Feature image by Tambako the Jaguar via imcreator.com.
More than ten years ago now, I was 26, newly moved to New York City, and newly single. I was deep in the puzzle of figuring out how to be the “kinky queer butch top” that I knew myself to be, and I hadn’t quite gotten there in practice. I stumbled into a fun social group of queers, and we supported each other through dating and healing and figuring out how to be grown ups.
Now that I’ve set the scene for you, let’s watch what happened on a typical night:
I pause outside before I walk into another queer bar. I study my reflection in the dark shop window next door, smoothing my hair that came out of place on the walk and subway ride here, tugging down my black button-down over my heavily bound chest, tucking it into my dark blue-brown jeans. I fuss with the knot of my tie, checking it’s symmetrical, smoothing my collar. I take some deep breaths.
Dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians, says a sign on the door.
There are a few queer folks outside, shoulders up, one hand shoved into a pocket, the other pinching a half-smoked cigarette. Coiffed, stylish short haircuts, skinny jeans, boots — most of the folks inside have a kind of in-between gender presentation, something genderqueer or androgynous. I feel out of place already. I know many dykes think that the lesbian community is full of butches and femmes, but the butch/femme folks I know feel like we are less common, misunderstood and outsiders. I’ve been told “it’s not drag night” by sneering queers checking IDs at the doors of dyke clubs. I’ve been told to stop “acting like a man” or that I should just “transition already and stop fooling yourself.”
I’m here because I’m still single. I know things about myself, solid things, things that seem like they might remain true for a while, though I know academically that gender and sexual orientation are fluid and could fluctuate: that I identify as butch, that I feel most comfortable in very masculine clothing but don’t want to transition, that I want to date and partner with femmes, that I’m mostly stone and definitely a top, that I want to strap on for 75 percent of our sex life, maybe more. I crave intimacy. I crave building something deep, something real, with someone. I crave a partner.
So I’m at another queer bar on another Thursday night. I know some friends inside, when I finally get my heart rate to go down enough to walk in. The crowds make my head spin. The loud music makes my cunt pound. I will order some whiskey on the rocks, but only two at first, I tell myself, because after the third drink, the fourth and fifth seem like a really good idea, and that becomes too many. Maybe I’ll have a third when I know it’s about time to go.
I’m getting better at flirting with girls at bars. Sometimes I dare myself to talk to the sexiest girl in the room. A friend of mine in college told me, “No girls are good at flirting, at showing interest. But that’s why we’re all here, we’re all searching to get laid, or maybe more. So really it just takes the guts to actually make it obvious and ask.” So I practice asking. I practice being obvious.
“Hey, this is kind of forward, but can I buy you a drink?”
“Hey, I noticed your heels, they’re really amazing.”
“Hey, you look familiar, did I just meet you at that party last weekend?”
“Hey, my friends dared me to tell you that I think you’re the hottest person here. So, um, hi.”
Sometimes those opening lines even work, starting a conversation that led to exchanging numbers or emails, or to making out, or to sharing a cab back to her place or mine.
Tonight, I’m exhausted and worn down. I have overdue bills and I’ve clocked too many hours this week. I can’t figure out how to balance my expenses with my income. I can’t figure out how to afford that new strap-on. I have so many things to write about and I don’t know where to start. I accidentally stalked two different exes on Facebook and now I feel stupid and desperate. Not exactly coming from a place brimming with confidence, but I let my friends talk me in to meeting them for a drink before heading home.
I find my friends: a mixed-race femme in a party dress and heels, a white androgynous dyke with a spiky 80s haircut, a handful of single masculine-of-center white queers, and two white femmes who just slept together for the first time last week and can’t keep their hands off each other. I set down my coat. I make the long walk from our back table to the bar to seek a drink, taking in different clusters, looking for sexy femmes who might be scanning the room and looking for someone like me.
As I wait for the bartender’s attention, a stunning tall blonde wedges her way in next to me, also trying to get the bartender’s attention. We look each other up and down through our side glances. She introduces herself with a serious handshake: “I’m Joy.” (That’s not her real name.) We join forces, and clink our two glasses of whiskey together. She works in publishing. I tell her I’m a writer, but she hasn’t read anything of mine. Yet. We know some of the same lesbian writers. She orders me another drink. We find a dark corner and flirt, she touches my forearms and gives me that look from under her eyelashes as she sips her whiskey with a straw. I knock mine back.
Later, after my friends have moved to another bar and I decide to stay to see where this leads, she says it’s about time for her to get going. I get my coat and walk outside with her. “Which train do you need to catch?” I ask.
“Oh, you’re coming home with me,” she says, as she looks out on to the busy street and hails a cab with one raise of her arm. “Or don’t you want to?”
I raise my eyebrows, feeling the familiar tightening in my gut, nervousness: What will this be like? How will our bodies fit together? What will she want to do? What will she taste like?
That night, I am reminded of a lesson I seem to need to relearn every couple of months: When I let girls pick me up, they are not necessarily bottoms. And what I want, what I really really want, is a femme who is a bottom, who wants to submit.
Certainly that isn’t always true — there are plenty of submissives or bottoms who are very good at pick-up play, who are bold and dynamic in their flirting, who know how to flirt, how to get someone’s attention and what to do with it once they have it. Some people think that it’s hard to flirt as a bottom, but I think there are plenty of ways to show interest and still display submission. Besides, social personality doesn’t necessarily dictate someone’s sexual power dynamic preference. Sometimes tops are very shy, and sometimes bottoms are boisterous and commandeering.
But for some reason, when I get into my shy overwhelmed mode, I don’t come across as a brooding top as much as I hope. This isn’t the first time it’s happened — Joy is one of multiple femmes who tends to be aggressive in bed that I’ve messed around with this year, and she probably won’t be the last. While my stone-ness is sometimes challenged, and it takes more navigating and negotiating, it also can be a lot of fun.
Ultimately, when I tell my friends at brunch about it over the weekend, I tell them that it’s not really what I want. It’s fun, but it’s just for now.
“Don’t settle,” they urge me. And they’re right — I’m letting that aching single hole be filled by someone who isn’t quite right for me because something often feels better than nothing, even though the something then takes the space for the thing that I do actually want to show up.
In order to get what I want, I have to say no to things that I don’t want, I write in my journal in big letters. I put it on a Post-it and stick it to my mirror. I read it in the mornings as I get ready, and I repeat it like a mantra and a pep-talk outside of dyke bars.
There’s nothing wrong with having some random play, particularly if it’s clear that that’s all it is. And there’s nothing wrong with playing outside of my comfort zone or preferred power dynamic. The problem is that it’s taking away from me moving closer to what I really do want. While I shouldn’t automatically assume that girls who express interest in me are going to be toppy or switchy, I also need to decide that if I’m going to keep flirting with them, I should probably make it clear that I’m a top, and ask them what they’re into, before I decide if I want to play or not.
The bigger issue, perhaps, is that unless I’m in dominance-and-submission-focused space, I’m not necessarily going to find submissives. I believe being a top or a bottom is a scale like the Kinsey scale, and most people aren’t pure 0s or pure 6s — the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. Likewise, most queers at any random dyke bar are not necessarily going to be tops or bottoms — they might not even identify as kinky in more than a passing way. They are more likely to be folks who take turns, or who switch, or who like to spice up sex occasionally with kink but who aren’t rooted in it.
But I don’t want someone occasionally dabbling in kink: I want a lifestyle submissive. I want someone who wants to go deep into those D/s identities with me. And I’m going to have to start figuring out a better place to find her.