“I don’t feel right ascribing to culturally normative ideals for my own gender, and once I was allowed to set fire to the rain that poured down on me, I was finally able to live as myself.” – Carmen via autostraddle.com
As grey as identity is, society likes us to think that it’s black and white, this or that, right or wrong. But gender is one of those complicated grey areas. As a Black, lesbian woman, there are a lot of stereotypes about the ways I am expected to perform my gender. The following are just a few of the encounters I continuously experience:
Someone notices I am wearing eyeliner or mascara—
Oh my gosh, you’re wearing eyeliner! Omg, when did you start wearing eyeliner?
I’ve been wearing eyeliner since high school.
Someone sees that I am wearing nail polish on my toes—
What?! You wear colored nail polish?!
Someone sees a throwback picture of me in a dress—
Oh my GOSH! YOU used to wear dresses?
Yes, I wear eyeliner. Yes, I wear colored nail polish on my toes. Yes, I have worn a dress, and I’ll wear one again if I like how I look in it.
All of these examples reflect how others receive my gender performance. Because of the clothes I wear, and perhaps the stereotypes that accompany my open lesbian identity, others foster this masculine identity of me and then expect me to live within those assumptions and behaviors. When they notice something that deviates from their expectation, they are suddenly surprised—as though I could not possibly participate in what they associate to be feminine traits or characteristics.
This speaks to the common inability to see gender performance on a spectrum. We see this all the time in the media. Straight men are supposed to be beefy, strong, and masculine, while straight women are delicate and feminine. Gay men are depicted as dainty and feminine, while lesbians often fit the ‘butch’ stereotype. If queer couples are allowed to be portrayed in the media, they are typically based off hetero-normative constructs. There are few deviations from this binary, which makes expressing masculinity in conjunction (and not opposed to) femininity sort of difficult. I don’t even identify myself as masculine. But I also don’t think of myself as feminine. I’m simply Tawana. And although someone like Ellen Degeneres crosses those fine lines, as the first openly gay woman (whose clothing expresses masculinity) to be a cover girl, that is simply not enough visibility.
Perhaps media fears that in portraying different types of queer women, there will be a disconnect from audiences. As a young, Black, queer woman, I bare good news: the disconnection is already present, so do not fear. There are few lesbians on television and in films that I truly relate to or connect with. As media is known to influence people’s perception of the world, this needs to change.
Gender is all around us like the air we breathe. It should not be confined to rigid boundaries and cultural norms. Binaries praise those who follow the norm, and penalize those who do not. Instead of being shocked by a individuals gender fluidity, embrace their flexibility.