Performance Anxiety: The Pressures of Performing Queerness

Performing queerness is an unending endeavour. It always seems to creep its way into my mind. It starts when I open my eyes and catch a glance at myself in the mirror and concludes with the final glimpse of my raw cuticles clutching my pillow right before my eyes shut. My life is a constant array of performances. As a queer woman, I was not given the chance or privilege to discover myself in a linear manner. Before I acknowledged my queerness, all that dwelled in my mind was confusion and placelessness. Following my sexual awakening was a flood of every version of queerness that I believed I should project. The most important thing that drowned in that flood was not my fairytale ending, not the respect of those around me, not my sense of belonging, not even my safety—it was myself

As I discovered my identity as a queer person, the former began to consume the latter—the person I wanted to be was lost to the character I was forced to play. There was no correct way for me to express myself because the very skin I was in was a stranger to me. Queerness is deconstructing and reintroducing an image of oneself, to both you and those who perceive you, that is lost under the ill-fitting layers of straightness. Imagine yourself playing pretend, but an afternoon turns into a year, a year turns into two, and two becomes ten—suddenly, the game of pretend is all you know of yourself. The problem comes with taking the costume off and getting to know the girl behind the mask. 

I presented myself in an extremely feminine manner during my teenage years. I had long hair that flowed down to the small of my back, acrylic nails, and I refused to wear any scent that could be mistaken as androgynous. During my senior prom, I wore a tight, corset-style, blush princess gown. It was so long, tight, and itchy that it prohibited me from acting in any sort of natural or comfortable way—that was what performing heterosexuality felt like. I stubbornly clung to my femininity like a person who knew they had lost a fight but refused to surrender—it was all that was left of my identity, and I had such a hard time letting it go. When I finally did, I realized that the “comfort” feminine performance provided me was not comfort at all, it was hiding, and hiding is not living. 

I didn’t know how to be queer enough, feminine enough, masculine enough—I never felt like anything I did was enough. Either I presented a hyperfeminine image of myself, draped in blush and gold-specked highlight on the tip of my nose, or a masculine version, which involved an array of arrogance and confidence that I simply did not have. Queerness became another costume—it was not about who I was, but rather what I did. Because queerness, like all other things, is examined through a heteronormative lens; there is no way to be queer—at least, not in any way that will satisfy the gaze of one’s observers. Heteronormativity views queerness, specifically sapphic queerness, as one of two things: tragic or dreamlike. For queerness is not afforded the luxury of being an individualistic experience; it is instead attached to meaningless tropes and expectations. For queer people, normalcy is a dream that can only be achieved through a painful degree of denial.

I, as a queer woman, am unable to feel any sense of normalcy in romantic situations. They must involve an ounce of tragedy: a sad coming out story, a jealous ex-boyfriend, homophobic friends, homophobic parents, a love interest that struggles with compulsory heterosexuality—the list goes on. There is no room for happiness in the heteronormative depiction of queerness because it is seen as boring, without substance, and missing something—that something is a person’s impression of what queer performance must look like. 

However, one is not allowed to be completely happy either; if tragedizing is not present, then overly romanticizing most definitely is. People seem to have an impression that lesbian relationships are without any sort of conflict or turmoil, as queer performance has created the idea that two women, if involved romantically, simply stare into the abyss of each other’s eyes as they discuss their birth charts and eat chocolate-covered strawberries in an open field that is rid of any bugs. Though I do know how to fill a wicker basket with French bread, jam, and various artisan cheeses, and spread a patterned blanket over a grassy knoll with a perfect view of the sunset, my relationship has conflict just like any other would. This constant clarification does not seem to stop the age old “I hate men, I wish I was a lesbian” phrase that quite literally makes me want to pluck my eyeballs out. I agree, misogyny is awful; however, as male privilege exists, as does heterosexual privilege. Queer performance not only involves the slippery slope that is finding the way queerness fits into one’s identity, but also knowing when to stop the performance altogether and begin a new one. Queer performance is far beyond wearing Dr. Martens loafers and Dickies (though they are fundamental aspects of the practice). Not only is it a complicated process to come to terms with how I perceive myself, but also how others will perceive me. Sometimes, it is in compromising my own comfort and perception of myself that I maintain safety and security. The sadness is in that first look in the mirror after I put on an outfit. The uncertainty that comes with any choice is enough to make me want to scream. A pair of pants that falls over my legs and a shirt that makes my waist completely indiscernible from my hips.

Do I look like too much of a dyke in this? 

This area of performance is the most complicated of all. Do I dress masculinely and risk outing myself to the wrong people as I walk down the street? Or do I feminize myself and be forced to watch men’s vile attempts at trying to “turn me,” or worse, delegitimize my relationship by acting as if, by mere coincidence, he didn’t see her clutching my hand? Either way, performance is everything and has quite the way of making you feel like nothing all in the same shallow breath. 

Is there a light at the end of all this? Is progress being made? I must tell myself, “Yes,” to salvage enough energy, wake up each day, and keep trying. If it means a better world for those who come after me, then I will break myself into a million pieces through performing, unperforming, and reperforming until there is nothing left. That road will be paved even if it is through our blood and tears. I can only hope that there will come a day when sexuality need not be anything beyond itself—a sexuality

Butterflies, tears, heartbreak, shy smiles, side glances, brushes of the arm—that is all it will be. It will be nothing that requires a strong will; all one will need is an open heart, an open mind, and an open set of arms, waiting to comfort and be comforted. That is all anyone wants when we are put to rest. I just want to close the curtain, thank the audience, and send everyone home. I hope you enjoyed the show. I pray there will not be another. 


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