by Guest Contributor Tiara the Merch Girl
I often feel that I’m not taken seriously as a full well-rounded nuanced person when it comes to things related to eroticism, burlesque, sexuality, queerness, and so on. I have grown up constantly being the Other, having everything I do viewed through the lens of the Other, assumed to be the representative of the Other, rather than just a representative of myself and my myriad views and backgrounds. I’d make a piss-poor representative for any other culture or background anyway, given how I stick out like a sore thumb in all of them. Too foreign for Bangladesh, too Bangla for Malaysia, too Asian for Australia, too X for Y.
I have been introduced at burlesque revues as the “Bollywood Princess”- which ticks me off a lot, particularly since I have yet to do a piece that involves Bollywood in any shape or form. Not even a subcontinental song! Anything I wear automatically becomes “exotic” on me. For example, I have a beautiful red dress, with some gold embroidery, that I bought from an op-shop for a performance project. When I first wore it to a rehearsal one of the other girls there said “wow! It’s just so YOU!”. “Me” doesn’t tend to go for dresses very often (it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve started wearing dresses and skirts more regularly). It only looks exotic because it happens to be red with some gold embroidery and on me it looks like I’m wearing sari cloth. On a Chinese person it’d look like a reimagined cheongsam. On a white person? A Snow White or Red Riding Hood dress. The dress itself isn’t especially exotic; what makes it exotic is the lens brought on by people’s perception of the wearer.
Similarly, I think people in queer scenes are so mystified by the presence of a Racial Other that they fail to comprehend that I could also be a Sexual Other too. I swear, I’ve been to so many queer events with a bevy of straight people, and THEY get the attention. There’s probably been two queer girls in my entire life that have shown even a smidgen of interest in me as more than just a friend. I don’t ping anyone’s gaydar. As my Redhead Girl said one time, here I am proclaiming to the world my sexuality and hardly anything’s opened up, while here she is denying her sexuality until very recently and already she’s got a strong support network and even a relationship or two. I suppose having a boyfriend doesn’t really help (“yay, another barsexual”?) but at least talk to me beforehand and not make assumptions?
The other thing I notice with that is that my self-presentation, the way I look or act or dress, doesn’t tend to fit into local established ideas of “queer”. I don’t look especially femme or butch. Neither label fits me particularly well. They’re based on Western Anglo-centric notions of gender roles and gender identity that don’t always neatly coincide with my experiences growing up in Malaysia and in various multicultural backgrounds. In the West, two men holding hands or kissing is automatically sexual and queer; in the Middle East, it’s pretty normal. In the West, two girls being affectionate is pretty standard; where I come from it’s already enough to judge you as “ew a lesbian”. Women in South Asian culture are not often submissive; while they still often hold on to traditional ideas such as being the housemaker, in the kitchen, etc, they’re also very brash and open and loud and have just as much a say in the household as the men – perhaps having even more power and influence.
To be a man in Bangladesh – not butch, a man – all I have to do is wear pants and a shirt. That’s it. Enough to cause plenty of gender confusion when I went there for holidays (just wearing jeans even with a traditional top got me quizzed on my gender by a little kid). The women there wear salwhar khameez (a tunic and pantsuit) or saris. I don’t think there’s anything explicitly stopping you from wearing anything else (I wasn’t detained or shamed) – it just didn’t seem to occur to anyone else that there were other “feminine” clothes out there, or that a pants and a shirt weren’t necessary masculine. Similarly, I’ve met Western women who wouldn’t code salwhar khameez as feminine simply because there are pants involved.
My gender identity isn’t based on how high my heels are, how your hands can fit around my waist, my ability to fix cars, or my taste for flannel (urgh). Having a “lesbian haircut” still does nothing for me, because on a body and look like mine it gets hidden by the “OMG FOREIGN” lens. Even my use of language interferes; I’m not exactly sure what they mean, but I have had readers of my blog tell me I write about “lesbian” things as though I am a straight person. Perhaps because I grew up learning English with a hodge-podge of international influences, mainly within a culture that mentioned nothing about sexuality other than “we do not talk about such things”, only being aware of the existence of “queer culture” very recently? What does it mean to write as “straight” or “gay” anyway?
