The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces

Why do LGBTQ groups, events, and spaces often explicitly welcome allies–heterosexual, cisgender people who support LGBTQ people and their rights?

If you ask most allies (and probably even some LGBTQ people), it’s probably some version of this: “We need allies and their support. Including them in these spaces helps them learn about LGBTQ issues and how they can help. Without allies, this group would just be a segregated bubble and we shouldn’t separate people like that.”

Fair. But actually, the more compelling reason to welcome allies has nothing to do with allies themselves, and everything to do with people who are closeted, questioning, or otherwise not able to be out as LGBTQ.

If your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance welcomes allies, that means that you can attend even if you’re not sure what your orientation is or aren’t ready to share it.

If the local LGBTQ community band welcomes allies, you can join and make some queer and trans friends even if you’ve only just started questioning your gender and aren’t sure which–if any–steps you want to take towards transition.

If the Pride parade welcomes allies and your parents see photos of you at it on Facebook, you can tell them that you were there supporting your best friend who’s gay–and maybe they’re way more okay with that than they would be with finding out that you’re a lesbian.

And if LGBTQ community center welcomes allies, you can attend with your partner, knowing that the two of you may present as a straight couple, without worrying (as much) about proving to anyone that you’re actually bi. It doesn’t take away the pain of not being recognized for who you are, but at least you don’t have to worry that anyone will ask you what you’re doing there.

So here comes the difficult thing. The uncomfortable piece of this that’s so hard to talk about.

If the main purpose of including allies in certain LGBTQ spaces is actually to provide “cover” of sorts for closeted, questioning, or “passing” individuals, what about actual allies–people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis? What’s their role here?

It depends on the space. In groups focused on activism, having actual allies involved can be very important, since they can use their privilege to advocate for marginalized folks. Allies should keep themselves informed on what needs to be done–does your city lack anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers? Are city officials being held accountable for police violence against trans people of color? Do local healthcare providers offer competent care for LGBTQ patients? Allies absolutely have a place in all of these battles–although the agenda should be determined by LGBTQ folks, and marginalized groups within that spectrum should especially be included in that. (Yo, LGBTQ groups: you need people of color and trans people in leadership roles.)

But what about spaces focused more on community building or support? Again, it depends. I like the fact that my LGBTQ band welcomes allies because that means that I can encourage straight cis friends to join and play music with us. Although the space is very much queer, having allies present doesn’t detract from that at all.

The reason that works is because the band is primarily a place to make music and have fun, not to meet potential partners (though I’m sure that happens), have deep discussions about gender and sexuality (though that almost certainly also happens), or kvetch about straight allies (I don’t think that really happens).

But when allies show up in places that are more explicitly for emotional support and creating a safe space, it doesn’t sit right with me. It can keep us from having painful conversations that need to be had, because in my experience, most allies eventually fail to restrain themselves from making well-intentioned but cloying comments about “but I accept you for who you are!” and “you just have to be yourself and you’ll find your special person someday.” In fact, even having the conversation I’m having with you right now would be impossible, because allies feel personally attacked by it and jump in with “so I guess we should just avoid all spaces where LGBTQ people hang out, then?”

When allies are present, I’m much more likely to end up explaining exactly why I feel the way I do about a given situation rather than receiving support around it, or having others chime in with their own (relevant) experiences. For instance, when I’ve tried to discuss the issues I raised in this article with allies, they typically say stuff like, “But surely there are other queer women out there who want to date women” or “But if you’re attracted to all genders, what does it matter which gender your partner is?” Fellow queer women and nonbinary folks tend to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel and it’s so painful.” Guess which response is more helpful to me, and which leads to a more healing conversation.

But what bothers me even more about allies in queer support spaces is the reasons they give when asked why they’re there. The ally who says, “My queer friend asked me to join when I asked how I can better support them” is few and far between. Usually they say things like, “I just really care about supporting LGBTQ people” (despite the fact that we establish these spaces in order to seek support from people who share our experiences) or, worse, “I want to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people.”

So here we are, talking about our most painful and personal feelings, while “allies” gawk on silently so that they can “learn” about us. That doesn’t sound like a support group; it sounds like a zoo.

There is, in fact, an abundance of ways for people to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people. There are now hundreds, thousands of books and blogs like this one. There are LGBT centers in most cities that sponsor educational events open for everyone. There are public lectures, readings, open mics, museum exhibits, and other resources in most cities. Just in Columbus, just this past week, there have been so many things to do:

Looking forward, there’s even more stuff:

  • Thursday, September 21 is the monthly Columbus Queer Open Mic at Wild Goose Creative.
  • On September 23, the Ohio History Center and the Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) will be hosting an LGBTQ Community Day, which will feature the museum’s collection of LGBTQ-related historical items. There will also be a screening of Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, a documentary film about Columbus’ drag scene, followed by a panel discussion with some of the performers.
  • Also on September 23, Bi Local, a group supporting bi/pan/queer folks in Columbus, presents its annual Bi Visibility Celebration, featuring burlesque, comedy, and more.
  • On September 26, BQIC hosts an open mic night.
  • On October 1, the King Avenue United Methodist Church hosts Darren Calhoun, a Black Chicago-based activist, photographer, and worship leader who will discuss the intersections of racial and LGBTQ identity.
  • On October 4, the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), an organization that works to eliminate violence against LGBTQ people, will host a training on that subject.
  • On October 19 and 20, the Equitas Health Institute hosts its annual conference, Transforming Care, which focuses on health disparities in the LGBTQ and HIV+ communities. Julia Serano will be speaking!
  • On November 4, the Capital Pride Concert Band, which I play in, performs at the Lincoln Theater.

So there you go. In about a month and a half in Columbus, which isn’t a particularly large or bustling city, you can learn about stopping homophobic/transphobic violence, health disparities affecting people with HIV, Ohio’s queer history, supporting your queer/trans child, how religious spaces can become more inclusive to queer folks, why drag is a haven for some LGBTQ people, how mainstream LGBTQ communities alienate and perpetuate racism against queer and trans people of color, and why Alison Bechdel is a fantastic human being. No need to insert yourself into queer support spaces.

But most of the time, this conversation gets shut down before it even really gets going. It happens in four stages:

  1. A queer person brings up the question of allies’ place in a given space/community and says that they’re not entirely comfortable with allies sticking around just to…ally themselves or whatever it is they’re doing.
  2. An ally points out that they’ve learned so much from being in this space, and that if everyone REALLY wants them to leave of course they’ll leave, but that would make them very sad because they’ve been very supportive and have learned a lot and the LGBTQ community can’t make progress if it shuts itself off from allies, and besides, they would NEVER demand excess emotional labor from queer people and expect them to explain everything and so on.

  3. Another queer person points out that we can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever, and also makes the (in my opinion) much more relevant point that you can’t “ban” allies from a space without also banning anyone who joins as an ally while actually being closeted/questioning/passing/etc.

