this subtle body of desire – I

I’ve been thinking about gender lately. Not gender-as-a-social-construct, not performativity and power, not the academic stuff for once, more about my own genders and my own desires and the ways in which they play out, creating odd hybrids, queer desires. I want to take them out, hold them up to the light, watch the glints and colours and shapes turn in my mind and under my fingers.

We could go back to the beginning: growing up a girl, definitely a girl, but not one who wore pink or played with dolls much or talked endlessly about boys. Not a pretty girl either, not a neat, tidy, prissy girl; a frowner, a loner, a reader in corners, painfully shy. I never questioned my femininity, in spite of the clandestine cricket playing and tree climbing or the conviction that I’d never be able to wear stylish kurtas and tight jeans. I wanted to, I just didn’t think I could; didn’t think I’d ever be attractive to boys, even as I wondered why I didn’t find them attractive. Didn’t think of any other possibilities then. When, years later, I found myself lying next to a woman, fingers touching the soft skin of her face, her lips opening and pressing into my mouth, it wasn’t a surprise at all, no soul searching, no questions, just an indrawn breath and the realisation entering me with the kiss: Of course. I like women. Of course. What else could I possibly want but this? I’m gay. Of course.

Of course, to me “women” then meant “feminine.” I went through the days lost in a dream of long red hair and lush pink lips and sweet creamy curves, only surfacing enough to notice the hair and lips and curves of other random women on campus. I decided that I wasn’t like the other openly gay women on campus, tough, short-cropped women I knew and liked, even as they intimidated me with their strength. I liked girls who looked like girls, I explained earnestly to anyone who cared. Mostly they nodded kindly. I knew though that I didn’t feel attracted to the overly-girly women; bleached blonde, eyeshadow wearing, tanned, cleavaged, sandalled sorority girls did nothing for me, and my lost love was actually a geeky tomboy, with a lean figure and endearing love for collecting deadly fungii and insects in addition to the Titian hair and Botticelli lips. But we were both feminine, my waist-length hair, her delicately modelled face, our small hands intertwining, walking together, talking about equality and trust.

Then, two and a half years of rising frustration in Chicago. I didn’t fit. Not visibly queer enough to be comfortable in gay spaces and not sure how to make myself visible: small and curvy, but not flamboyant and sexy, long-haired, but casual, messy, not coiffed, Indian, inconspicious, shy, quiet. Definitely not butch in a city where that was apparently synonymous with “frat boy.” I saw the same oversize sweatshirts and baseball caps, the same hard drinking, the same arrogant appraisal of and chasing after the same ex-sorority women in straight and gay bars. What was the point of not liking men if this was the alternative? Where were all the women like me?

So for the first time, I decided to consciously change my gender presentation. I went high femme, in my own way. Stockings and heels, lipstick, short skirts, tight tops, hair tossed back with a flick and a shrug, flirting with eyes and seemingly demure sidelong glances, yes, but also an assertive side, that stared people down, strode quickly in sharp heels, made sarcastic put-downs, perfected a single raised eyebrow, carried around an arrogant veneer of intellectual sophistication, polished to perfection, like my toenails. All of which suddenly made me visible, not to others like me, not even to the unappealing butches, but to men. More specifically, men who wanted to be submissive and fantasize about me dominating them, while remaining forever exotic and unattainable. It was very boring. All this time, all this unaccustomed effort spent in getting ready, I’d feel sexy and want something inarticulatable — to be flirted with, seduced, topped, ravished, finally fucked, preferably by a woman — and instead I’d find myself listening to a pink-faced man begging me to let him kiss my toes, to command him, to humiliate him. I would give him orders out of sheer exasperation, and still end the night feeling tense, discontented, trapped in drag, craving something, anything, else. By the time I moved again, I was sure I could never be straight or bisexual, suspected strongly that I was actually a bottom, and the jury was still out on the vexed question of gender. Feminine, certainly, but high femme? probably not.

Part II

Part III

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~ by mortarandpestle on October 8, 2007.

3 Responses to “this subtle body of desire – I”

  1. i cant believe no one commented on this
    the findings of one’s path are always a treasure/pleasure to read.
    i stopped at this sentence: “suspected strongly that I was actually a bottom”, i thought bottom was a term only used by male gays, did you borrow it ? or i should update my terminology?

  2. The mix of academia and anecdote in this entry is particularly refreshing. The struggle with gender presentation is something that most queer people will struggle with… who are they constructing said gender for, who is it attracting, what message is it sending. You’ve articulated something very unspoken about femmes in this piece, and as a butch always trying to understand, it’s provided a lot of new insight for me into the very concious construction and struggles that femmes experience. I am looking forward to reading more.

  3. Welcome! I’ve been trying for a while to find other people writing about experiences like mine, and am finally getting to the point where I can articulate them myself, so hearing your reactions is really satisfying.

    Don’t you think though that self-presentation for butches is equally (or possibly even more) conscious and carefully constructed? The main difference I perceive is that there is less ambiguity about why it’s done and who it’s aimed at, while femmes often have to deal with misconceptions about how straight they are, or even well-meaning but idiotic encouragement to ‘break free from patriarchal/repressive/objectifying notions of gender.’ I’m not entirely sure of this, but it’s sparked a train of thought.

    Re: bottom — as fas as I know, it’s used pretty commonly in BDSM circles by both gay and straight people, and that’s where I’ve borrowed it from. I should clarify that at least in my usage, it has very little to do with who is penetrating whom (that’s my impression of how it’s used by gay males). For me it’s all about the (mostly) mental power dynamic between the people involved. Does this help?

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