Why queer women in the 1990s probably had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio even if they didn’t know why

This, like many questions on the internet, can probably be answered with a gif:

leodcromeojuliet.gif

But this Autostraddle article only slightly ironically reviving 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio as a queer women’s style icon sums up what a lot of us, in between Romeo and Juliet and Titanic, were probably thinking.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: even if we didn’t yet know why.

The ideas that if I was a lesbian, I might still like watching Leonardo DiCaprio / that finding something attractive in him didn’t mean I wasn’t one / that you could want to pick up part of how he or anyone else looked because you were attracted to them, not instead of that – were all so far outside my experience that in 1996, when Romeo and Juliet came out, I didn’t even recognise him as belonging to the same category as the women and girls I was noticing, with both those contradictory impulses at once.

The idea there was some specifically queer way of noticing DiCaprio, and that by telling each other about it we’d recognise ourselves… was already coming out of feminist media studies, in those very years – Reina Lewis’s article on ‘the lesbian gaze and fashion imagery’ dates back, so appropriately in my case I almost can’t believe it, to 1997 – but nowhere near my everyday consciousness as a 14-year-old; today it would just be a few shares, retweets or last-ditch Google terms away.

The fact that we now have the technology and the connectivity for complexities of sexuality and gender identification and gender expression and everything in between to be not just revelations but tropes – not even the kind of utterance that pulls the curtain back from the world for the first time but if it’s a guy who looks like he’s dressed like a lesbian again, it must be Thursday – when that very confusion used to leave me and women my age not knowing what was up with us for years, is one of the increasingly few things that leaves me not wanting the universe to toss the last thirty years into the trash and start again.

We learned about crushes from pop magazines. Or we were meant to. These were the last years of the irreverent Smash Hits, the glory years of Just Seventeen, slices of British pop-cultural history that one day are going to be somebody’s research. (Someone had done that with Jackie before I was even born.) I couldn’t make myself interested in them; they were always about boys.

Romeo and Juliet appeared mid-1996, when the only way I knew how to say I was attracted to a woman was either to say she looked like someone else or – a sensation I was years from even being able to explain, because of everything unnameable it rested on – sometimes that I wanted to look like her. You couldn’t say that, or I thought you couldn’t sat that, about a guy, no matter how much Justine from Elastica and Alex from Blur might effectively resemble each other. DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet, and Tim Henman at Wimbledon, were talk of the classroom; coming up a distant third, I think, was Steve McManaman.

I should have still seen Romeo and Juliet at the cinema, with my mum, except we hadn’t realised that we’d need to book. I knew it from trailers, still photographs in film reviews, and The Cardigans’ earworm of a ‘Lovefool’, which stayed on hourly rotation all summer when I wanted the radio to play Celine Dion.

Titanic, two years later, brought more of Celine Dion than almost anyone could have wanted, although not the way I wanted, which was another story; and it brought back Leo.

(I say two years; its UK release was mid-November 1997, and so we probably saw it close to Christmas, one of that set of things like ‘Torn’ or the All Saints I’ve mentally pushed into 1998 because they obviously came after, not before.)

By the time I saw Titanic, I was A Lesbian. I had to be; I’d had to admit it, because the only other explanations anyone could find for how I’d been behaving were so much worse. Lesbians fancy women. They fancy Kate Winslet, because everyone, apparently, fancies Kate Winslet, and the ones with short hair definitely would, because that’s the way that couples go together.

I didn’t have the slightest interest in Kate Winslet, or equally, by that point, Celine Dion.

Catch Leo from the back, like you hardly ever would because the camera already knew he was the star, and he’d look like someone I wasn’t meant to think about any more.

One lunchtime in I-think-it-was-still 1998 a girl canvassed the computer room we’d occupied for our school newspaper, asking for each of our top three crushes so she could make a chart. These days I like to think I’d know that I could rattle off what I’d be thinking, if I was 15 or 16 now: Ruby Rose, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Stewart. ‘Ricky Martin,’ I blurted out, not knowing he’d be a soft-butch lesbian icon in due course. ‘Michael Owen.’

