“Rezubian (‘Lesbian’ in Japanese), Bi or Straight?”
Employing a direct line of questioning in a booming voice, a tall drag queen shining in a blood red sequinned gown, strides to our table and shoots the question at us. I am not entirely sure how to respond and neither is my friend.
We hesitate but the drag queen, who is the hostess of the bar we are in, is prepared to wait. Earlier in the night, at another bar, we were asked the same question, but that time it was followed up with a thorough series of queries about what our “type” was.
Tachi or neko? Susanna, in spite of being a native New Yorker, spoke enough Japanese to know the words for femme and butch.
As we wove our way through different groups of people, the same sets of questions kept coming at us. I say “us,” but most of them were addressed to my very blonde, very tall American friend – in part, I am sure, because she actually spoke Japanese but also because, as one encounter would reveal, it was more likely for the white girl to be gay than the brown one.
On my way to the bathroom at this Llesbian Bbar, I am stopped by a group of Japanese women who ask me where I am from.
When I reply that I am from India, their first reaction is wide-eyed disbelief.
“Indo?” they repeat in incredulous terms.
“You live there?”
After these women have asked me all these questions, they take me to their table and announce to their companions that they have found an Indian Lesbian and buy me a drink to celebrate that Indian people defying heteronormativity do exist. Susanna and I spend a large part of the evening with these women, who are curious enough about us to overcome the usual polite distance that has been characteristic of my encounters with other Japanese strangers in public. We have a lot of fun and even more beer. This encounter has involved just the right amount of awkwardness, broken language and frenetic gesticulation for it to be neatly filed away as an amusing travel anecdote, but there is a lingering feeling that I cannot name.
Afterwards, we walk into the street. It is lit up with neon signs; outside one of the more famous bars, feathers, limbs, sequins, latex, foreigners, blend into each other in a large crowd. Across the street on a second floor window, we see the bare backs of muscular men in tight black shorts dancing suggestively for an unseen audience. We forego the signs leading to a Maid and Butler role play party and walk into the a brightly lit space called Campy Bar where we perch on high chairs and see the drag queen in her sequinned gown approach us.
“Rezubian, Bi or Straight?”
And that’s when I feel a click; my lingering feeling surfaces and makes itself known. It is a question of what we, as queer women in places of the world where invisibility is more likely, internalise about the very nature of queerness or ‘deviant’ sexuality. I find myself thinking about two things in particular: is there a quiet, underlying assumption, even in supportive spaces, that queerness is more natural to certain societies than it is to others?
Even after I allow for the fact that I don’t speak much Japanese and the women we met do not speak much English, this encounter resonates with other instances of invisibility I have felt as a queer woman of colour in other parts of the world. Much of this has to do with the perception of India as a place that is dangerous enough for straight women, not to mention straight couples who step outside certain sanctioned limits, and therefore, as a place that is not conducive to fostering a queer community.
Even in places that are not in the anglophone Western world, there is a sense that the discourse around queerness is centred around White/Western subjects and that there is a dangerous aligning of queer subjectivities with categories such as modern, liberal, urban and progressive with not exactly Western but, perhaps, more Western than Eastern/African/Latin American ideals.
Of course, in no way would I suggest that queer women in Asia are aping the West and subsuming the concerns of the Western LGBTQ movement alone. However, being in Japan and reflecting on my own slightly horrified attitude towards the insistence of categories that (to my mind) reinforced the gender binary makes me wonder what is gained and/or lost in this process of always placing our desires and interpersonal relations on an axis of politically charged identity. I could choose to remain indignant about a bisexual Japanese woman being impressed by my “manly” ways when I say I prefer whisky over wine and get my panties in a twist about the gendered norms that assumption follows, or I could move beyond the idea of what an ideal queerness looks like.
There is a sense of elitism in many queer circles, wherein feelings must be backed up by what Judith Butler said about them, and your sexuality must always be performed or articulated for you to be taken seriously. I definitely felt that way in the USA in Northampton, Massachusetts, at my all-women’s college which had its own fair share of LGBTQ women. As a brown ‘femme’ (I use the word to simply describe my visual appearance; on most days I feel neither masculine nor feminine – if 6-year-old-who-likes-to-eat-cake-for-breakfast-and-has-no-life-responsibilities was a gender identity, I would claim it as quickly as Columbus claimed America) I had to fight my way into being taken seriously as a queer woman at my college because there was a pervading, half-racist, half-imperialist assumption that brown women were not ‘with’ the movement. This at a place with the highest per square meter concentration of lesbians in the USA!
Our geographic locations are mapped onto our bodies, our faces and our skin, and it is only when we find ourselves outside them, that we begin to understand just how much of these places we carry with us.
I understand that in this Japanese bar, as I sip on my ‘manly’ whisky sour. It almost feels as though, in this moment, I am understanding ways in which spending my formative college years in the USA, being part of groups comprised mostly of white, middle-class people with access to a college education, has made me frame queerness in certain ways, almost to the point where I value a unified theory of being over actual human connection.
This of course, is ridiculous. Just as there is no one way to be a person, a woman or a city, there is no one way of being queer. If my place of origin is readable through my skin and denies me the right to something very fundamental to me – my sexuality – then the logic that dictates that must be challenged. And so, I am glad that I have been made to feel uncomfortable through questions about my sexuality, that I have caught myself wondering how queer can these people really be if their questions are so… for lack of a better word, basic?
What I am realising as I look around this warm and welcoming space is that even if the drag queen hostess is asking me to define whether I am gay, bi or straight, her smile is genuine and, really, there is no wrong answer. The sort of people who fill the bar range across all types. A preppy, uptight looking salaryman bursts into laughter and his partner turns to give him a peck on the lips. Two drag queens sit down with a large group of girls on a too-small sofa because there is no space anywhere else; within minutes they are talking to each other with enough familiarity to be mistaken for friendship. On our table, Susanna is telling our hostess about her time in Japan and how she has rented a flat in Adachi-ku, a low-income neighbourhood that has a reputation for being unsafe, and immediately the hostess is giving her tips about it.
At the end of the day, when queerness is an alienated identity, and is a site of struggle and unhappiness in so many of us, perhaps we should really focus on the radical ways in which we can understand differences from a nuanced point of view. What sort of nuance? The sort of nuance that will let me drink my damn whisky with a group of wonderful people regardless of how ‘correct’ they are in their queerness. Perhaps this is my naivety speaking, but I think our definition of queerness should be generous enough to allow for how growing up in a country like India, or for that matter, Japan, where woman = the keystone of heteropatriarchal family, there are historical and social ideas that even the most evolved of us are always battling against and while this battle is political it is also personal, it is within us and involves deeply ingrained attitudes we may recognize as problematic but cannot fully extricate ourselves from. We are all trying, we are all striving and at the end of the day, community and good feeling are just as important as an intellectual articulation of my sexuality.
And so, in reply to the still standing question, “Rezubian, Bi or Straight?” I say, “Still Deciding” and go on to have one of the best nights of my trip to Japan and, almost definitely, the best (manly) whisky sour in the world.
Photo Credit: 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)