No, Queer Women Aren't "Just Experimenting"
They aren't "just going through a phase," either. But female queerness continues to be qualified, belittled, and disbelieved.
In Vogue’s July cover story, model and actress Cara Delevingne told writer Rob Haskell that she’s particularly happy with who she is these days because she’s in love with her girlfriend, Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent. This was the first time Delevingne had talked about her relationship publicly, and yet, on the heels of her revelation, Haskell thought it appropriate to editorialize: “Her parents seem to think girls are just a phase for Cara, and they may be correct.” He then gave Delevingne advice on how to better trust men.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the first sexual relationship I had with another woman wasn’t just drunk meaningless fun, but something legitimate, something that mattered — and part of the reason it took me so long is because people with cultural power, like Haskell, are so quick to dismiss queer female relationships as "just a phase."
Whenever I made out with girls during college, my boyfriend didn’t mind. I was “just curious.” I was “just experimenting.” It’s not like I was fooling around with guys (that would be cheating!). Girls simply get drunk and kiss each other, according to the pervasive college trope. But it isn’t real. It’s just an extension of girls’ naturally occurring intimacy. It’s just for fun. It’s just until we graduate — then we can finally settle down with a dude banker or dude lawyer or dude doctor (who cares what he does at the end of the day, as long as he’s a dude?).
Ever since amicably parting with that boyfriend upon realizing my inclination to kiss girls wouldn’t go away after walking across the graduation stage, I know now that — at least for me, for the vast majority of queer women — the “just experimenting” trope is a garbage fallacy. As the average coming-out age continues to drop, I’m hopeful that more and more teenage girls will march into freshman year (relatively) confident in their sexualities, so that their queer hookups aren’t clouded by doubt and shame the way mine were. But the myth of girl-on-girl experimenting only for experiment’s sake lives on.
This isn’t to say that women and teen girls shouldn’t be experimenting. Everyone at least remotely intrigued by queer sex deserves the freedom to indulge their curiosities. But at what stage does that curiosity, indulged or not, give someone the permission to call themselves queer? For women, we’ve set that bar ridiculously high.
Haskell’s comments in the Delevingne profile aren’t an isolated incident, but part of a widespread trend. Even when women explicitly say that they’re in relationships with women (or when they don’t say so, but we can basically assume as much), they’re told that their queerness may as well be a passing fad. The actual sex part of their sexuality is often glossed over entirely. Last year, when agender rapper Angel Haze was tired of the media calling them and their then-girlfriend Ireland Baldwin “best friends,” Haze clarified to The Independent: “We fuck, and friends don’t fuck.” Queer women and queer people assigned female at birth who date each other are reduced in the public eye to nothing more than gal pals: unthreatening, heteroflexible at most, together only for the moment.
I couldn’t imagine the experimenting/“just-a-phase" trope being foisted on men. Guys who have sex with other guys, despite youth or inexperience, are rarely if ever thought to be “just fooling around” — we see them as queer, no question, whether gay or bi or any other label besides straight. Nobody ever thought Lance Bass was going to go back to women eventually. (Though queer and questioning men, for whom sexual exploration remains more taboo, are themselves limited in the completely opposite direction.)
Queer women have to do far more than own up to sleeping with other women to be recognized as queer. This phenomenon is amplified when one or both of the women are more feminine, like I am. Men have hit on me at bars, thinking I'm just another straight lady, seemingly blind to my girlfriend next to me even with my hand on her back. I once had a male boss who kept making references to the sorts of guys he thought I’d be interested in, even after I repeatedly told him my dating life is a no-guy zone. Bisexual women have it even worse in this arena than lesbians do — dating men some part of the time translates in the popular consciousness to dating men all the time, exclusively, forever.
The onus placed on queer women to prove their own queerness is exhaustive. And since women have a hard enough time asserting their sapphism when they’re in relationships with other women, claiming queerness in the amorphous world of crushing, dating, and casual sex is quite another task entirely.
Because the media and other powers that be so often refuse to call female queerness what it is, some women who might otherwise embrace an LBQ identity eschew queer identification altogether. They can get away with not identifying in a way that queer men can’t — it’s both a blessing and a curse.
There’s a paradoxical way in which the current culture is celebrating some vague idea of female sexual fluidity, without allowing that fluidity to tip over into full-fledged queerness. In many ways, that’s long since been the case — women “experimenting” has always been a titillating show for the straight male gaze. It’s only when women are sexual with one another without regard for male pleasure that their sexuality becomes a problem. Fluidity is innocent, temporal. But queerness is a threat.
Sexual fluidity of all stripes became a hot topic when the release of Orange Is the New Black’s third season on Netflix introduced mainstream culture to someone lesbians have loved for years: the gender-fluid DJ, model, and actress Ruby Rose. Everyone lost their collective shit over this very attractive, very androgynous person. Women who otherwise identified as straight flocked to social media to declare that Rose was making them question their sexuality. If you’re a lady who’s only been into guys until now, and Ruby Rose’s unbearable hotness is inspiring you to consider switching teams (or playing for multiple), that’s a pretty great thing.
