On being lesbian in a straight marriage

Featured image: A scene in Solo, Indonesia. Pix by Juana Jaafar.

The conversation

In this first podcast ‘BABE’ shares her story about discovering her sexuality and identity—and being married to a heterosexual man.

Listen in

Cheat sheet

A woman whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to other women. Some lesbians may prefer to identify as gay (adj.) or as gay women.

Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

Supplementary reading

I reached out to ANGELA M. KUGA THAS with some questions to help those who are new to discussions about gender, sexuality and identity navigate through some of the issues raised in the podcast.

Angela is an activist, academic and co-founder of KRYSS, an incubation platform that works towards increasing the individual and collective agency of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer people to promote and protect their sexual rights.

Question: What is sexual fluidity?

Angela: Sexual fluidity refers to having one or more sexual identity or sexual orientation during one’s lifetime. There are many new terms these days that try to describe sexual orientations that do not fall neatly into the boxes of ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘asexual’, or even ‘queer’ for that matter. ‘Pansexual’ is one of these terms that try to capture the fluidity of sexuality in that person.

One cannot have more than one sexuality at any given time. Sexuality encompasses everything there is to know and self-define as sexuality. This includes our fantasies, our sexual desires, gender expression, gender identity, preferences for particular sex acts and so on, including sexual orientation and by an extension of that, the determination and reference to sexual identity (as opposed to gender identity).

However, for some people this self-definition becomes very complex. For example, you may be attracted to a woman but prefer penile penetration with an actual penis rather than a dildo. So, you may be making love to a woman but have a fantasy of having sex with a man.

I remember what Dede Oetomo, a gay human rights activist and academic in Indonesia, shared with me from one of his research respondents. The respondent is an Indonesian woman who would pay to have sex with a transgender woman because she wants to see the face of a woman while being penetrated by a penis. Is she heterosexual as her sexual orientation, and is that her sexual identity? Not so easy to answer. And only the concerned individual can do so.

Q: There are women who feel being lesbian is also a political identity. What is the lesbian political identity, and why is it important?

A: It may apply to some politically conscious women, but it’s not something that I hear often these days. This political choice of identifying as lesbian when one is not, is part of radical feminism. It was largely confrontational to create a discomfort and to force recognition on the reality that sexism is rampant, that heterosexuals are privileged and to ultimately draw attention to the stigma, discrimination and violence faced by lesbians.

I am conflicted by such radicalism because on one hand I think it’s very brave of the women who do this, but on the other hand one could say it’s an extension of their heterosexual privilege. But it was meant to make fellow heterosexuals uncomfortable, which it did.

Q: We live in a world that is often unkind to people who are not heterosexual or ‘straight’. As a survival mechanism, young people who discover they are not straight may choose to suppress their sexuality and try to live a straight life. Is this in itself harmful?

There’s no black and white answer to this. Because of the risk of stigma, discrimination and violence, understandably there will be young people who will suppress their homosexuality. Can it be harmful? Yes, but it can also be equally harmful, if not more harmful, if they were to come out. So it’s really for them to see how best to balance the risks that they face directly as it is their context that they live in, not yours or mine even if we may live in the same country.

But if they have to do this in the long run there is a likelihood they will either realise and come to some form of self-acceptance and begin to love themselves as who they are, or may start to loathe themselves for who they are. This can lead to break up of families if they had ended up marrying and could have a negative impact on their children.

Q: “Coming out” is often described as a process. What is this process? And is it necessary for a person to come out?

Coming out is a process because we each have different social circles. There are issues of familiarity, trust, shared experiences and mutual respect that would need to be considered as one comes out to someone else.

Like a research respondent once said to me, she has to gauge the potential discomfort level of the person she plans to come out to before she would do so. This would also mean considering if the discomfort of that other person will turn into hate or violence.

As a lesbian or gay man gains wider social acceptance among peers, friends, colleagues, employers, clients etc., the less they are concerned about coming out. One could compare it to how honest you can be about yourself with the people around you. Most people are likely to be the most honest about themselves with their best friends. And if their best friends are their spouses, then their spouses too.

Sexual identity however has another layer of complexity because of the moral judgement that is often attached to the other person’s perception of homosexuality. So a homosexual person could risk losing a best friend because of her or his coming out.

Q: What does it mean to have straight privileges?

This largely has to do with social acceptance of your sexual identity and how your relationships are recognised as valid relationships even if they are the worst relationships ever. It refers to legal recognition that is extended because you’re heterosexual or a heterosexual couple, and these privileges can include having access to high standards of quality of health care, access to education and opportunities for higher education, employment security, opportunities for work promotion and so on.

It can also be as simple as bringing your partner home and being extended a warm welcome, being invited to go on holidays together or being allowed to visit each other.

Q: Is it important for non-straight people to belong to a non-straight community? Or, can queer people live a healthy life without support from a queer community?

I think we should not speak about the queer community as if it’s one big happy family or homogeneous in any way. I believe and have witnessed for myself that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, intersex and queer people can live healthy lives as long as they have love, acceptance and support from people, even those of sexualities dissimilar to their own.

But that love, acceptance and support is essential. Having a social circle of people with similar sexual attractions of course helps towards finding a partner but for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer children, growing up in a family who loves them helps them to grow up confident of that love, acceptance and support. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are completely out as homosexuals or queer, but they certainly live more fulfilled lives compared to those rejected by their families.

Q: On surviving community politics: There are women who used to date women and then decide to date men. When they start dating men, some of them may find themselves “expelled” from their (lesbian) community or regarded as “treacherous”. Things can get hostile and people lose friends. How does one survive this?

Identity politics will stay for a long time yet because of the issue of perceived privilege in acceptance, in legal recognition and so on. It is a cause, a struggle. No doubt that there could also be issues of jealousy. There’s a sudden realisation that there’s a shift in their experience of equality.

I don’t think it’s about how small the circle of potential partners are as some have said, because look at how some Malay-Muslim women who marry foreigners are made to feel: like they betrayed Malay-Muslim men. With identity politics it’s about loyalties to a struggle, a cause, and the power dynamics shift as a result. At the end of the day it is political and the failure to recognise that will mean getting hurt.

There is no easy answer to how one survives identity politics of the community. The extent to which we are feminist or political enough will always be points of contention in the community; there will always be self-appointed judges and gate-keepers. For the individual who finds herself at the receiving end of these hostilities, the only advice that I can provide is to never doubt who you are as a person and in what you believe in, and hopefully these are the principles of equality and non-discrimination and the right to self-determination.

Image source: Justice for Sisters.

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