I wrote a series of reflections on visibility, belonging and passing throughout 2011 and 2012. This version was edited for a reading during Lisa-Skye‘s Midsumma spoken word showcase, The Invisibles. My recent trip overseas has made me think about all these experiences again – I’ll write more about that as I continue to unpack how people interpret my body and style in different situations.
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In Malaysia, I sleep with a Nigerian man who tells me I am basically white. And it’s funny because in this winterless country my skin is browner than than it’s ever been. But I’m also an Australian thinking three ringgit is just one dollar, my only functional language is English, and among all the people here only the Anglos are paler than me, so I guess he’s kind of right.
He asks me about my friends so I tell him about the American and her wife. He asks which of them is the man. I ask if he thinks he is a man with me. What is it you do that makes you the man? He thinks I’m confusing the question.
He asks me about my lovers at home. Number, gender, race and age. He asks simple questions, expecting sentences, but always I give him tumbling paragraphs. And always he reduces my words to his facts: For him my lovers are black and white, a man and a woman. Black like me, he says. I try to explain but I know he thinks I’m confusing the question. My answers sound precious, recondite, steeped in Western gender theory and Australian history and race politics and I feel so far from home.
Another night in a club, a man asks, You Chinese? You don’t dance like Chinese.
I think it’s supposed to be a compliment. I shrug. The DJ is spinning Busta Rhymes and I don’t know how else to dance. Mainly I try to dance like I don’t want to be touched — it doesn’t always work. I shrug again, and dance faster.
The first time I pass for a white man is on the internet. I am fifteen and trolling on a neo-Nazi discussion board. Again and again, in different times and contexts, I am told I write like a white man. That’s just the country I grew up in, I guess. I got that good colonial education.
So I don’t dance like I’m Chinese, and I write like I’m white, and I talk too big for a girl my size. When we go to bed I want to ask, who do I fuck like?
That night I let him fuck me like a girl, because I am feeling sort of generous and it’s too hard to explain. We both speak English but not the same language. If I say I want to have sex like a man, he might think I mean like Carrie in Sex and the City, when I mean I want him to lift up my dress and suck my cock. But then Carrie says fucking like a man feels “powerful, potent and incredibly alive” so maybe it’s not so different. Is Carrie Bradshaw’s heterosex queerer than mine?
Right now though I just want to go home with someone who knows what stone means.
At some point during my year of tears, I start to think of myself as a man. Both my lovers are upset with me and I can understand the situation better if I see myself as a bad man instead of a woman beseiged. For all my designs, for all my carefully declared intentions, I am the husband, the cad, the untrustworthy, the unforgiveable.
But I know the heist, the getaway. I put on another dress, dance faster. I steal another day.
Another time, someone asks if I am mixed. I’m perplexed at first because I’d always thought I had fairly typical Chinese features. Then I realise that it’s not about my face; it’s that my cultural mobility is unimaginable without leaving some trace in my ancestry. So I stiffen and say, No, I’m not mixed. I’m just Chinese.
Hitchhiking through the Nullabor, a truck-driver says something racist about Asians and then turns and says, Not like you, darl.
You haven’t met the likes of me before, but instead of enlarging or exploding your categories I’m always hovering outside, I’m an exception. But the days have passed where I would wear my exceptionalism as a badge of pride, now I say no, I’m just Chinese. I’m a mass-produced serialised export of the PRC and all those yellow hordes are as exceptional as me, as complicated as me, every one of us is large and contains multitudes. I might be the only one on your radar quoting Walt Whitman but there’s a solid billion of us so I guarantee I’m never the only one doing anything, and no matter how many glittery queer scenesters you see around me, those yellow hordes are my people.
In KL again, a trans guy friend drives me home via his favourite place for cheese naan. On the way he asks me how long I’ve been taking hormones and I’m confused and he repeats, How long have you been on oestrogen?
I say, Oh, sorry, no, I’m not trans, and he says, Oh, sorry, I thought Mira said … and he keeps apologising more than he needs to, more than he should, and I’m not sure if I should be apologising to him, has he told me more about himself because he thought I was trans too? Do I need to come out to Mira as cis now? Will that seem transphobic or does she have a right to know?
Because I’m not trans, I don’t often have to think about these things. In fact thinking about identity and visibility from a different angle is kind of interesting, instead of an unwanted and repetitive chore. Every time I am asked where are you from, it exhausts me even though I think I have exhausted every possible answer. But maybe it’s not the question that bothers me, just the anxiety that my response will be found wanting.
I don’t expect people to know where I’m from. I don’t expect them to know what languages I speak, whether I’m queer, if I prefer female pronouns, if I’m a bottom or what my body needs. Sometimes these things are invisible. But when I tell you, I expect you to believe me. I know these things about myself. And I know my answer is only questioned when my body is not what you expect: I say I am a woman, and there is no next question. I say I’m Australian, and I’m asked Were you born there? Where are your parents from? What’s your ethnicity?
That next question is not a clarification. It might be phrased many ways, but what you’re really asking is Why do you look like that then? And if you actually asked that, I could choose not to answer.
Here in Melbourne, I don’t worry too much about my queer visibility. Femme women like me are already too often seen and not heard, and being racialised my whole life means I don’t like to wear everything on my body or face. I’d rather be recognised for my service, like in leather tradition, or just be really fucking famous.
But one day in KL, I’m at a gay-friendly health service wearing a badge that says “queers without borders”. The receptionist recognises me from the day before and greets me as his “favourite fag hag”. It’s not an insult to be mistaken for a straight girl, but in this instance I’m a little upset that even in a queer space, wearing queer markers, I’m still read as straight.
I think though, that we can’t get femme or bi recognition just by making ourselves seen. Sexual orientation is invisible, and as much as I love flagging, shorthand indicators are often ambiguous. Attempts to make femme queerness more visible have mainly just furthered the proliferation of archetypes, as if to be femme and queer, you have to wear leopard print and have half-shaved hair. I don’t want that. I want you to know there are so many things you can’t tell just by looking at me. The only way to look queer is an act of seeing.