Here’s where this gets tricky, though. Plenty of women took care to clarify that they would “go gay” for Ruby Rose, and Ruby Rose alone. Rose doesn’t identify as a woman, which makes the gay comment enough of an issue in itself. But beyond the limits of language, queer women were uncomfortable with straight women coopting their identities — they argued that you can very easily recognize someone’s attractiveness without saying you’d go gay for them. I’m sure a good number of women had a full-on sexual awakening when, thanks to Orange Is the New Black, androgyny in the form of Rose’s character Stella was depicted as sexy and desirable (and of course, we’ve already seen the show’s queering powers in action: When Lauren Morelli was writing for the first season, she figured out her own gayness). But I also suspect that there were plenty of women who said they’d go gay for Rose, but haven’t been inspired to look at other women any differently — let alone sleep with them, date them, build lives with them.
Queer women who judged straight-identified women for fawning over Rose were chewed out in many corners of the internet for policing other people’s sexuality — it’s just hyperbole, stop being so sensitive. There’s been a grand virtual consensus, apparently: Protect a woman’s right to sexual fluidity. I strongly believe in protecting that right, but I’m also wary of its ability to drown out the desires of queer and questioning women who’d like to go beyond conjecture and actually, physically have queer sex. There are blurry overlaps between the fluid/questioning/queer camps, to be sure, but a lot of the time when people talk about fluidity, that’s what it remains: just talk.
Just Ruby Rose.
Just a phase.
That’s what person-specific and situation-specific fluidity feeds into: the misconception that lady-on-lady action is a flight of fancy, something small and passing and easily contained. The New York Times Vows column about Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson's wedding described their marriage as “between a gay woman and a straight woman" and quoted Johnson as saying: “I’m not a lesbian. But Brittney is different.” (The couple has since separated.) In a similar vein, one of my friends once had a girlfriend who didn’t identify as queer — “I’m just gay for you,” she’d say. And maybe that’s true. Or maybe Johnson and my friend’s ex-girlfriend are rather tragically limiting themselves, foregoing life’s great gay potentials, because it’s easier to package female queerness into a single box: one-time-only, one-person-only. It’s easier because the world would rather champion a sexually fluid woman — widely considered a straight woman who has only temporarily strayed — than a dyke.
Demi Lovato, who co-wrote her latest song "Cool for the Summer" with four male songwriters, is furthering the one-time-only vibe by describing a same-sex fling — which, cleverly, doesn’t sound a loud queer alarm.
“I’m a little curious too,” she sings. Off to a good start. “Got a taste for the cherry.” K, there is definitely some exciting gay stuff going on here.
“Just something that we wanna try / 'Cause you and I / We’re cool for the summer.”
Lovato croons that she “just [wants to] have some fun with you.” Great. Experimentation is awesome. But she qualifies, qualifies, qualifies with all those “justs” — softens the potential queerness, making the message more palatable to a mainstream audience. Maybe the message here will warm a listening teen girl to the idea of experimentation, but it could just as easily confuse her into thinking that experimentation is just that — something to test out, until the summer ends and everything goes back to (hetero)normal. “Cool for the Summer” doesn’t suggest that being sexually fluid will remain “cool” beyond the limits of the fun, flingy season, beyond the limits of the song’s fantasy.
Lovato has defended herself against claims that she ripped off Katy Perry — “I think more than one female artist can kiss a girl and like it” — but “Cool for the Summer” does feel somewhat like like “I Kissed a Girl” 2.0. Props to Lovato, though, for not explicitly mentioning a dude and his gaze like Perry does.
“Demi’s just young and having fun,” a representative for Lovato told BuzzFeed Music when asked if the song constituted a coming-out. “She’s in the driver’s seat for the first time in her career, and she’s going to sing about whatever she wants to sing about.”
Which, fair. She can do whatever the hell she wants. But still, to me, there’s something repellent in the way “Cool for the Summer” plays up the classic bad girl narrative — “Tell me if it’s wrong, if it’s right, I don’t care.” Trying out girls in this fantasy universe is dangerous, secret, exciting. That’s sexy for a song, but when I translate Lovato's whispered “Don’t tell your mother” into real life, I think about an ex whose house I was never able to go to, whose extremely religious family I was never able to meet, because I quite literally couldn’t tell her mother. There’s nothing sexy or cool about queerness coming head-to-head with a world that still vehemently rejects it.
Qualifying queerness in all these ways — just for the summer, just for college, just for the moment, just for this one celebrity, just for this one relationship, just for this one short-lived phase — protects women, in a way. They can dip their toes into queer experience without having to fully commit to queer identity and the slew of anti-gay vitriol that comes along with it. Of course, there are going to be women for whom a dip or two will remain the full extent of their same-sex experiences, to which they are more than entitled. But qualifying queerness at large doesn’t protect most queer women in the long term, who want more than “just.”
And this isn’t to say that queerness must equal all ladies, all the time. Bisexual and otherwise-identified queer women can and should proudly claim queerness no matter the gender of the person they’re dating at the moment — all the more reason to define it beyond the limits of one-time-onlies. So when people like Rob Haskell assume things like Cara Delevingne’s relationship with a woman might be “just a phase,” they give credence to the reckless assumption that female queerness is inauthentic and dismissible. That assumption is dull, and feeble, and limiting. And we deserve better than limits.