Monday, November 22, 2010

Queers in Space


Our first few days in NYC are almost disturbingly familiar. We’re staying in Williamsburg, a ‘hipster’ neighbourhood in Brooklyn; home to coffee shops, bars, vintage clothing stores, artists’ and flea markets and skinny boys with beards. It’s basically like a blend of Sydney’s inner west with some Melbourney flavour and really terrible coffee. As Panda pointed out in regards to the perceived lack of ‘difference’: “I didn’t fly half way around the world to feel like I haven’t gone anywhere.”

It’s supposed to be a ‘gay’ neighbourhood too, but like the rest of the city, as we find out, there are some gay(-friendly) areas, but the community itself is pretty dispersed. Even in ultra-gay Chelsea, there are far too many straight people and not enough rainbows for my liking. It can’t hold a candle to the camp extravagance of San Fran’s Castro district. Speaking of the Castro, as I whinge about the straightness of gay areas overseas, I’m reminded of my last trip to America with my high femme bestie, who for the sake of privacy I will call … Lady Pigeon (she knows why). Staying in the Mission with her highness, and enjoying (and bemoaning) the one dyke bar in all of San Fran, we traipsed over to the Castro to get a hit of the gayest suburb in the gayest city in the world. As we approached through the side streets, rainbow flags began to line the residential areas (“Ok, we’re definitely close…”), and we popped out onto the main street and took our bearings. “Oh. I thought it would be gayer,” Pigeon says, clearly disappointed. I stare at her, agape. “What? How is this (encompassing gesture) not gay enough?” At that point, as if the denizens of the Castro have an automated system to deal with the inevitable disappointment of queer mythologizing, we look behind us to see two leather dykes, riding a motorbike and smiling down on us from a massive gay mural. A bear emerges from around a corner, walking his matching pair of English bulldogs, and then, to top it off, we step quickly out of the way of a gay man on roller skates. Resplendent in his vintage 1970s gay-man-moustache, he is wearing short-shorts and a tight white t-shirt that says “Ho. Ho. Ho.” He swirls around us, flashes a cheeky grin, and vanishes down the street … “Ok, now is it gay enough for you?”

But now, I have much more sympathy for what I saw as Pigeon’s rash judgement. New York may not represent the queer pilgrimage that San Fran does in the eyes of some of the international QuILTBAG community, but it’s representation as a nexus of historical and contemporary queer art, politics and (night)life is pretty damn convincing (Hello? Stonewall?). At least in my head. And the reality will always pale when judged against the glowing, cinematic images in my imagination (Shortbus…you have ruined me).

Panda in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

But there is something else going on, and it has to do with the inevitable comparison with home. Of course our first instincts when confronting something new and unfamiliar are to read through lenses already in place. It’s pretty impossible not to interpret something through frameworks of understanding you’ve already developed. You can’t help but look through your experiences, memories and subjective little eyeballs. “It’s like Newtown.” “He looks like a young John Malkovich without the crazy eyes.” “It’s like…really, really bad coffee.” “It does taste a little bit like chicken.” Allowing difference to be pure difference is impossible, and perhaps ethical readings (of anything) involves a constant balance between recognising difference, sameness and (critiquing) subjective interpretations that are often far too reliant on simile. So the dip in my enthusiasm for “gay” bits of New York (really, only spotted two queer couples holding hands the whole time), is also based on the fact that I get to live in a tiny, queer/trans/gay/dyke bubble. And I get to choose, in my day-to-day, to avoid heterosexuality as much as humanly possible. Maybe when Lady Pigeon stood at the top of the Castro, and I stood in the centre of Williamsburg and Chelsea and the Village, we were quietly thinking of home, and how both of us are surrounded, every single day, by our community. We bitch all the time about the lack of anonymity in our neighbourhood, and the incestuous nature of the queer/dyke scene in particular, but when it’s gone, even temporarily…  What else makes a queer (or gay) area definitively queer (or gay) but the people who inhabit it? It is only when we have a conversation with some of the boys who work in a queer shop in Chelsea that we start to feel properly (gayly) located. I had to buy a Tom of Finland magnet (oooh, ouch stop twisting my arm) to get this experience, but it was well worth it to feel that fleeting, anonymous, affectionate contact you get with people who are you-but-not-you. I’m not a leather queen (GOD DAMN IT), but close enough for this brief nod of community-feeling, experienced by my slightly lonesome self as the conversational equivalent of a hug.