  4. The conversation is over, nothing is clarified, and nothing changes.

The thing is, everything all of these hypothetical people just stated is true:

  • Many queer people are uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in certain spaces.
  • Many allies learn a lot from being in queer spaces.
  • Many allies do participate in queer spaces without demanding excess emotional labor (but of course, sometimes it’s just the fear of those demands that makes some queer people uncomfortable when allies are around, and/or you just don’t want people who can’t possibly GET IT listening to what you’re saying)
  • Many allies would indeed be sad if they were to be kicked out of queer spaces.
  • Many queer people are NOT uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in any of their spaces.
  • The LGBTQ community would not make much progress if it shut itself off from all allies (but that’s not what anyone suggested)
  • We really can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever (but that is also not what anyone suggested)
  • You cannot (enforceably) ban allies from a space without requiring everyone to out themselves, even if they aren’t ready to.

So what’s to be done with this set of conflicting truths?

For starters, these conversations always seem to leave out the obvious fact that there are many different LGBTQ spaces out there. Nobody ever advocated banning allies from all of them. It is okay for some spaces to be for LGBTQ folks only, and others to be open to everyone. It’s understandable that we disagree about exactly which spaces should be which, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is advocating banning allies from everything ever or cutting ourselves off from everyone ever.

Furthermore, while it’s true that enforcing an ally ban would mean making people out themselves, that’s not the only way to achieve an ally-free space. The other way is for allies to choose to stay out of that space.

And when I say “allies,” I don’t mean “people who might be perceived by others as allies.” I mean exactly what I described earlier: people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis. They’re not here because they’re questioning their identity. They’re not here because they’re thinking about starting hormones. They’re not here because they really want to have a same-sex partner someday but haven’t yet. They’re here because they are very aware that they are straight and cis and care about LGBTQ people.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I do believe that there are allies who are capable of reflecting on this critically, of thinking to themselves, “You know what? My support isn’t the support these folks want in this particular space, my voice isn’t the one that’s needed here, and these folks don’t necessarily want to be ‘learned from’ right now, right here.”

And I do believe it’s possible to create a space that rests gently in what seems to be a contradiction: we know that this space is not a space for allies, and yet we won’t make assumptions about anyone’s identities in this space, and a person who “appears” to be straight and cisgender isn’t necessarily an ally–but nor are we assigning them a queer or trans identity before they claim it for themselves.

In closing, I’m going to address something I hear from allies very frequently, which is that they’ve made the LGBTQ community their main social outlet because other cishet people are likely to be less progressive and respectful of left-wing politics and personal expression (i.e., the straight cis man who likes to wear nail polish or flowers in his hair sometimes).

Leaving aside the fact that the LGBTQ community has many of its own issues with inclusivity and that plenty of progressive people exist outside of that community, I get it. This does tend to be a relatively accepting space compared to the rest of society.

But the reason it got that way isn’t because queer people are somehow inherently, biologically better than anyone else. (Well, the jury’s still out on that.) It’s because we made it that way, and we had to make it that way because we didn’t have any other choice. Queer people are not intrinsically less judgmental or bigoted than anyone else, but we needed a space where we wouldn’t be automatically hated because of how we look or who we’re attracted to. Sometimes, like curb cuts on sidewalks, this benefits people who weren’t necessarily the target audience.

So, my gentle challenge to allies is this: rather than (only) benefitting from the safer spaces painstakingly carved out by others, build your own. Find men who are open to emotional vulnerability and who challenge toxic masculinity. Find women who are committed to platonic intimacy with other women rather than centering their entire lives around the men they date. Find people who shrug at gender roles. Shut down your friends’ transphobic jokes.

“But, Miri, it’s not that easy,” you’ll protest. Believe me, I know. It wasn’t easy for us either.


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The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces
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Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Ruby and Sapphire dance in "The Answer."
After two years of not liking Steven Universe, I recently gave it another shot and discovered that I suddenly really like it. (More on that in another post, probably.) My favorite episode was of course “The Answer,” because of its aesthetic and musical beauty and for its honestly profound portrayal of queer love.

Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what other (re)viewers thought. In doing so, I found this utterly bizarre AV Club article, which states that the episode “doesn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t have guessed, or anything that we really needed to know” and “feels like a nice little present to the fans.” The song, “Something Entirely New,” is about “normal relationship things (Ruby says Sapphire is different, she swears, and Sapphire has never fused before, she promises),” which is “deeply color-by-numbers for this kind of love story, but it’s still deeply earnest.” It’s “a standard ‘getting to know you’ montage.”

I hate to be snarky, but to be totally honest, this is what happens when you let straight people write reviews.

What “standard ‘getting to know you’ montage” is about two femme-of-center people abandoning their entire species and planet in order to be together, despite being threatened with death for it? How many fluffy romcoms have you seen where the couple doesn’t even realize that it’s physically or psychologically possible for them to be together, because they have been raised to consider it unthinkable?

(That’s not even getting into the fact that the show’s depiction of gem fusion is heavily based on consent, which is a concept apparently missing from most romcom filmmakers’ vocabularies.)

If you’re queer, on the other hand–especially if you’re a queer woman or nonbinary person–Ruby and Sapphire’s love story probably felt very familiar to you, but not from the media.

As queer representation in film and television is finally expanding (albeit glacially), there are still very few depictions that feel true to what our experience is actually like. Sure, sometimes there’s the religious homophobic parent or the bullying classmates or the angst about coming out, for whatever that’s worth. Usually it’s just two people falling randomly into bed together without any exploration of how they might’ve gotten there.

What “The Answer” does incredibly well is that it portrays that “unthinkableness” of it, really makes that come alive. It’s something I wrote about recently in my piece on Medium, “What It Feels Like for a Queer Girl“:

It doesn’t matter if the other person is openly queer themselves, even. It’s not just about fear of homophobic backlash or an especially cruel rejection. It’s the pervasive, gnawing, choking feeling that what you want is simply impossible. It feels like trying to make two parallel lines meet. Like climbing all the way to the top of one of M.C. Escher’s dizzying staircases. Every time I’ve expressed desire for another woman — and don’t misunderstand, there have been plenty of times, despite it all — I’ve felt like laughing at myself. Not funny ha-ha, but ridiculous ha-ha, like what the fuck am I doing ha-ha.

To me, being queer is living with this kind of cognitive dissonance forever — that something feels so natural to me, and yet I am convinced of its impossibility, and that conviction is firmer than almost anything else I believe.

With Garnet’s story, Steven Universe uses an allegory to show how difficult it can be to start imagining these new possibilities when you’ve never been allowed to. On the gems’ Homeworld, fusion is only for two or more gems of the same type (and only for a specific, time-limited purpose, like a battle). The first time Ruby and Sapphire fuse, it’s an accident–they didn’t even think that it was possible. They didn’t even think to wonder if it was possible. But as it turns out, it is, and they realize that they like it.

The song that AV Club calls “color-by-numbers” is actually a subtle exploration of that experience.

Where did we go?
What did we do?
I think it was something
Entirely new

And it wasn’t quite me
And it wasn’t quite you
I think it was someone
Entirely new

Trust me, the average hetero couple hooking up in your standard romcom knows exactly what they did.

Ruby: Oh, um, well–I just can’t stop thinking–
Sapphire: So, um, did you say I was different?
Ruby: –and you hadn’t before?
Sapphire: Of course not! When would I have ever?
Ruby: I’m so sorry–
Sapphire: No, no, don’t be!
Ruby: –and now you’re here forever!
Sapphire: What about you?
Ruby: What about me?
Sapphire: Well, you’re here too. We’re here together.

