The Queer Take: Questions straight folks ask LGBTQ people — and what it says of power dynamic
Over these many years, as a queer femme person living in this world, I’ve come to understand that the privacy granted to me by the general public is starkly different from the kind granted to other so-called 'normal' people.
One of the questions even my most progressive straight male friends, and occasionally even the female ones, ask me: Are you a top or a bottom?
If you're wondering what's wrong with asking this question, here's an answer: we aren’t interested in perpetuating your narrow obsession with straitlaced, penile-vaginal sex
Rather, our queer existence in the world is meant to shatter these notions, it is supposed to enlighten you to the fact that play, pleasure and pain don’t stem from the same zones or places on our bodies for all of us
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
Over these many years, as a queer femme person living in this world, I’ve come to understand that the privacy granted to me by the general public is starkly different from the kind granted to other so-called “normal” people. While most “normal” people are able to think that some parts of their lives are theirs alone, queer people aren’t allowed that privilege; we’re meant to expose, espouse everything in order to educate. Basically, nothing in our lives is allowed to be really private; or even meant to just belong to ourselves. I sound like I’m exaggerating but follow me through some of invasive details that I’m supposed to divulge to make others around me comfortable in their choices. Never mind that I’m always left being more than slightly vulnerable in providing these answers.
One of these questions even my most progressive straight male friends, and occasionally even the female ones, ask me: Are you a top or a bottom? For all of you congratulating yourself for never asking that question, the other version of it is: Are you the boy or the girl in the relationship? And I’m sure that all of you who are from my community have had this query hurled at you at some point, and the rest of you have asked someone queer this question in your life up till now.
At some level, I’ll be generous enough — just like my brothers and sisters from the community have been for eons — and see that the question comes from a place of simply trying to order the world. I can see it as a way of breaking down and consuming the world by turning it into easily digestible pieces. We are being generous when we give you this allowance but let me tell you, you must stop doing this immediately. Please raise your right hand, and repeat after me: I (state your full name), solemnly swear to never ask a queer person this question again.
Oh! You are wondering, why not? The short answer is — because we told you so. If that doesn’t work, here’s the longer one: we aren’t interested in perpetuating your narrow obsession with straitlaced, penile-vaginal sex (not that there’s anything wrong with that; some of our best friends are practitioners of this mode of engagement and report enjoyment). Rather, our queer existence in the world is meant to shatter these notions, it is supposed to enlighten you to the fact that play, pleasure and pain don’t stem from the same zones or places on our bodies for all of us. That loving someone wholly doesn’t always come from penetrating them, it might also come with finding other ways to confirm, consecrate and consume them.
Another reason I take umbrage to this line of questioning: it assumes that people aren’t allowed to switch it up in the interaction with each other. It assumes that power — the fun of being dominant or submissive — isn’t exchanged, it isn’t the kind that grows from a space of permission and trust, it assumes that it is predetermined and can never be subverted. Our queer existence in the world proves that isn’t so. We would like you to acknowledge it, even if it doesn’t help you change it up in your own sexual life.
As someone who comes across as female to lazy people who don’t know how to read other individuals and their presentation in public, I’m on the receiving end of another favourite question: “What genitals do you have? Are you a boy or a girl?” On the days that I’m feeling fierce and flirty, I always respond with: “You’ll have to buy me at least one drink to find out.” On a day that I might be particularly aggressive, I might maintain the flirty in my tone but sting with the line: “Were you too drunk to actually find out on our wedding night, baby?” I’ve seen many a straight man wither and wilt because his friends (are they really?) switch to become the laugh track to my one-liner. But today, I want to say: “It is none of your business. What is between my legs is for my maker, me and my lover to know. The rest of you can sit down and keep quiet.”
I can hear some of your mumbling: “Hey columnist, some of my best friends are queer and they’re not offended. They take it like good sports. You’re just being a whiner. I’ve never heard them complain even once. Instead, they’ve always had this uncanny ability to turn the line or question into a joke and it always gets a big laugh.”
I’m sure it does. In fact, I don’t think your queer friends would miss landing a punchline ever; we could fill stadiums with our stand-up routines. The strangeness in these stories of camaraderie between straight and queer people presented as evidence of “okay-ness” with the other is that they place the straight person in a higher position. It shows that the straight person is only interested in repairing relationships with those on the margins if they don’t have to change anything about themselves or about the world we share. And that’s sad. Very, very sad.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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