On Passing as Straight

In New York City, I had a friend who was tall and lean and arrestingly beautiful.  When we would go out at night she’d dress to kill in tight tops and mini skirts, knee high red leather boots, dark lipstick and dark eye make up.  Still, people would call her sir.  How can it be, she would ask?  How can they look at me—and here she would run her hands across the front of her body, utterly confounded—and think I am not female?  But she knew wasn’t entirely female, that no matter how she dressed, her gender was not easily defined.  Back then, there was no popular term to describe her.  Transgender, at least as far as we understood it, meant preoperative.  It was a big word with frightening, bigoted  inferences: tall men dressed as women, wearing too much makeup and stiletto heels; AIDS-stricken prostitutes on the pier; men with deep voices who’d undergone unnamable transformations.

Usually, when I think of women in drag, I picture women dressed as men, or butchy women wearing classically “feminine” clothes and wearing them badly, e.g., Ellen deGeneres pacing outside her trailer in high heels and a gown before the Oscars, trying to remember how to walk in what for her seemed to be a completely incongruous costume.  The ironic twist with my friend was that she wore her femininity boldly; it suited her, and yet, when she dressed up and made up and strutting her amazonian self, she still looked like she was in drag.  Rather an ironic twist on an old theme.

The first time I saw her I stopped, mid-conversation, and stared.  I had just moved to New York City from the country, and as far as I knew, women didn’t look like that.  I was chatting with someone on a stoop and this gorgeous, anomalous creature approached.  She greeted my companion, nodded at me sort of absently, and went on her way.  We both stopped talking to watch her move down the street.  I was awed.  First of all, she was so tall!  Her gaze was level with street-lamps and first floor apartment windows.  She seemed to glide along, not quite on the ground like the rest of us, her head somehow unfettered with the busy and base thoughts that always keep me at half mast, trudging along like one of my tires is losing air, just trying to get where I’m going.

“Who is that?” I asked.

Shortly thereafter occurred what may, in fact, have been my bravest moment: the one when I called her on the telephone–a perfect stranger–to ask her out on a date.  I held the telephone in my sweaty hand while I tried to jog her memory, describing where we’d met, what street corner, what time of day it had been, the person I was sitting with, and finally, what I looked like.  Still, she admitted to me later, she did not exactly remember me.  But she agreed to meet me for dinner, probably because she was a compulsively curious person, and it was hard to meet girls then.

We spent hours in cafes, at the theatre, walking the streets of the village, anything rather than return home to our tiny NY apartments.  In private, if we were watching a movie or hanging around her apartment, she wore a sweatshirt, no makeup, and stretched her long naked feet out on the coffee table.  But when we went out at night, she was inclined toward tight, tiger printed tops, raisin colored lipstick, skirts that were so short, they seemed to defy natural law.  And always one long earring.  When we walked down the street on our way to a play or some exotic Asian restaurant tucked away on 2nd street, for she knew about all of these unusual and chic places, people just stared.  Her androgyny seemed to irk them at the same time that it drew them into her strange world.  To me, her sexuality was turned up full volume.  Like most people whose very existence draws unsolicited response, she’d learned the zen of utter disinterest.  Conversely, I noticed every gaze, every ogle, heard every comment made about her presence.  I felt fiercely protective of her, and, at times, envious of the power she seemed to possess.

Plus, of course, I had fallen madly in love.

Perhaps it is because I am her exact opposite that I fell so hopelessly in love with my friend.  (Of course, you knew that was coming.)  Where she could dress like Joan Collins and people would still call her Sir, I can wear coveralls and a baseball cap and no one will ever mistake me for a boy.  A dyke maybe, if my hair is short, but never a Sir.  This is, I confess, is convenient, but also sad.  There is nothing naughty about me in men’s clothes; at best I look cute, cuddly, like I’ve borrowed my boyfriend’s shirt.  I am completely deprived of that whole androgynous-lesbian-aesthetic-thing.  Even lesbians mistake me for straight.  When men come to my house to fix things, they automatically assume I am married.  It doesn’t matter that I have a rainbow flag on my car, that I live alone and wear no wedding ring.  When I go anywhere that isn’t a gay Mecca, no one even suspects I am gay.  This has little to do with what I wear; it seems that I give off something innately straight.  It is ironic since my gender-bending friend was bisexual, whereas I, for as long as I can remember, have been of the strictly girl-on-girl persuasion.

It is some kind of femininity, I suspect, that fences me in.  Men, as a rule, become paternal and helpful around me.  I can shop comfortably in both the women’s and men’s departments of clothing store; in the latter, people assume I’m buying for my husband.  No one looks at me strangely.  Conversely, a good friend of mine gets yelled at every time she tries to use a public women’s room.  Even here in Northampton, she was tapped on the shoulder by a waiter and told the men’s room was “over there.”  Here, where we expect our community to KNOW what a butch lesbian looks like.

