Queer Bedfellows

"Can you hear this?""Loud and clear."Chris and I lay on the bed in his new loft, facing the ceiling. We were testinghow well sound traveled into Kendall's bedroom, directly below and with no doorseparating the two. Chris rolled over onto his stomach. "How about this?" he whispered. "You bet," Kendall said in her full, Southern-accented voice.Chris rubbed his fingers back and forth on the pillow case.Kendall didn't hesitate. "Now you're rubbing your fingers on the pillow case," shesaid. The phrase "You could hear a pin drop" suddenly lost its resonance. A pin drop?That was a nuclear explosion compared to what Kendall could detect in this echochamber of a room. It was the beginning of our senior year in college. Chris and I had just starteddating seriously and had all the giddy excitement and raging appetites of newlovers. We were ready to devour each other and the world. We were also a bit nervous. This was dangerous stuff, the first long-term gayrelationship for each of us. On our conservative campus, with only a dozen or soout queers, it was a struggle simply to be openly gay. And now we had somethingelse to contend with: every time we had sex in Chris's apartment, we would beperforming for an audience. Kendall could hear every breath, every grunt, all thesloppy sounds of intimacy. Call me inhibited, but the knowledge of Kendall lying below us threw me for aloop. I held back during sex, fumbling nervously. Instead of concentrating as Ishould have on Chris's body parts, I thought constantly about Kendall's: her ears,taking in all the sounds; her mouth, as it curled into a mocking smile. I was awreck. Then, a few weeks later, an amazing development occurred. Kendall started sleepingwith women. Kendall had never been homophobic in the slightest. She had happily and openlysupported the relationship Chris and I were having. Yet I had known her until nowas a straight woman, and her presumed heterosexuality had heightened my discomfortabout our intimately shared space. I was never ashamed of my sexual expressionswith Chris, but the knowledge of a straight woman listening in always made meaware of our being different, of our being two men having sex, breaking some kindof norm. When Kendall became a lesbian, the dynamic changed completely. Now I wanted her tohear us, and I wanted to hear her; I wanted to bask in the mutual glow of our liberated libidos. Listening to Kendallmake love to a woman in the dark space below our bed, I felt part of some kind ofrevolutionary project. I fantasized about the four of us - me and Chris, Kendalland her partner - having a monumental simultaneous orgasm, a queer burst of sexualrelease that would rock the campus. I am certain this sense of liberation was possible only because Kendall was alesbian. A straight woman (or one I thought was straight) would have reminded meof my difference from the hetero paradigm. A straight man would have been far toothreatening. Even a gay man might have made me uncomfortable; I would have feltthat ugly male competitive spirit - who could come the loudest, the longest? But alesbian was just similar enough, and just different enough. With a lesbian, I wasat home. Since that initial experience, I have shared many spaces with lesbians. After college,Chris and I rented a house with a dyke couple in Northampton (commonly dubbed"Lesbianville, USA"), and then roomed for two years with a lesbian in an oldfarmhouse in New Hampshire. Now I live in Jamaica Plain, Boston's acknowledged"lesbian ghetto." Not all these arrangements have been equally successful. The Northamptonsituation, for one, ended in near disaster. But with this accumulated range ofexperiences, I find myself examining the dynamics of lesbian and gayspace-sharing, both literal and figurative. How do dykes and fags get along whenwe're in close proximity? When and why do we seek separation? Dancing apartFor much of our contemporary history, when lesbians and gay men have shared space,it has been out of necessity. In small communities, and when homosexual-rightsgroups were just forming, numbers were so few that the benefits of solidarityoutweighed any possible tensions. In some pre-Stonewall gay bars, mixed crowdsdanced, men with men and women with women, on the same dance floor. When thelights flickered, indicating the arrival of the police, everybody quickly pairedoff into heterosexual couples. In this way, gay men and lesbians protected eachother. But with the rise of gay liberationism in the 1970s, coinciding with and largelyspurred by the second wave of feminism, tensions between men and women became morepronounced and more problematic. These differences were often played out inbattles for turf - literally. A recent article in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review by activist andhistorian Karla Jay includes a description that makes me empathize with theexperience of lesbians in gay