Dear Comrade Femme, #2: Straight-Passing Queer Blues

"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at raechelannejolie@gmail.com and put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo

Dear Comrade Femme,


I am a straight-passing queer cis woman. I am in a long term (read: 10+ years) relationship with a cis man, and as such I move through life with all of the privileges of a straight person. I can choose when/if I disclose my queerness, and most if not all people in my life assume I am straight unless I have told them otherwise. I struggle with my identifying with queer culture while also not wanting to take up space in a community wherein my participation could read as appropriation. How do I reconcile wanting to participate in queer communities with not wanting to appropriate queer culture?


-S


Dear S,


S, dear tender-heart, I relate to this question so much. You see, I too move through life, the vast majority of the time, passing as straight. When I walk alone, I think most see a feminine woman and assume I am interested in cisgender men; and even when I am walking hand-in-hand with a sweetie, this is also a common assumption, given that my queerness includes dating cisgender men and transgender men. Heteronormativity is a pernicious narrator, erasing the complexity of those of us who know we’re queer, and those who have never even had the opportunity to explore beyond the boxes they’ve been designated.


But your question, S, is both about the pain of invisibility and also the responsibility of privilege. It is a question about how to be a part, as an ‘ally,’ of a community to which you belong. But, S, my sweet, you are not an ally, you are a queer. I know because you have said it’s your truth (and that is absolutely enough), and I know because I can feel you longing for what you know is home. I can sense it in your question because I’ve felt it myself. I’ve felt the glow of wholeness at a queer dance party, followed by the guilt of returning home to a straight, cis partner. Do I deserve the benefit of queer worlds if I have the benefits of a straight-passing life?


But for those of us concerned with power and oppression, I think the question of whether or not you ‘deserve’ to take up space in queer communities, or whether or not you’re appropriating (your own!) culture, is far less important than what you do with the privilege you possess. Are you ‘appropriating’ queer culture by going to a queer-only event when you have a cis male partner? Well, no. You are queer, you get to be queer and in queer spaces. But does that mean you shouldn’t acknowledge and make use of what being straight-passing allows you in the world? No, not that either.


So first, let’s tackle what you can do to account for privilege and the power that comes with it. Do you move through the world without fear of being beaten for who you’re holding hands with? Does this make it easier to not only get a job, but also to commute to that job, to talk about your personal life at your job? Awesome, maybe that means you have some dollars you can donate to an LGBTQ shelter or prison group! Are you spending your Wednesday night at a queer community meeting to organize a vigil for victims of violence? Cool, you should definitely be there! But maybe let people talk more who are directly impacted by threats of violence. (In general, follow the step-up/step-back rule.) Have you witnessed a microaggression against someone who is queer/perceived-as-queer? The amount of emotional labor perceived-as-queer people have to do is potentially higher than yours (depending on your other intersecting identities, of course!), so perhaps you have more spoons to educate the microaggressor on their problematic behavior.


There are so many ways you can use your privilege without letting it freeze you from sharing space with chosen family. And, sweet S, I hope that you do not deny yourself a nook in the worlds of your people. Because these worlds--these magical queer worlds to which we crave to belong--are nothing without a principled embrace of fluidity and complexity. Queerness itself emerged as a rebellion to boxes--even the boxes of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ were still too...boxy. Queerness--when it was reclaimed on the tongues of old butches and queens, when it was plastered on protest signs to fight AIDS and sexual stigma, when it was formulated as a theory-- has always been in the service of troublemaking. Of confusion. Of intentionally opaque, gleefully perplexing, queer-as-in-fuck-you, rebellion. Heteronormativity says: “You say you are queer, but we see you sharing your life with someone we perceive to be a straight cis man. I’m confused.” Queerness says, “GOOD!” (And perhaps concludes with a bedazzled-nail middle finger in the air.)


Victoria A. Brownworth discusses queerness as both a sexuality and a culture, and I think it is an important point to bring into this conversation. Brownworth writes: “It is my belief that queer culture is unique, that the distinctions between queer lives and those of heterosexuals are defined in part by the sexual outlaw status that accrues to being queer and in part by the culture--art, literature, music--that has been created to affirm, explore, and explain queer lives.”[1] S, was your life profoundly changed by queer musicians and zinesters? Or drag queens and queer photographers? Or perhaps, did you dog-ear every Dorothy Allison book til there were no unmarked pages? Did they make you feel less alone, more understood? Did they fill your soul with what could only be described as repair? As though the broken parts inside you were being slowly stitched back together? Do you still feel like that, even though you are in a relationship with a cis man? My guess, S, is that of course you do.


This is your culture, and these are your people, and you are still queer, regardless of who you are with. As Anna Paquin, who is married to a cis man, once had to explain to Larry King in response to his question asking if she used to be bisexual: “I don’t think it’s a past tense thing...Are you still straight if you're with somebody? Doesn't mean you're not, if you were to break up with them or you were to die. It doesn't prevent your sexuality from existing. It doesn't really work like that."


Your attractions, your desires, and your sense of home are yours and they are not for anyone else to interrogate. You deserve space and recognition, just as those who move through the world with less privilege deserve your solidarity. But not ally solidarity. Fellow-queer solidarity. Because we are all --all of us queers, in our many iterations-- working toward something that allows not only the acceptance of same-sex partners, but a world in which access, power, and resources are not attached to who one is or isn’t fucking.


I want to turn now to José Muñoz whose words on what queerness is have long been a guide to me. Muñoz writes: “Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward...Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” You see, S, you can let your queerness be a testament to what is missing. Why must we worry about power and privilege in this world? Not because you are in a relationship with a cis man, S, but because capitalism and heteropatriarchy make it so our desires are juxtaposed to systems of scarcity and fear. Your question itself is a queer one because it is a reminder that “this world is not enough.” Muñoz concludes: “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” [2]


Keep fighting for that new world, S. Use your privilege and your power to fight for it. But do not martyr yourself to invisibility and isolation. If you don’t feed your soul with what nourishes it--your music, your people, your crushes, your truth--you will have nothing left to give. And, S--we need you.


Xoxoxo,

Comrade Femme


[1] From Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, p. 137.

[2] From Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, p. 1.

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