Sex & Relationships

Queer 101: A Guide for Heteros

Conservative Americans may demonize gay people -- but how much do progressives really know about queer culture?
As last November's election neared and a Democratic victory appeared more and more likely, Republicans warned that Speaker Pelosi would impose her "San Francisco values" on average Americans. Americans to the right of the left coast felt in their gut that San Francisco values were a shameful thing, without really knowing what they were.

Even San Franciscans scratched their heads a bit. The local paper's sex columnist, Violet Blue, pointed out that it meant sex. She argued that the twist in conservatives' panties resulted from San Franciscans' sex-positive outlook. Blue offered a paean to some of the city's sexual rituals, several of which, such as the Folsom Street Fair, are primarily gay.

But even Violet Blue didn't tell the whole truth: The phrase "San Francisco values" came directly from the right's well-worn gay-baiting playbook. In a story called "San Francisco Values Front and Center," the right's faithful warrior Bill O'Reilly shifts from talking about the city's ousting of ROTC clubs from several high schools into a discussion of gay marriage. He includes standard playbook comparisons of gay unions to polygamy, "triads" and incest.

So why hasn't anybody called a spade a spade? Many in Middle America have come to believe homosexual values must be abhorrent, based on the right's insistence that all homosexuals are radical perverts.

Blindness to difference has allowed the right wing to invent a sinister stereotype of "homosexuals" that has only tenuous links to reality. Radical right groups generate bogus statistics by conflating gay men and lesbians (the claim that homosexuals are more likely to have STDs should more accurately say that lesbians have the lowest rates of STDs of any group) and gay men and men who molest boys (imagine if they consistently referred to men who molest girls as "straight men"). The right gets away with their smears because it has persuaded Americans that sex and desire have no role in polite society.

Queers understand that desire, like hunger, is inexorable and beyond reasoning with. Policy should work with that assumption, not against it or it will always fail. And as the good clean fun of bootlicking at the Folsom Street Fair demonstrates, the only aspect of sexual behavior that is subject to moral judgment is consent between adults. What would happen if every minute and every dollar spent limiting the rights of gays and lesbians was instead spent on prosecuting sexual harassment, rape and child molestation?

But before we can even begin to think about policy changes, the public needs to become much more educated about queer culture -- a difficult task considering that even San Franciscans, who are tolerant of queers, often don't understand the nuances of their lifestyles.

And because queer culture is vibrant in San Francisco, any meaningful discussion of it would have to include a variety of perspectives and a list of exceptions to every rule. After all, taking exception to the rule is a -- or the -- fundamental aspect of queer culture. This is especially true of lesbian culture, transsexualism or any other kind of gender deviance, which are not even mentioned in Blue's tribute.

After all, Speaker Pelosi is far less likely than the local sex columnist to know exactly what queer values are, and we certainly can't expect her to trumpet queer values to Middle America if she doesn't fully understand them. So, I offer Speaker Pelosi -- and you -- the following primer to help understand the people behind the values and what they stand for.

Begin the binaries

It is important to remember that the gays whose greatest desire is to get married and live behind a white picket fence don't represent the whole community. Some of us enjoy being different and indicate as much by calling ourselves queer. In the world of gay women, those of us who are distinctly proud of (and political about) our differences are more likely to refer to ourselves as dykes. Those who don't like to ruffle any feathers generally prefer the less-threatening term "lesbians."

Beyond annual Pride festivals, gays and lesbians have precious little in common. We all know that men earn more than women, and so the income gap between the genders is exacerbated once you have communities of primarily men or women. This is often apparent in large urban centers. Neighborhoods that are known for being centers of gay (male) life are often more upscale and the dykier 'hoods are more working class -- such as the Castro vs. the Mission in San Francisco and in Boston, the South End vs. Jamaica Plain.

But it's more than just money. Gay men have a far more fully developed sexual culture than lesbians do -- hence, their inclusion in Violet Blue's profile of sex in this city. It's not that lesbians have less sex; that's a bad stereotype. Rather, gay men have sexual practices that are (a) often public and (b) not remotely shared with straight culture. Neither heterosexuals nor, sadly, lesbians have glory holes or street fairs, such as the Folsom Street Fair, celebrating S/M and leather subcultures.

The wild world of gender

Now, dear reader, we embark on the murky territory of gender identity. The fascinating thing about the lingo of gender identity is that each new term that springs up -- and I'm sure some are doing so outside of my ever-so-hip purview this very moment -- brings with it a whole new way of thinking about gender. For queers, and even some gays and lesbians, gender is an arbitrary cultural construct (yes, as a matter of fact, many of us did read too much Judith Butler in the early '90s).