This isn’t about “I’m your first, right?” This is about two people trying to figure out what just happened and why it felt so different from anything they’ve ever experienced. Sapphire is “different” for Ruby because Ruby only ever got to fuse with other rubies. And she “hasn’t before” because sapphires don’t get to fuse at all. On Homeworld, everyone has their role, and they don’t step out of it–until now.

Cotton Candy Garnet explores her new form.
I love this adorable moment when Garnet figures out how her new body moves.

(Later, we find out what happens to Homeworld gems who “came out wrong” or who want to live in fusions–they hide away underground, under threat of capture and shattering.)

So unthinkable is Ruby and Sapphire’s fusion that Sapphire–who can see the future, and up until that moment saw her entire life laid out before her–literally didn’t see this coming. And when it does, it changes everything, costing Ruby and Sapphire their social positions, their home, their friends, their ideologies, and very nearly their lives.

Pretty relatable for anyone who’s ever come out and been rejected.

(Luckily for Sapphire and the lives of everyone she loves, her future vision eventually returns.)

I’m not surprised that lots of folks apparently missed the queer nuances of this 12-minute bit of children’s television, and I’m amazed at what it somehow managed to emcompass in those 12 minutes. I hope that it’s made a lot of other queer folks feel validated, and I hope that my perspective on it helps make our experiences more real to those who don’t share them.

Rose Quarts tells Garnet that Garnet herself is the answer to all of her own questions.


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Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

The cover of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisited here.

When we last left Charles, he was a middle-aged army officer who had just arrived at Brideshead, a place of such deep personal significance that he’s literally left speechless when he realizes where he is. Now he takes us back in time 20-25(?) years to his student days at 1920s Oxford, where he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family lived at Brideshead and with whom he would quickly become entangled.

Young Charles comes from a middle-class(-ish?) family and is studying Intellectual Things(?) at Oxford and is interested in art. Honestly, much of the Oxford-related parts were really hard for me to fully understand because there are constant references to Oxford culture–perhaps specifically 1920s Oxford culture–that I don’t understand, and can sometimes resolve with a Google and sometimes not. For instance, I learned that Eights Week is some big rowing competition thing that still happens at Oxford every year. I also learned that back then Oxford students basically had servants whose job it was to clean their rooms for them. Also, even a not-filthy rich student like Charles had “rooms.” Rooms, plural! Not one shitty little dorm room that you share with a random roommate!

Charles fills his rooms with art, books, and wine, although he acknowledges that they’re not as nice as what he would like to say he could afford. In fact, Charles freely acknowledges that he ends up spending way too much on unnecessary things (so much so that he has to spend his summer vacation at home with his weird-ass dad–the horror!). I think Charles is struggling with something familiar to anyone from a modest or low-income background who suddenly finds themselves surrounded by really rich people, which is that being relatively poor tends to hurt worse than being absolutely poor.

Longchamp Le Pliage tote bag
This fucking thing haunted my college experience

It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles for having to have reproductions of art rather than originals hanging in his multiple rooms and “meager and commonplace” books rather than “seventeeth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered silk,” but when you’re a young person on your own for the first time and you’re trying to fit in with an entirely different social context than you grew up in (something that definitely described my own painful college experience), things like that can suddenly take on huge significance. When I was in college, I felt awkward and out of place because I couldn’t afford Urban Outfitters clothes and Longchamp bags, which everyone else seemed to have, but now I’m amazed that I ever gave a fuck and also regretful that I went to a school with such a lack of socioeconomic diversity that that ever became an issue.

Initially, Charles falls in with a bunch of similarly middle-class and intellectual friends, the kind he’d always had at school. But although he enjoys their company and loves college life, he remembers, “I felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.” Indeed, everything changes for him when he meets Sebastian: “At Sebastian’s approach, these gray figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.”

Charles’ and Sebastian’s first meeting is literally a scene out of a gay 1920s British romcom, if such a thing existed. Charles is chilling with his friends in his multiple fucking rooms–ground-floor rooms against which his older and wiser cousin warned him for the exact reason he’s about to discover–and drinking wine. They hear drunk people stumbling around outside, and suddenly one of them approaches the open window, looks at Charles, and proceeds to literally throw up right into the room.

One of his friend apologizes for him in what I can only imagine is a typical Oxford manner: “The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”

Anyway, Charles’ room-servant dude (they’re called scouts, and his name is Lunt) is pretty irate at him in the morning because, yes, scouts cleaned up your vomit for you at Oxford, but when Charles returns later that day, Lunt says that “the gentleman from last night” sent a note and literally enough flowers to fill up the whole room. Guys. Can we talk for a sec about how adorable that is.

Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film.
Sebastian with his teddy bear and his impeccable fashion sense, as portrayed in the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited..

Charles had already known Sebastian by reputation, and that reputation is that he’s hot as hell and that he carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, with him everywhere and talks to/about it as if it’s real. Seriously. Apparently he once went to a barber shop to buy a brush for Aloysius, not to groom him with but to spank him with. Like, he told this to the barber. Anyway, I love that in this social context a dude can be known all over the college both for being hot as hell and for talking to his teddy bear that he carries everywhere.

So of course I have to speculate about what’s up with the teddy bear. I think some readers would be tempted to consider the whole thing an affectation, a way to get attention by being ~~~so weird~~~ and ~~~so edgy~~~ and even kind of ~~~fucking with traditional masculinity~~~. But I don’t actually know exactly what traditional masculinity looked like for this particular segment of 1920s Oxford. Clearly Sebastian does get a lot of attention on account of the teddy bear, but Charles seems to think that he’d be getting it regardless. His family is kinda famous and weird, and he’s hot, and he’s rich, and he has a ton of friends and drinks a lot and throws up into people’s rooms.

There’s also the theory that Sebastian actually has a delusion that the teddy bear is alive and all that, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to show any other signs of delusional/hallucinatory thinking. He doesn’t seem any more out-of-touch with reality than any other rich college student would be. Besides, this would be the most boring answer, and Waugh is not a boring writer.

I do think it’s part affectation–I think Sebastian likes being seen as the weird guy who carries a teddy bear everywhere–but there’s more to it. Even now it’s already obvious that Sebastian uses Aloysius as a way to admit to feelings that are otherwise difficult to admit and perform actions that are otherwise difficult to perform. For instance, in his apology note to Charles, he writes, “I am very contrite. Aloysius won’t speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today.” (Oh yeah, that too–in the note, he invites him to lunch. CUTE.) Although Sebastian is apologizing, he displaces the agency from himself onto Aloysius. The teddy bear isn’t speaking to him, so he has to seek forgiveness from Charles. See, it’s not because he really wants forgiveness for himself; it’s all because of Aloysius.

