3/1/2021 2 Comments
Building Walls, Breaking Down Walls: Deconstructing the Myth of the Predatory Queer Woman
Grey Weinstein (they/he) | Editor-in-Chief
I am in my senior year of high school, and my best friend Charlie lowers her voice in a conspiratorial tone, the tone we both use to exchange gossip. Did I hear what Mary said? She found out that one of the girls in our class is bisexual, and she said that she’d never have a sleepover with a bi girl. That she can’t believe any straight girl would, it’s just so gross. Charlie and I are both far too old to have sleepovers anyway, so this does not present a particular problem for either of us. Nonetheless, I see the hurt reflected in Charlie’s eyes as she shares this story, and I feel my stomach clench. Mary is a mutual friend, a good friend, but I know that we’ll both watch what we say around her.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack there, but what has stuck with me most about that moment is the disgust my friend Mary clearly held towards queer women. (I have no real ill will towards Mary; I think she’s grown since high school. And, of course, that’s not her real name.) But like her, there are so many straight women who wouldn’t call themselves homophobic, who might even label themselves allies, yet just feel a bit uncomfortable around women who aren’t straight. Is that so wrong?
Yeah, it kinda is. This mindset frames queer women as predatory, as if our mere existence poses a threat to the safety and wellbeing of straight women. Maybe my high school friend assumed that a bisexual girl might make an unwanted sexual or romantic advance towards her at a sleepover. And of course that’s a completely unfounded assumption; queer women are no more likely to assault someone than straight women are. It should also go without saying at this point that queer women are not uncontrollably attracted to every girl we see. (That should go without saying, right? I mean, it’s 2021 for crying out loud.) But I think it’s more than that; I think that Mary was unnerved by the mere idea of sharing close quarters with a bisexual girl. We were constructed as predatory to the point where even platonic intimacy seemed like a threat.
I am listening to Mary talk about her “GBF.” He’s so hilarious, she tells me, so fabulous, so gay-- but he doesn’t seem to have any qualities outside of his flaming homosexuality. To hear her tell it, he is more like an accessory than a person, and about ten minutes in I interrupt her to ask what his name is-- besides GBF (Gay Best Friend), that is. Mary’s friend is an autonomous individual, and if he hangs out with her I can only assume that he values her friendship and feels valued by her in turn. Maybe he doesn’t mind being talked about like this, or maybe he doesn’t even know that she speaks of him this way. Nonetheless, it irks me. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, of course. Many of the girls at my sleepaway camp had collected a GBF of their own. I kept my mouth shut at camp, and I keep my mouth shut now.
Straight women love the idea of having a gay best friend. And yes, there is nothing wrong with straight people befriending gay ones. Some of my best friends are straight. (Seriously, I’m not against gay/straight friendships. I’m writing this entire essay about my relationships with straight women, after all.) But I’ve heard a straight woman talk about her gay male friend as if he’s an object enough times to know when a “friendship” is little more than tokenization or fetishization. (Again, I know that gay men and straight women often have many things in common that make for an excellent basis for friendship! Don’t come for me.)
But queer women are never afforded the same treatment. Straight women are never dying for an LBF. (That’s a term I just made up, because “Lesbian Best Friend” isn’t a thing.) Despite our shared womanhood, our similar experiences with patriarchy, or our similar histories of marginalization, queer women are not often sought out by straight women. (And I can only speak from my own experience as a cis white woman. I can only imagine the extent to which queer trans women and queer women of color might feel excluded in straight female spaces.) And I’m not just speaking from personal experience-- it’s everywhere in our media. The “gay best friend” trope is incredibly normalized in books, TV shows, and movies, but it only applies to men.
I don’t want to be commodified or fetishized for straight female consumption. But I don’t want to be seen as predatory either.
I am in my freshman year of college, walking into my dorm’s common room with a rowdy group of friends. It is the week before Valentine’s Day, and the room is filled with rows of tables; scattered across those tables sit piles of brightly colored paper, crayons, and heart-shaped cookies. We claim a table, snatch some cookies, laugh and talk. One friend mentions that the paper is intended for making valentines; another exclaims, “You better make one for me!” I stare at the paper. I am out of the closet now, but my first thought is still, There is no one I can make a valentine for, that would be completely inappropriate. I don’t know why the thought of sending my straight female friends a glittery pink heart makes me so uncomfortable. I don’t know why this is so hard.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? The demonization of queer women isn’t just something that affects us when we interact with straight people. It is something we deeply internalize. When enough people view you as threatening, as predatory, as creepy, or as just plain gross, it’s hard not to start to buy into it. And maybe, like me, you escape your conservative suburb for a liberal city where the pride flags are as numerous as the Trump flags were back home, and you know you should feel pride too. You know there’s nothing wrong with you, you genuinely believe there’s nothing wrong with you. But guilt lingers beneath the surface.
