In The Queer Eye: Reflecting on Myself through the LGBTQ Lens
By: Francesca Ferrauto
Growing up, my only access to the LGBTQ community, and its narrative, was an urban fantasy series called Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton. The books revolve around Anita Blake, a zombie animator by profession and a vampire executioner as a hobby: admittedly, not the most relatable content. However, I owe a huge debt to these books, because they allowed me to open my mind to the possibility of other elements of my personality that would have otherwise been left in the dark of my subconscious. Although the series presents a large inclusion of LGBTQ characters, the limits of these portrayals are significant. Considering that this was, for years, my main source of LGBTQ-related knowledge, it comes as no surprise that, at some point, I would need to stop and reconsider all that Anita Blake had taught me. This happened very recently and I’m still working on it.
As a white woman, brought up catholic in a middle-class family, I didn’t face any conversation involving people who had made a non-binary choice until I was well into my twenties. Sure, I’d seen girls kissing at parties and I knew at least one guy whose voice and fashion choices made me and my girlfriends sound and look like ogres with no fashion sense. However, I went through puberty and adolescence in a white, hetero, cis gendered environment, which left me with all sorts of unanswered questions. Once I became a young adult, I had a fair idea of who I was, but, in retrospect, it was a shallow and empty vision of myself: I was a woman, but I didn’t know what being a woman meant; I was straight, yet I didn’t know if I was also something else; I believed in monogamy, but mostly because I was too jealous to consider other possibilities. I had never reflected on what it means to be female or male, straight or gay, cis or trans, and what all of this has to do with how we engage with our surroundings. The Anita Blake series represents a starting point in a search for myself. The first conclusions I drew after reading the series were limited. Here I will try to challenge those limits, exploring the various stories of queer friends whose paths I’ve crossed in real life.
The first lesson that the queer community taught me: what is a cisgender woman?
In her books, Anita Blake is a strong, petite woman with latino curves and a pale, German complexion. She’s trained in martial arts, various firearms, and is an uncanny detective. In short, she’s a badass, who looks like the hot version of Ugly Betty. Anita taught me that you don’t need legs for days to be beautiful, because she was always surrounded by men who were attracted by her charisma, sense of humor, and intelligence. They called beautiful parts of her appearance that I could find on my own body, sending me the inspiring message that people fall in love with you first and your body second. What she didn’t teach me, though, was how to become me.
At the end of the day, I’ll have to admit that my heroine looks for recognition in her men, especially because she is uncomfortable with her femininity. The kind of woman that Anita is empowers women only in the scenario in which they appear strong and badass, often when they embody masculine traits, which is something very common in current female representation. As a real woman though, this version of a “strong woman” doesn’t speak to or represent me. Why do I need to be manly to be perceived as strong? Does being a woman make me automatically fragile? I certainly am fierce and intelligent, but I also like make-up, flowers, and the occasional dress: how does all that fit together? In order to dismantle this particular representation of femininity, I had to meet a few people along the way.
Here is where I introduce you to Rei.
I met Rei in Kyoto, and she introduced herself using the “he” pronoun, although she was dressed like a woman. Throughout the time we spent together, she would switch back and forth between the male and female version of herself, unsure of which of the two looked truer to her. She probably still doesn’t know if she is a woman, yet she knew back then already what a woman is. She called me beautiful when I was tender, and fierce when I raised my voice. In Rei’s eyes, everything that was female was beautiful. She called men ugly. She also called herself ugly when she didn’t wear any make-up. I tried countless times to empower her when she was wearing he-clothes, but I still couldn’t reach her. Her struggle, however, definitely reached me.
She taught me that being a cisgender woman is easy and I shouldn’t make it difficult. Many attributes we give to male and female are arbitrary and we can all be our own personal version of female and male. So, I learned that I can wear masculine clothes and my femininity would be just as visible as always, that I could wear feminine clothes and let them empower me even more than trousers: because there is pride in being a woman. Pretty doesn’t equal weak, beautiful doesn’t equal dumb.
Unlike Rei, for me, being a woman doesn’t have anything to do with the clothes I’m wearing, because my femininity is an undeniable reality: the way I carry myself in heels or in flats, the way I feel strong with trousers or a skirt, my voice, my jawline etc. The strength that comes from knowing who I am can tear down entire cities, and I was able to see all this only by finding someone who was denied it. Rei shares her truth with whomever she encounters, and, although her struggle is still very real, she is strong and she is fierce. Thank you for showing this to me, Rei.
The second lesson that the queer community taught me: why choose monogamy?
Similar to myself, Anita was a Christian woman looking for her one true love to get married to before having sex, but eventually, she slid into an extremely active sexual life with multiple partners. Despite Anita’s first sexual encounters being guided by a deep connection and strong feelings on the way to love, the situation evolves in such a rushed and supernatural way that suddenly Anita is infected by a magical disease that makes her feed off sex. At 15 years old, this communicated to me that Anita didn’t consent to her de facto polyamorous sexuality; she simply ended up in it. Anita is constantly forced into sex by her own magic or someone else’s, and this plays very well into the dichotomy: monogamy-good, polyamory-bad. This was a hard lesson for me to unlearn.
Anita is written as the perfect heroine one would like to follow on the pathway towards sexual liberation, but, when re-reading her story as a young adult, I’m left with the image of a woman who’s tripping over her own two feet along the way. One thing she got right, though: Anita hasn’t chosen her sexuality. We do not choose our preferences and fetishes. But rather than accepting it and allowing herself freedom through it, Anita feels enslaved to it. She still holds on tight to the belief that having multiple sexual partners makes her a bad person, even when she herself is part of the polyamory community. If Anita — a woman sleeping with over 10 partners at the same time— couldn’t explain polyamory sexuality to me, who could? Maybe someone who lived it out in real life, with real-life partners and real-life consequences.
