Queer “Tourism,” “Safe” Flirting & Straight Women at Strip Clubs: When Allies Endanger Queer People With Their Lack of Understanding

a closeup of a person wearing rainbow sunglasses. The reflection of a group of people waiting to cross the street can be seen in them.
Image by Karen Roe / CC BY

Today’s article is a guest post by LadyHeat.

LadyHeat is a badass lesbian bitch who kicks in the teeth of marginalization. Her geeky interests are many and include comics, gaming, and dreaming of being a lady-romancing space pirate.

Today’s post is her third article for Poly Land. She previously contributed:

And check out what she wrote for Poly Land today:

Queer “Tourism,” “Safe” Flirting & Straight Women at Strip Clubs: When Allies Endanger Queer People With Their Lack of Understanding

I’ve come to a New Year’s Eve party for the first time ever. A friend has invited me, aware that my breakup earlier this year has left me without my usual plans. I’m getting my bearings and meeting new people, when all of a sudden a very cute woman swoops down on me.

“Oh my gosh, you’re beautiful, and really hot!”

I, unused to this sort of frank approach, find myself really flattered, as opposed to terrified as usual.

“Oh my gosh, I didn’t even ask you, do you mind when women hit on you??” She asks, mistaking my processing as hesitation.

Meanwhile, my friend and some others nearby who know about my very gay ways begin laughing at this.

“No,” I say, laughing along with them. “I don’t mind at all.” And because her approach is respectful and not betokening, genuine and nonthreatening, I don’t.

When I Came Out, Rumors Came First, Then Hazing, Then Jokes of Flirtation

Years before, I had moved to a small town where I knew no one. I’d gotten a job at a grocery store, one of two in this tiny, religious mountain town. I’d moved here because I had just come out and my mother was being horrible about it. I needed space from my family and my girlfriend lived across the border from the town where a good friend lived, so there I landed. I thought, here is a place where I can settle into who I am and figure out how that plays out in my day to day life.

When my new co-workers heard that I lived with a man but wasn’t dating him, the rumors started. The hazing started. The laughter (that you KNOW is about you but can’t prove it), started. After I’d won them over, and made friends, some other, less overtly hateful but not necessarily less cruel stuff started. The “playful” flirting started. The “harmless touching” started. The sexual overtures started.

Straight girls hitting on openly queer women is a phenomenon I had to adjust to. Internalized homophobia is a hell of a drug, and I’d grown up avoiding any activity at all that would expose my ‘weirdness’, as I called it before I had a name for who I was.

As a result, approaches by women are something I both desperately wanted and lived in fear of, and I have talked to many queer women who feel similarly. I also experienced a lot of shame about who I was, especially when straight people used that information against me.

When you combine that with unrequited crushes on straight girls, and the ensuing pain that can cause, it’s not surprising that queer woman might have a cautious approach to straight women who want to joke around when the subject of sapphic sexuality comes up.

Going With Straight Women to Strip Clubs

A favorite activity some of my straight lady friends used to suggest often came up after we’d had a decent amount of drinks.

“Let’s go to the strip club!” they’d announce. I was down for a good time and to hang with my friends, but strip clubs were not a place I wanted to go with them. They would note my lack of enthusiasm and remark on it.

“I don’t get it”, one friend said. “You’re gay, I figured you’d love this.”

And I would try to think of a way to explain the fear that one of them would buy me a lap dance and that I’d be too anxious to refuse it, or worse, that my protests wouldn’t be heeded. That a bunch of straight people watching me and another woman in a sexual context is incredibly upsetting for me. That I might have a reaction that I wouldn’t have support for. That the dancer might laugh, or worse, might be kind out of pity. I’d often throw out the best explanation I could without exposing too many anxieties.

“You know how when we go there, you guys feel better about yourself because you see these are real, actual women, and not perfect flawless beings? Now, imagine that you also have that comparison trait triggered by women but you are also attracted to them.”

I know my friends, my former co-workers, and my allies meant well. They were trying to demonstrate to me that they supported my attraction to the same gender. I understood the intention, and still do when it comes up, but there are some dynamics at play that good allies will want to ensure they are not contributing to. In addition to upholding the mistreatment of queer people, they might be harming their friends by fueling insecurities, and communicating that they do not take their relationships seriously.

In an example from my own life, a straight and now-former friend used to joke around with me in this fashion, and I later learned she did not support marriage equality, despite having been divorced herself.

Queer Tourism

Queer “tourism” is a term I use to describe an attitude and set of behaviors that inform oppressive structures that devalue queer relationships.

While there are many, many ways of doing this, the kind that I’m describing here come in the guise of “supporting” a queer friend by not being “bothered” by their sexuality. This can include flirting with them in public, in front of friend or partner, or at work, with the full knowledge that the flirtation will not be acted on.

While this is sometimes an actual attempt to gauge for interest, many of the times I have been the target, it was practiced by straight women playing with sexuality in a “safe” way they don’t feel they can practice with men. This form of flirtation relies on the target’s internalized homophobia and confusion to ensure they will not flirt back and provides the flirt-er with a buffer (“well, I was just kidding, I’m actually straight”) should the flirt-ee respond in kind.

The straight women engaging in this practice will also often do so at times the queer person is at a severe disadvantage, such as at work. If I am out as a lesbian at work, and someone flirting with me is out as a straight woman at work, and someone doesn’t like what they overhear, the straight woman is much safer from claims of harassment, or impropriety, as they are known to be straight and the overtures are known not to be serious on their end.

In my personal experience, this is different than my queer and queer-aligned friends who may occasionally flirt with me. When these friends do so, they do so with an understanding of how my relationships are marginalized and it is safe for both parties: not just the party with plausible deniability.

Microaggressions like this, when they happen involving women, also serve the narrative that the sexuality of women need not be taken seriously. Straight women sometimes feel perfectly safe flirting with queer women in front of a boyfriend or husband, who will not see the other woman a legitimate threat. This sends a message to all involved, but is particularly harmful to the queer person, who is internalizing their friend’s opinion of their relationships, as well as now being fetishized by the straight woman and her partner.

While my personal experience has been how these practices affected ME, one does not have to look far to see how they can also be harmful to bisexuals, non-binary, and trans individuals as well.

What Allies Can Do to Help

Allies who identify as straight and want to do more to help their queer friends can help by not engaging in these practices under these conditions.

To be clear, I am in no way saying women should refrain from hitting on me or other queer women at all. On the contrary, I love when women express actual interest.

However, before you do in front of other people, decide how you will respond if someone catches you in the break room later and makes a snide remark about the out queer person.

If they in any way indicate there is something untoward about the encounter, will you stand up for us? Will you defend us? Is your flirtation a message you’re as comfortable sliding into our DMs to send us as you are saying it in front of other people?

If the answer is no, please think about what it means that this is ‘harmless’ fun for you. If you’re going to put us on the spot on us in that way, please be prepared to fight homophobia as aggressively and boldly as you approach us.

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Thanks, LadyHeat!

Poly Land is always on the lookout for different perspectives on relationships in general.

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