On Internalized Homophobia in the Assimilation Movement, Or, Sorry I Look So Gay

Sorry for the post shortage this week! This whole adult job and responsibilities thing I got going on really cramps my not-for-profit-but-for-fun blogging style sometimes. But today is Friday (fun fun fun fun) (sorry) and I can’t wait to dive back into this AWESOME book called Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. In case you haven’t heard of it (in which case, you’re welcome, ‘cuz I just changed your life with a few taps of my keyboard), Persistence is a collection of short stories and essays by butches and femmes from all walks of life, edited by famous queerfolk Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman. There’s an incredible variety of experiences and identities chronicled on these pages; whether you’re a stone leather MTF femme in a wheelchair or a pregnant rural bottom butch of color, you’re bound to find something relatable.

I sure did. Victoria A. Brownsworth’s essay No Butches, No Femmes: The Mainstreaming of Queer Sexuality hit me like a ton of rainbow-colored bricks. It’s all about the movement towards a kind of homo assimilation into mainstream culture, the “we also enjoy having a house in the ‘burbs and 2.3 kids and a golden retriever named Buddy and being so normal” shout-out to Middle America that big name marriage equality groups like the HRC have total boners for. I call this “bullshit;” Victoria explains it much more eloquently:

Assimiliation neuters queers by demanding a narrow, heterosexually normative paradigm that insists on a strict gender-based orientation. This disallows the range of sexual expression in gender attributes that we once considered essential facets of who we were/are as lesbians and gay men. In short, assimilation forces us to pass as straight, even when we are out queers, by denying us the full range of our queer gender expression. To be truly assimilated, we must mimic straight women and men, which means we cannot include, for example, butch lesbians and gay male queens in post-assimilationist culture, because there are no comparable persons in straight society.

I’d like to thank Victoria for ensuring me that I am not, in fact, single-handedly destroying the modern gay rights movement by parading my scary butch self around in public, in plain sight of nice clean-cut man-woman couples and pearl-clutching grandmas and The Children (why won’t anyone think of them??); quite the opposite, actually. Whenever we decide to “tone down the gay” or “not flaunt our sexuality” or be “straight-acting” or whatever loaded language you’d like to use, we are shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. We are acknowledging a poisonous, internalized homophobia that says: “We’re just like you, straight society. We deserve rights, because we are just like straight people and straight people are normal. We’re not a bunch of drag queens and diesel dykes; those people don’t represent us because they don’t look like straight people and straight people are normal.”

While I understand the need to show Hetero World that we are not dangerous sex monsters coming to steal their kids and eat their puppies, pushing out anyone who doesn’t look like Joe and Suzie Straight-Normal (of the Connecticut Straight-Normals) is not the way to advance our community. This marginalizing of the least-mainstream among us is especially disturbing, because it was those same sex and gender outlaws who were at Stonewall, kicking open the door of the gay rights movement with their motorcycle boots and stiletto heels. As Victoria writes:

The demand for equal rights and integration into mainstream society often leads – or forces – minority groups to pattern themselves on the majority, disengaging from the very things that make them who they are as a separate and distinct group.

When I was in college, I knew some other gays who wanted more than anything to not be read as gay. This wasn’t necessarily a survival method – though, for some, it very well may have been – but more of a turning up of the nose at anything considered “stereotypical.” This included, but was not limited to, drag shows, Pride marches, gay bars, gay movies/TV/music/books, and variant gender expressions. It was as if, by disavowing all things too gay, they would become some evolved breed of Homo for the New Millennium, one who could slip unnoticed in and out of society, never causing any waves or upsetting any sensibilities. I’ve personally been mocked by straight-actors among us for looking, well, so damn gay. For proudly rocking the Docs and the flannel and the ties. For being “obsessed” with queer news and events. For not blending into mainstream society and not caring to try. For not being one of those “hot” lesbians that you see on TV, that are indistinguishable from straight women, save for the ladies in their beds. For being an unapologetic butch dyke.

I’ll leave you with some questions from Victoria, questions that I would also like the answers to:

Has queer culture moved too far in the opposite direction from the butch/femme dynamic of the years immediately pre- and post-Stonewall? Is it our own community now that disallows the male-centric butch because she fits a stereotype that assimilationists want straight society to either forget or ignore – the bull dyke, the bull dagger butch who doesn’t turn straight men on and doesn’t have the potential to be heterosexual?

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11 thoughts on “On Internalized Homophobia in the Assimilation Movement, Or, Sorry I Look So Gay

  1. Very interesting, particularly looking at “our” generation of lesbos. I really saw this difference when I went to gay camp last summer – the older women and men were much more queer presenting, whereas us younguns were much more likely to “pass.”

    I guess it doesn’t automatically bother me because I’m on the femme side of the spectrum, and I tend to date other women who “pass” but reading articles like these make me nostalgic for something I missed out on culturally.

    BUT, I also wonder if it’s a symptom of our current civil rights battle, where it isn’t about coming out of the closet (although we’re still doing that of course) as much as fighting for “equal” rights (Note: I am completely aware that that’s coming from EXTREME privilege of being white and living in Boston). Perhaps once marriage and job equality are a reality, we’ll see a resurgence of the old culture?