So, long story short, Charles starts hanging out with Sebastian and his teddy bear and all his cool friends. It’s not without reservation, though, at least not at first. He goes “uncertainly,” with a “warning voice” telling him not to. “But,” he says, “I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at least, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”

What the heck is he talking about? Excitement? Romantic love? Belonging? This is one of the passages folks cite when arguing that Brideshead Revisited is at least in part about a queer relationship (though there’s a lot more evidence for it than that), but I don’t think Charles is talking about just that, and more importantly, I don’t think he realizes himself what exactly he’s talking about. He’s chasing a feeling, a feeling that he gets in connection to Sebastian. He’s drawn to him for a lot of complicated reasons–some to do with family, some to do with class and money, some to do with social status, and probably some to do with attraction.

There are a lot of moments so far in the book that can be interpreted as hints that Charles and Sebastian are falling in love with each other–the fact that Sebastian becomes possessive of Charles and doesn’t want his family to “take” him away, the fact that Charles refers to Sebastian as “entrancing,” the fact that Charles has spring break plans with one of his soon-to-be-former friends but recalls without any guilt that he would’ve ditched him at a moment’s notice if Sebastian had invited him somewhere.

I doubt this view will surprise anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about art and literature, but I don’t think that “Do Charles and Sebastian like each other That Way?” is a particularly valid or interesting question when we’re talking about fictional people. The more valid and interesting question is, “Which different readings of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship can we justify using the text, and how can we justify them?”

Obviously, you can read the whole thing is Totally Not Gay At All and simply an allegory about wishing you had been born someone and somewhere else. It’s not that Charles is in love with Sebastian, it’s that he’s in love with the idea of him, with the idea of being so at ease in the world (this is an example of Charles’ naiveté and tendency to project things onto people–I don’t think Sebastian is at ease anywhere or with anything much at all), with his own idealization of Sebastian’s family, with Catholicism (I’m told this is going to play a massive role in the book, and is actually what Waugh intended for the book to be about, not that that means we have to agree with him).

You can also read their relationship as a romantic friendship, which means it falls into that interesting historical space where you cannot assign labels like “gay” or “straight” to people who did not use those labels. (I’m not entirely sure that 1920s Oxford lacked them, however; another character who becomes prominent in the next chapter was apparently thought of as “a homosexual,” but nevertheless, romantic friendships are probably impossible to categorize using modern sexual orientation terms.)

To me, the fact that you can’t really “know” if a romantic friendship was Actually Just Dudes Being Pals or Actually Totally Gay is part of what’s so fascinating about the concept. Sure, it rankles that part of me that hates and fears queer invisibility. But on the other hand, I love the idea of people engaging freely (or somewhat freely) in same-sex play and love under cover of what was actually a genuine and meaningful friendship. I also love how valuable those relationships must’ve been even when they involved no sex whatsoever, and I love how they subtly pushed back against the idea that the Serious Romantic Couple should be at the center of our interpersonal lives, and I love how they showed that the distinctions we now draw between Liking Someone As A Friend and Liking Someone That Way and Being Attracted To Someone are a lot less clear and obvious than most of us are comfortable admitting.

Anyway, I love romantic friendships and I love the reading that Charles and Sebastian have one.

On the other hand, you can definitely also make the case for a more explicit relationship, especially considering the jealousy stuff and Charles’ focus on Sebastian’s looks and other stuff that comes up later in the book that I won’t get into now. The 2008 Brideshead Revisited film actually took this route and had them kiss, although obviously movies can and do reinterpret the books they’re based on in lots of ways.

But honestly, every time I try to draw a line between what it would look like if Charles and Sebastian Liked Each Other That Way versus if they were Just Really Good Friends, I can’t. Yes, at that time it was probably pretty normal for friends–including men–to express their friendship in grandiose romantic terms. And at that time–meaning 1945–Waugh could not have published a book with explicit gay sex in it anyway. So did they or didn’t they? I have no idea, but it sure is fun to think about.

People interpret their own feelings based on their social context and the narratives they subscribe to about what different feelings mean and how people are supposed to interact. In a liberal American city in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that they’re into each other, and they might go on dates and have sex and eventually become boyfriends and move in together and get married and host really fun parties and have kids. (Or not.) In a conservative Christian small town in Texas in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that there’s something wrong with them, that they need spiritual help, that they’re sinful, or that, fuck it, we’re gonna meet up in the park late at night and hook up, or leave this fucking town entirely.

Of course, people can and do switch up these narratives all the damn time–otherwise there wouldn’t have been any queer people fucking in most of the world until recently–but it’s hard. Based on my read of this book so far, a man at Oxford in the 1920s could openly pursue sex or love with men and become known as The Campus Homosexual and be subject to lots of ridicule (but still find a social group, it seems like), but otherwise he was probably going to interpret any sexual/romantic feelings for other men in a different way–especially if he is also, like Charles, attracted to women.

So, long story short, Charles and Sebastian meet and become fascinated with each other and do whatever it is they’re doing. At the end of the chapter, Sebastian borrows a car from a friend and takes Charles home to Brideshead–not to meet his family, apparently, but to meet his former nanny.

From the start, Sebastian is acting kind of sketchy about his family. “Don’t worry,” he says about them to Charles, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.” As if he’s concerned about Charles here rather than himself.

When Sebastian visits his nanny, he finds out that his sister Julia is actually staying at the house and is about to come home, at which point he mysteriously rushes Charles away. “What are you ashamed of, her or me?” asks Charles. Sebastian responds:

“I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.”

This is fascinating given that Charles and Julia eventually fall in love. (Sorry, spoiler. You can’t really avoid them when talking about classics. If it makes you feel any better, I had half the book spoiled for me just by reading the introduction, and anyway you don’t read these books for the plot.) What has Sebastian’s family already taken away? How much resemblance does his perception have to reality, or to their perceptions? Hopefully this is something that’s going to get clearer later.

Before leaving, Sebastian shows Charles the Brideshead chapel. When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and does some other churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do, but when Charles copies him he gets “cross” and demands to know why Charles did that. He responds that it’s good manners, and Sebastian says, “Well, you needn’t on my account.”

What’s up with that? Charles and Sebastian haven’t discussed religion yet (at least, not in view of the reader), and as far as I know nothing’s been said about Charles’ religion. Yet Sebastian seems to assume that he’s faking, and finds that offensive, annoying, or both. I’m guessing that back then you sort of knew who was Catholic and who wasn’t because shit like that would’ve come up in conversation, but I still find it interesting that Sebastian doesn’t appreciate Charles doing the churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do. Maybe he sees him as encroaching on his territory or trying to get involved in parts of his life that he doesn’t want him to be “mixed up” with, just like his family. Maybe he’s lost his faith himself, so seeing someone else pretend at it is irritating.

In any case, Sebastian’s definitely annoyed at Charles for showing what Sebastian perceives as excessive interest in his family. Charles explains that he’s curious about people’s families because his mom died in the war (World War I, presumably) and he has no siblings, so it’s just him and his dad and the aunt that his dad “drove abroad” so she’s not really around either. So now it kind of makes sense that Charles idealizes Sebastian’s family and is totally fascinated by it even though he literally knows nothing about them besides whatever random gossip he may have heard at Oxford.

But then again, why Sebastian’s family specifically? Charles tells him that he’s “rather curious about people’s families,” but we haven’t seen him show any interest in anyone else’s families, certainly not those of his friends that he’s abandoned now that he’s got Sebastian. Soooo. Since I favor the queer reading myself, it feels to me like he’s doing that thing people do when they have a crush on someone and they’re desperately curious to know everything about them. That, mixed with Charles’ probably-genuine bitterness that he never really got to have a “normal” family (whatever the hell that is) and his wish to sort of become part of someone else’s.

