One night my friends and I went salsa dancing at a straight club. It doesn't get any more gendered than that. My girl had been asking me to go dancing with her for months. I had finally acquiesced, and was really looking forward to it. But the minute we got to the club, my confidence made for the door, leaving me stranded, feeling weird and freakish. I became very aware of myself as a woman in men's clothing, not short, not tall, black girl, poor girl, what are you doing here?
In my mind, I knew it was silly. I'm a great dancer. But something about that hall filled with really straight-looking people triggered my discomfort in a major way. I felt my girl pull my hand as she began leading the way, her straight friends following closely behind us, taking off their coats as they glided through the busy dance floor in that way some women do when they know they have eyes on them. I felt awkward shuffling along behind them, straining to keep my shoulders back and my face blank to feign disinterest, a cover for how insecure I felt in my ill-fitting clothing (at least compared to what everyone else was wearing). We hung our coats, and began looking for our friends. A song came on that everyone seemed to like, and I dug it. I was beginning to relax and settle into myself as we approached our friend's table. I figured I'd dance with my girl and soon forget about where we were. She always had that effect on me, so our dance was something to look forward to.
But before I knew it, I felt her drop my hand. I turned to my left, and saw that a slick haired older Latino guy had taken her other hand and pulled her unto the dance floor for the current number. She'd innocently obliged, 1-2-stepping away and swaying her hips to let her know that she was down, and twirling away from me as I stood there feeling more awkward than ever, abandoned, and embarrassed. My eyes darted around in search of familiarity, a safe harbor to crawl into. But I realized that our party had dispersed into the night and I was the only one not dancing. All three ladies had found male partners, so what did that mean for me? I wasn't nearly comfortable going up to any of the straight women to ask for a dance and face high school humiliation. I wasn't "pretty" enough to fare as competition, nor was I macho enough to warrant any other kind of attention. So they completely ignored me (but for the few that blatantly stared in pity or disdain).
Eventually, I found the friends we'd intended to meet. Relieved, I grabbed a beer, and found my station in the corner, where I planned to remain for the rest of the night. Eventually, my girl came back to me, sweat beads all along her forehead from at least three rounds of salsa, and the familiar glow of being around her people that I recognized. She was smiling when she approached me, but my face held stern. She gestured to me to dance with her and I abruptly refused, taking another sip from my beer so that she couldn't read me. Yet, even I couldn't understand the way I felt at that point.
It wasn't jealousy. My girl and I were in love and I didn't have any insecurities about her dancing with straight men. It wasn't even that Slick had gotten the first dance—I wasn't that kind of macho. No, it was something more. And it took me several hours, long after we'd left the club and were safely in bad, to articulate, even to myself.
I had felt unsafe in that space. The night had represented every micro aggression I'd ever experienced from straight people: cab drivers that kicked me out in the middle of the night because they wouldn't tolerate "that" at the back of their cabs, store managers who kept insisting I'd find better clothing in the women's section, every gay boy that looked me up and down with disdain because I wasn't conforming to their inherited fucked up view on what a woman should look like or wear to be "fabulous," straight women who blatantly ignored me because I didn't fit in the coop, and femme girls that ranted on and on about masculine privilege, but hardly ever acknowledged that their pretty privilege made their worlds so much bigger than mine. That my girl could mindlessly shimmy onto a dance floor even as a gay woman and enjoy the simple pleasure of a dance, go out with her straight friends to bars and not be stared at or called names, etc., while everything about the landscape, from the "Ladies free before 11PM" sign to the man-woman dance partner pairings made me so angry all of a sudden. And, I didn't know how to handle it.
All the memories I'd retained of my life as a straight girl, or even as a heteronormative queer femme (as I explored my gender shortly after coming out) came rushing back to me. I remember when people smiled brightly at me when I walked into restaurants—"How can I help you, miss?"—and I would smile back, knowing that I could get whatever I wanted simply because I was pretty. I remember being able to play up the damsel in distress card whenever I arrived late at the airport, scuttling along in heels and designer hand luggage, and the two or three guards would help me cut the line to make my flight, with an upgrade just because. I'd given all that up for the sake of being authentically me. I didn't regret it, or take it back. But becoming so aware of my lack of privilege, now, in those spaces, made me upset that it didn't occur to anyone else to be more considerate of how I felt.
