Thursday, November 16, 2006

He's Not My Girlfriend

Me and my friend have a little problem. Everyone thinks we’re lovers. Hotel clerks assume it, and waiters, and strangers on the street. Even some people who actually know us pretty well, continue to believe it after we’ve tried to explain.

We are considering desperate measures. Maybe I should start to dress more punk again, so we look like an even more improbable couple than we already do. Maybe when my voice starts to change, I’ll seem half his age instead of two-thirds it. That ought to throw ‘em. Maybe we should make more of an effort not to finish each other’s sentences in public.

Actually, the most likely plan is that I’ll make us a matched set of tee shirts. Mine will say “He’s not my boyfriend,” and his will say, “He’s not my girlfriend.” But I don’t know. The way some people are about gender, that might not do it.

I resent the wrong assumption for a lot of reasons. One of the big ones is because of what it implies about how people are reading each of our genders and sexualities. People almost always take us for a straight couple. That means they’re reading me as a woman. I hate that. Failing that, they might be assuming that he’s a gay man. It wouldn’t be the first time, but still … I imagine it gets to him.

My instinct, for a while, was to address people’s wrong assumptions from that angle. “Of course we’re not fucking. I’m a trannyboy. He’s a straight man. It would be ludicrous!” But something did not feel right about that argument.

I dated a straight man once. Actually, a few times. We were on and off for five years. We were on when I was a lesbian, when I was an I-don’t-believe-in-labels, when I was genderqueer, just plain queer, a trannyfag and a boy. He was a straight guy the whole time. Many of those combinations could be called ludicrous, if the only information you had was how we each identified. But it happened. It was entirely possible, and not particularly ludicrous.

When I told people that it would be ludicrous for a straight man and a trannyboy to be lovers, I drew on dominant assumptions that a) there is a thing called a straight man, and being a straight man means something particular, and it means that for all straight men everywhere, b) there is a thing called a trannyboy, and being a trannyboy means something particular, and it means that for all trannyboys everywhere, c) straight men behave like straight men and trannyboys behave like trannyboys, and d) because of what a straight man is and what a trannyboy is, it would be by-definition impossible for a straight man and a trannyboy to be lovers.

I call that normative identity logic. It is how most of us are taught to think about identity, and it’s bullshit. (This is my opinion, and also a central argument of contemporary queer theory.)

How many lesbians do you know that sleep with men from time to time? I know I’ve met quite a few. Some of them even do it for pleasure! And who are you to tell them they’re not a lesbian? I know a lot of dudes that have sex with men, and if you tell them they are gay you will have another thing coming.

Identity does not equal behavior. Identity categories are not natural, definable, or stable. And identity labels are not merely descriptive. Identities like straight man or trannyboy are complex strategies that people deploy in a context of oppression where nothing is neutral.

I had the best of intentions when I called on the well-worn logic of identity. I was only trying to represent our relationship truthfully. But in the attempt I slipped into an anti-queer logic that I don’t believe in and I don’t want to be preaching. I don’t want people to believe me because of some essentialist nonsense about who can date whom. I want them to believe me because it is true. Ironically, even though most people do believe in normative identity logic, my strategy didn’t even work!

I realized that, when my friend and I try to convince people that we are not lovers, our genders and sexual orientations are entirely beside the point. If I were a girl, or my friend were a fag, I would still want us to be able to go out for dinner, and not have everyone and their second-cousin’s lab assistant think we were screwing. And I think that this would still be a problem, even if our identities were different.

No one who buys into the logic of identity (and I think we all fall into it to some extent) wants to believe that a straight man and a trannyboy are lovers. So why do they choose to explain our relationship in that way?

I think it’s because they don’t want to see what is true. I was naively assuming that our friendship was innocent and simple. But now I’m thinking it is actually way more radical than I realized.

We are friends who treat each other like family. We go on vacations and spend holidays together. We go grocery shopping together. We accompany each other to doctor’s appointments. We put each other first, often before our romantic interests. We do deep personal work, separately, so that we can be better friends to each other. We do deep personal work together, and grow closer through it. I have had long-term romantic relationships that I put less into than I am putting into this friendship.

And I think that’s what people don’t want to see. People would rather believe that we are breaking all the rules of sexual identity than see that we are being really good friends. It is radical to be good friends. It is radical to centralize a relationship that is not romantic. It is radical to build intimacy that has nothing to do with sexuality or building a nuclear family or making babies. It is radical to say, it is not impossible that we would be lovers, but as it happens we are not doing that. And what we are doing is just as important, just as intense, just as rewarding as the fictional romance you imagine.


Obstructing Reality said...

Beautiful. So fucking beautiful.

I remember someone saying in class the other day that the idea of close friendship went out the window as soon as Freud came on the scene.

Also reminds me of how bioguys who work with young children are always subject to extreme amounts of suspicion - a different kind of normative logic.

Anonymous said...

"It is radical to be good friends. It is radical to centralize a relationship that is not romantic. It is radical to build intimacy that has nothing to do with sexuality or building a nuclear family or making babies. It is radical to say, it is not impossible that we would be lovers, but as it happens we are not doing that."

That is maybe the best thing I've read this year.
And yet, the resistantly impish part of me says,'s radical, too, when my friends are my lovers, when i center a sexual relationship that isn't romantic, when i build intimacy that has everthing to do with sex and nothing whatsoever to do with making babies or a nuclear family. I wonder how you could say both?

thryn said...

I just googled "He's not my girlfriend" because I have been considering making the same shirt for myself. My dear friend is a gay transguy who doesn't pass very well yet. I am an obviously female, but fairly tomboyish, bisexual woman. So people assume we're together fairly often. I wonder, two years out from this post, if you ended up aking the shirts, and what kind of reactions you got?

Davey says ... said...

no shit! that's awesome. we should all have a double date together and see what happens.
but back here in real life ... no, i never ended up making the shirt. i ended up moving to california. the same thing still happens whenever we're in the same town together. and i think people here tend to assume i'm dating one of my housemates.
i need to figure out how to project singleness - since i am single, and would prefer not to be. any tips?

thryn said...

Now on that, I can't help ya. I've been in a relationship for 9 years! Although I do still get hit on occasionally -- maybe it's an air of independence?