Chapter One establishes the sort of person Charles was going into his young adulthood, the life he created for himself at Oxford, and the way he first became fascinated with Sebastian and his family. I find myself wishing that the class difference were a bit more fully explored, but maybe that’s coming later. (Maybe it’s not the only thing that’s coming later? Eh? EHHHH? Fine, I’ll show myself out.)


Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.

For more about queer readings of not-specified-queer characters, here’s my take on that in a much more modern context.

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[book club] Brideshead Revisited: Chapter One

Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

“Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is the poly-related question I get most often next to “How do I get my partner to try polyamory?” Let’s unpack this.

My answers to this question range from “yes” to “it depends” to “that question makes no sense.” Some people feel that their poly is an orientation, analogous to their sexual orientation. Some people feel that their poly is a lifestyle choice and that they could/would choose differently depending on the circumstances. So, it depends.

But more broadly, I don’t think this question makes much sense or is very relevant. Remember “the map is not the territory”? “Orientation” and “lifestyle choice” are not natural categories; they are concepts that humans created and can define and redefine however they like. We might as well argue whether being gay is bleep or bloop. What do bleep and bloop mean? You decide!

Of course, I’m being slightly facetious, as the terms “orientation” and “lifestyle choice” do have more-or-less accepted definitions. But those definitions are increasingly slippery. The idea that sexual orientation (or relationship orientation, if we’re including polyamory here) is innate and fixed has been challenged. I have myself challenged it, because my sexual orientation has changed. The idea that lifestyle choices are actually choices is also getting challenged by research in psychology and neuroscience that suggests that, while we do choose our behaviors, we don’t choose to be strongly inclined towards certain behaviors and not others. (That’s not even getting into the thorny issue that certain choices are so strongly encouraged or discouraged by societies that they might not feel like choices at all.) That means that even if engaging in polyamory is a choice, wanting to do it might not be.

And that means that the concept of sexual orientation is much more complicated than we thought, too. After all, nobody is forcing gay, lesbian, or bisexual people to have sex with or date people of the same gender. (Quite the opposite, really.) They don’t have to do it. They choose to do it, because they want to. While the idea of choosing not to act on one’s queer desires is mostly homophobic Christian tripe, it is technically true that your sexual orientation doesn’t actually determine your behavior or vice versa. That’s why queer people are still queer whether or not they’ve had any experience with same-sex love or intimacy.

I think that “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is a Trojan horse. It’s hiding two scarier questions that most people have a much harder time asking openly. They are:

  1. “Can I force myself into a monogamous relationship even though I prefer polyamory?”
  2. “Do I really have to tolerate these people?”

The first question is what’s usually meant by people who are asking about orientations versus lifestyle choices because they want to be polyamorous but their current or prospective partner wants to be monogamous. This is making them unhappy, so they’re wondering if being poly is like being gay–meaning, sorry, tough luck, you’re gonna have to deal with it–or if it’s like vacationing in Hawaii or going to burlesque shows, meaning that, as fun as it is, you can definitely live without it if you must.

This is where it comes back to my answer, “It depends.” Nobody can decide for you whether or not you can be happy in a monogamous relationship (or in a poly relationship, if the decision is going the other way). Some people can and some can’t. Sometimes you have to try it to find out.

But most of the people who ask me this are already deeply unhappy with monogamy, and already know that if they had their way they’d be poly. Guess what? When it comes to relationships, you can have your way. Anyone who makes you feel otherwise is manipulative at best and abusive at worst. You can leave your monogamous partner and start new relationships with poly people. Yes, leaving that partner may suck, but then you have to decide what sucks more, breaking up or being monogamous. Nobody can decide for you.

So, if the real question isn’t “which arbitrary socially-constructed category should I place polyamory into” but rather “can I be poly/monogamous or not,” then ask the real question, even if it’s scary.

The second question comes from non-poly people who feel uncomfortable, disgusted, and/or morally opposed to polyamory and want to know if they reeeeally have to accept and respect it. But that’s not something you can ask directly in polite company, so instead they go with the shorthand: is it an orientation or a lifestyle?

To understand why this shorthand works, you have to understand what I see as one of the great failures of the LGBTQ rights movement: the concept of respecting/tolerating people’s identities because they are (seen as) inevitable and unchangeable, not because it’s none of your damn business, doesn’t hurt anyone, or–this is the really radical option–because it’s simply part of human diversity and should be celebrated as such. In this framework, it’s wrong to judge people for something they can’t control. Judging them for their choices, however, is fair game.

“They’re born this way,” we say. “They didn’t choose to be gay. It’s wrong to hate them for something they didn’t choose.”

Of course, LGBTQ folks themselves have almost all moved on from this reductive and ultimately damaging mythology. But we share responsibility for promoting it in the first place, because now it’s become mainstream and is actively preventing acceptance of marginalized identities that are seen as chosen rather than innate.

That’s a rant for another blog post, though. The point is that when non-poly people ask if polyamory is an orientation or not, what they’re often implying is this: “If y’all didn’t choose to be this way, then I guess I can accept that because it’s not your fault. But if you did…”

Even if polyamory is as much a choice as which color of nail polish to get at the salon, you still shouldn’t judge people for practicing it–first of all because it’s got nothing to do with you, and second because it’s a valid relationship style that should be affirmed like any other. I celebrate any choice that makes someone happier and healthier and doesn’t harm anyone else. That’s why I celebrate (ethical) polyamory.

The question “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice” is boring and irrelevant to me because it’s just sorting words into other words. It’s the semantic equivalent of taking a pile of books and putting them into arbitrary stacks rather than actually reading the books. If you find semantic arguments interesting, by all means, have at it. But I think most of the people who wonder about this question are not interested in semantics so much as in figuring out what kind of life they can have, or want to have.

Labels are useful for a lot of things, but they won’t answer that question for you.


Some interesting related reading:


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Polyamory: Orientation or Lifestyle Choice?

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

A common way that people invalidate certain marginalized identities is to claim that they developed as a result of trauma.

When I write it out that way and think about it outside of the context of any current civil rights movements, it sounds completely bananas. How could attributing someone’s identity to trauma possibly invalidate it? Isn’t it common sense that going through trauma often changes people permanently? Would anyone consider it invalid for a veteran to be afraid of fireworks or for someone who survived a flood to avoid going swimming?

As it turns out, when trauma gets tangled up with marginalized identities, all common sense flies out the window.

The problem is that many people will only accept marginalized identities if they view them as unchangeable, unchoosable, and biological in origin. Consequently, many advocates for people with marginalized identities believe that the only way to increase acceptance of marginalized identities is to present them that way. (This includes many people with marginalized identities themselves, as we do not come out of the womb with a perfect understanding of our identities any more than we come out of the womb with those identities already in place.)

If not for the fact that many of us grew up already steeped in the Born That Way narrative, I think more people would see this as the massive insult that it is. In this view, being [insert marginalized identity here] is only okay because they didn’t choose it, the poor things, they were born that way, and if they could change it, they would! Few liberals will say this out loud, but even tolerant people often maintain the belief that marginalized identities are inherently inferior and that of course those people would choose to be normal if they could.