I am lying across my bed in my dorm room doing homework. My roommate comes in; she’s changed into a nice shirt, and she hurries about the room getting ready to go out. (We both always change clothes in the bathroom. I don’t know if she’s uncomfortable getting dressed in the same room as me; maybe she thinks I’ll ogle her, but maybe she’s just shy.) She is talking about the boy she has a crush on, grumbling that he’s too hot for her, that she’s far too ugly. I know what I want to respond: Are you kidding me? You’re gorgeous, any man would be lucky to have you. But I panic. What if she thinks I’m into her? What if she thinks I’m hitting on her? This isn’t mere self preservation; I genuinely don’t want to make her uncomfortable. So instead I wind up giving an unconvincing, “No, you're… you’re pretty?” She leaves, and I think bitterly that in this situation any straight girl could say, Girl, you’re a goddess! You always look so exquisitely beautiful, you’re the sexiest woman I’ve seen in my life! Honestly, maybe I could say that too, if I could get over whatever anxiety and internalized lesbophobia seems to have caught in my throat. Or maybe I couldn’t. I honestly don’t know anymore.
And it’s a bummer, really. It’s a shame, because so much of female friendship is built on this sort of incredibly close platonic intimacy that queer women are often excluded from. It’s a form of intimacy that has become normalized in straight female friendships. I think that most readers probably know what I’m talking about-- how it is completely acceptable for straight girls to hug, cuddle, share a bed during sleepovers, do each other’s hair. Activities that suddenly seem uncomfortable when one of the girls is gay. And that’s a shame, because platonic intimacy is wonderful. But queer women engaging in this sort of intimacy is fairly taboo, because we carry that construction of the “predatory lesbian” with us. So many straight women seem to fear that formerly-platonic intimacy would turn sexual, were it to be shared with a not-so-straight friend. So unlike for our straight peers, for queer girls and young women our female friendships often involve some distancing. Putting up some walls, if you will.
Likely some people will read this and think, So if straight women are so god awful, forget about them! Build some queer friendships instead! And I hear you. And I have. And queer friendships are incredible, and they are revolutionary, and they are so, so necessary. My relationship with Charlie, my best friend of over a decade and the coolest bisexual I know, is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. But it’s important to me that I untangle this knotted mess of internalized homophobia and uncomfortable lesbian stereotypes that has bound me, in one way or another, for most of my life. I’m tired of letting the walls I have built define my relationships with my straight female friends through no fault of their own. (And I really do adore my straight friends.) I’m tired of letting them define my relationship with myself.
I am sitting next to a girl on her couch, looking at her laptop. She is showing me the html code that scrolls across her screen, explaining how she knows that this website is safe to visit. I am nodding as if I understand, as if I care about computer code, as if I’m not just thinking about kissing her. I consider asking if I can kiss her, but push the thought away; that would be a violation. Never mind that she has asked me here, on a date. I don’t know it in this moment, but later I will kiss her. I will push past my fear and my doubt and the walls I have built, and I will kiss her, and it will be amazing. And I will have more fears, and more doubts, and more walls, and so will she, but we will figure them out together.
3/23/2021 09:44:52 am
3/23/2021 11:34:44 am
Thank you for your essay. We're our own worst enemy...and the wrong comment by the right person can also cement our internalized homophobia. When I was at U-M (LSA, Class of1987), I met a dorm mate at Drake's. Over lunch, she said, "I'd rather sleep with the scummiest guy than a woman." I opted not to come out to her as lesbian and never saw her again. It also decelerated my urge to come out generally. All's well that ends well! I did come out finally in my senior year at Michigan. Your essay moved me because how true it is that no woman I know of any sexual orientation would prey on another person and yet there's a fear that it could happen -- just as anything could happen -- and so I've also caught myself self-editing when it's not necessary. Another sort of tragedy, at my age (55): avoiding younger LGBTQ people who identify as female because I don't want to seem lecherous. Oy! That's my own internalized homophobia and ageism. Perhaps, it would be at a minimum interesting for you and your contemporaries to hear what it was like to be openly lesbian on campus in the late-'80s, and how I was able to find love with my wife with whom I've been for nearly 29 years. And how I found my way back to a Jewish practice that suits me. And how I managed to have a successful career as a Comparative Literature major. And what it's like to retire at 55. And I know I enjoy learning from LGBTQ people what it's like to be in their teens and 20s now, when I'm lucky to find myself in the same setting as them, for example, with younger relatives. Your article convinces me that I need to shake off the internalized homophobia. I'm reminded of what a heterosexual manager said to me in 1993 when I asked her if she thought it was safe to be out; we had become part of a new joint venture. She said, "People rise to the level of your expectations."
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