Here is where I introduce you to Sofia.
I met Sofia in Berlin, not too long ago. She’s a blonde, Russian beauty, and she likes to party. I didn’t know her very well when our lively dancing at a party turned into an equally lively flirtation. In my ingenuity, I didn’t give much thought to Sofia’s casual touch on my shoulder or her handing me over one drink after another. The scene was right: just about enough alcohol to get me to flirt with a woman, just about enough pressure to get me to talk about it. After a couple of songs, Sofia sat me down and started asking more than I was able to give. The reasoning I presented to turn her down gravitated not so much around the fact that Sofia is a woman and I am straight, but that I had a loving boyfriend waiting for me at home. “So what?” she asked. “So what?” I repeated. With no answer to give. Sofia launched into a 30 minute spoken essay on why we should all free ourselves from the cage that is monogamy, especially while we’re young and “cool.” I learned that night that being cool was apparently a synonym for being sexually-active-with-multiple-partners and I couldn’t explain why I thought I was cool for not doing it. Certainly, there was nothing in Anita Blake’s stories that could help me here. I had to come up with something on my own.
What was foremost in my head that night was that I am not a fantasy novel heroine and my actions have consequences, which would affect my real-life partner. I believe that one shouldn’t simply change their sexual behaviour without discussing it with all the people involved in their sexual life. Secondly, the carelessness Sofia used that night in linking sexual liberation with having multiple partners insulted me a little. In truth, I did not feel constrained by monogamy, indeed I felt empowered by it. Following through with her pressure would have resulted in going astray from who I truly am, not the other way around.
In the end, it all comes down to what it means to feel sexually liberated. For me, it means to live out my sexuality in the way that is truest to myself. After Sofia’s question and a deep search within me, I could not find room for a polyamory sexuality. With no strings attached, I am a serial monogamous. Because that is what enables me to live out my sexuality in the most free and liberating way. This is the only cool thing to do and the one thing Anita Blake couldn’t do in the books: accepting who she is. Thank you, Sofia, for asking the right question.
The third lesson that the queer community taught me: what makes you straight?
If the Anita Blake series betrayed me somewhere, it has to be when we touch on the topic of gay relationships. My favorite vampire executioner likes men, oh boy oh boy, she loves men. But her men don’t all necessarily like only women. Still, none of these men sleeping with other men in the books seem to hold strong feelings for one another. Among all the relationships explored in the story, one particular instance makes me truly uncomfortable. That’s the tender but troubled century-long relationship between one of Anita’s main lovers, the vampire, Jean-Claude, and Asher, another vampire. The latter is devoted to Jean-Claude and feels a natural and quite understandable jealousy toward Anita, while the former seems to have declared himself a “bisexual with limits,” since he strongly prefers women.
Back in the days when I first read these stories, the troubled relationship between Jean-Claude and Asher created in my young psyche a world where one could be gay or bi, but not happy about it. After a few years and a re-reading of the books, I can see how Jean-Claude is playing at being gay and deceiving Asher for no good reason. He will never be able to reciprocate the feelings of his companion, not in the way he needs to, while Anita is standing in the middle of it all playing the part of the dumb, straight girl, who doesn’t know when something simply doesn’t concern her. And that’s exactly how I felt when interacting with the queer narrative: like an intruder.
Here is where I introduce you to Veronica.
There’s nothing more empowering than a queer person’s coming out story when they get to tell it right: “I just knew it” they say. But how did you know? Most of my gay friends went through many years and many wrong partners before realizing just how flexible sexuality can be. This is also true for Veronica, who had to go through many ugly ogres before finding her beautiful princess. Veronica and I were part of a very small group of fools who took up a Japanese language course in university. We couldn’t avoid becoming close. She’s witty, outspoken, and reflective, the kind of person you should think twice about challenging in a high-stakes conversation. We spent several long study-sessions in her and her girlfriend’s apartment, where I got to witness their tenderness toward one another, the emotional support they gave each other, and just how much drama two lovers on their period can endure. So, you know, a normal romantic relationship.
Veronica and I talked openly of so many aspects of our respective sexualities and my curiosity led her to ask me on a regular basis if I was still calling myself straight. I answered every time: “Yes, still.” I say “still” because I do not know the future, but I remain curious, because I refuse to fear what I don’t know. Many of the discussions Veronica and I had left me more secure in my position than before, especially because I could articulate all the answers I gave her with a logical narrative, as much as she was articulating hers with her narrative. The bottom line for me was and still is: despite the occasional attraction I can feel for a girl, until those feelings become undeniably romantic toward a woman, I will not dare to call myself anything but straight. Doing so would make me feel like nothing but an intruder and risk hurting other people in the process. Yet, what others decide to call themselves is none of my business. Thank you, Veronica, for opening your home to me.
In general, none of what other people do or think is any of my business. The only thing that should be my business is the plane of humanity I decide to exist on. I’d like to choose one where all these labels make sense to an extent. That is, the extent to which they enable me to better comprehend the world around me, but not being stubbornly defined by them. I try to be as mindful as possible of the fact that our reality will hardly be contained for long by all these structures we put in place. What I truly believe is that we fluctuate on a continuum where we have inserted benchmarks and labels to remind ourselves where we are on the map, nothing more. All that we attach on to these labels is purely arbitrary and we could all exchange narratives if we all were respectful enough of each other’s stories.