Dykes have contributed the most to the ever-evolving language of gender. It's no coincidence that those most limited by gender -- biological women who can't profit by association from male privilege -- have done the most to think their way out of its traps. The oldest dyke gender identities, going back at least as far as the 40s, are butch and femme. Even Speaker Pelosi knows that butches are masculine-identified lesbians. "Femme" is properly used to describe women who have put a queer spin on femininity, but sometimes used to describe women who are fairly feminine.

In the last 10 years or so, many formerly butch dykes have taken testosterone to become female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals. Butches who don't take hormones have responded with new terms to describe their masculine identification. "Transgenderism" refers to people who fully identify as the gender opposite of their biological sex but who do not take hormones. Other masculine lesbians prefer the neologism "boi."

One of the most important things to remember is to never challenge someone's gender identity, whatever it may be. If you don't know how to refer to a gender-nonconforming person, ask if he or she prefers masculine or feminine pronouns. You must then respect his or her wishes -- otherwise, you will promptly be asked to return your queer-friendly I.D. card.

Another quick and easy way to lose your access card is asking a transsexual person -- FTM or MTF -- what the current status of their parts is. But, that's obvious, right?

Since I'm in the club, I get to talk about parts. Techniques for converting male genitalia into female have been around for about 50 years, which is why male-to-female (or MTF) transsexuals have a longer history than FTMs. Phalloplasty -- surgical creation of a penis -- still gives pretty lousy results. It may be because FTMs can never fully pass -- especially in the ways that matter most to sexual partners -- that female-to-male transsexuals are a recent phenomenon. They rely more on queer culture, and are in fact more integrated with it than MTFs.

Both surgeries are incredibly expensive, which is why, if you've been surfing the Craigslist personals, you may have seen a lot of "pre-op" trannies. In order to minimize the effects of secondary sexual characteristics they don't want, FTMs "pack." (Packing is wearing a dildo.) Of late, flaccid dildos have become available for FTMs to wear during nonsexual activity. They also sometimes flatten out their chests with "binders."

Of course, many dykes don't fully identify with either gender. Dykes who walk the line between the genders refer to themselves as "andro." Those who consider themselves an unexpected mix of masculine and feminine call themselves "gender queer." There are a million other terms and combinations of terms, and even members of the club need to have the more elaborate ones explained.

Where the boys are

Gay male culture has been surprisingly uncreative about gender. Contrary to popular opinion, many gay men are quite masculine. But as far as stylized gay masculine "genders," there's only the '70s butch look -- you know, with the Tom Selleck mustache and the leather cowboy fashion.

Then, there's the queen -- that bitchy, witty, home-decorating stereotype that Middle America never gets tired of. The term queen is also fast becoming dated. Her younger, snappy cousin sometimes goes by the derogatory term "twink."

It's hard being pretty. Eating disorders and stimulants are not uncommon in men in these cultures. Enter the bears' rebellion. Throwing off the beauty standards of stylized masculinity and effeminacy, "bears" embrace facial and body hair and even favor portly figures.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their timeless stereotyping as sissies, gay men aren't all that interested in violating gender norms. But gender deviance is taking off in the gay male community. I've recently spotted some fine young homosexuals dressed for all the world like butch dykes. And gay men are also embracing the term "boi" in attempt to forge a version of manhood distinct from straight masculinity.

The homosexual agenda

Speaker Pelosi, you must be wondering if gender diversity is the sum total of San Francisco values. The answer is no: This whirlwind tour is merely an introduction to the terms you will need to understand if you are to fulfill your role as representative of your fair city's values.

The multiple, evolving and self-created forms of difference in the queer community can be a model for embracing other forms of diversity. San Francisco values -- since we're nearing the end of our tête-à-tête, let's be blunt and call them the homosexual agenda -- reject the idea that the boxes people check reveal their core identity. You need to know a bit more about people -- and, it often comes down to asking them. Thus, in San Francisco, you will hear the question, "How do you identify?" The answer will encompass not just those revered multicultural categories race, class, and gender, but how the individual creates space for him or herself among them.

In terms of legislation, Speaker Pelosi, the queer way of thinking might help you sort out your positions on issues such as immigration (not all Latinos are illegal, not all "illegals" are alike) and affirmative action (more boxes, please).

If you remember that difference is good, you will strive to maintain American diversity while you also tend to the social safety net. In fact, many Americans fall through the cracks of government policies because those policies rely on legislators' limited guesses about who people are and what they need.

The lover of difference does not believe that all Americans do, or should, share the same set of values and habits. Who knows, if more Americans let go of their terror of the unknown, they might begin to find their own queerdom -- and find it both a liberating and meaningful way to connect with others.
Cameron Scott is a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. His work has also appeared in the Texas Observer, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, and AlterNet. He blogs at Gender 3.0.
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