For some queer women, Leo was the safe one: the one you could talk about because everyone did, and not have to admit that what attracted you to him was what brought him closer to you across the gender boundary rather than what pushed him further away.

For other queer women, Leo was the exception: the one you could desire without threatening your queerness, when the pressure not to compromise your identity with any hint of being attracted to men was even higher than it is now, because everything that made him attractive was androgyny.

For others, Leo might have been the one you could try to be as much like as you could yet never have to let on to anyone you were a woman, because the safety net of his masculinity and his heterosexuality was always there.

And yet what made DiCaprio a star was ambiguity; before stardom and age resolved it, as it so often does.

leodcromeojuliet2.gif

For years I wouldn’t have known – I didn’t know – what to do with the fact that almost every photo of DiCaprio in between those films had him wearing outfits I or young women around me might have worn. (Just from that article, I had two bead necklaces like that, and at some point one of those plastic headband combs; I recognise one of his shirts so closely it makes me want to check the label; my hair never flipped over properly, though that was nothing new.) For years I didn’t see – just like I didn’t even see the tightness of Carrie-Anne Moss/Keanu Reeves’s duality in The Matrix – what oh-of-coursed its way past me as I posted that last gif, that Leo’s sandy hair and chain mail are reminding me of another icon from a few years later, Milla Jovovich in Joan of Arc. DiCaprio in the 90s looked like a lesbian, an inadequate shorthand that subsumed the whole gamut of sexuality and gender expression into one very specific, culture-bound way of being queer that still lives on as a working concept on the queer internet: some kind of affinity with masculinity, in the style of someone who hasn’t had it prescribed for them.

Almost every queer woman from the 90s has a DiCaprio story: and many of us couldn’t even imagine, then, that we’d be sharing or even understanding ours.

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The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer

The filter is so much more fragile when you are queer

June, 2016: We are gathered round a cenotaph in hundreds, a rainbow Union flag crossed over with a rainbow Stars and Stripes, standing in a vigil like queers in a dozen other UK cities remembering the 49 mainly Latino and mainly queer dead, everyone from bright-haired teenagers to merchant-navy queens and weathered dykes. A thought occurs to me: this is more queers together than I’ve ever seen in Hull.

November, 2016: I am awake and the Americans are asleep but the Americans I love best and respect most are too anxious to sleep either. They are drawing and scribbling and tweeting fear and defiance, planning escapes, standing their ground, listing what medications to stockpile and what papers to get in order before a vice-president who believes in gay and trans conversion therapy and a president who seems to believe in nothing but raw masculine white power begin to wrench their partial, limited scraps of equality away. Before the queer creativity that finally gloriously found a space to flourish has to fight so much harder not to be forced back into silence after all.

In the days following his victory, the British media and my straight co-workers are still at How could he even win? But if nationhood means experiencing the same emotions at the same times then the alarm that stretches out from queers to queers along the oceanic cables we take for granted and drips its sea-monstrous way up from the shore is just like after Orlando: something diasporic, but this time rather than a collective grieving for names we would probably never otherwise have known, it has to foretell future mourning, for names we might not even be allowed to hear.

Queer lives that are lived digitally and transatlantically in a space which itself might not survive the restrictions on organisation and expression that could be in store for Americans – like Russians and Turks and Egyptians before them, like Chileans and Iranians and Argentinians all before that, often in coups that suited the US government interests of the time – cascade new online platforms and tumble through abandoned old ones, pulsing timelines and lingering forums of friends and colleagues and is there a word for people whose identities re-formed at the same time as yours but whose names these days you might not even know?

A thought occurs: There are people I know or used to know who will be dead in four years’ time.

That’s just alarmist. Don’t be so over-dramatic! Of course it won’t be as bad as that. Something in your stomach and the back of your throat still tells you that it can.

*

What queers know, like migrants know, like anybody with a womb will know, is how easily freedoms can disappear.

You feel it.

Maybe only deep in the background sometimes, inside white skin and an able body that lulls you into forgetting how unequally distributed those freedoms already are. Or maybe screaming violently in front of you, when you’ve chosen to risk some of them or when history took that choice away from you before you were even born.