    • It’s true that the focus of a lot of gay civil rights work today is very focused on issues like DOMA and DADT (which are obviously very important). However, I think it’s critical that we as a community don’t forget the warriors who came before us, and also don’t forget what an awesome, DIVERSE community we are (and celebrate that). We’re a big, messy, dysfunctional, and strong family of queers; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  2. I think part of it is that with greater visibility comes greater scrutiny as well as greater acceptance. When GLTBQ culture was, by definition, way off the radar of straight society, it wasn’t really possible to be a pair of nice femmey lesbians living in San Rafael who attended PTA meetings. Everyone was either defiantly on the fringes or invisible, and straight society could either pretend we didn’t exist or screech in horror when we crossed their field of view. There wasn’t much point in trying to assimilate, because they weren’t having us. Then the laws started changing after decades of determined effort, and hey! we’re here, we’re queer, and BUDDY STOP JUMPING ON THAT NICE LADY oh I’m so sorry he doesn’t usually behave so badly KIDS WILL YOU QUIT THAT?!? and do you have a number for a good Subaru mechanic? In some ways, the ability to have a really boring life is a human right unto itself, one that a lot of not-boring people fought hard for. I think we can get a little nostalgic for the good parts of the Stonewall era and forget about the bad ones.

    Some of it is also a side effect of a population that is getting older in general. I read a quote a decade or so ago about most gay clubs in the Castro banning dancing, and it went something like, “A generation ago, these guys were the ones having sex in the bushes outside this place, and now we can’t even dance in here?” In a similar vein, the ‘burbs may be boring, but living in crappy apartments into your fifties can get wearying too (or so I hear). Which is not to say that we should all aspire to a certain homogenous (and faux-heterosexual) way of life, but more that there are other factors influencing how we live.

    • I realize now that I sounded a bit submissive of queerfolk who actually want the suburban house, kids, dog, etc. I didn’t mean to come across that way. Equality is about everyone having the same opportunities and options, and if someone chooses a way of life that’s different from my urban child-free apartment-dwelling ways, I should respect that.

      You’re right – age is definitely a factor. If I were 36 or 46 or 56, rather than 26, I probably wouldn’t be as anti-‘burbs as I am now. I’ll have to write a follow up post in 20 years or so. 😉

  3. Boston’s Lesbian community is unfortunately as segregated as Boston itself.
    When I go out to majority white events I see a minority of extremely butch and femme women, with a lot of women presenting somewhere on the spectrum. (I also see a shit-ton of plaid.)
    When I go out to black lesbian events almost everyone visibly falls into butch/femme categories.
    It seems to me that the white lesbian community in Boston is more open to a diversity of gender-presentations, with more acceptance of relationships and attractions that fall outside of the strict butch-femme dynamic. Is this an attempt to assimilate? Or a rejection of the idea that lesbians have to mirror cisgender/cissexual relationships?

    On the other hand, in the black lesbian community, there is a lot more gender-role policing, and although femme-femme relationships are accepted, butch-butch relationships are largely taboo. Also, fewer women seem to feel comfortable falling in the middle if the spectrum, or switching it up. There’s a lot of pressure to “pick a side”

    I like the butch-femme dynamic myself, although the pressure to be “more femme” can be a little overwhelming.

    • Boston is ridiculously segregated, and it’s depressing to see that the LGBT community isn’t immune to that kind of mindset. Pretty much the only time I find myself at queer events that are actually racially/ethically diverse is during Pride, when everyone is partying together. QWOC+ Boston hosts some great events and does much work to increase the visibility of queer people of color in our city. Unfortunately, I’ve never attended these events, not because I feel unwelcome, but because I’m always hesitant to invade spaces that aren’t designed for me. I think the LGBT equality movement as a whole has a really messed-up way of leaving POC in the dust (along with trans and non-gender-conforming folk); while I’m seething about feeling marginalized as a butch, I need to check my white privilege and remember that there are other queers in our community and beyond who feel discrimination coming from many different directions.

      As far as the Boston white lesbian community being less butch/femme-focused, I blame the hipsters. No, really, I do. I see plenty of white butch-femme couples at Pride events, but they are almost all older than I am. When I go to clubs that have a mostly under-30 crowd, everyone is rocking this middle-of-the-road, andro style that you can buy at Urban Outfitters. The whole hipper-than-thou, I’m-so-above-labels way of thinking is very much in vogue right now amongst young dykes. I think it’s definitely a generational thing, which is why I get so excited when I see another 20-something butch out and about (it means I’m not the last of my kind)!

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the butch-femme community been a part of the queer African American community since, like, forever? Or since the early 1900’s? I can’t remember where I read this, but I thought that this dynamic has existed separately from the white queer community for a long time, and maybe even appeared earlier than white butch-femme culture? Must do more research. Thanks for the great thoughts/insight here!

  4. I know this is an old post, I’m a newcomer to your site and i work on the computers; so I’ve been reading alll daaaay long. Anyhoo, just wanted to say a lot of stuff in this post really made me think. You’ve done a great job complicating some trends that frankly, confuse and irritate the heck outta me! hahah, keep up the good work. more questions than answers, le sigh.. aint it always that way?

    • By all means, read away! 😉 Yeah, this subject is pretty touchy for me, and something I still think about constantly. Thanks for joining the dialogue!

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