male-dominated space. Jay recalls the Gay LiberationFront dances held at New York's Alternate U. in the early 1970s. She writes:"Only about ten percent of the crowd were women. The lesbians couldn't even seeeach other as we were engulfed in a dimly lit, densely packed, swirling sea of menwho were generally taller than we were. It also annoyed some of the lesbians thatthe men could take off their shirts while we could not - it was often intenselyhot. Between the smell of amyl nitrate and the river of men's sweat, many of the women felt as if we had stumbled into the men's lockerroom at the YMCA." Jay makes it abundantly clear that, in addition to creating political and socialproblems, being in the mostly male space was unpleasant, even physicallythreatening. She goes on to document how, frustrated by this experience, lesbiansdemanded money from the GLF to support separate dances for women. The pattern Jay describes has more or less remained the norm. Given the generallysexist structure of society, gay men, with their social and economic advantages,have naturally dominated most of the queer territory. Lesbians have had tostruggle to carve out their own space, to be granted meeting places and access toevents. In many cases, such as the women-only GLF dances, dykes have found thatthe only way to create safe space was to separate themselves physically from men. The importance of space is evident in phenomena such as the furious debates -raging for years in the lesbian press and political circles - about who should beallowed to attend the annual, mostly lesbian Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Can a post-operative male-to-female transsexual enter thefestival grounds, or would the presence of a non-woman-born woman be toodisruptive? What about the male children of lesbians? Could they accompany theirmothers? These debates are about issues of sexual and gender identity, but theyare also, at heart, about space. In a world that allows precious little space forlesbians, the definition and preservation of that space gain heightenedsignificance. To many gay men, debates about separate dances or the Michiganfestival are incomprehensible. Sure, they can see why lesbians would want to getaway from straight men. But what's so threatening about gay men? What's wrong withshared gay-and-lesbian space? It works for them, so why doesn't it work forlesbians? Feeling like guestsOne problem is that quite frequently what men perceive as a "gay-and-lesbian"venue is really just for gay men, or is laid out physically in such a way thatlesbians feel uncomfortable there.At Boston's Glad Day Bookshop, for example - which caters to both gay and lesbianbook-buyers - the entire left half of the store is devoted to gay-male fiction andpornography. The right half is a mix of lesbian fiction and non-gender-specificsubjects such as coming out, history, religion, and AIDS. Thus, though malepatrons feel comfortable browsing in the entire store, many lesbians feelrestricted to the right half. One lesbian acquaintance is an avid reader of novelsby gay men, but she feels she cannot venture into the gay-fiction section unlessshe's accompanied by a man. Contrast this arrangement with We Think the World of You, a bookstore that openedrecently in Boston's South End. The display of lesbian and gay titles on the sameshelves means that male and female customers literally rub elbows as they browse.So far, the consciously co-gender design seems to be working. Store manager PaulMontgomery estimates that the clientele is divided equally between men and women,unusual among South End businesses. Co-gender spaces work less well when they are haphazard, or when one group is clearly an add-on. A friend recently returned fromMilwaukee, where he visited a gay club that advertised a "women's night" once aweek. The bar was plastered with posters of nude men; jars of condoms rested onthe bar; the decor was irrevocably male. Lesbians who visit this bar on women'snight may have plenty of fun, but they never enjoy even the pretense that they arein an authentically lesbian space. Lesbians face this problem of being permanent guests in gay male space in manyparts of the country, particularly in smaller cities and towns unable to supportan all-lesbian club. Like second-class citizens, they can enter the male domainonly at certain times, when others have deemed it appropriate. The number of truly co-gender gay bars and dance clubs in the country is tiny. InBoston - a city without a single full-time lesbian club - Campus recently launcheda new Sunday event known as "Sunday Family." Geared toward both gay men andlesbians, the theme night is advertised with the tag line "Uniting the Community."It remains to be seen, however, if the co-gender venue will succeed - especiallysince Campus is well-known for its Thursday-night gay-male event. Though it is clearly disempowering for lesbians to