I want to be able to mix up clothing, accessories, stances, looks, attitudes, words, expressions, body language, and not assume that I am coding as Butch or Femme or Kinky or Vanilla just because I’m expressing something that means different things to different people.
Sort of like how the word “air” can refer to both “the thing we breathe” in English, or “water” in Malay. Exact same letters, different pronunciation, different meaning. Similarly, my mannerisms and costumes and ideas may share the same letters or components as other “words” or subcultures, but I’m speaking a different language, so don’t assume you know what I’m saying.
I don’t often see non-white people at queer women parties like Scarlet in Brisbane or the Pussycat Club in Sydney. They are there, though they tend to know each other (though they have been friendly to me; one time they got me to dance with them because I was doing sticker duty – “Watch Your Drink” – and they called me a hero). I’m not automatically drawn to people from any particular race; half the time I don’t even know for sure what race or background anyone is. People make too many assumptions about my background that I tend to assume nothing about anyone else’s background. But it can be lonely and rather intimidating to go to someplace alone (as I usually do), not have any friends with you, the friends that are there are usually busy and preoccupied, and you just wish someone would come up to you and say hi.
Sometimes I wonder if I could purposely market myself – well, at least my performance persona The Merch Girl – to the female (lesbian?) gaze. It’s not terribly difficult to market to the male gaze as a girl. Tits! Nudity! Come-hither! Submission! Sure, that’s not the taste of all (or probably most) guys, but there are plenty of avenues for that sort of thing. Even alternative porn tends to go for some aspect of the male gaze, with the submission and come-hither and otherwise-conventionally-beautiful girls, empowered by the camera rather than using the camera as a means to own and display their own self-empowerment.
But the female gaze? The queer female gaze? It’d probably be like what Lady Gaga does half the time, especially with the Telephone video. Gender play. Masculine outfits (though can we move away from tuxedo suits please? They’re yummy and I have a thing for business suits, but I wonder what the reaction would be like if I wore an Indian sherwani. Probably won’t make a difference – it looks like a long dress anyway). Not completely femme’d up, but there are some hints. Androgyny – but how do you deal with a very obviously female curvy body with big breasts?
There’ll probably be a more intellectual imaginative aspect too. Building scenes, crafting situations, using the senses and words and music and art to create atmosphere, one where you can think yourself into and immerse yourself in your own delicious thoughts. Being a bringer of pleasure, making a girl feel good and revel in her own imaginative self-pleasure, being a conduit through her senses, through temptation, through pampering – being as turned on by her pleasure as she is.
Why a girl rather than a guy? Maybe because I find it more of a challenge. Firstly you’ll need to find a girl who’s open to the idea (and is not grossed out by the idea of a girl practically seducing her). Then you need to come up with something other than just “hey boobs!” – which could work, but she already has boobs of her own – and you want to contribute something else. Maybe it’s because I consider myself Kinsey 4.5 and already have a guy that I’ve done the seduction/play/pleasure thing with and am pretty comfortable with that. Maybe it’s because it’s the one area I still haven’t quite explored, that there’s still something fundamentally different about being with a woman, being with feminine sexual energy and pleasure, that I yearn to explore ever since I owned up to being pansexual sometime around the age of 16.
But I can’t seem to find people to take me seriously. Not when they’re already confronted by the idea of me being Foreign and don’t stop to think “hey, she’s probably Foreign AND queer too!”. I do know that quite a few girls (and guys besides) find pleasure in my various burlesque and stage performances; I just wish I could charm and attract and seduce people with it (for longer than 4 days online)!
Am I taboo? Am I this weird enigma that no one wants to consider because everyone has preconceived notions based on how I look? Do I approach sexuality and relationships in such a drastically different way that the Western models stymie me more?
What do I have to do to get people to show an interest?