Is picking up a grey scarf and wrapping it around one’s neck by claiming a sexual identity like queer or bisexual really an affront to the greater heterosexual society? In other words, when we don’t claim our non-conventional identities, are we electing invisibility for the sake of safety and peace, socially? What are we afraid of? Only one thing, it seems to me: homophobia.
It’s really all about visibility. The queer community needs it and the straight community doesn’t. Visibility gives the oppressed a face, a name and a voice, which will hopefully inform others who don’t understand, and then prevent them from doing or saying homophobic things. I know all of this. I have been standing on stages for years advocating a celebration of love regardless of social norms. But can my voice be as loud now? Or, can it be louder than before? I suppose time will tell.
We may not currently be direct targets of homophobia, shielded by our male lovers, but we can’t forget our wounds. They’re scars now. And our current state of safety as a result of the assumptions being made about us breeds a newfound guilt, a distinct crisis of conscience. We’ve been given the armour of heterosexual privilege whether we want it or not. That gift doesn’t jive with having been comfortable for years on the front lines wielding weapons of queer words, music, picket signs, haircuts and T-shirt slogans against hetero-normative assumptions. The sudden emergence of a shield that I never asked for seems wrong, like a lie I can’t avoid taking advantage of, no matter how ethically opposed to its existence I am.
At the same time, I know there is no need for guilt. There has been no harm done. Guilt has no place in love or truth.
You’d think in a climate of homophobia that the first woman who used to identify as straight but now claims a lesbian identity would be fearfully quiet about her relationship with a woman. But the queer community has been victim to so much oppression that it wraps its arms around newcomers in protective solidarity. Although the newly out woman knows that her previous heterosexual and her current lesbian relationship are both real, she knows it’s easier to call herself a lesbian. If she doesn’t, those protective arms may loosen their grip.
Likewise, this safety-in-numbers thinking makes it easy for those with a GLBTQ history to erase their pasts, at least publicly, choosing invisibility as a form of safety. Binary clarity at the expense of diversity, honesty.
As a result of this invisibility as bisexual or queer—chosen or imposed—women like me who come from the GLBTQ world into the straight world often experience abandonment by the GLBTQ community. It’s a punishment for leaving the fringe, for taking the easy path, for holding my lover’s hand and not being scowled at. The result is a quiet, silencing effect. None of the women I interviewed was comfortable with her name being printed, for example. It’s a fear that I understand. Coming out for the second time was scary. Coming out always is.
But do we abandon the GLBTQ community or are we pushed out? Does loving a heterosexual person belie forgiving, if not joining, the perpetrators of homophobia? Should we ignore the loves we stumble into with men for the sake of the political movement? Wouldn’t that be the abandonment of the self?
One woman, newly married to a man explained that, “The assumptions people make about me are that I’m heterosexual, as though being in this relationship has effaced all of my experiences, political inclinations and beliefs. I’ve really struggled with that feeling of erasure.”
Here we are again, coming full circle, back to the us-against-them theory. Are we or are we not still part of the GLBTQ club when we have fallen for men? Surely our histories of having fallen for women aren’t null and void?
One of the women I interviewed, who identifies as bisexual, said that being part of the GLBTQ inner circle “feels like cheating. Like I need to come with a mile long proviso. A disclaimer. A story of my history that would make my current engagement acceptable.” This was echoed by another interviewee when asked if she was still active in the GLBTQ community.
“I feel unwelcome and unsure of my place,” she wrote. “I feel like I am intruding. I feel like I don’t belong.” It’s as though venturing out to check out the buildings on the opposite side of Genitalia Street costs you your membership card to Queer Club.
I reject this entirely, and here’s why. I believe our identities are inside us, whether or not we are visible at the pride rallies or the gay bars, whether we hold hands with men or women. What’s more, people like me have an amazing opportunity to infiltrate and educate. My identity isn’t dangling from rainbow earrings or cresting off a shaved head and mohawk anymore, but it’s powerful enough to dispute, counter, challenge, and expose homophobia for what it is: oppressive, violent, cruel, destructive, wrong. Sudden invisibility has advantages.
Once an activist, always an activist. Like a political activist who becomes a politician, I continue my activism from within. I am a queer woman in a straight relationship. It’s the truth.
We women with these life stories are learning to accept that there will times when we will feel invisible, both to the GLBTQ community and to the straight community. We occupy a unique space and we haven’t quite decorated yet. It’s a space that few have acknowledged and it’s a space that history hasn’t taken much notice of.
Hopefully, our neighbours on both sides will welcome us, and recognize us for not only our existence, but also for our contributions to the cause. We’re here, getting louder and prouder. We are part of the GLBTQ community for better or for worse, whether the neighbourhood welcoming committee brings us a fruit basket or not.
Ember Swift has released 10 albums and 1 DVD, the most recent project being LENTIC, a folktronica blend of East Asian and Western music.
This article appeared in Herizons Summer 2010 issue.
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