The Baby Dyke's Guide to Queer Culture 101
Read Audre Lorde. Watch "But I’m a Cheerleader." Shave your head.
image by Leila Ettachfini.
Congratulations on discovering you like girls! It’s an exciting time to be queer, and not just because some queer characters on TV and in movies are not being killed off. (More on that later.) Whether you are a wee, young baby dyke or a grown-ass womyn-loving wo’moon, you’re probably feeling a great many feelings. You might be both excited and terrified to enter this brave new world of queerness, and asking yourself: What queer references should I know? How do I let other queers know I’m down to bang? How do I even meet these queers? And, for the love of the gods, how do I stop crying?
I’m here to tell you these things. (And also that it’s totally normal and healthy to cry.) Expect to do a lot of crying as a queer woman—sometimes from how happy you are that your wardrobe has doubled; sometimes from a bad haircut; sometimes because that Tegan and Sara song in The Lego Movie makes you feel strangely emotional. It’s okay.
And, you probably know this, but it’s worth repeating: There’s no “right” way to be queer. (And that includes what your gender is: I identify as a cis pansexual woman, so that's the perspective I'm writing from—whatever yours is, that's perfectly cool, too.) That’s kind of the best part of being queer (that, and all the hot, queer sex). Do whatever you want! It’s your life, and only you know how to make it awesome. That said, here are some ideas on how to make it all a little easier as you go.
What classic queer books should I read?
The vast world of queer lit may seem daunting at first, and to be fair, you probably won’t be quizzed on the erotic ouvre of Audre Lorde (unless you’re dating me). But books offer us recognition, windows into worlds we’d never otherwise know, and, in some cases, they offer a literal lifeline—a route away from misery and toward hope. One such book that does this is, yes, Audre Lorde’s Zami, which is not only a fascinating account of what it was like to be a Black, gay girl in the 1950s, but also has the best sex scene ever written involving mashed bananas.
For beautiful, literary fiction involving (almost always) a bisexual, genderqueer character and at least one affair with a married woman, read Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Most people start with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is her semi-autobiographical coming-out tale, and is great—but also a huge bummer and full of religious zealots. The Passion involves magical realism and cross-dressing and scandalous sex during the Napoleonic wars. Take your pick.
Really, you should devote the next several years of your life to reading queer authors.
For poetry, read If Not, Winter by Sappho (the patron saint of lesbianism, even though she, like plenty of us, had lovers of all sexes), Adrienne Rich’s A Dream of a Common Language, Mary Oliver, Gloria Anzaldúa (try Borderlands), Audre Lorde (she, of course, also has some excellent poetry), Wu Tsao (who, in the 1800s, wrote some lovely poems about courtesans), Eileen Myles, and at least attempt some Gertrude Stein poetry. After you’ve given up, read Janet Malcolm’s illuminating biography on Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her long-time lover.
For punkish, witchy, druggy sexiness, read Michelle Tea’s Valencia. For slow, restrained romance, read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. For a queering of the Cinderella fairytale, read Malinda Lo’s Ash. For a dark, poignant graphic memoir, read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (her pioneering, funny-as-hell comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, is also fantastic). For hilarious, brilliant comics about being a lesbian trans woman, read Joey Alison Sayers. (She’s also quite funny on Twitter). For philosophical, cultural, literary criticism, read Susan Sontag. (Her journals are brilliant, too.) For smart, accessible transfeminist works, especially about bisexuality/pansexuality, read Julia Serano.
Really, you should devote the next several years of your life to reading queer authors. There’s so much that’s amazing! Also, cough, I’ve heard The Lesbian Sex Haiku Book (With Cats!)—by yours truly—is pretty great.
What movies and TV about queer women should I watch?
Unpopular opinion: A lot of movies about queer women are bad. Like, either someone dies or everyone dies or the protagonist spends half the movie staring vacantly into a body of water or the dialogue is laughably wooden or the sex scenes are laughably porny, and so on. That said, they do almost always have a sex scene! And queer women will endure 180 minutes of terrible cinema for a four-minute sex scene.
You don't always have to, though—there are also some good ones. Watch Bound (smoldering mafia thriller), But I’m a Cheerleader (super campy), High Art (tortured drug addicts!), Imagine Me and You (British rom-com), D.E.B.S. (campy, cheerleader-y spies), and Carol (every movie with Cate Blanchett now retroactively counts as queer because of this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt) to cover the basics.
And queer women will endure 180 minutes of terrible cinema for a four-minute sex scene.
In the TV arena, we’re doing better and better, though we’re still usually dying! To get started, watch The L Word (and be prepared to process it for the rest of your life), Lost Girl, The Fosters, Orange Is the New Black, and Sens8 (you won’t understand the plot; just enjoy the orgies), Pretty Little Liars, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee, and Killing Eve. (If you want way more, Autostraddle put together a list of 53 queer shows you can watch now-ish on Netflix, and what level of gay they are.)
How do I flag as queer?
“Flagging” was once a matter of survival. Back when being queer was a punishable offense—when cops could raid our bars for no reason, and when abuse and assault by authority figures were rampant—queers found other queers through means of stealth—clothing/hair styles (plaid, leather, pompadours, etc.), accessories, tattoos (the nautical star, the Labrys), flowers (violets, particularly), and other symbols were used to convey one’s sexual orientation and proclivities.