Yes, but is it gay enough?

I’m in a small, painfully cool café in Williamsburg, meeting for the first time the dyke who will be staying in our flat in Sydney. She’s a Brooklyn butch, formerly of Chicago, who fell in love with Sydney when she visited three years ago. Partly, she explains when I ask the obvious (“Sydney over New York? Really?”), whilst she loves her femme and trans friends in New York, she finds it difficult to locate other butch dykes and misses the butchy crew she had in Sydney. “So,” I ask, “you found the community better in Sydney?” (‘Sydney’ by the way, meaning the inner Western suburbs of Newtown, Enmore, etc. Living there, we are often only dimly aware that other parts of the city even exist. “You’re in the city city? What the hell for?”). Alex almost explodes with enthusiasm. The bars, the streets, the people, the sun – she has been “boring” parts of Brooklyn to death about the merits of living gay in Newtown and its surrounds for the past three years, but I cannot see how anyone could be bored listening to her passionate, ardently told stories about her life in Sydney. Alex is a fantastically gestural storyteller; the flurry of her limbs and wild gesticulations are utterly compelling, and I find my energy rising to meet hers as we swap stories and gossip. Alex admits that she may be guilty of idolising her former and future home, but there are elements which are not exaggerated. Walking down the street (or bar hopping, or café jumping), you are never really alone. You bump into friends, nod to familiar faces; you know the bartender, the waiter, the barista. You’ve slept with the bartender, the waiter, the barista. We have sacrificed our anonymity to some degree, but I’m quite willing, after listening to Alex and other NYC queers talk about the difficulty of creating and maintaining community in this busy city, in this fragmented scene, to let anonymity go in exchange for the day-to-day maintenance of my gayness (though I would like my invisibility turned back on for: walks of shame, hungover excursions for milk, and that time I spilled coffee on my crotch). Recognition – be it constantly running into other queers who know you, or love you, or sitting at a café and hearing a friend shout out “FAGGOT! WOOOOO!” – can feel intrusive at times, but it’s also pretty nourishing.

I’ve been feeling slightly undernourished in New York. While people are friendly enough if you engage them in conversation, and there is the occasional shining example of American good humour and extreme confidence (some people here have the best laughs), the lack of daily contact with people on the street is missed when I finally manage to work out my uneasiness. Or at least I think I have:

Even the walls are judging me.
Piggy: “People do not do eye contact here, do they? I feel like it’s all “OUT OF MY WAY! I LIVE IN A GRID CITY AND THEREFORE MOVE ACCORDINGLY! STRAIGHT LINES! TURN CORNER! STRAIGHT LINES!” And everyone is carrying take-away coffees. Like no-one has time to sit… I mean, that’s like all we do at home. Sit, coffee, sun. Sit, coffee, sun… OK, weird. Having no eye contact at all is really strange. I feel invisible. And seriously unpretty.”

Panda: “I get lots of eye contact.”

(I could write an entire book about my experience of feeling like a frump next to Panda – whose long legs are often encased in tight jeans tucked into long, black boots or cute-as-pie grandpa trousers with tan-coloured docs…I could rave on about how round and dull I feel standing next to his athletic, graceful body clothed in cute, bright sweaters…his colourful headscarves and perfect foundation and studded leather belt… The way he seriously works his tight, bright pink t-shirt with the sarcastic queer slogan (which used to be mine…sigh)… He has a brown leather dandy hat which perches jauntily on his head most days, and it makes him look all rakish and handsome. He was featured in a fashion blog recently, for goodness sake. So I could definitely rave on and on about this issue, but I’m not going to because it will make me sound all bitter and jealous. And I am not. At all.)

