She was chatting away with me quite happily, this older woman in the shop. I was holding my goddaughter and she was cooing over her. She was bringing out the tired old “just like a girl” tropes but was very friendly and warmly talking about children. I mentioned mine. She smiled.
I mentioned that my ex partner gave birth. She stopped dead.
And she wouldn’t speak to me, or look at me.
From one second to the next, what been an animated and warm conversation became the pointed ignoring of a customer.
I wondered, what was it that upset her so much. Was it that she couldn’t tell? Was it the fear that if you can’t spot a lesbian, then they could be anywhere.
While “readily identifiable” lesbians provoke one sort of reaction, and one they are unable to avoid, do “invisible” lesbians kindle an anxiety precisely because we cannot be readily identified and guarded against?
And what is this if not yet another manifestation of gender policing? The idea is that there is one way to be female, with appropriate levels of femininity and heterosexuality. Perhaps if you are going to violate mainstream cultural norms, then at least you should be identifiable in your “non-normality”? Being unidentifiable is threatening because you are hidden, seemingly deceptive in your perceived “normality”.
Of course, being identifiably other is also punished, in that classic double bind. But we do not all look the same, even if it would make society more comfortable for us to fit a contrived stereotype. One size does not fit all and there is no single way to be or look lesbian. To expect that is to reduce us to two dimensional cartoons.
But the hostility we face and the stereotypes we are assumed to fit are self supporting. The hostility we face for being open has a silencing effect. And when we are silent, the stereotypes are reinforced because the only visible lesbians are those who happen to fit the stereotype.
The women who stay silent are not responsible for this dynamic either. We cannot always speak for a myriad of reasons based in the reality of our lives. I try to speak whenever I can, because I can, but I have not always chosen to and it is not always safe or prudent to. The consequences of speaking are somewhat unpredictable and the responsibility lies with the society that vilifies and silences us.
As I spoke today, I could almost see the images through her eyes – the stereotypes cascading through her mind, superimposed on the reality of me, guiding her response to me, to all of us, informing the instantly invoked lesbophobia.
That cusp moment of sudden realisation is so telling in its liminality – it is a moment in which both connection and withdrawing coexist for a short time and when reactions are unwillingly written on the body in facial expressions and body language. It is that moment in which a shared sisterhood is abruptly and palpably sheared off.
Just for a second you can see the sense of betrayal, that shock at feeling deceived, that physical recoil.
These moments of withdrawal are less confronting than overt hostility and aggression, far less damaging than overt violence. But this rejection is not subtle and it shows that no matter how much they liked you and related to you a minute ago, you are now beyond the pale and the social constructs informing their perceptions prevent them from relating now.
At that moment I want to say – we are not hiding – we are just being ourselves. You are using false stereotypes and gender roles to assess and judge those around you. Blame the misleading stereotypes, and not, us for your confusion and discomfort. Challenge the gender roles used to judge women, certainly lesbians and especially gender non conforming women. Understand that whether you think you can identify us or not, we are not other and you are not morally superior. Understand that your lesbophobia might be common, but it is hate filled and damages women.
But the words echo blankly – she had already stopped listening.