QAA

Friday, April 04, 2008

Question

I work for a NGO that does HIV prevention education for the trans community. I've made friends with one of the other outreach workers, a transwoman who is pretty hurt about not being welcome in the lesbian community. I recently tried to introduce her to some of my friends at a movie night at my apartment, but it didn't go well. My friends were uncomfortable, and a few of them made lame excuses and left early.

My friend Nicole is pretty in an outrageously punked-out kind of way. I love it when she comes to work in purple wigs and a leather miniskirt. But her sense of style stuck out like a sore thumb with my friends, who were pretty much wearing jeans and flannel shirts. At work, I love to hear her talk about all of the adventures and hard times she's gone through. But at my party, she couldn't seem to let anybody else get a word in edgewise. I found myself getting pretty annoyed with her. But is that fair? I know she's had to be very brave and determined to survive.

She's attracted to other women. I think she should be welcome in lesbian spaces. She wants to go to a local dyke bar with me, but I keep making excuses. Is this my transphobia? I guess I am afraid people will be really mean to her. My friends didn't feel they could be nasty; they just went away rolling their eyes and probably talked about her behind her back. I've heard a rumor or two that Nicole is pre-op (a word I hate) and that I'm sleeping with her. I don't know what to do about any of that, either.

I'm afraid that if I don't continue to see Nicole outside of work, our friendship will suffer. But I don't want to put her into social situations where she'll be rejected and I'll feel responsible. What can I do?

Answer

A surprisingly high number of transwomen are attracted to other women. I suspect the percentage of lesbianism or bisexuality is higher in this group of women than among those who were born female. You'd think that lesbian feminists would be thrilled by these potential new recruits. Instead, there is still a tendency to perceive transwomen as The Enemy, fake women created by the patriarchy to invade lesbian culture and replace "real" women.

Then there's the fact that transwomen were not socialized as women. Most of them never went through all of that training to be self-effacing, avoid conflict, take care of others, and put your own needs last. While politicized dykes have faced that conditioning and un-learned much of it, they have not replaced it with male conduct.

A transwoman who wants to find a female partner in this milieu has to sit down and observe for a few weeks. Don't try to be the life of the party; just see how everybody dresses, talks, and carries themselves. If Nicole can't pick up on social cues that it's time to let somebody else talk, she has a problem that has nothing to do with being transsexual. She's got some leftover entitlement. To fit in, you need to behave within the same limits that others place upon themselves. Fitting in often means looking like everybody else. However, many transwomen adopt a high femme style because they enjoy the freedom to feel pretty and dress up. They may also need to do that to pass as much as possible and be a little more safe in a hostile world. Take away Nicole's wigs and wardrobe, and you'll also be taking away a lot of her identity. Flannel shirts and jeans will just remind her of being required to wear "boy's clothing" while growing up. I wish lesbian communities were not havens for anti-femininity.

Of course, there are also a lot of different lesbian communities. Your friend might be more comfortable in the music scene or in the punk rock community where lesbians certainly exist who are attracted to the music and the lifestyle. S/M dykes tend to be a little more educated about gender and open to different social sex-roles. Nicole needs to find her own venue. If you feel that this is now your job, you'll avoid and resent her. We're all transphobic, darlin'. Oppression does that to a person. You're caught between defending a new friend whose lack of civil rights offends you and maintaining your own position as a marginalized lesbian who would like to keep her comforting chosen family.

Meanwhile, what do you do? Of course you don't want to set her up to fail by inviting her to events that won't be welcoming. But how much time do you want to waste on people who can't welcome her? She's just like anybody else who is new to the community. There will be some awkward moments. That doesn't mean she doesn't belong here. She has a right to identify as lesbian or bisexual.

See if you can find more open events where you and Nicole can have fun. Take note of which friends are accepting, and cultivate them with Nicole. As for the women who are spreading rumors about you, I don't think they sound like friends.

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