That is insulting and oppressive.

Continue reading “Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid”

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

Against One Penis Policies

Let’s talk about one penis policies, which is when a nonmonogamous couple–generally a straight man and a queer woman–create a rule stating that the woman can only have sex with other women. (In a less extreme but probably harder-to-enforce version, the woman can have casual sex with other men, but she can only fall in love with or form committed relationships with women.)

One penis policies are generally justified using some combination of these rhetorical moves:

  • “Well it works for us so you can’t judge it”
  • “It’s equal because both of us are only seeing women”
  • “I [the man] can’t emotionally handle her fucking another man so isn’t this better than just being monogamous”
  • “I [the man] wanted to give her the opportunity to explore her interest in other women; she doesn’t need another man”
  • “I [the woman] am not interested in any other men anyway so what’s the problem”

I’m going to suggest another justification for one penis policies, one that tends to underlie the rest. This one usually remains invisible because nobody wants to say it out loud and sometimes they don’t even realize it’s what they believe:

Girls don’t count.

Continue reading “Against One Penis Policies”

Against One Penis Policies

Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?

armchairs

[CN: homophobia, thought experiment-ish discussion of bigotry]

The topic of therapists refusing to work with particular clients due to differences in values is one that came up often when I was in graduate school, and continues to come up often as therapists–many of whom come from traditional Christian backgrounds–confront the reality of practicing in diverse settings.

“Differences in values” usually refers to homophobic therapists not wanting to work with lesbian, gay, and bi/pan clients, but it can actually apply to tons of different marginalized identities: trans, poly, kinky, atheist, Muslim, and more. Differences in values can also impact therapeutic work with clients who are making decisions that the therapist strongly disagrees with for whatever reason, such as getting a divorce, getting an abortion, accusing someone of sexual assault, and so on.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, competent and ethical therapists occasionally choose not to work with particular clients for all sorts of reasons. They may feel that they lack sufficient knowledge or experience to help a client with a particular niche issue or disorder, and that they can’t make up for it with extra training quickly enough to avoid harming the client. They may be triggered by some aspect of the client–for instance, some therapists cannot work with convicted/admitted rapists, especially if pedophilia is involved. They may realize they’re too closely connected to the client within their community–for instance, the client is the parent of the therapist’s child’s best friend, or the client is dating a close friend of the therapist. (Although in these situations, openly discussing it with the client and setting some boundaries and expectations also goes a long way.)

Regardless, if a therapist chooses not to work with a client, it’s their ethical responsibility to refer the client to another professional who can work with them effectively. So it’s never just like, “Nope, can’t help ya, sorry.” And if you ever get that response while seeking therapy, know that you’re entitled to get some help finding someone else.

So choosing not to work with particular clients due to lack of knowledge/skill, personal triggers, and boundary issues is accepted in the field. How about choosing not to work with particular clients because you cannot accept their identities or lifestyle choices?

Continue reading “Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?”

Should Therapists Decline to Work With Clients They’re Bigoted Against?

A Guide for Straight and Cisgender Allies in LGBTQIA+ Spaces

And here’s my other Everyday Feminism piece that I forgot to post. Enjoy!

A few weeks ago on December 31, I was getting ready for a wonderful New Year’s Eve with my friends and chosen family. It was a bittersweet night, too, because it was the night our local lesbian nightclub, Wall Street, would be shutting its doors for the last time.

Although I wouldn’t be there at its last show because I’d decided to host my own party, I knew I would treasure my memories of it — the burlesque, the drag shows, the drinks, the dancing, and, of course, all my lovely queer friends that I went there with.

But that very morning, I heard it — a man’s arrogant voice coming from somewhere in my office building: “I’m definitely going out to Wall Street for New Year’s tonight to look at the freaks!”

The freaks? I thought. Oh, right, that’s what he thinks of people like me and my friends, and all the lovely and fabulous performers we’ve seen on the stage at Wall Street.

Most straight cis folks would never say something like that about a LGBTQIA+ space, but I’ve observed similar attitudes playing out in all sorts of small ways throughout the times I’ve spent in these spaces.

While the man I overheard clearly has some deeply-ingrained bigotry I couldn’t hope to dislodge anytime soon, most straight cis folks I encounter in LGBTQIA+ spaces are liberal allies, there to support friends or experience something new. Yet, as well-meaning as they are, their intentions don’t always translate into appropriate, non-oppressive behavior in these spaces.

Here are some guidelines for allies who want to attend queer spaces in a respectful way.

1. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (If You Can)

If you’re at a gay bar or club, tip well. If you participate in a queer-centered space or event, donate to the organization that maintains or sponsors it.

Among the queer community, it’s a sad and well-known fact that queer spaces, especially lesbian bars, are on the decline. One reason for this is that LGBTQIA+ people are increasingly accepted in “mainstream” society and have plenty of ways to safely hang out and meet potential partners than ever before.

While that’s a positive thing, of course, those benefits aren’t shared equally by all LGBTQIA+ people. Queer and trans people of color, for instance, still face disproportionate violence just for being themselves out in the world.

When safe(r) spaces like LGBTQIA+ bars and clubs disappear, it hurts all of us, but especially those who may still not be safe in other social spaces.

There are other reasons queer establishments are shutting down. As the formerly inexpensive neighborhoods they’re in gentrify, owners often can’t afford to pay the rent anymore. That seems to be what happened to my beloved Wall Street here in Columbus.

But cis straight “tourists” play a role, too. Last year, journalist Peter Lawrence Kane investigated the decline of LGBTQ bars and interviewed a few bartenders:

“‘We get a lot more tourists these days. It can feel like we work in a circus sideshow than a neighborhood queer bar,’ [barback Daniel Erickson] says, explaining that the influx of well-heeled newcomers into Williamsburg has led many longtime, ‘alternative’ regulars to move elsewhere. ‘I’ve noticed queer, drag or performance parties opening up in random spaces that move from month to month. Illegal, unconventional queer spaces that allow for a much more intimate expression and interplay between artists and the local community.’”

These “illegal, unconventional queer spaces” may be difficult to find for those not in the know, who have no choice but to watch as their favorite gathering spots shut down one by one.

So, if you’re a straight/cis ally entering these types of queer spaces, you need to be aware of the fact that, well-intentioned as it is, your presence there may be contributing to their slow decline. Help offset that by tipping generously.

Read the rest here.

A Guide for Straight and Cisgender Allies in LGBTQIA+ Spaces

In Defense of Finn/Poe

[Star Wars spoilers ahead]

Having now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times in eight days, I’m thoroughly obsessed with the movie and have become fascinated by the growing ranks of Finn/Poe shippers: fans, many of them queer, who create art and fiction depicting the film’s two male protagonists as partners, and who hope that Episode VIII might make the pairing canonical.

It’s about time for a Star Wars film to have queer protagonists, just like it was about time for it to have non-white/non-male protagonists (and in this it succeeded, splendidly).

However, I’ve seen a lot of negative responses to this idea, such as “But it’s OBVIOUS they’re just friends” and “Why do you [gays] have to insert sex into everything” and “Why can’t you just let them be friends?”

