Cyndi Lauper is playing while I dust my eyes and pre-drink in front of the mirror. I enjoy being a bit ambiguous and gender non-conforming. In particular, I aspire to androgyny. My girlfriend’s really androgynous. She’s putting eyeliner on now, being deliberately messy and smudging it. She’s a shade more masculine than I am. People would call us cisgender but we don’t conform to the stereotype very well. We’re not ‘normies.’
Except maybe tonight – I’m being an utter femme. That’s fine, I want to be. Playing with appearance is fun and a night out in Bristol is the perfect opportunity. I’ve got my skinny jeans, crop top, and high heel boots. Leather jacket. My girlfriend looks way more punk, dressed in black with spiky green hair and a ‘chain’ hanging off her waist, made of cola pull tabs. We enter the vibrant night.
We try to avoid desperately mainstream clubs because we don’t feel comfortable in them. As an LGBT+ person, your visibility alone depends mostly on your appearance. For us individually, we’re not explicitly gay, we’re not butch lesbians. As a couple, holding hands and kissing cheeks, it’s more obvious. On a night out, we’re cool and confident. The city center is bustling and well-lit. But in the confines of a very straight, very dark club, we suddenly feel like florescent queer attractions.
The only wide representation that lesbians receive is in porn and there’s no use intimating my thoughts on that. You can guess. So being surrounded by straight people in a highly sexualised environment, especially men, drunk men, is not desirable. We hate being fetishised and we don’t like the typical club music either, so we seek out alternative scenes playing indie rock and post-punk. We did frequent one club for a while because it had a rock room, but it was deceptive and mostly played post-hardcore. Not our thing. More off-putting was the male attention.
I was dancing with my girlfriend on the balcony, just inside the main room (tolerable techno) but within earshot of the ‘rock’ room so we could rush in when a good song came on. Suddenly, I felt someone back into me. I turned and a man was grinding against me. When something like that happens, you turn on auto-pilot and laugh it off. It’s a self-protecting response to get them to go away quicker. That doesn’t even make much sense, but as a survivor of sexual violence navigating male behaviour and entitlement doesn’t really. Another time in the same club, we were dancing in the same spot and someone had come along and touched my girlfriend’s arse through the railings.
We’ve even received unwanted attention at gigs before. You don’t expect it so much at gigs because (a) you have more mixed age groups, not just young men swimming in testosterone (b) they’re there for the band and not so much a fling. Again, I and my girlfriend were dancing to These Smiths, a brilliant tribute band. Suddenly, a grown man (as in, old-enough-to-be-my-dad man) comes up to us, breath stinking, telling us how gorgeous we are. I shut down and go quiet, gaze skirting off. My girlfriend says an awkward “thank you” and that’s when an old friend I haven’t seen for years intervenes. We’d gone to the sixth form together.
“Tessa!” He pats my shoulder and that’s the cue to escape.
Sometimes the attention we receive comes in a milder form, usually from women. We’ll be minding our own business at a club or gig when suddenly someone approaches, makes eye contact or taps one of us on the shoulder. We turn.
“You two are so cute!”
No doubt it’s well-intended, but imagine if I strolled up to a dancing straight couple and told them how cute they were. They’d wonder what I was on. And that’s the point, being in a heterosexual relationship is normal but being in a same-sex relationship and visible is not. I don’t know if we’re meant to feel special and accepted by being told we’re cute, keep going, carry the torch high. It can come off patronising. But ultimately, it’s the arising self-consciousness that’s the worst.
When you’re in a same-sex relationship, you just wanna blend in and feel normal, despite the aggressive heteronormativity of society. And on a night out, it’s no different. Having our sexuality devalued in the face of drunken male gaze and entitlement or being gawped at like lesbian care bears is not flattering. I’m there to have fun with my girlfriend and I’m sure I speak for all lesbian couples when I say: please leave us be.