Dear Dr Ren,
I’m writing in response to the cover photo of a butch/femme couple on the spring/summer edition of Xtra Living. The femme is tiny, wasp-waisted and beautifully dressed. The butch is substantial, wearing loose, faded jeans. They are both attractive and smiling, and that’s good, but doesn’t Xtra have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes? Doesn’t using such a picture put further pressure on women to appear as either hyper-feminine or über-masculine? Shouldn’t we be trying to get away from labels? Doesn’t such sex-role stereotyping further our oppression?
— No labels for me
Dear No Labels,
You don’t have to change anything about your personal presentation to please anyone but yourself — and those you hope to attract. However, the same must be said for the models on the cover of Xtra Living. Personal rights have to extend to everyone.
The butch/femme dynamic is every bit as much of a choice as is yours. The models didn’t “dress up” for the picture — this is their preferred presentation. They are responding to their queer values as you are to yours, though it looks different. They support egalitarian ideals and challenge heterosexual norms, queering sex just by being with each other! And, believe me, their dance is not about traditional sex roles.
I heartily agree that Xtra bears a responsibility to challenge stereotypes. We expect them, as ambassadors of the gay community, to portray an inclusive representation of our population. They accomplish this goal with pictures and articles about all the various groups in our tribe.
Do they employ stereotypes in doing this? Perhaps. You identified the happy butch/femme couple. Bears would also be recognizable, as would bull dykes, leather daddies and drag queens. Not so obvious would be the vast majority of queer people who pass under the radar unnoticed, including many transgender people.
It is vital to find ourselves represented in society, lest we feel isolated, alone and forgotten. When we recognize ourselves, we feel validated. Xtra documents the diversity and viability of our community by including people all along the continuum of visibility. Those depictions can be the first opportunity someone has to say, “There’s someone else out there like me,” and the process of self-acceptance begins.
Rejecting labels is a lovely ideal, but impractical, I’m afraid. We categorize our world in order to sort the overwhelming input we receive unceasingly. Without filters, chaos would ensue. Some of these filters build community (friend, safety), while others segregate and isolate us (enemy, danger).
Don’t want to use them personally? Okay. Don’t want to adopt the “uniform” of a particular faction of queerdom? That’s good, too. It’s optional. You can be loud and proud or quiet and proud — pride is the common denominator.
You don’t divulge if or how long you have been out. Coming out can be a slow and laborious process, involving a lot of risks and surprises. Safety becomes paramount. Losses are generally unavoidable to one extent or another. As Dan Savage reminds us, “It gets better.”
Seeing others being out and proud — and comfortable with themselves — can seem personally unattainable and can elicit defensiveness, even anger. It can feel like a challenge to our own slow evolution of self-acceptance. Lacking courage, we may resent others for theirs.
If seeing these bold, loving women has triggered you to examine your own process, Xtra has succeeded. You needn’t change into anything you are not. The point is to grow into whatever you most honestly are, however that looks, however you define it. Diversity is the standard of our community. There is a place for you within it, whether you display your gay self with labels or not.