What I'd like to share with you isn't about who has more privilege or who can pass, etc. I'm not interested in setting up an hierarchy of oppression. Life is fucked for a lot of us in more ways than we can calibrate, so instead, I'd like to share something else with you all, a few tips about how to be more supportive of people like me.
As a gender non-conforming (most of the time) boi who is dating a femme-identified woman, I have my responsibilities to her that I take seriously. I don't tolerate stupid misogynist jokes at her expense, I don't belittle her in front of anyone to validate my masculinity, when people assume that we stick to gendered roles in our household, I let her respond / answer honestly. I treat her with respect, always—as we should each other, regardless of how we identify—and I celebrate how powerful, how protected I feel in spite of how scary the world can be sometimes, and I ask that she does the same. What we discovered that night is that there is more that she could do to make sure I feel seen, respected, and advocated for in gendered spaces.
So, here are a few tips we've discussed as a couple that I'd like to share with you, in case it resonates, and most especially, if you ever go salsa dancing:
1) Recognize you have "pretty privilege": As a cisgender, female-bodied person, you are able to move in and out of spaces because of your perceived heteronormativity—i.e., you are "a girl who still looks like a girl" to regular folk, you have passing privilege, and not everyone's gender presentation grants them that much ease of access to straight spaces. So please don't talk badly about those "queers who only hang out with queers" especially as a femme woman. It hurts. I have so many kinds of friends, that know and trust me. But I can't be dumped in the middle of blond highlight, Aldo stilettos Boston without warning. It's ME they'll stare and jeer at, not you.
2) Check the temperature of a space to ensure safety of your gender non-conforming friends: Similarly, as you can move in and out of spaces, check the pulse of a room before you invite your partner to enter it. If you are both invited to a straight friend's gathering, give them warning. If you are frolicking downtown and just want to choose a bar to go to, it may be good for you to walk in and assess the environment, rather than go through the humiliation of entering a place and then having to leave because people are assholes / staring / your partner is not comfortable.
3) Please do NOT use emasculation as a way to put me down, make fun of me, or belittle me. I can't tell you how much it infuriates me to hear femmes go, "Oh I can be a butch / stud / insertwhatevermasculinelabelhere, all I need to do is put on some baggy jeans and wear a hat." My identity isn't reduced to what I wear. I would never trivialize who you are by reducing your femininity down to some lipstick and earrings. This is not to say that I donít appreciate people who play with fashion / gender expression—I do. So I'm specifically referring to situations in which it's used to belittle / emasculate someone / put them down by suggesting that their gender / how they feel about themselves is a cheap performance, and doesn't go any deeper. As I'm sure you can imagine, for gender non-conforming / transgender people who choose not to / don't have the funds to be able to transition (via surgery / hormone therapy), this is extremely hurtful.
4) Don't use boilerplate rhetoric about sexism against me. If I don't mistreat you or put you down, please don't automatically pathologize me as such. I've always advocated for women; I'm a staunch feminist. Let's not inherit stereotypes about masculinity from straight people and naturally assume that I'm a misogynist asshole simply because I present more masculine. Innocent until proven guilty, okay? Then I definitely want you to call me out on it. In fact, please do. The last thing I want is to turn into the kind of person whose masculinity can only be affirmed by putting down other women.
These suggestions have obviously been very personalized to fit my own relationship. My partner identifies as femme, and I'm more masculine presenting; the dynamic between us in public spaces may be slightly different (or even perceived as such) based on gender roles and societal expectations. However, even if this doesn't apply to you—you're a straight, cis couple, two butches dating each other, two femmes, multiple partners, etc.—I do think keeping this in mind as a way to be more considerate and caring of gender non-conforming people can't hurt.
Have you had similar experiences? How did you handle it? What other suggestions/tips would you add for supporting people who don't conform to society's dogmatic gender norms when out in public (and other typically gendered) spaces?
Oh, and for the record, my partner and I have been practicing our salsa (I've gotten so much better), and we are determined to learn how to dance like this. Who's with us?
Image: onlinsalsa via Flickr