Before arriving in the Europe I viewed the following countries we would visit as simply: the Netherlands: gay friendly, Germany: neo-Nazi territory, Poland/Czech Republic: gray. Each of these biases informed by progressive politics juxtaposed with the homonationalist future of the US, the effects of WWII, and supposed static result of communism in Eastern Europe. At the end of this program, I have realized the dangers of creating a homogenized view of Europe and have learned tremendously about the historical, cultural background of each country we visited. In this reflection, I will discuss my experience as I entered queer spaces and how my presentation was a determining factor in my acceptance within these localities.
To begin, I will start by talking about queerphobia in my hometown, Santa Ana, and my experience with physical presentations (we all have our own truths, though incomplete). In an interview, Judith Butler mentions the dangers of swinging hips on an effeminate male (presumably queer or at least read that way). In Santa Ana, this movement is also enough to be ostracized by society, to be targeted by the proclaimed cholas and cholos associated with gang activity. It is through this environment, I have found markers to cope and to conceal the hips I have morphed into hills, distract the brows I plucked into ocean waves, and starve the lips I smoothed into folded petals. And it is for my safety I return to the image of a straight, cisgender brown boy. I return to childhood because in this innocence I am read as without-sexuality by my grandmother who wonders when I will have my first girlfriend or my father’s friends who wish I would bring a Chinese girl home with me when I return from Asia. In this environment, I keep my ears open to listen to the “homosexual hearing” (Jose Munoz’s theory of messages only audible to queer ears) because in these words I live vicariously.
To be fair, it is not all queer people who share this risk. Actually within the cholx community the order is masculinity, meaning, butch lesbian women, trans men, cismen, masc women, etc. are all worthy of gaining respect. It is femininity that has no place and those that embody femme features are susceptible towards violence of any form. So, what does that mean for cross-cultural exchange and my study abroad in Europe? It means our physical presentation grants us, as queer people, entry into spaces that are temporary, subjective, and partial.
Over these three months I questioned how to navigate queer spaces. To so badly want to be seen as queer when people read me as straight. Berlin, which I quickly realized was the ultimate destination for queer individuals looking to explore their identity, fetishes, and engagement provided me the opportunity to explore my femininity. Wanting to be noticed by men in bars, but having them assume my female friend was my girlfriend made me question why my cropped shirt and hoop earrings were read as heterosexual markers. But, the most hurtful was not being invisible to men. The most hurtful was being mistreated by other queer people who saw my physical presentation as not-queer enough and too-conforming. In this statement, I am conflicted because on one hand I understand the courage of individuals to explore non-normative styles in places that punish these curiosities. For example, it would be difficult for me to imagine a non-hyper visible lifestyle by a queer-presenting person in Krakow, Poland. On the other hand, as a low-income person/closeted queer who simply cannot afford two vastly different presentations, being queer means operating within a medium that allows for transgression as well as conformity. Wearing makeup and feminine clothing in Berlin might elicit positive responses from strangers and free products from LGBT+ friendly clubs, stores, and restaurants (which happened). But this presentation needs to be adaptable when I return to Santa Ana so that I may move safely and be a respectful son to my parents.
First, I will mention an experience I had in Amsterdam in the beginning weeks of the program as I attended the Radical Queer Resistance Festival. During this conference, I participated in an event for queer femmes of color (each of these things I identify with) which was a comedy writing session. I sat next to an individual also identifying with these three characteristics who made it clear from the start I was not welcome in this space. This space was simply not for me. Even though I was also queer, femme, and of color, this did not matter. As we were in the session they proceeded to purposefully block my view by physically relocating their chair in front of mine although we were already sitting in pre-organized circle. As we passed around learning materials they would toss the paper and then the pens into my lap instead of handing them to me. They would also continue to stretch their body into my face and violate my personal space to the point I would have to reflect their movements to avoid being hit. In this rejection, I began to question my identities and if I deserve to embody them. What does it mean to experience Butler’s vulnerable subjectivity? To be potentially undone by a member of my own community? I only wore jeans and a heavy brown jacket with a face clear of makeup. Truthfully, I have never entered a queer circle back home, but I will state that my subtle forms of resistance in my queer presentation would be seen as radical from my community members. Would others look to me as the gatekeeper of the queerness? A position no one is worthy, capable, and deserving of.
In the second week of staying in Prague, my friend and I were on our way home from visiting the convenient store late at night. Right before walking up to the front door of our apartment we strolled past a popular LGBT+ bar named “q cafe.” In this moment, we caught the attention of a group of drunk queer individuals and one in particular that called to us shouting, “hey, you, we want a picture with you!” Thinking that she actually meant she wanted us to take a photo for her and her group of friends, we retracted our steps and joined them.
We would actually be the subjects of this photo along with her young Czech friends. As we began casually socializing with the group (making this moment more bearable) this woman started yelling at first me and then my friend to “shut the fuck up.” And in her aggression, I wanted to make sure my friend felt safe because according to the woman she wanted “to steal my girlfriend.” My friend who is Asian and identifies as lesbian was not asked to return this woman’s apartment or told how beautiful she was because the woman could sense her queerness. In fact it was because she was in her Asian alone, that made the subject of her sexuality irrelevant. And I, as a straight-presenting individual in that moment, would risk being physically assaulted to help my friend out of this situation. I could not see the wonderful person, queer activist, artistic organizer her friends outside the bar described her to be. We only experienced the violent, aggressive woman ready to assault two other queer people. In the US, we are constantly fed the rhetoric that LGBT+ people have formed a community to protect one another. This I believe to be true. However, sexuality is also invisible as well, so in order to be eligible for acceptance, even within our own community, you must be validated. The public groups of queer people in Utrecht, Berlin, Krakow, and Prague are all small is size and most people are well-acquainted with each other. Additionally for me as a brown queer, my entry is always up for deliberation as to maintain protection of other queer people.
Potentially these instances were my fault for not looking queer enough. To be clear, I am using the former statement provocatively. All identities are valid regardless of their presentation. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the emotional response elicited through my experiences in Europe. In the instances where I put on physical display my queer femme identity, I gained access to clubs, people, and interactions that were made possible by Berlin’s tolerance of alternativity. And contrary to the situation where I could not help my friend escape violence from other queer people, my fully realized presentation granted access for my classmates to the same resources I was thrown. But let me be clear, I completed this despite my brownness (not in parallel) because leaving two clubs in Berlin (separate occasions) I made conversation with multiple brown, queer men (who presented non-alternatively) rejected by the bouncer. Meanwhile, white gay men were filling the semi-empty dance floor. In conclusion, I have learned that our positions are both permeable and permeated by those around us. Although I am privileged to be given space abroad to exist, I must also recognize that we, queer people, also replicate toxic behaviors.