A thought has been bugging me lately. It first came to me when I was walking down a dark, deserted street with a female lover. I live in a fairly safe area and have walked down many dark streets in the company of women (and by myself) without a second thought. The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that the date in question is a butch lesbian, not a generally feminine-spectrum bisexual like me, my partner, or any of the other women I’ve been in that situation with.
For the first time ever, I was apprehensive. I looked up and down the street for movement and listened for footfalls or any signs that someone was approaching us. I saw and heard nothing and we eventually got to a better-lit section of town and onto the bus we were looking for without incident. I deliberately didn’t raise the issue with her because I recognized the source of my discomfort and I felt bad – almost guilty – about it.
Almost as soon as I felt that initial tendril of apprehension, I realized why I felt that way. It wasn’t just that she was a woman – I’m often out with women. It was the fact that she was a lesbian and in a primary relationship with another woman, and looked it. I understood in that moment both my own privilege as a feminine bisexual woman married to a man, and the formerly unconscious assumption that underpinned that privilege.
Because I have a male partner and because my female partner, S, has two male partners, all of whom are able-bodied and large, I (and S) move around in the world under a cloak of protection I had not realized I had. Obviously, their physical presence means that it is highly unlikely that I will be catcalled, harassed, or otherwise attacked except in extremely unusual circumstances. But the weird thing is that they don’t actually have to be there for that feeling of safety to persist. The fact that they exist and that my extended family includes even more men of their general type somehow confers a kind of protection on me that I only noticed when it was removed – if only in theory – that night.
The other reason I can assume that protection is that I present as heterosexual. Or rather, I don’t ‘look’ like a lesbian. My hair, my clothes, the small amount of jewelry I wear all signal ‘female’ and ‘straight’ to most heterosexuals. (Lesbians, I’m told, can spot me, but then they’re not the demographic that tends to do most of the gay bashing.) That doesn’t mean I’m immune to attack, obviously, but that combined with the way I carry myself certainly suggests that I have backup. People tend to leave me alone.
It’s not like I’ve never felt uneasy when walking home at night. It happens sometimes. But the way I deal with it is call either H or a partner or a friend and keep them on the phone with me till I get home. Even if something were to happen, I know I have people – male-type people – who will help me out one way or another, even if it is after the fact, and that gives me a sense of safety beyond the idea of police or the law or female friends.
Which is why, when walking down that street that night, I felt scared. Because had we been attacked, the fact that my date has a female partner and presents as butch means that we weren’t ‘protected’. That I present as generally feminine means something when I am alone or with a man, or even with S who presents the same way. But put me next to someone who looks like my date did and I don’t look so straight any more. And that frightened me because that meant that I had stepped outside the socially constructed roles that I had not even realized I’d swallowed whole. Men look like men and do the protecting. Women look like women and are protected by men as a result. But if a woman looks like a man and is caught in the company of another woman who looks like she too could be gay, all bets are off. I would not be surprised if, had we been attacked, someone would have pointed out that we shouldn’t have been walking around while visibly gay, and many people would have agreed that yes, that’s what ‘flaunting your sexuality’ gets you.
While I’ve considered talking to my date about it, I never have. I don’t know what good it would do to point out that I feel like I am less safe when she and I are out together. Because even though it is true that members of marginalized groups are more likely to be attacked or mistreated by the majority, I have realized that I would rather risk it than lie about who I am. I have also understood that while I cannot erase my privilege entirely, now that I know it exists, I can at least acknowledge it and, when possible, step outside my safe little box.