"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sleeping with the Enemy: From the Other Side Part Two)

Continuing with some thoughts inspired by some posts at Feministe. See Part one of the series here.

Jaclyn, a guest-blogger last week over at Feministe, has some great posts up over there. Among them is a series titled Sleeping with the Enemy, parts one, two and three.

Note: There seems to be something weird going on over at Feministe as regards links to these posts. I'll try to fix the links as things over there settle down. Sorry!

Becoming the Enemy
In fact, I have some personal experience in this regard. My central romantic relationship from when I was 17 until I was 21 or so (way back before email when dinosaurs roamed the earth with Adam and Eve) was with a woman I'll call B. At the time, B and I were both straight-identified, but we were so sort of 'by default', not having thought about it much (say hello to hetero-privilege!). During the later part of our relationship, we were separated by a few hours drive, and during that time she made a new friend, a woman who identified as a lesbian. Queue "The L Word" soundtrack, let some time pass, and see that a few months later the three of us were embroiled in some of the most drama-inducing stuff of my (then) young life. Eventually, B realized that she wasn't straight, and that she really wanted to be in a monogamous relationship with her new love. We parted ways, to become friends again later on in ways too complicated to go into here, but one thing that always stuck with me was a conversation B and I had in the middle of it all, in which she tried to explain how her feelings changed, her feelings for me and her feelings for her new love. Keep in mind this is an 18-year old woman whose sexual identity was to shift and change considerably for as long as I knew her--I have no doubt she would cringe today at remembering the oversimplifying that we were all doing back then. She explained to me that her new love just "got" her in a way that I never could. Her new love had, she explained, grown up as a woman, faced with all of the obstacles that women face--and as such had insight into B's own being that I could only come close to, and never attain.

Simply Bitter
It was, as one might imagine, hard to hear. Decades later, my feelings about it are a bit more nuanced, but at the time, I was simply defensive and hurt. I wasn't blind to the reality that B's feelings were valid, yet I found myself pretty darn bitter anyway. Instead of seeing the breakup as a breakup, I saw it as some sort of attack on my identity. (I suppose lots of breakups feel like attacks on identity, now that I think about it.) She was (I thought/she explained) breaking up with me mostly because I wasn't a woman. And of course, that was an oversimplification--but the fact that she felt that way a the time, the way that she explained to me that not only did I not "get" her as a woman could, but that I never could have, began to make me feel a wee little bit (sometimes a lot) like the enemy.

Age, Nuance and Complexity
Years and years later, when i was dating she-who-will-be-known-as-Z, things were a lot more complex. Z identified as bi, and had been in long-term romantic relationships with both men and women. Being older and a little bit wiser than I was when I was 21, I found myself in a relationship where we openly talked about hetero privilege, bi-phobia, bi-invisibility and the like; it felt initially like a whole different ballgame. Sure, we were read by strangers as like a couple-of-straight-people, as a hetero-normative couple, but we were very aware of the privilege that such readings created. But of course simply being aware of it doesn't get one out of the problems wrapped up in having the privilege, and, like all privilege, we ended up benefiting from it nonetheless. Z felt a lot of guilt about that, and something else--anger at having to deal with all of it. She also sometimes felt like she was letting herself down. I felt guilty at times at what I might call 'queer privilege'--that is, one of the things that seemed to set me apart from other straight-identified-white-middle-class-men was that I was in a relationship with somebody who was bi-identified. I was embarrassed that I felt that way (it makes me cringe to even write about it now, years later), but I had to admit to myself that sometimes I did. Our emotions around the socio-political stuff put some stress on our relationship, no doubt.

Thing is, all the socio-political-sexual stuff aside, Z really liked women. When she tried to get close to other women while in the relationship with me, she really had no luck--the bi-invisibility and bi-phobia stuff kicked in (even in a nonmonogamous context), but also, lots of lesbian-identified dykes just didn't want to be with somebody who was with a guy, or, in some cases, didn't want to be with a woman who had ever been with a guy. It was more than frustrating for her--it was hurtful and agonizing and, combined with the socio-political-sexual pressure (some examples of which can be seen in the comments of Jaclyn's posts) was, I think, part of what made our relationship perhaps too much work to be worth it. (Which is not at all to say that "she left me for a woman" is the main thread of our breakup. It was complex and involved and...resists oversimplification.)

The feeling of becoming the enemy was more pronounced with this breakup for me, in part because I did understand some of the complexities involved. I could totally empathize with what Z was going through, even if I couldn't understand it from my own experience fully. When she quickly found some true love-ish-ness from a woman after our breakup, in some ways my role was already cast: The Ex-Boyfriend, and all that such a label entails within this context. And in some ways, that role, even if it's not thought of as The Enemy outright, is thought of as The Outsider. The Problem. The Sordid Past.

Feelin' and Dealin'
And, whatever the truth of Z's heart, I felt like the enemy--I felt that now Z was on the 'right' side of things, fighting the good fight,not having to deal with all of the bs that comes from being in a relationship with a guy, not having to worry about hetero privilege--in a lot of ways it seemed to me that Z was better off, not just for having found love, but for having found love outside of hetero privilege.

And to some extent I still think that's true. As tough as it can be for not-straight-identified people in not-straight relationships, even in the SF Bay Area where I live, one advantage for Z is that she doesn't have to deal with all of the stuff I've been talking about. She still may have to deal with bi-phobia (actually, I'm not sure she identifies as bi any longer) and the like, and of course there will be homophobia to deal with, but one thing she won't have to worry about is being labeled as sleeping with the enemy.

And yet, in whatever ways, I will always be the enemy, which is, y'know, pretty sad for me a good deal of the time. But then along come people who understand that this is complex stuff; along come women who think relationships with (some) men are worth it; along come women who understand that even if we sometimes feel like we're either sleeping with the enemy or that we are the enemy, it's much more complex than that, and that, in general, we don't have to be enemies. We have to deal with the realities of the culture we live in, which include struggling with traditional gender roles and the like, but we can struggle against them, and together, if that's what we decide to do. Which, y'know, makes me happy.

Next: In part three, some notes on that sort of struggle, and what it's been like for me lately.
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