When I try to theorise a ‘queer aesthetic curiosity’ towards world politics, or try to explain what a trans woman’s writing about gender is likely to convey that a cis woman’s almost always can’t, I call that feeling things like embodied knowledge. It lives in the feet and the shoulders and the untroubled stomach. It lives in the ring-fingers and the retinas and the thighs. Something about your body and how you live in it – your queerness – and where on the planet you are doing whatever you are doing means that you at least think about in/security, sometimes, in the everyday, in a way that a straight white man living somewhere as a citizen has under normal, peacetime circumstances never considered that he would have to do.

*

You think about it because others have felt it and you thought you might feel it and stories of progress told you that you might not have to. Every legal victory that activists won in America or Europe – every piece of pride that started being taken over ‘equality’ in the name of the nation forgetting how many of the same nation’s laws and police officers had been standing in equality’s way – helped tell a story about time.

The UK, 1990s: Things can only get better, sang the first Blair government, charged with implementing European court judgements on gays in the military and an equal age of consent. It gets better. You were born this way.

Weimar Berlin, 1930s: hundreds of men and women and others who loved people they never used to think that they could touch, presented themselves to the world in ways they’d never seen, found out about the surgery and care that would make their bodies seem more like themselves and that had never been more advanced than at this time, right now, and whose lives and notes and names were about to go up in smoke when the stormtroopers burned Magnus Hirschfeld’s library.

Russia, 2000s: The tone-altering epilogues to more than one book, researched during the 1990s and/or 2000s and (re)published after 2013, on how space for gays and lesbians to define themselves after the silences of communism was tentatively finally opening up in Russia.

The line between bodily autonomy and losing it for queer people is called politics. The same line for cis, straight people is called dystopia.

There are freedoms I have in England or would have in America, which I didn’t even expect to enjoy as a teenager but which my queer elders won for me.  In doing so, I gained a strange kind of everyday security with an uncanny contingency underneath – which I could lose again in ways that, if they were proposed for straight people, would be the stuff of dystopia, ‘some Handmaid’s Tale shit right there’.

(Dystopia still happens. But it takes so many more guns.)

Imagine, as a straight, cisgender man or woman, watching an election knowing that the result could determine whether you were allowed to stay married to your husband or wife. Or imagine knowing that the government looming into power could force you, as a man, to live life as a woman, or force you, as a woman, to live life as a man, an outcome almost inconceivable if you’re not trans.

*

Security is unimaginability. A protective barrier constructed out of it-can’t-happen-here. A firm belief that even when it’s happened to other people, even when your own country has made it happen to other people, you can be certain in your nerves and in your bones that it can’t, it couldn’t happen to you.

And when you have that certainty and I can’t share it, even across our shared whiteness or our shared politics or our shared class, a boundary between us starts to have political meaning it didn’t have before, and identity becomes a matter of in/security.

*

I know without having lived it that ethnopolitical conflict works like that.

The anxieties over ‘dilution’ or ‘undermining’ national cultural values that racists and xenophobes intensify in order to mobilise public support for restricting immigration work like that.

Queerness as a political identity works like that, too.

Studying the Yugoslav wars since my early twenties, when all that preoccupied me at the time they were happening was making sense of the confusion with which I entered my own queer teens: I know identities wax strongest, turn from individual to collective, description to politics, when people believe or are led to believe that that identity is why they’re under threat.

I know it through compressing acres of wartime newsprint into weeks of research, through collecting hours upon hours of memories, through years of friendship and listening and solidarity, all breaking down my own filter of it-can’t-happen-here.

Or so I thought: but the filter is already so much more fragile when you are queer.

Parts of this essay draw on this post from November 2016; it also appears in a forthcoming special issue of Critical Studies on Security.

Yes, gender is a spectrum and yes, trans women are women full stop: why both these things are true at the same time

Cross-posted from my other blog.

The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.

(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)

A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.

Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?

Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.

Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.

Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down.

The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.

Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)

Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.

How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.

Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.

There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’

Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)

Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.

(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)

The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.

Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.

(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)

So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.

In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.

One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.

The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.

Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.

*

Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.

Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.

But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)

‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)

When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.

Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)

No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)

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One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.

If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.

Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.

The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).

That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.

The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.

Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.