By Helen McDonald
When I was an itty-bitty baby dyke first discovering my queerness, I got really excited about my love life sans men. (I had a limited understanding of how queerness works.) I imagined that all of the oppressive ideas that decided who I was supposed to be attracted to, how I was supposed to behave as a woman, and what treatment I deserved as a woman would suddenly disappear as soon as I kissed a woman. While embracing my queerness did free me in a lot of ways, coming to terms with my sexual orientation meant having to unlearn a lot of sexism. Dating, crushing on, loving, and sleeping with people who do not identify as men did not mean that sexism did not influence how people related to me or how I related to other people. Here are five sexist myths I had (and still have) to debunk to really approach relationships (of all kinds) with womyn in a loving way.
- The Friendzone/“Nice Girl Syndrome”
Feminism gave me a head start in understanding why the notion of the Friendzone is a figment of misogynists’ imaginations. I could see that the expectation that womyn owe men sex or romantic attention in exchange for acts of kindness or human decency is based on ideas that inherently degrade womyn. “Womyn don’t owe men anything!” I would yell at anyone who would listen, so proud of myself for single-handedly annihilating patriarchy. However, when I flirted with other womyn, I realized that my actions and expectations did not reflect my political beliefs. In fact, my expectations depended on a belief in the Friendzone. I realized that I felt robbed when I was super kind to a woman, but she was not very interested in me. “It’s like womyn just want to be with assholes,” I’d rant with other queer womyn. My conversations started to sound like the pity parties misogynist douchebags throw for themselves. Sexism taught me that womyn should be grateful for any attention someone directs at them, especially if that attention is the least bit positive. Loving womyn — truly behaving in a loving manner — meant respecting a woman’s right to not like me. Sure, rejection hurts but in the end, I am not entitled to someone else’s body, interest, or affection simply by acting like a decent human being.
- Standards of Beauty
Learning not to identify with problematic standards of beauty with respect to my own body was hard enough. But when I got comfortable enough to start processing all my really gay feels, I felt really uncomfortable with how I judged the womyn I was attracted to. Men historically have defined what feminine beauty should look like: skinny but curvy, at least 5’5”, white or fair complexion, voluminous hair that grows and flows downward (with a few curls to really complete the package) — you know the deal. My fantasy girl had all of these attributes and I definitely paid less attention to womyn who did not meet those unreasonable, patriarchal standards. Sexism taught me that people who are attracted to womyn should expect to be with the “perfect” woman who somehow fits all of these unattainable definitions of beauty, and that people attracted to womyn have the right to judge and even criticize womyn for any perceived imperfections. Loving womyn meant not only expanding the definitions of what counts as beauty, but also trying my best to ditch the idea that a woman needs to conform to any kind of standards to be lovable and valuable.
- Who’s the Man?
No one’s the “man”… that’s the point. Deep down, however, I still subscribed to the hetero-normative model that masculine + feminine = legitimate relationship. I think that kind of gender model made me feel more comfortable in my queerness because I wasn’t really betraying the feminine code of conduct. Sexism taught me that my value depended on my proximity to masculinity and that since I identify as a woman, my only access to masculinity, and therefore power, was through a male partner. I therefore sought out and validated relationships with masculine people. Although many of my partners still tend to be more masculine, I understand that a woman does not need to be more masculine than me to be a good partner, nor do I need to be super feminine to be with someone who is masculine. I do not esteem queer womyn more based on how masculine presenting they are.
- Femme-phobia is Real
Lesbi-real though… I’m also attracted to feminine womyn. Not to mention, I identify as a feminine woman. These interactions with femme identities forced me to come to terms with how complicated femininity can be in LGBTQ circles. Femininity is often stigmatized in queer communities. It is viewed as less radical and more heteronormative; in fact, queer people can be invisible to LGBTQ spaces if they are not androgynous or masculine. For example, I am constantly challenged or questioned for identifying as a lesbian but presenting as a femme. Even queer people blink and make silly comments in response like “I had no idea you were a lesbian!” as if there is a correct way to be queer. “This femmephobia in queer communities—this devaluation and stigmatization of queer femininity—is a form of misogyny that is rooted in dominant patriarchal culture,” asserts Jeanette Young in the piece, “No Queer Girls Are Queerer Than Others: Resisting Femme Invisibility.” She continues, “It’s a form of sexism that intersects with cissexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, ableist, and sizeist views of femininity, women, and what it means to be queer.” Identifying as a femme made it easier for me to respect other femmes’ identities, but I still had to undo many sexist notions that cast feminine identities as inferior. These sexist notions prevented me from truly loving myself and other womyn for our femininity and stopped me from seeing our potential to queer and radicalize being femme.
- Respecting Boundaries and Desires
Socialized as a woman, I quickly learned that my desires rarely mattered. Misogynistic people forced me to accept that as a woman — especially as a Black woman — my purpose in life was to please other people (read: men). “No,” was never a proper response to anything in this construction of womanhood and boundaries existed in the form of blurred lines. It was absolutely crucial for me to destroy this mentality for my own well-being as well as to embrace a practice of loving womyn. Boundaries are not suggestions; they are hard guidelines that tell us how to relate to other people. Misogyny and sexism insist that woman’s desires are negotiable; loving womyn means that respecting boundaries and desires is necessary.
I firmly believe that there is a difference between being attracted to womyn and loving womyn. For me, loving womyn does not only involve some kind of romantic infatuation with female-identified people but rather it demands a practice of showing womyn — particularly womyn of color — the respect, appreciation and tenderness society frequently denies us. Sexism taught me that womyn are the center of society, but only to the extent that society can control our behaviors, interests, and activities. Loving womyn meant freeing myself from oppressive ideologies in order to make my relationships with other womyn and even to myself much more fulfilling.
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com.