Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Invisibility

I am an invisible [person]. I am a [person] of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Have you ever felt invisible? Like you can walk down the street and people don't even see you? That they look right through you? That to get attention from anyone, you have to flail your arms in the air and scream at the top of your lungs, "I'M RIGHT HERE! Why don't you see me?!"

I have.

Sure, people see me. They see the unique clothes I wear. They see my tattoos and my mohawk and my piercings. They see them to the point that they sometimes ask invasive personal questions and try to touch my body without my consent when they talk about my modifications or my clothing. They tell me they know someone else who's "goth" or "punk". But that's not the kind of invisible I'm talking about. I don't feel like I completely don't exist to anyone. I'm sexually invisible, romantically invisible.

I identify as Genderqueer. Though definitions frequently vary, a Genderqueer person is a person outside of the gender binary who identifies as some variation of "both" genders or "neither" gender or even a third gender entirely. I express as masculine ("butch") or androgynous most of the time. I don't usually shave my armpits, wear makeup, or wear my hair long. I don't wear feminine perfume or use heavily flowery-scented soaps. I don't carry a purse, preferring instead to use a backpack or messenger bag. Though I often wear dresses and skirts (sometimes even those ever-so-girly "frilly" frocks), my lack of makeup or a feminine hairstyle still makes it so I don't look very femme.

I'm not sure that people know what to make of me. I'm generally regarded by strangers as a cis woman, and often addressed with female pronouns (though I prefer "they/them"). I'm treated by many like a "girl", regardless of my self-identification. And it's hard to convince people otherwise; my rounded facial features and curvy body are hard to disguise with clothing, even with chest binders and baggy apparel. Even when I perform as a drag king, with a bound chest and a suit and a fake mustache, I'm generally read as female. I have made peace with the fact that, short of medical intervention, I will never pass as male. I'm fine with this and more-or-less very comfortable in my gender-neutral self-identification.

But this isn't what makes me invisible. In fact, society is kind of obsessed with the bodies and appearances of women. A simple Google search will reveal within a tenth of a second the plethora of articles and discussions on the objectification of women in the media, and such discussions have persisted for decades. No, it's the frequent assumptions about my sexual orientation that seems to render me invisible to a huge number of people.

This is because (further complicating things) I self-identify as Queer in orientation. "Queer" means so many things to so many people, but to me it means that I'm primarily attracted to masculine people who run the gamut of gender self-identification, though I'm not exclusively attracted to masculinity and have dated and been attracted to female-identified people, even femmes. Part of the reason I self-identify as queer is because of my gender identity and my gender presentation in relation to my sexuality. To a lot of people, "Queer" means "lesbian", though. And all of that is further compounded by my masculinity/androgyny; I embody a stereotype. I look like a lesbian. Let's face it, as trans-inclusive as we may be, the largest group of people who express as masculine out there in the world is cis gender men, gay and straight alike. That's who doesn't see me, and they're nearly half the world's population. They don't see me because of that sterotypically "lesbian" appearance. I look like a gay woman, so men seem to immediately on sight discount me as a potential mate.

When men pass me on the street, they generally don't make eye contact. They don't give me the "up-down". My OKCupid in-box is usually devoid of messages; I might check it every two weeks to find a single new message. I don't often experience mutual flirting with guys on in bars or at other social gathering places. Men with whom I'll have in-depth and insightful conversations about books and politics and the nature of relationships will go home with feminine women who have barely spoken to them. In strangely the one exception to my perceived lesbianism, gay men will see me as the "pussy" or "girlfriend" of a male friend in gay men's spaces, not as an attractive person they'd like to sidle up to (or even "cruise"). I'm stuck in "friend zone", and I've grown convinced that it's because I'm butch. Maybe I'm bitter, maybe I'm "butthurt"...but on a daily basis, as I walk the streets of my city, I feel neglected and invisible and undesirable to the greater majority of the people I find attractive. I feel...ugly...just being myself. What else am I to conclude but that a large number of cis men don't seem to see me as a viable sexual or romantic option?

A guy who works at a place that I pass by every day on my way to work had been smiling and waving at me for months. I finally worked up the nerve to give him my phone number, and never heard from him. He no longer smiles and waves at me, and instead always seems to have his back to me when I pass by. I suppose there could be any number of reasons, but I have to wonder if it's because he's found out that this masculine dyke-looking girl actually had a crush on him and wasn't just waving to be friendly. Another guy constantly referred to my hairstyle as "dyke spikes", and was interested only in having casual sex with me, but not with being seen with me in public. He found it entirely appropriate to whip out his genitals on my couch and invite me to give him oral sex, but not to hold my hand on a date in public or kiss me. Another guy, whom I met online and exchanged flirty messages for several weeks, coincidentally met me in person when he ran into me at a nightclub while I was dressed in a masculine vest and without make-up. Most of my profile pictures were of me in makeup. He seemed genuinely grossed out by my appearance and awkwardly avoided me the rest of the night, preferring to canoodle with a scantily-clad girl on a couch in a corner. Even someone with whom I've had a remarkably intimate friendship for nearly a decade seems to disregard me as a potential romantic partner; he selects conventionally beautiful feminine women as partners, admitting that he does so due to social pressure. We've had an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship for ten years that is probably far healthier than most of his "official" relationships, and yet...I'm don't seem to be worth having as a partner because of what other people might think. Examples could continue ad nauseum.