Carriage, form, attitude–all of this combines to fold me up and fit me neatly into the socially prescribed gender role.  I am easily heterosexual because there is nothing about me to defy that description.  Though I don’t wear panty hose and, other than lipstick, I hate makeup, though I rarely wear dresses or spend any time fussing with my hair, I am still much girlier than my friends.  It took me a long time to forgive this in myself; but now I have learned to like being a femme.  I enjoy being different from most other lesbians.  Still, I often wonder what it’s like to be flat-chested and hipless, to have a persona that doesn’t scream FEMALE.  To walk the planet feeling some days like one gender, some days the other.  I know there is nothing romantic about being mistaken for a man or, worse, having people glare indignantly because they can’t figure out what your gender is.  Still, I’d have liked to have been my friend, for one day.  Inside her world there seemed to be no danger; she strutted fearlessly, and perhaps stupidly, through the streets of New York unaccompanied whenever she felt like it.  In fact, she usually walked me home before setting on her way back to her apartment in Alphabet City.  A perfect gentleman, she was, and though I worried about her walking alone in a rough neighborhood, she laughed it off the same way a guy might.  This cockiness was illusion, of course, but it seemed to work in her favor.  She did not feel oppressed or leered at or threatened.  She enjoyed both men and women equally; she just preferred women when it came to sex.

The truth is, in writing this piece and thinking about this friend of mine and other women who do not blend into the heterosexual background, who stand out at weddings either because they are the only woman wearing pants or because they wear a dress and look a little bit ridiculous.  I rely on the ability to pass as heterosexual.  When my girlfriend and I are on a roadtrip and we stop at the only coffee shop in a small town where a huge sign in the window reads: “Jesus Saves,” I am usually the one who goes inside.  Though she’d probably do fine on her own, the two of us together, no matter how far apart we stood, would draw attention.  Therefore, unless we are feeling cocky and itching to raise some eyebrows, it is safest to send me in.  I can smile at the reborn Christians (though here, I am a Jew passing as another, acceptable ethnicity—but that’s a whole other essay!).  I can inconspicuously order coffee and wait while the lady behind the counter pours it, thought I am conscious of trying not to touch her hand when she hands me change.  Why?  I don’t know.  I am still aware of my lesbianism, even if she isn’t.  I am always aware that the prevailing opinion is that who I am is perverse, predatory, that not even middle age Christian women in coffee shops wearing pink polyester uniforms are spared my lust.  Even though no one sees me as gay, inside my head homophobia is always at work.  And this, while still painful, is of course infinitely less traumatic than the reality of a head-on encounter with others’ hatred.

My girlfriend who, in her most natural unadorned state, looks like a beautiful boy, feels she has to try hard all the time.  She has to smile and wear earrings and add feminine touches so as not to look like the stereotype of a lesbian (you know: lacoste-shirt and cackey shorts, gym teacher gait, lookalike girlfriend).  She possesses an odd blend of pride about her sexuality (she loves to boast, for example, about her days as a rugby player) and shame about how the world perceives her, as if she knows deep inside that what she is warrants unspoken, pervasive distaste.  To me she is most beautiful in a baseball cap and high-top sneakers, the very clothing that makes her feel conspicuous and at risk for scorn.  In these clothes, she moves through the world in perfect pitch, embodying the human being she actually is, rather than the one she feels the world wants her to be.

My father spent his whole life disabled and miserable, and it is perhaps because of this that I have learned to appreciate the simplest aspects of my human body: that I have fingers and toes and eyes and ears; that everything is (god willing, as my grandmother would say) in working order; that there is nothing innately problematic about my physicality.  But unlike [most] heterosexual women, I do not take for granted that I pass as straight.  And that this bittersweet privilege makes my life immeasurably easier than the lives of many of my friends.  When we pick on celebrities who can not, for whatever reason, get themselves to come out of the closet, I defend them.  I don’t know why, exactly, but this automatic acceptance to which I am privileged seems to have created in me an intense empathy for those who can not come out, who are just too afraid.  It seems to me that they have their reasons.

Someday I hope to feel comfortable enough about my sexuality to really get good and insulted when people assume I am heterosexual.  I’d like to come out everywhere: to the plumber who asks if I’m married, the loan officer at the bank, my eye-doctor and the Vet who takes care of my dog.  I want to believe these people with whom I’ve built relationships that I rely upon in my everyday life, would still like me if they knew I was gay.  But something in their manner stops me, tells me it is unwise to reveal who I really am.  When people think you are straight, you become privy to all sorts of homophobia, from unexpected sources.  Nowadays and particularly in this area, insults are largely whispered, often disguised as witticisms, but still profuse.  I’d like to become a brave enough person to stand still in such situations, wait until the speaker has unleashed the full extent of his bigotry, then clear my throat and put him in his place.  Maybe I could shave my head like Robert deNiro in Taxi Driver and practice sounding threatening in my medicine chest mirror.  I could turn part way to the side, squint my eyes and laugh sarcastically, then say something like, That would be really funny, asshole, if I weren’t a card-carrying, girl-chasing, pussy whipped dyke myself.

Then, I imagine, no one would mistake me for straight.

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