Alright.

First of all, it’s worth noting that while queer shippers are always catching flak online for “reading too much into” presumably platonic same-sex situations or “making it all about sex” when it “clearly” isn’t, straight people rarely get criticized for doing the same thing–not just when interacting with fictional worlds, but in the real one, too. If you’ve ever heard a straight person go “OooOOOOOooo is that your boyfriend?” to an 8-year-old girl playing with an 8-year-old boy from the house next door, or “He’s going to be such a ladies’ man!” about an infant boy making cooing sounds at a few baby girls, you know what I’m talking about. How’s that for reading too much into things?

Beyond that, though, straight people–and to some extent queer people, since we get socialized the same way–tend to expect heterosexual pairings in fictional stories whether the signs are necessarily there or not. And they often are, because the people who create those stories also expect those pairings to be there, and they expect that the presence of those pairings will make the stories sell better. That’s why you rarely encounter a movie that does not include any heterosexual sex or romance, whether that movie is about aliens, robots, spies, superheroes, 18th century England, 21st century New York City, or what have you.

The constant ridicule and derision of queer shippers online neatly parallels real-world claims that queer people are “pushing their sexuality” on others. “I’m fine with gay people, but why do they have to shove it in my face?” is a common complaint when queer people do anything other than be silent and invisible. Online and off, good little queers don’t make any mention of same-sex romance or eroticism, and they certainly don’t hope out loud that two characters in a popular film turn out to be queer.

Second, a lot of straight people don’t realize that the beginnings of romance or sexual attraction between two queer people often do look like “just friendship,” because it’s often not safe for us to express ourselves any other way. Being obvious about our interest exposes us to outing, ridicule, bullying, and even physical violence (especially for men, people of color, and trans people). If queer people don’t occasionally read “more” into otherwise-platonic gestures and expressions, we’d probably never find any partners. If you want to know more about this and how complicated it can be, read this Autostraddle article.

So, queer people are constantly in a double-bind. If we avoid trying to read between the lines and always interpret others’ friendly behavior towards us as merely platonic, we’ll pretty much be forever alone. If we do read more into it, we risk ridicule and worse. That’s why it comes across as more than a little insulting and irrelevant when straight people criticize queer people for “reading too much into things.”

(I just want to state for the record that at this point, some queer person over the age of 30 usually shows up and belittles me because they’ve got this figured out and it’s “obviously” so simple, but rest assured that for most of us, especially when we’re still young, surrounded by straight people, and/or newly out, it’s really not simple or easy at all. But guess what, queer people are not a monolith.)

A great example of this in action is the eventual pairing of Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra. Plenty of queer women saw the signs, but most straight people seemed to be totally shocked when the relationship was confirmed as canon. Some even reacted angrily and accused the creators of pandering to the queer community with this unrealistic development. Yet to us, it didn’t feel unrealistic at all.

Aside from rare examples like Korrasami, queer people are very aware, thank you, that we don’t get any representation in most fictional works (and that when we do, it’s usually marginal and/or negative). A lot of the folks enthusiastically shipping Poe and Finn do not really believe that the pairing will ever be canonical, but for them, it’s a fun sort of escapism anyway. Do you have any idea how condescending you sound when you interrupt with “Come on, they’re obviously just friends”? You might as well burst into the theater on opening night shouting “BUT YOU GUYS, JEDIS AND LIGHTSABERS AREN’T ACTUALLY REAL.” Thanks, Captain Obvious of the Imperial Star Destroyer Ruining Everyone’s Fun Forever.

(Yet, a universe in which people with mind-control powers can shoot lightning out of their fingers and use laser-swords made out of magical crystals to block laser blasts is easier for some people to grok than the idea that queer people might exist in it.)

http://dicaeopolis.tumblr.com/post/135933767197

So, sure, based on the material in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe might be headed towards a romantic relationship (or a one-sided crush, maybe on Poe’s end) or they might be headed towards a deep platonic bond. Poe might be sexually attracted to Finn or he might just admire his bravery, ability, and sense of right and wrong (as well as being pretty grateful to him for saving him from the First Order). Finn might be falling for Poe or he might be starting to love him as a friend, the first friend he ever had, the first person to ever look at him as a human being and not as a programmed killer, the first person to give him a real name. Poe might have given Finn his jacket to keep because Finn looks sexy in it, or because he’s grateful and wants Finn to feel like a part of the Resistance.

Or…it could be all of the above.

Because here’s the truth that all of this ultimately reveals: even for straight people, romance and friendship are not all that different. They are not mutually exclusive categories. The hints and signs of one may be the hints and signs of the other. One may grow out of the other, and although it more often goes in one direction than the other, a passionate romance can, in fact, transform into a deep platonic connection. It has happened to me. It’s probably happened to more people than you think.

When you look at it that way, Finn/Rey–the “obvious” romantic pairing that people always use to try to disprove the possibility of a Finn/Poe pairing–is neither so obvious nor so inevitable. If Finn and Rey were of the same gender, or if we lived in a backwards world in which queerness was the norm and straightness was the weird anomaly, we would find plenty of ways to read their relationship as purely platonic. (Just like we currently find ways to read two women making out or fucking as “just gals being pals.”) Finn asking Rey if she has a “cute boyfriend” would be an obvious sign of jealousy–not of her boyfriend, but of her. Finn grabbing Rey’s hand would “obviously” be because he’s trying to help her run away and that’s how people always help each other run away in the holovids he grew up watching. Rey’s horror and fury when she thinks that Kylo has killed Finn? Well, obviously, they’re close friends and anyone would be horrified and furious if someone murdered their close friend. Hell, she even calls him “my friend” in the last scene she has with him, where he’s lying unconscious at the Resistance base. “My friend”! How much more obvious can you get?

Finn’s behavior towards Rey might also be familiar to any queer person who has ever tried to convince themselves (consciously or otherwise) that they’re actually straight, any queer person who took a while to figure out that they’re queer. Think about it: Finn grew up brainwashed by an evil, violent regime that demanded complete conformity. I doubt he saw many queer male role models there. He sees a beautiful girl (yes, queer people are able to notice and appreciate beauty in people of genders they’re not into) and thinks, “This is how a man behaves with a beautiful woman.” As we’ve seen, Finn is not at all immune to some (adorable) macho posturing now and then.

Again, that’s just one reading. Another is that Finn is bisexual. Maybe he’ll end up interested in both Rey and Poe, and there will be a painful love triangle. Or maybe they’ll be poly and there won’t be. Maybe Rey is a lesbian. Maybe Finn is a sappy romantic asexual. Who knows? Isn’t it fascinating?

 

http://chaoslindsay.tumblr.com/post/135670908879/we-know-finn-we-all-know-hat-tip-to

The reason it’s so ambiguous right now isn’t (just) because the film’s creators want to build tension and curiosity for the next film. It’s also because the line between romance and friendship is itself ambiguous. True, in many movies–especially ones centered on more on romance and less on space battles–it’s made very blatant and obvious, because that creates drama and is more interesting for (some) moviegoers. People like to see the sexy [person of their preferred gender(s)] who clearly and obviously comes on to someone who could be them. People like the black-and-whiteness, the reassurance that romance always looks this particular way and you can’t miss it. It’s a fantasy as much as Jedis and lightsabers are; we’re just lulled into thinking it isn’t because the characters look like us (especially if we are white and conventionally attractive) and the settings look like places we’ve seen or heard about.

