Being a queer woman can be tough.
On top of street harassment and hostile attitudes, we face awkward conversations with straight people who say insensitive and invasive things. Most of these people mean well; some of them are even our friends.
But even though they intend no harm, they often forget (or don’t know) about their privilege and say things that make us feel unsafe.
I’ve had straight men, for example, make me feel uncomfortable in conversations, and it’s important to talk about how they can be problematic when they interact with queer women.
But there have also been straight women, often my friends, who’ve made me feel uncomfortable because of careless remarks.
We think that women can’t oppress other women, but it’s entirely possible. And we need to talk more about it.
Maybe you’ve heard someone declaring that she’s “not girly.” This comment seems innocuous, but it’s damaging because it implies that being “girly” is an undesirable thing. How many times have you heard women making fun of other women who like clothes and make-up, accusing them of being shallow?
Internalized misogyny, anyone?
So if straight women can perpetuate oppression with one another, then it makes sense that they can perpetuate it with queer women, too – and across multiple layers. Although all women are oppressed because of our gender, straight women still have privilege because of their sexual identity: That’s the very nature of intersectionality.
How a straight woman handles her sexuality is constantly under scrutiny, and that’s an unacceptable result of patriarchy. But it’s not the same as how a queer woman’s sexuality is perceived, since that exists at the intersection of patriarchy and heterocentrism.
That is, as often as people judge straight women for how much sex they have, they never judge them for the gender of the people they have it with. And they certainly don’t debate whether they even have the right to be in a relationship in the first place.
So it’s important to talk about the ways in which straight women can make queer women uncomfortable. Nobody should feel uncomfortable, and more importantly, when we make queer women feel uncomfortable, we exclude them. We exclude them not only from feminist movements, but also from friendships.
I know that unlearning privilege is a complicated task. When you’re trying to shed all of the bad habits that society has taught you, even talking to someone can seem scary because you feel like you have to second guess every word you say.
But it’s not good to avoid having a conversation with someone just because you feel like you might offend them. Oftentimes, all it takes is some consideration before you speak. The most important thing to remember is that you’re not just trying to be a good ally to queer women — you’re also trying to be a good friend.
So, below are five things straight women simply shouldn’t say when talking to queer women. They will help you think through some considerations when it comes to talking to queer women.
It’s not a comprehensive list, but it applies to all women who are attracted to other women. And yes, I’ve heard them all before.
1. ‘So Where Do You Find Other Queer Women? I Never See Them Around’
I get it: You’re just curious.
But when straight women ask me this, I feel alienated, kind of like I’m a rare oddity that they’re puzzled by. The reality is, you probably know a lot of queer women. They just haven’t told you.
Even if there weren’t a lot of queer women around, the question still makes it sound like we use some special code to meet each other, like a Queer Bat-Signal. Trust me, we don’t. We meet each other at parties, at bars, through friends — basically, we meet each other just like straight people do.
If your friend has a partner and you genuinely want to get to know her better, ask her how she and her partner met. She might be a private person and not want to share a lot of details, but most people are more than happy to talk about their relationships.
Asking your friend respectfully about her relationship lets her know that you’re more than just okay with her being queer — you’re interested in her as a person.
2. ‘Do You Really Not Like Men At All?’
Not all queer women are exclusively attracted to other women. But even if they were, it doesn’t matter.
People who ask me this question often say it with a sense of disbelief, as if they can’t imagine that there can be women who aren’t attracted to men. What they really mean is, “Why not men?”
But why do we insist that women must be attracted to men? Will our relationships somehow be lacking if it’s missing a man?
So when you ask me this question, it’s not only invasive (who I’m attracted to is my own business), it’s also insulting. It’s insulting because it insinuates that queer relationships are less meaningful than heterosexual ones, and because it makes it seem as if I should be uncertain about my own feelings.
For queer women who are attracted to men, it’s doubly insulting: People will assume that they are somehow less queer, and that they’ll “turn straight” after this phase.
It’s okay if you’re friends with someone and you genuinely want to get to know them better by talking about their dating life. That’s a normal conversation topic for friends.