Later, I listen to another ex-Sydney queer called ‘Panda’ (who I will have to call ‘Panda 2.0’) compare Sydney and New York. She feels, on the one hand, that it doesn’t matter what she wears (I would describe her style as gentle-punk-dandy-fag) because no-one looks at or comments on fashions that are different or even (from a conservative perspective) ‘strange’. But the flipside is that no-one looks. Even with the crap Panda 2.0 (and Panda 1.0 for that matter… and everyone I know) puts up with on the streets of Sydney from people who wish to comment unfavourably on her fashion/gender presentation/sexuality, the reverse creates a surprising absence. A voidy, invisible feeling which has led Panda 2.0 to actually question her fashion choices! Panda 1.0 and I gasp in horror – “No, honey! You’re doubting your fashion?!” Panda 2.0 wavers while she explains this. I feel like she misses the recognition of difference – both good and bad – she got living elsewhere, but she feels guilty for missing it. You’re in a city where people don’t care how kooky you look? Great! Utopia! Hurrah! But the downside is that people don’t care. Good or bad, they actually can’t be bothered caring. Which is part and parcel of the anonymity of a city like this, I suppose. The good and the bad. 

Alex says something similar, but reassures me it is more to do with a strict public/private thing: “People do not know how to react when they bump into someone they know on the street. Living in a city so busy and crowded you don’t really expect it, and then when it happens, you have no idea what to do.” Alex describes the inner monologue (with very cute miming) of the confident-appearing New Yorker completely thrown by unexpected contact, even with a close friend: “Walking, walking, rushing, busy, busy, coffee, transfer, subway, busy, busy… WHOAH! Person stopping me to chat! But I had my flow on! Flow disrupted! Can’t remember how…talk…people! ARGH! Run away!” She thinks this is due to the speed and ambition which drive the city. When Alex moved to New York, she promised herself she was not going to get caught up in that way of living again, but has found it impossible to swim against New York’s neurotic stream. It’s clear that Alex is longing for some good, old-fashioned Australian apathy. Well, we have that in spades. Welcome back, my dear.

I meet up with another Sydney friend, Miss D, an actor who has been in New York for over two years and loves everything about the city which Alex longs to escape from – the anonymity, the speed, the crowds, the endless, endless options. When she hears my observation (Ok, it’s a complaint along the lines of: “I am not pretty here at all!”), and Panda’s description of all the unfriendly stares he has been receiving, especially on the subway, Miss D interrupts, “What about all the eye-fucking on the subway?!”


Panda has been responding as he usually would to weighing-up, judgmental, and unfriendly glances, and has been pulling his “wary cat face” at people: ears back, eyebrows slightly raised, head slightly tilted; alert but too superior to be truly alarmed, and completely contemptuous. It’s a truly excellent face, and I’m glad it is getting a good workout, but as it turns out, the face has been deployed pre-emptively. “No, no,” Miss D explains, “That’s flirting.” Something has been lost in translation and I, more than Panda, bemoan the lack of understanding: “All those people were flirting with you!? And you pulled the face? Oh, think of all the lost suitors!”

French bulldog xmas decoration
Everyday we head out into the city, sometimes not straying far from our hostel on Bedford Ave, Williamsburg. On a few sunny days we get utterly, delightfully stuck drinking coffee in cafes around this area for hours, stopping people walking past to comment on their dogs. French bulldogs are the dog du jour in this area, the trend currently favouring the golden, honey coloured variety, whose coats look like the hues of a really good coffee. A dyke couple, one Belgian and one German, are the most talkative (black and white chubby French bulldog), and helpful in mapping out the ‘new’ gay New York. They are both artists, so (not unusually, for homos still infect the arts, thank goodness) their descriptions are both sex- and art-based: “There are lesbians here, yes, but the art is more edgy over that way … there are plenty of lesbians in Park Slope, but they all have children now [implication being that, naturally, their art has suffered] … Chelsea is ok, but the boys are all in Hells Kitchen now…”  It’s a pleasant, gossipy conversation and it revives me somewhat. I haven’t realised how effected I’ve been by the lack of… it’s kind of embarrassing to admit… attention. This small interaction in the sunshine, with Frank the bulldog snuffling hopefully at my lip balm, has made me feel much more relaxed; this conversation with a Belgian, a German and a French dog has made me feel, strangely, much more at home, and pleasantly visible. I feel pretty again…and witty…and gay. 


  1. Witty, absolutely. I love reading your adventures!

  2. GENIUS. Thankyou for this beautiful reflection!