I am a bisexual woman. Sometimes the world sees me as gay, and sometimes the world sees me as straight. The world never reads me as “bi,” a fact which triggers the ire of invisible bi people everywhere, but that’s a topic for another day.
When I talk about “how the world sees me,” I’m not referring to how my friends or colleagues see me. I’m talking about how the people I bump butts with on the subway, or awkwardly avoid eye contact with at the grocery store see me. I’m talking about the answer to the question “what is the temperature of this sea of human energy that I am swimming in?” I’m talking about the feeling that first hits me when I step outside my apartment door, or open the door of my car in a parking lot.
When people see me, they make a snap judgement about me, and this in turn affects how they treat me. Do they smile? Ignore me? Catcall me? Glare at me? Often I don’t even notice the individual actions, but the cumulation of these small behaviors has an effect on my mood, and changes my actions and how I exist in the world.
I remember the first time I checked into a hotel with my girlfriend I felt afraid. It caught me by surprise, and I assumed I was being some sort of irrational gay n00b. “Do you ever feel afraid checking into hotels?” I asked her, and she replied “yes, all the time.” We must have been about two hours out of San Francisco, in an area that was probably about as gay friendly as you can get without being a major city. A slight level of fear came up for me a whole bunch of times on that trip, for every little interaction we had with a stranger. Whether it was going out to get something to eat, or stopping at a gas stations, there was just a little more emotional weight to everything we were doing.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint where the fear came from because everyone was nice to us. But, they noticed us. In some ways, it was almost like they were too nice to us. Their smiles a little too wide, and their voices a little too friendly. Almost as if they were saying “I can see that you two are gay, and I want to communicate that I am ok with that.” But even just their registering that we were gay was enough to make me nervous.
I could tell we stood out, I could tell they thought we were different in a way that was significant. They saw us as not like them.
On the flip side, when I have gone on trips with male partners, people didn’t really notice us. We were normal, unexceptional. People may have even have been less polite to us, but there was just this way we didn’t seem to register. We were boring, and in our boringness, there was safety. There was a freedom of movement that I used to take for granted while dating men.
Anger has been another emotion that comes up when dealing with the world as gay, because people generally show a lower level of respect for the relationship between me and my girl than me and my guy. Once, I was at a party with my girlfriend, and a man cut between the two of us and started talking to me. I have never seen a boyfriend of mine cut off in that way before — I can’t even imagine it happening. The thing is, I think this person didn’t mean any disrespect, just when he saw two women standing next to each other in a group, he assumed that we were not together. If he had seen a man and a woman standing next to each other in a group, he would never have made that assumption. He would have asked what was going on. But, people don’t expect gay, so they sometimes they don’t see gay.
Another way this has come up has been the frequency that I get asked out by people I know casually who also know I have a girlfriend. If I have a boyfriend, basically no one in the know will ask me out. If I have a girlfriend, it doesn’t seem to matter. And, people who do express reluctance usually have a “oh, you’re gay so you’re not into men” vibe as opposed to a “you’re with someone so you’re not single” vibe. If someone asks me out, and I say I have a girlfriend, they will say “sorry, I didn’t know you were gay,” not “sorry, I didn’t know you had a partner.”
I think there’s a way we view women as being “taken” by men, and a woman with another women doesn’t register as being “taken” in the same way. Anyhow, dealing with this usually this led to anger that had to be processed. Sometimes my gf and I would need to take five minutes apart from the crowd so one of us could express our frustration at how we were being treated as a couple, and the other could express that even though this was how the world was treating us, this was not how we related to each other.
I could go on, but to summarize — even though I live in one of the most gay friendly cities on earth, there is a whole host of things that make my life slightly harder. If you live somewhere less gay friendly, these things may make your life a lot harder or legitimately quite dangerous.
But, there is one huge upside to being seen as gay (again, given that I live in San Francisco) and that is that people don’t fucking hate you. I had this tall, blonde, fairly buff boyfriend in my mid 20s, and the world was safe, and respectful, and sort of designed for us. Yet, when we went out together, there was just this vibe of animosity. I was with him the only time in my life someone called me a cracker, quietly under his breath. My boyfriend didn’t even know how to deal with it, so just ignored it.
“That guy just called me a cracker,” I said.
“No he didn’t.”
“Yes he did, I heard him!”
“I didn’t hear him.” It was a weird experience, because in some ways, being called a cracker with my white boyfriend was less scary than being smiled at with my latina girlfriend. I knew I had society on my side, I knew no one was going to risk a confrontation with the white guy in broad daylight. I knew there was a reason that it was something whispered, not something shouted. But, it still sucked. It didn’t suck like being catcalled when walking with a femme woman at night sucks (“are we about to get raped?”) but it sucks. Being hated sucks, even when your safety is not at stake. And, I think we don’t acknowledge that enough.
When I’m out with a woman, we look so cute! We’re short, and adorable, with short hairstyles and there’s this warmth that people put out toward us. People see as as vulnerable, perhaps, and in need of protection. And yes, sometimes this warmth is sort of scary (particularly when we’re around people who clearly don’t see a lot of the gayz and also see us as objects of curiosity) but there’s this underlying resentment that seems missing.
This, I’m sure, is a different gay experience than big butch gay man experience, and I don’t want to detract from that. But, I do want to say — you straight people don’t actually have it so good. Especially you straight white men, you don’t have it nearly as good as you think you do.
Being hated sucks, and I can only assume that if I get hatred walking around as a straight white woman, straight white men are going to get it way worse. When I look straight, people don’t smile at me as much. People don’t do me little favors, like giving me a 10% discount for no reason at the fabric store. The world is safer, and I am somewhat more free from anger and fear, but I am also isolated because the world is free from random caring and gentleness.
I feel unlovable.
And, this feeling of unlovability is at the heart of why people with privilege resist acknowledging it. For instance, I think this is what the man-ist movement is reacting too, albiet ineptly. Being hated sucks. It is reasonable that men are reacting to this, it is reasonable that men are trying to say “no, I am worthy of love.” Because they are.
People who carry a lot of privilege are hated by people without that privilege, and that’s not going to change. Someone starving is incapable of true affection for someone who is taking their food. However, at the end of the day, it’s important for people with privilege to see that once you have enough you are only harming yourself by refusing to share your resources. To see this, people will have to feel the pain of being hated. They will have to talk about it, and acknowledge it. They will have to say, “people fucking hate me, and it sucks.”
We often shut down privileged people who talk about their pain, but I think it’s counterproductive. It’s not a pain contest, there’s no prize for whoever has been through the most shit. We just have to acknowledge that the pain of being privileged is the shadow side of the pain of being oppressed. It’s not as bad, it doesn’t risk your physical safety, but both of these pains will be alleviated by the same solution — making the world a safe, and accessible place for everyone. When you shut down that conversation, you shut down one of the most obvious motivators for privileged people to fight oppression: it helps them too.