But whomever any woman is attracted to is her own business.
If she feels comfortable telling you, that’s great. But until then, try not to speculate on who she’s attracted to.
There’s a lot more to queer women than their romantic lives — because even someone’s queer identity doesn’t define them entirely. If you’re going to be friends, it’s important to remember that.
3. ‘I Could Never Imagine Myself with Another Woman!’
That’s okay. There’s a reason you’re straight and I’m queer — and, uh, that’s exactly it.
Just like it’s none of your business who I’m attracted to, it’s none of my business who you like to imagine yourself with. But when straight women declare this, I feel as if they’re saying that being with another woman is too bizarre to imagine. Again, it’s kind of like being in a zoo.
Oftentimes when women say this, they don’t just mean that they can’t imagine themselves loving another woman. They also mean that they can’t imagine themselves having sex with another woman. And obviously, it’s okay if you’re a straight woman and aren’t attracted to other women.
But when you say you can’t imagine sex with another woman, you’re making it sound like sex with another woman is abnormal, while sex with a man is normal. You’re also making sex the most crucial part of a queer relationship, which is something that people do all too often.
If you can’t see yourself dating another woman, that’s okay. We know that already when you say that you’re straight. There’s no need to keep reiterating that you’re not attracted to women, like it’s a phenomenon to be fascinated over.
4. ‘My Boyfriend Likes to Watch Lesbian Porn’
Before anything else, it’s important to realize that sharing details about sex lives is something that should only be done with consent. It doesn’t matter what you did last night, but before you tell your friend the blow-by-blow, ask them if they’re okay with hearing about it. It’s common courtesy.
On top of being inappropriate, this kind of comment is dehumanizing — plain and simple.
Lesbian porn made by and for straight men treats queer women’s sex lives as nothing more than objects of pleasure.
Imagine how invasive it would be to have sex with your partner, and then to remember that there are people who want to watch it. Something that should be intimate and personal doesn’t feel like it’s yours anymore.
That’s uncomfortable – and objectifying.
When you tell queer women that your boyfriend watches lesbian porn, you’re not only revealing that your boyfriend might be objectifying your friend – you’re also saying that you don’t think it’s a big deal.
I’m not telling you to break up with your boyfriend. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t tell queer women this – ever.
5. ‘You and Your Girlfriend Get Along So Well! It Must Be Because You’re Both Women’
As a society, we tend to think that there are only two kinds of people: women and men. Women have one set of interests and men another, and these interests supposedly never intersect. This is blatantly untrue and also kind of confusing, since the foundation of all good relationships is common interests.
We also tend to think that men and women have different attitudes about expressing emotion — that women are good at it and men aren’t. That’s also untrue.
At Everyday Feminism, we don’t subscribe to that binary. Men and women aren’t actually from different planets (and there’s more to gender than just those two identities).
The point is, people who said this to me thought that because my partner and I are both women, we share similar interests and are equally good at expressing our emotions. (That’s not true, for the record.)
Thinking that queer women have better relationships with each other simply because of their gender demeans the hard work that they put into those relationships.
Just like straight couples, queer couples have to learn how to be good to each other. It’s a struggle, so simplifying the explanation to “You’re both women” reduces queer women, once again, to nothing more than the people they’re attracted to.
Instead of telling queer women this, ask them instead how they met their partners, what interests they have in common, and any other questions you’d ask a straight couple. In short, treat them just as what they are: not a rare zoo display, but two people who are in love.
It’s hard to be a good ally — and arguably harder to be a good friend. But it’s worth the effort, because the world can only become a better place if we try to be good to each other.
Ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind is that queer women — your friends — aren’t a strange, exotic species. They’re people. All you have to do is treat them as such.
Ashley Truong is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A queer, diasporic Vietnamese writer, she writes about diasporic queer Asian experiences — which is just a fancy way of saying that she likes to write about queer Asian characters and the complicated ways in which they grow up. You can find her work at her personal blog and read her Everyday Feminism articles here. Follow her on Twitter @truongashleyq.