A couple of weeks ago, I was stuck on a crowded subway car on my way home from work next to two college-age folks, a young man with a guitar and his female friend who (I gathered from overhearing their conversation) was coming home from a shift at a clothing retailer. The conversation went like this:
Him: How was work?
Her: Okay. Slow. We were, like, $700 behind sales on the last hour. The floor manager told us, she was like, “just so you all know we’re $700 behind.”
Him: That sucks.
Her: Yeah. [pause] I did sell a pair of these jeans [indicates the pair she's wearing] to a 40-year-old lesbian.
Her: A 40-year-old British lesbian. I flirted with her. I do that all the time. Flirt with the lesbians.
At the time, what I really wanted to do was interrupt their conversation and ask her how, exactly, she identified the lesbian shoppers. I mean, I was curious! How does one figure these things out? If she has such un-erring gaydar, could she tell I was queer, standing there next to her on the T? Inquiring minds wish to know!
Then my mind wandered, as my mind is wont to do, and I thought about how I was irritated with this girl for slumming as a lesbian in order to sell pants. “Just for the record,” I wanted to say, “I’m a queer chick who doesn’t find those pants or your ass particularly hot. So quit your pretending and just be your fucking self.” (Yes, sometimes the inside of my head can be a cruel space.)
And then I thought about how maybe this girl, like lots of “straight” girls, is using the space of this job as a salesgirl to try on the idea of being a lesbian. To see if it fit. (Sometimes that’s the only way you’ll know.) I mean, it was clear from the way she phrased it to her friend that she positioned herself as straight … but then again, maybe this friend was just an acquaintence and maybe she’s not sure, and maybe it’s just easier to tell the story about flirting with an older woman as if she was playacting and didn’t really mean it. Maybe if she tells herself the story a few more times, she’ll gradually feel brave enough to position herself a little less on the play-acting side and a little more on the honest-to-god flirting side.
When does slumming count as slumming and when does it count as … well, just plain discovering what you want and who you are?
I was reminded of the exchange overheard on the T a few days later when I read a post by Garland Grey about the increasing number of straight actors who play non-straight or ambiguous (as characters or even as themselves), usually on the clear understanding that they’re not really queer but are playing at queerness to make a sale or please the fans. He writes:
I think actors choosing to acknowledge the slash community is somewhat funny and occasionally hot. And I think their choosing to interact with narratives that other people have constructed about their sex lives with a certain degree of humor is very mature. But it also highlights how much of the cultural bandwidth Straight Men playing or imitating Gay Men is starting to take up, and how lucrative being ambiguously heteroflexible can be in securing more of the fandom’s attention, giving another segment of your audience a reason to see a film or series and bring their own queer sensibilities to it. Partly this is an act of collaborative storytelling that acknowledges how underrepresented gender and sexual minorities are as main characters in Science Fiction/Fantasy. But it also begs the question: Why can’t we have legitimate queer couplings? Why must we always manufacture them ourselves and hope for crumbs from the actors and producers?
You can read the whole thing over at Bitch.
It’s two slightly different situations, but with fundamentally the same questions being asked: when someone (assumed to be straight) play-acts at being (in some way not-straight), to what extent is that acting appropriating the sexual desires of actual non-straight individuals, and to what extent are they perhaps acknowledging their own fluidity or ambiguity of desire. And does it matter on a political or cultural level that these incidents happen? It it does, then how so? On the one hand, in the context of acting as a profession it’s understood that folks take on roles that may or may not approximate their real-life experience (queer actors play straight roles, I would hazard, more often than they play non-straight ones). So perhaps we could say it’s more acceptable in that context? On the other hand, a shopgirl playing gay to make a sale has a much smaller stage on which to act, and one could argue is more likely performing the role out of some desire to try on the persona than an actor who’s being paid a healthy salary in part because he can pull off sexually ambiguous (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock anyone?) On the third hand, Grey assumes in his post above that simply because an actor is in an other-sex relationship and/or doesn’t publicly identify as gay that he’s a Straight Guy playing gay … when who’s to say that the role of, say, James Hathaway in Inspector Lewis, can’t offer the same space to try out sexual desires as flirting with a lesbian customer does for a young woman who assumes she’s straight?
I told you this was a post full of dis-jointed thoughts.
As a parting thought, I bring you a second post — this one by Shoshie at Feministe, who is writing about her experience of pansexual desires in the context of a committed other-sex partnership:
I feel like my sexuality is this weird, awkward thing that sits quietly in the corner until someone assumes that everyone there is straight, and then it has a big ol’ awkward party. It’s become a big question for me, whether or not to come out to people that I meet. Because, at this point, what difference does it make? What does it matter who I’m attracted to? Mr. Shoshie and I are monogamous, so I’m with one person for the foreseeable future. But then, sexuality does come up occasionally and then I feel weird because here’s this person that I’m friends with, that I’ve known for a year, who knows so much about me, but doesn’t know that I also like people who aren’t men. And who I find attractive shouldn’t be a big deal, but somehow it is anyways.
You can read the whole thing (and the long and interesting comment thread!) over at Feministe.
This post doesn’t really have a conclusiony-type conclusion. It’s just that all of these things — the conversation on the T, the relationship of actor to the slash factor in their fandom, the awkwardness Shoshie experiences over being honest about her attractions — point toward the tensions we feel about folks exploring their sexual orientation(s) and identities. We get angry or frustrated over the appropriation of sexual minority identities by presumed-straight folks in order to get attention of various kinds. We get angry or frustrated when the categories we’ve constructed don’t seem to fit our personal experience or allow people to suggest that we should know our desires and stick with them consistently. I realize there are important realities about structural power and institutionalized privilege present in any conversation about straight and non-straight identities and desires, but at the same time I think with increasing frequency that we should just back off our reflexive judging of other peoples’ sexual exploration (i.e. the sort of judging I did of the girl on the T), and actually encourage more fluidity of identity — because the more fluidity there is, the less likely it will be that any one static group of people will end up dominating the discussion. If everyone is (or has been) in the position of feeling “queer” at some point in their lives, perhaps we will stop assuming as a culture that everyone is straight until they announce otherwise, and that once having announced (or otherwise displayed) their desires they should stick with that decision for the rest of their lives.