Saturday, September 6, 2008

Foreign Identities

Now that I've been in Spain for approximately a month, I'm starting to get settled. I'm living in an apartment with an older woman and her twenty-something daughter, and my roommate (who is in the same program I am and attends the same University back in the States) and I share a small bedroom. It's a little snug, but for the most part, we get along famously. I certainly get along with her better than anyone else in the program, so it's a good thing we're rooming together. In fact, last night, when we went out on the town (to a mutual friend's bar where they always give us free drinks or, as was the case last night, free dessert), we were talking about what would have happened had we not met one another in the pre-semester seminar - we think we both would have been living in singles. Which, at least in my case, likely means I never would have gone out. Or I would have gone out only alone, which is not a particularly bright idea in a major city in a strange country with a language that is not your first.

But my roommate and I did find each other, and started rooming together early on in the seminar, which was a tour of four cities along the Mediterranean coast. During those few weeks, she and I obviously talked a lot, and one night, over tapas and sangria, I came out to her and another girl on the trip. It wasn't a drunken confession, but rather something I thought the girl I'd be living in such close quarters with all semester should know about me, almost like a medical condition. (Which, I realize upon writing it, sounds very self-hating, but it isn't meant to be. It's an important part of who I am and dictates some of my behavior, so I didn't want it to catch her off guard.) Anyway, after the obligatory questions about my past and whether this was really just a phase, or if I was the kind of bisexual woman who just makes out with other women or if I'd actually dated/slept with women, the conversation moved on.

Now, in general, I'm used to the following reaction after telling someone I'm bisexual: U.S. cultural stereotypes tend to dictate that bisexual women are really straight, and just wanting to experiment. Consequently, I have many friends back home who assume I'll end up with a man, and encourage me to do so in who and how they ask about who I'm sleeping with. I've come to accept this and just tend to correct them, using gender-inclusive terms when I respond to their exclusive questions. It really freaks some people out. But that's their issue, not mine. I'm generally very comfortable in my identity.

But my roommate here has taken a different stance. I'm not sure she really knows any queer people who don't identify as outright gay or lesbian. For the record, I'm not a lesbian. I have slept with men, I'm interested in men, and will continue to be so - in addition to my past, present and future for and with women, of course - and therefore am not a lesbian. I validate that identity, but I don't claim it. It isn't representative of me. Same goes for the label "gay." If I identify as anything outside of bisexual, it's simply queer, as an overarching and inclusive term. There are many things about my sexuality that are queer, and so I actually prefer that title. But sometimes, that's hard to explain. Especially in a different culture and language.

So my roommate, who is Domincan and Puerto Rican and lives in New York, has taken to introducing me as gay. When we were at the friend's bar for the first time, she happily told everyone there that I was gay. Granted, I think it was for the most part a misguided effort to help me find common ground with the mostly gay male staff we were hanging out with, but I have a few problems with this description:
1) As I said, I'm not gay. I'm queer. Or bisexual. Either label is fine, but gay isn't representative.

2)Telling people, especially those I've just met, that I'm gay offers them a certain image of who I am and what I like and what I do (stereotypes do exist, afterall) that may well not be accurate.

3) Calling me gay invalidates the identity I've struggled to define and come into.

4) And this is a little more shallow, but telling men especially (which tend to be most of who she's talking to) that I'm gay effectively either indicates to them that I'm not interested in them - which in one case was completely the opposite effect I wanted - or leads them to believe that they could possibly "fuck me straight," which will never happen and is misleading to them.

I truly believe that for the most part, it's just ignorance on her part. I'm very conscious of validating people's identities as they see them. I ask about preferred pronouns, identities, labels, and correct others when they're using something I know makes someone uncomfortable. I know that she doesn't have that experience and isn't as aware, but it's getting a little frustrating.

I've approached her about it, in as non-threatening a way as possible, asked her not to describe me as gay to people we're just meeting. I've told her the labels I prefer if she feels the need to label me to people we're just meeting, but she persists. Again, I think some of that is the language barrier with the people we're speaking to, and some of it is just ignorance on her part in understanding the importance of identity. Although, perhaps I should compare it to how she gets offended when people here call her Black. She's proud of her Latino heritage, and while she has darker skin, she isn't Black or African American. (Here in Spain, "Morena" is a kind of pet name, but she finds it terribly offensive when people call her that.) Maybe explaining to her that my queer identity is as essential and specific to me as her cultural identity is to her will help her understand. Then again, maybe also will the queer sexuality class she's taking with me this semester.

And no, the irony isn't lost on me that most of the time, especially in the States, I'm considered straight, and here I'm automatically considered gay. But it is essentially still a problem of invalidating and ignoring my actual identity. Which sucks. To put it as un-academically as possible.

*le sigh*


Amalthea said...

This is a very insightful post, on your part. Good luck getting it straight without offense.... it is so easy for there to be issues... people are regularly offensive about those things HERE. There are a handful of people who know my orientation that are appropriate about it. Most of them though do something along the lines of "Oh well she's with a guy now so I guess it's ok"..... it sucks. I have faith that with patience you can handle this!

Roland Hulme said...

Hello! Still loving your blog!

I am going to go out on a limb here and play devil's advocate.

Why did you feel the need to announce your sexuality to her?

You said yourself it was like confessing something.

The fact is, by sitting your roommate down and telling her that you were bi, you were basically telling her 'this is a big deal and a big part of how I identify myself' and she's probably just trying to be supportive with that (in a totally dumb and incorrect way.)

Remember, people aren't nearly as interested in other people as they are in themselves, so you saying: "I like girls. But I like guys. I'm bisexual, I don't identify as gay, I identify myself as queer' is all well and good - but she probably didn't listen past "I like girls..."

Also, there is a frustrating movement for people who reject traditional labels (straight, gay) to then create equally limiting labels for themselves. You might see in a rainbow of different sexuality choices - but much of the rest of the world just sees in black and white and you can't change that (overnight.)

And "I'm queer" is just another label these days.

I have a wonderful friend who's gay. I've known him for 12 years and we've traveled the world and lived with each other - but we've never really discussed his sexuality. Why? Because it's not what identifies him.

He used to date girls. Now he dates boys. Sometimes he does/did both. to me it doesn't make the blindest bit of difference - people are attracted to other people and their genders are insignificant unless you want to breed.

So you're probably going to get angry with me for saying it, but I put it out there that this uncomfortable situation might have been - at least in part - wrought by your own fair hand.

Roland Hulme said...

Hey! I'm pleased your response wasn't angry!

so what was your verdict on the question your roommate was discussing. IS it worse if a girl's boyfriend cheats on them with another guy?

I know if my wife cheated on me with another girl, I'd be a stereotypical man and say something dumb like: "Dude, that's hot."

My wife, who is convinced every single past boyfriend was secretly gay, says she'd think it was worse because if a guy cheated with another guy because of the stereotype of gay and bi men being more likely to have an STD.

I don't know if that's true or not - but I do think that if a guy is capable of dispassionately cheating, he might also be capable of being irresponsible about safe sex - and whichever gender he sleeps with, that's selfishly endangering his girl's health as much as his own.