But back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction don’t always announce themselves like stormtroopers raiding a village on Jakku. (Thankfully.) Sometimes it looks exactly like Finn and Poe in that movie, whatever the gender combination. Other times it looks more like Finn and Rey, or Han and Leia, or, hell, R2D2 and C-3PO. (I think, though, we can all agree that it almost never looks like Anakin and Padme.)

And back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction can be very much not-obvious, especially when it happens in ways that are stigmatized and erased all the time. Yes, you can go years without realizing that your best friend is in love with you. You can, in fact, go years without realizing that you’re in love with your best friend. (Been there.) You can convince yourself that you’re not attracted to them, you’re just admiring them for their “objective” beauty. (Been there too.) You can tell yourself you’re jealous of their new partner because you miss spending that much time with them, not because you want to be their new partner. 

You can also choose not to act on feelings that you have. Two people can want to fuck each other and yet not fuck. Two people can be in love and yet not date. And this can be okay, and they can be happy with the friendship that they have without always regretting not having “given it a chance.” Sex and romance are not as inevitable and unstoppable as the movies make them seem, and for many people, they aren’t even the primary focus of their interpersonal lives.

Even if Finn and Poe don’t end up together in those ways, even if the rest of their on-screen relationship continues to look only like cinema’s most adorable bromance, that doesn’t actually mean they’re not sexually attracted to each other and/or in love. Or maybe it does. Who knows?

And while there will always be a canonical Finn and a canonical Poe, fans still get to do whatever they want with those characters in their own art and fiction. “Canon” doesn’t mean “real” because none of these characters or stories are real. People made them up. Other people are free to make them up in different ways, to have gay Poe and bi Finn and lesbian Rey and Han who didn’t actually die (sobbing) and Kylo who comes back to the Light Side (or doesn’t) and Captain Phasma who meets and falls in love with General Organa but doesn’t want to desert her cause (or does).

That’s why I’ve got no beef with anyone who simply says, “I see Poe and Finn as just friends.” (And I can’t complain about a movie centered in part on a close friendship between two men of color.) By all means, see them however you like!  But don’t act like seeing them as lovers or partners is somehow ridiculous or empirically inaccurate. Guys, it’s a story. We threw out any notion of empirical accuracy the moment the famous blue words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

http://lledra-fanstuffs.tumblr.com/post/135814847163/keep-it-it-suits-you

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In Defense of Finn/Poe

Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory

Last month I wrote:

Sexual identity labels are maps, not territory. Anybody who claims that maps are useless has clearly never gone adventuring, and neither has anyone who claims that maps are a perfectly accurate representation of the territory.

This resonated with many of my friends (especially the adventuring sort), so I wanted to expand on this concept.

The map-territory distinction has a long history in fields like art, philosophy, and, presumably, geography. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about all of that history, but the basic idea is that there is a reality, and there are our representations of that reality, and it’s important not to confuse one for the other.

There are two broad “camps” when it comes to the issue of sexual identity labels, which includes any of the LGBTQ+ identities as well as labels like dominant, submissive, demisexual, and basically any other word people use to say, “This is who I am/what I’m into.”

One camp says that labels are unnecessary. They cannot describe the full variety of human sexual experience, they prevent people from being open to experiences and feelings they might otherwise be open to, and they cause others to make unwarranted assumptions based on others’ labels. This camp might acknowledge that labels were politically necessary at one point to gain visibility and basic rights, but now we’ve reached a point where–even though homophobia still exists and must be fought–they are not necessary for that fight. You can find sex, love, or whatever else you’re looking for without them. Some members of this camp additionally claim that people using labels–especially if they are inventing new ones–are “special snowflakes” who just “want attention” for something that ought to be personal and private.

The other camp says that labels are important and that they are natural categories. That is, people are naturally and necessarily either gay/lesbian, straight, bi, or maybe even ace. While some people may choose not to use a label, that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately fit into one of these categories. Labels are important for politics, research, and social interaction. After all, how are you going to find people like you if you don’t identify what “like you” even means? People who claim they can’t choose one of the available labels are probably confused and haven’t progressed all the way through the stages of sexual identity development.

Both of these camps would be right in some way if the people in them stuck to making observations about themselves rather than about others. Some people don’t like to use labels. Other people like to use labels. Neither is wrong, because both are making choices for themselves in order to create the lives that they want for themselves.

As I wrote, people who claim that maps are universally useless probably don’t do a lot of traveling. Maybe all your loved ones are living with you or just down the street. Maybe you don’t need to leave town and cross rivers and mountains to find them. Others do. For us, labels can be a way of finding others or helping them get to us. Sure, I’m not going to be attracted to everyone that my sexual labels say I have the potential to be attracted to, but I’ll at least be looking in approximately the right place. This way, if I’m looking for trees, I can make sure to at least end up in a forest and not in a desert, or in the middle of the ocean.

On the other hand, maps are also imperfect. That’s not (just) because we need better maps; that’s because they cannot be perfect. The landscape changes. People make mistakes. The mapmaker can’t predict what information will be important for a particular person to know, so they might leave out important things or include extraneous information that clutters up the space and makes it harder to find your way. The researchers who theorize in their offices and then design studies that confirm what they already believe–for instance, by only accepting participants who are able to label themselves “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or (maybe, in some studies) “bisexual”–aren’t out there surveying the land. Of course your map looks perfect when all it does is hang on your wall as decoration.

There’s another challenge, too. Depending on your philosophy, most people do believe that maps depict something that has an objective truth to it: either the river bends here, or it doesn’t. Either the elevation at these coordinates is 100 feet above sea level, or it is not. But when it comes to sexuality, there may not be an objective reality to discover. I’ve just finished reading Lisa M. Diamond’s excellent book, Sexual Fluidity, in which she surveys a variety of ways in which female sexuality may be more complex and undefinable than anyone (who hasn’t personally experienced it) would’ve imagined, so at the moment I’m inclined to believe that an individual’s sexual territory may not be knowable even to them. That’s another reason our sexual identity “maps” will never be perfect.

Nevertheless, having maps is easier than not having maps. But poorly drawn, inaccurate maps can cause a lot of trouble. How many people–women and nonbinary people especially–have I seen worrying that there’s something wrong with them because they’re standing at a crossroads holding up their map and it just doesn’t look anything like what’s in front of them? They think they must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, but what’s actually happened is that someone drew a map lazily and sloppily. “Am I bisexual?” they ask. “Was I actually gay all along?” “Can I be a lesbian if I sometimes have sex with men for fun?” “Am I ace enough to call myself ace?” “I’ve only ever dated men but I like other genders, too, so why do they keep telling me I’m straight?

Sexual labels are maps, not territory. If they don’t seem to be working well, they probably need some updating. For some people, that might be enough to throw out the map altogether and just go wandering. Others want more guidance, more concreteness. Either approach is okay.

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Sexual Identity Labels Are Maps, Not Territory