be a perennial minoritypresence in gay spaces, dykes may gain some advantages that gay men can't reallyclaim. Let me illustrate with a recent example. Last December I was in Washington, DC, with three friends: two gay men and alesbian. One night we decided to go out, and chose a gay-male club, La Cage AuxFollies. Nickie was the only woman in the club, but nobody seemed to notice orcare. Men cruised and gossiped openly. The naked dancers made their way blithelyalong the bar, gyrating and thrusting their penises in patrons' faces. When theygot to our group, they acted no differently. As the three of us guys tuggedplayfully at the stripper's genitals, we never interrupted our casual conversationwith Nickie. Now, try to picture the situation in reverse - a difficult task since there arevirtually no clubs where lesbians display their sexuality so openly, with paidstrippers and such. A single man in an all-woman space would likely be seen asthreatening to many women. I have walked into all-women's bookstores, such asLunaria in Northampton, and felt the mood alter to one of worried suspicion. There are probably some gay-male spaces in which a woman might create a similardisruption -- guys in a sex club, for example, might feel strange if they knew awoman were watching them engage in carnal acts. In general, however, it seemslesbians are more able to observe gay men in our "habitat"; they can see how welive when we let our hair down. But gay men are denied the opportunity to seelesbians in that way. Like physicists trying to study the paths of electrons, wecan never observe the object without altering its natural course. It's a culturaltwo-way mirror: they can see us, but we can't see them. Staking out territoryThe more visible character of gay-male life also has profound implications for theways lesbians and gay men inhabit the larger world. Gay men have long availed themselves of public spaces within urbancenters. We have cruised in parks and bus stations, had sex in public bathroomsand in the bushes. We have met one another in the showers and bunk rooms of theYMCA. Go to nearly any city in the country and people will be able to tell you -even straight people with no real involvement in the gay community - where thefags hang out. Thus, even though gay men have been a scorned underclass, forced to hide oursexuality from public view, there is also a sense in which we have permanentlylaid claim to some of society's most public spaces. There is a certain subversivepower in "owning" Boston's Fenway or the Rambles in New York's Central Park -these large communal spaces within our grand cities - even if the tentative natureof this ownership is frequently made clear with incidents of gay-bashing andharassment from police. More important, the knowledge of these gay spaces has beencrucial in the formation of gay-male communities, in the progression fromindividual sexual acts to a collective consciousness. Lesbians have not really occupied any equivalent public spaces. They have no urbanturf, no territory - no matter how small or precarious - to claim as their own.Perhaps this is why, as gay men were exploding onto the streets of New York andSan Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s, many lesbians retreated from theseurban centers and settled in more rural locations, such as Vermont and NorthernCalifornia. Another difference is that gay men had the baths, and lesbians did not. The bathswere more than convenient sex palaces; they were a community crossroads, impromptueducational centers. Men who visited the baths and saw hundreds of othermen-loving men - no matter how closeted they were in the rest of their lives -knew empirically that they were not alone, that they were part of something muchlarger than themselves. Lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown recognized the importance of baths when, in 1975,she disguised herself as a man and visited Xanadu, a New York bathhouse. She wroteabout the experience, decrying the lack of comparable options for lesbians. "It isin our interest to build places where we have relief, refuge, release," she wrote."Like men we should have choices." But with the exception of recent experiments,such as the Clit Club, in New York, the dream of lesbian public spaces hasremained essentially unfulfilled. Lesbians and gay men also tend to inhabit different private geographies withincities. What we generally think of as "gay ghettos" - San Francisco's Castrodistrict, New York's West Greenwich Village, Boston's South End - are in mostcases actually gay-male ghettos. Some lesbians have always lived in theseneighborhoods. But the strongest lesbian clusters have formed in other, usuallymore outlying, parts of these same cities: Bernal Heights and Berkeley instead ofthe Castro, Brooklyn's Park Slope instead of the Village, Jamaica Plain andSomerville instead of the South End. One obvious reason for