When I came out, many people in my life were surprised by the news. An acquaintance thought I was too feminine to be a lesbian. A boss remarked to my colleague, not knowing I could hear, “I’m glad you told me, because I never would have guessed.”
Everyone I knew seemed conscious of the same stereotypes and clichés about the way a queer woman was meant to look and act. As a teenager, I had developed my understanding of the way queer women presented themselves to the world through a mixture of bad television, musicals and Mardi Gras parades. I noticed that many queer women had tattoos and short hair. Part of me wanted to look like them, but I was also scared of being identified as queer. I could pass as straight, and I enjoyed that safety for another decade.
There’s a reason that so many queer narratives are centred around the grand reveal. Heterosexual people aren’t expected to make an announcement about their sexuality. I know quite a few bisexual people in heterosexual relationships, and they certainly don’t feel encouraged to come out as queer. But as soon as you enter a homosexual relationship, you have to add coming out to the task list keeping you awake at night.
I now think of coming out as clarifying or correcting, rather than making an announcement. From birth, our society makes assumptions about sexuality based on gender. Coming out is an inherently awkward process, since it contradicts people’s assumptions.
Once I had been out for a while, people started making different assumptions. My partner and I were described as a “femme” couple or as “lipstick lesbians”.
We fit this description for a while, until it stopped being appropriate for me. While my partner feels comfortable having long hair, and likes to wear a dress or skirt, I realised that I had never considered my reasons for appearing the way I did. My physical appearance was largely based around following society’s rules without questioning them. Why hadn’t I ever cut my hair short? Why did I think it was unacceptable to turn up to a formal occasion not looking femme?
Last year, a man who was flirting with me told me that he thought that tattoos on women are very unattractive, and that he felt the same way about women with shaved heads. Or, as he put it, “rough women”. I knew what he meant. He comes from the same Soviet background that I do. There’s a long history of Russian prison tattoos. He wasn’t referring to criminals, but rather to women that didn’t aspire to traditional notions of feminine beauty. And those that did whatever they wanted, rather than being demure and submissive.
This pissed me off, but it also reminded me why I wanted a tattoo in the first place. For many people, tattoos have spiritual, religious and cultural significance, and are often considered a rite of passage. They can also be a sign of grief and loss. For others, they are about the art, and the way it captures a sense of self. For me, it was a way of exploring my identity at a very difficult time in my life.
In the past, I had put off getting a tattoo due to fear of the pain and of the permanence. But 2015 was a tumultuous year for me, with considerable loss, pain and change. It made me clearer about things that I wanted. I had known for a while that if I was to get a tattoo, it would be a quote by Audre Lorde.
Once I decided to get the tattoo, I wanted it immediately. Funnily enough, I agonised more over shaving my hair, despite its impermanence. I had been cutting it shorter and shorter for the last few years, and had discussed shaving it, but whenever my hairdresser got excited and started getting artistic with my scalp, I balked. I knew it would make it a lot harder to pass as straight, which was a safety mechanism I still relied on at times.
I told a friend that I was thinking of shaving my hair, and she said to be prepared for men to stop looking at me. “That’s fine,” I replied.
I got my tattoo in September, and, a month later, I went to a barber and shaved the sides of my hair. When I think about why I suddenly chose to do both, I remember that I was struggling at the time. Rather than expressing a part of my identity, it actually helped me sort out a sense of self.
For the first time in my life, I was able to evaluate my sexuality and my gender identity from scratch, without anyone else’s expectations or assumptions in the way. I felt strong, decisive and empowered.
Not long after I made these two physical changes, I read Quinn Eades’ book, all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body. His writing on genderqueer bodies and tattoos is evocative and moving. Eades refers to the histories of deviance and the outsider status that tattoos signify, and writes, “This body becoming-ink is love, and art, and song; it is the telling of a story, not the story told.” And these words imprinted themselves on me, just as powerfully as physical ink.