Enduring “Woke” Conversations with Straight Dudes — A Lesson in Humility
“Do you have a boyfriend?” my accidental travel companion asks almost innocently.
“I have a girlfriend,” I lie. An easier opportunity to come out and shut down any potential advances is unlikely to present itself.
“You’re a lesbian?” Close enough.
I met my Canadian soon-to-be friend briefly in a tea shop in Wazuka. We reconnected when we somehow managed to catch the same bus to the station. Discovering that we were headed in the same direction and now deep in acquaintance-hood, we managed to get hopelessly lost on the rural Japanese train lines. We were waiting to finally catch the line that would take us to our shared destination, Kyoto.
He hasn’t been able to speak English (one of the four languages he is fluent in) to anyone in over a day and a half. So he’s leaping on the opportunity that has presented itself, me. It was going to be another hour of travel before parting ways even became possible. If coming out went poorly, I would at least be able to enjoy the trip in silence.
It goes well. He assures me that my identity is cool with him. He’s Muslim, so he relates to my coming out apprehension. He recognised the look — the pause you give before you continue to make sure the person you’re talking to isn’t going to give you any trouble. He feels compelled to recount every interaction he’s had with a queer person and how they changed his mind on LGBTQI+ rights. A stumble at the landing but it’s still a solid A- coming out reaction.
Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the previous generation of queer activists, coming out for me has only ever been as awkward as a general dismissal. Free of any real threat of violence, the biggest problem I encounter when I choose to come out to people is one that every minority endures to some extent. Woke people. The kind who make the existence of your identity a talking point or, even worse, use it as an excuse to share too much about themselves.
“Woke” straight men seem to have the most bizarre reactions around. Like a tourist in Shinjuku station, they get scared, confused. There is no guidebook for how to talk to a woman who they understand on some level will never, ever, sleep with them. The brain fries. They start making decisions they shouldn’t and often they head the wrong way.
I have now unfortunately come to expect in situations where I am innocently conversing with a straight male talking buddy, that at any given moment the conversation may suddenly, and spectacularly, fly off the rails.
It happens about 20 minutes into this conversation. My talkative friend begins lamenting that Japanese girls aren’t as cute as anime lead him to believe. “That’s a good thing about you being lesbian! We can talk about girls.”
I try to balance politeness and firmness when I explain that the majority of lesbians aren’t super keen on doling out the objectification that they receive. He’s not really listening but it does move the conversation along and away from that minefield.
As awkward and racist as his statement was, I can’t help but be a little bit relieved. At least he didn’t just dive straight into a rant on preferable cup size.
It’s hard to hold any personal ill will against these men. They are good but confused lads who are only trying to be my friend. Even if they lose all sense of social skill when confronted with feminine queerness. Most of the time I’m willing to deal with it, educating as I go. But unlike teachers, I don’t get time off and it’s exhausting.
To most, I pass as cis and straight. I can and will hide my identity when I am unsafe, worried or just too tired to have these conversations. I am aware that for most other-ed identities, like that of my travel companion, there is no respite. My privilege is palpable and, to some extent, hypocritical because we have all been a “woke” straight boy. Speeding through social barriers like a shinkansen, innocently perpetuating annoying micro-aggressions as we try to connect with a person from a minority we haven’t had much exposure to before.
For every straight dude who let me know about his very personal fetish is a guy who can relate to being the other. No matter which way the conversation goes, both of us learn something new about the world and its varied inhabitants.
It is human nature to fail. As long as you keep trying you will eventually reach your destination. That’s why my Canadian friend and I swap Instagram handles and a hug before we part ways at Kyoto station.
I might just become one of his “interesting” stories that he can regale the next queer with (“I once got lost in the middle of rural Japan with an Australian lesbian”) or I could be one step up his learning curve on how to talk to fem presenting queers. His next lesson might have to be learning what “fem presenting queer” means but we’ll save that for a different train trip.
Photo by Gemma Clarke