this separation is economic. As a group, gay men havehigher incomes and can more easily afford rents and mortgages in fashionableneighborhoods. However one explains it, the result of the separation is that some lesbians feel alienatedfrom "gay" neighborhoods. They still visit these areas, because that's where thegay bars and businesses are located. But when they do, they often feel likeoutsiders - perhaps doubly so, because this is supposed to be queer territory. Inmany cases, lesbians are tourists in their own land. Counting up inchesIf lesbians live on the fringes of cities, as opposed to the visible ghettos, it'snot surprising that lesbians are too often at the fringes of the publicconsciousness of gay life, too. The media tend to see the most visible aspects ofqueer culture: the boys prancing shirtless in West Hollywood, the bars, the publiccruising in parks. Of course, the disproportionate media coverage of gay men owesmuch to the sexism that pervades society in general. But it is important to seehow spatial differences feed this inequity. Because they occupy more public, morecentral spaces, gay men are much "easier" to identify and cover. When TV crews ornewspaper photographers need an image of gay life to accompany a story, theytravel immediately to the central "gay" spaces, which are really gay-male spaces.The graphic that flashes behind Tom Brokaw's head whenever he reads a news storyabout gay issues is invariably a picture of gay men on Christopher Street or theCastro. The view that gets sent out to the straight world becomes a distorted one,blurry with testosterone. Once the image of gayness assumes its male form, thismisrepresentation is difficult to correct. So although lesbians are kicked out ofthe military at three to five times the rate of gay men, the media coverage of thegays-in-the-military debate focused almost exclusively on men and male spaces -such as the cramped quarters of a submarine. (Margarethe Cammermeyer was a notableexception.) Similarly, according to the Lesbian Avengers' analysis of media coverage about theStonewall 25 celebration, men were represented 12 times more than women. Think ofthe striking visual difference: men literally occupying 12 times more space, morecolumn inches and frames of video, than women. It's not just the straight media in which lesbians and gay men compete for space;the gay-and-lesbian press has wrestled with the same issue for years. Magazinesfrom the national biweekly Advocate to smaller, local publications routinelyreceive letters to the editor protesting that too few, or too many, of theircovers feature photos of lesbians or gay men. There have also been numerous controversies over the inclusion of gay-male sex adsin co-gender papers. These sex ads - for bathhouses (in the '70s and '80s) orphone sex (more recently) - have long been the economic backbone of the gay press.So even when a publication's editorial content is equally split between lesbianand gay subjects, the overwhelming presence of gay-male sex ads - ads that take upmany pages - can make these periodicals seem like male forums. Though many of the arguments are based in reality - for years, the Advocatereally did feature many more men than women on its covers - the controversiesabout lesbians and gay men sharing space are also profoundly about perception. Writer Michael Bronski recalls that in the 1980s the co-gender newspaper GayCommunity News - which did not accept sex ads - was barraged with vehementletters, equally divided between those who felt there was too little coverage oflesbian news and those who felt there was too little coverage of gay-male news.Bronski and another staff member monitored the paper for six months - measuringeach article in column inches, then classifying them as lesbian- orgay-male-oriented - and found that the coverage was almost exactly equal.Nonetheless, the complaints persisted. It's clear, then, that maintaining a happy balance between lesbians and gay menmust be about more than precise equality of column inches, or square footage ofnightclubs. Spaces are important, but so is the spirit of what transpires in thosespaces.Postscript: Last week, I received a calligraphied invitation in the mail. Kendall,the college roommate who had such glorious, inspiring lesbian sex in the bedroombelow me and Chris in our senior year, is getting married. To a man. Does the fact that Kendall is a born-again heterosexual change the dynamic of howwe shared our space? Should I feel retroactively uncomfortable? Obviously not. Nomatter what Kendall's current status, or my own, the space we both inhabited for afew months worked for me - made me feel comfortable in my gayness - because Iperceived it as space that gay men were sharing with lesbians. For me, that resonant bedroom, in which every breath sounded like a hurricane,will always be queer space.

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