It's not all bad, and I'm not trying to whine about it (though I'm sure someone out there will believe wholeheartedly that I'm a giant whiner). My appearance seems to curtail some of the aggressive street harassment that my more feminine friends experience (though my life is not entirely devoid of "Hey, baby!" and catcalls as I walk to work each day). I get far less creepy and solicitous messages from would-be Romeos on OKCupid and other social networking websites. But, nonetheless, I feel like I'm stuck in gender limbo; not feminine enough to attract straight men, and not masculine enough for gay men.

For a long time in my life, I did express as far more feminine far more frequently. I spent time dabbling in High Femme and amassed quite a collection of sky-high stiletto heels and figure-hugging dresses. And now they languish in my closet because I just don't feel like wearing them. (And around that same time, I would often poke fun at my mother whenever she got her "Man-hair" done at the local barber. Yes, I made fun of my own mother's perceived lack of femininity because I was uncomfortable with my own gender expression. How totally shitty of me!) Anyways, I sometimes wonder that if I dusted those girly clothes off and wore them out to an event with friends, if some straight guy might actually ask for my number instead of ignoring what I'm saying to check out the girl across the room. And it's not just straight men; since I don't "pass" as a guy, gay men don't usually see me as a guy. I get just about as much attention from straight men as I do from gay men (though on rowdy Saturday nights at my favorite Leather bar, I get heaps of requests from gay men to talk about my breasts, for some reason). It's happened dozens of times to me, where a straight guy I'm attracted to will hit on every feminine girl in the room regardless of the quality of the conversation he has with them, but we'll have a great conversation but there will be either zero sign that he's attracted or zero follow-through on any amount of superficial flirting.

Femme lesbians also report frequent feelings of invisibility in society. They feel that when people think of lesbians or represent them in the media, they nearly always appear as sterotypical "butch dykes" or as pornified and idealized "lipstick lesbians". Another frequent portrayal is that of a femme who comes out as a lesbian, only to end up with a cis gender man by the end of the story. Femme lesbians are absolutely mis- or under-represented in culture and society, and I can empathize with that. How many television characters are there out there who present as butch women and are attracted mostly to butch cis men and are positive, sympathetic, or heroic representations of just such an identity? I can think of very few: Coach Beiste on Glee, Michelle Rodriguez's character in GirlfightLinda Hamilton's turn as Sarah Connor in the first three Terminator movies, maybe even Trinity in the Matrix trilogy, maybe a few others. And even then, a large number of these masculine women are still assumed to be lesbians off the bat by audiences.

And we can't forget femme male-identified people (which, somehow, seems to include any man who isn't overtly hypermasculine) who are attracted to women are invisible too. A male friend in college who wasn't as masculine as the other guys we knew was frequently labeled as being gay because people said he didn't "seem masculine enough to be straight." At that point, I had never met a man who wasn't hypermasculine but was also straight, a demographic that some sexologists are now referring to as "Queer Straight". But these men are also invisible because of their perceived sexual orientation in relation to their perceived gender expression, just like femme lesbians or masculine women.

Look, I'm not asking or expecting to be beating men off with sticks. I get that people are attracted to whatever physical qualities they happen to find attractive. I get that. I argue, instead, that maybe we should re-examine how we automatically lesbian-identify those butch people who read as female and are actually attracted to men.

Basically, the crux of my writing is this: people assign sexual orientation by appearance. They decide whether or not you're socially acceptable as a partner, compatible for a relationship, and what kinds of things you like to do in the bedroom, merely by how you look to them. People disregard and dismiss anyone who doesn't fit into the mold of what they're "supposed" to like. It effects me on a daily basis, and it hurts. We all have things we're attracted to, but it seems that masculine people who seem obviously female become sexual pariahs of a sort, along with feminine straight men and feminine lesbians. So basically (shocker!) masculine straight men and feminine straight women (because masculine gay men "don't exist," right?), the axis of that fiction known as the gender binary, are supported as the only legitimate ways to be attractive to people.

And it sucks. For everyone. For all the guys who deny themselves an awesome partner and accomplished lover in me and others like me. For every woman who "friend zones" a not-entirely-hypermasculine guy who would treat her like a queen. And for every feminine lesbian who just wants people to not assume that she's interested in men simply because she's wearing a dress and heels.

I don't have the answers to any of this. I just want to get it out there that we exist, those of us who defy the gender presentation/expression norms and feel less desirable because of it. And maybe, just maybe, someone else who feels invisible will read this and they'll feel like they aren't so alone in feeling like they're not really there at all.

Please note: I'd like to apologize for essentializing certain identities for this essay. Obviously, I understand the many flavors of sexual identification. This article is about some very essentialized feelings I have about my gender, orientation, and expression and how it relates to the world around me. This is not an absolutist argument; there are exceptions all over the place. But this article is based on my pervasive, predominant experiences. If you're confused about any of the vocabulary I've used in this article, there's a great resource available through Erin Houdini's Really Awesome Trans Glossary. I believe that all of the terms I've used are defined there.

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