Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Now you see them

The very picture of a bisexual- bisexual

I was standing there, chatting away in a group of gay men I didn't really know, when one suddenly came out with:
"I bet you say that to all the gents."
Oh, I thought with a bit of a start. Oh, he thinks I'm straight.
Now, given that we were in a gay environment, by with and for gay people, you'd imagine that the assumption would be that I, too, was gay. Nope. There I am, once again, being mistaken for straight.
Of course, he didn't know me, this man, in fact our exchange had barely made the shift from phrases to sentences, let alone paragraphs. Immediately beforehand, I think I'd told him he could lend a hand, or I could lend a hand, or something. Then, while I was thinking whether or how to respond, he wandered off.
There had been no chance for me to say the word "bisexual". I wasn't wearing a badge - something I often do as a bloody great signal that I'm not, actually, y'know, simply geared towards men. And, yes, I was wearing feminine clothing plus my hair is quite long. So I look girly then, or womanly, or at any rate not what they think a lesbian looks like.

Lesbian dressing
Except that lesbians these days often do look girly, or womanly, or not like a lesbian. At least some of them do. And that's the media perception of lesbians now.
There's a letter in Diva this month from a woman complaining that none of the women in the magazine are butch - and she's right. Out and about, there are plenty of butch women, or women who wear androgynous clothes, or who don't look like they're trying hard to look feminine. Though there's obviously a difference between gender presentation and sexual identity, the world at large doesn't always realise that: butch women are lesbians, feminine women are straight. Culturally - just in a couple of places that I know about - what counts as looking butch varies hugely. In Holland, for instance, women in general look a bit "butch" to me. And most of the Cuban New Yorkers that I know personally look very feminine, but are very much into a butch-femme role-play that doesn't always tally with their appearance. I'm not going to spin off into a huge great riff on butch-femme here, but obviously (well not obviously, but still...) the counterpart of Butch is Femme. Lesbian.

So what do bisexual women look like?
Once, on a hot Sunday afternoon a long long time ago, I went to a bi women's group meeting and subsequently met up with a male lover. I was wearing a black vest, black trousers with little green flecks on them, socks in a similar colour-combination, and black plimsolls. I also had, at the time, very long straight hair. "Wow," he said appreciatively. "You look bisexual". Did I? What did bisexuals look like? Within that group, we all kind-of looked like any other feminists of any sexuality. At the time, I wondered if he had some esoteric knowledge that I didn't, but I'm sure now he was just trying to flatter me. Also, perhaps, he was registering some mix of what he considered masculinity and femininity.
Then, I was reminded of a flirty evening at a bisexual conference back in the early 90s. A now fairly well-known queer theorist said to me, looking around wryly at the attendees: "there are butch bi women, and they're probably lesbians, and there are femme bi women, and they are probably straight". I bristled uncomfortably, considering that she had got things wildly wrong.
But there was a weeny grain of truth there. As Fritz Klein said, there are straight-bis, gay-bis and bi-bis. So perhaps straight-bi women look straight, lesbian-bi women look lesbian and bi-bi women...?
There is a "look" on the bi-activist scene: SM/pierced or tattooed/geek/androgynous/bright dyed hair. The successor, in other words, to the anarchist/punk/hippy look of 80s-90s bisexuals. Now, not all, or even nearly all, politically conscious bis look like that, but that's "the look".
For instance, I consider myself a bisexual-bisexual but I don't have that, I've never had it, never wanted to, and don't know that I could have carried it off anyway. Realistically, I look like a middle-aged, fairly low-key feminist, who from time to time dresses up in over the top glamorous clothes.
But to go right back to the beginning, the man with the quote thought: woman in dress=straight. Perhaps, to him, woman with T-shirt, short hair and jeans= lesbian. But maybe not. Whatever he saw, though, didn't register to him as=bisexual and I don't think any look I could adopt would have signalled that either.
Because when it comes down to it, it is bisexuality itself that is invisible and not just the clothes that it wears.


Marie said...

Maybe you should solve the dilemma by dressing the right half of your body butch and the left half femme?

Anonymous said...

I was pondering the same thought this morning. After bemoaning the fact that it's so hard these days to actually tell if another woman is bisexual or merely found flirting with another woman a novelty, I was assured by a friend that no-one could say that about me: I look bisexual. And thank goodness for that, right? I was thinking of having it tattooed on my forehead.

I myself have no idea how anyone can "tell", but I love your conclusion!