The Handkerchief Code is one of the most well-known, and involves color-coded hankies worn in the back pockets of jeans, which indicate sexual preferences and whether one is more dominant (left pocket) or submissive (right). Queer femmes employ the hankie code in innovative ways—some wear them on their wrists, around their necks, or even in their hair, (the higher the hankie is worn, the more submissive they are, according to some circles). Queer femmes also flag with their nail colors and shapes, aka the nail flagging code, which is complex and evolving, so don’t be shy to compliment a femme’s nails and ask if there’s a story behind them.
Become a social worker, a therapist, an artist, a professional poi fire dancer, a political mime, a roller derbyist, and a small-batch, cruelty-free beer maker—all at once.
Nowadays, flagging tend to be a bit less categorical, bit is still important—because we’re constantly trying (and failing) to figure out who is queer! (Thankfully, though, it’s less about needing secret codes for safety and more about style.) To that end, here’s a list of some ways to flag.
Wear plaid. Wear entire outfits of plaid if you can. Wear shorteralls. Bonus points if they are made from hemp or jute. Shave your head. Wear your hair long, because fuck stereotypes! Sport a bowl cut and/or mullet, possibly simultaneously. Wear your hair short with enormous earrings. Wear your hair long with an undercut. Cut or style your hair asymmetrically. Grow out your armpit hair. Or your leg hair. Flag with all the pet hair you forgot to brush off your clothing. Flag with buttons and pins. (I have a scissoring pin that has gotten me several enthusiastic nods and that has also confused at least two heterosexual women.) Own too many vests, hoodies, and beanies. You can never have enough vests, hoodies, or beanies! Wear grandpa sweaters. Wear wind chimes. Wear crystals. Wear black unisex gloves. Wear leather. Wear pleather! Work at a nonprofit. Found a nonprofit. Run that nonprofit entirely by yourself and also fund it with grants you’ve written and promote it on social media profiles you curate. Become a social worker, a therapist, an artist, a professional poi fire dancer, a political mime, a roller derbyist, and a small-batch, cruelty-free beer maker—all at once. Then flag with an actual rainbow flag.
Realistically, as I said before, there’s no one way to be queer—except, well, being yourself. So do that, and people will catch on.
How do I find other queer people?
The anti-gay evangelists were right about one thing: “QUEER PEOPLE ARE EVERYWHERE.” On your streets, in your schools, and definitely in the expensive nut aisle at Trader Joe’s. How can you tell who to date, though? What if the woman holding that bag of slivered almonds is, in fact, merely a culinarily adventurous hetero? Even if she seems to be flagging in one of the ways mentioned above, you can’t always be sure.
Don’t worry. There are a million ways to find fellow queers. You can, for instance, join a dating site and choose the “friends only” option—this really works! If you’re shy, get to know people online, first. (I’ve met a truly surprising number of sex partners and friends on Twitter, so you never know.) Join a queer-friendly Facebook group or a Meetup group.
The gay rights movement did start in a bar, after all.
Or, jump straight into IRL hang outs by getting involved with some sort of group. Join a coven. If you’re poly (that is, open to being in loving relationships with multiple people at a time) or into BDSM (bondage, domination/submission, sadism/masochism—think explicit power play) or both, participate in a munch (a social, non-sexual gathering, usually with food, for like-minded folks). Join a queer reading group. Volunteer for an LGBTQ cause. (Queer women love saving things! Whales, trees, Jennifer Beals’ career!) Join a queer women’s sports team—or just a women’s softball team, which is basically the same thing. If you look for them, you may be surprised at how many of these kinds of groups exist, and how welcoming the people in them are.
If you’re of age, live in a city, and are decently extroverted, you can also try going to a gay bar, or finding out when ladies night at your local dive is. The gay rights movement did start in a bar, after all.
How do I socialize with those queer people?
While this isn’t rocket science, it does seem to be a point of anxiety for many queer women. It’s okay! You’ll be fine, I promise. Even if it’s awkward!
If you really get stuck, a conversational “hack” I use is asking people open-ended relationship questions. Because queer women don’t have to abide by the usual tired dating scripts and games that hetero folks do, we’re more likely to open up and get real early on, which leads to faster connections (and, yes, U-Hauling). Some of my favorite questions are: What do you consider “cheating”? What do you think about scissoring? Is it okay to use an old sex toy on a new lover? How do you feel about polyamory? What do you think about queer women pursuing straight ones?
We were all newly realized queers at one point.
It also doesn’t hurt to have anecdotes on hand from your interesting, hobby-filled life (See: How do I find other queer people?). And when in doubt, ask thoughtful questions! Just be curious about people. And don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. We were all newly realized queers at one point.
Once you get settled into your social life as a queer woman, you are 100 percent going to be invited to a potluck, possibly multiple times a week, so know how to cook at least one (probably vegan) dish—you can’t go wrong with guacamole! And at the very least, know the difference between silken tofu, seitan, and tempeh. If you can’t cook to save your life, then you might as well resign yourself to a life of heterosexuality. Joking—just bring an alcoholic beverage that queer women will like (some small-batch IPA from the Pacific Northwest, organic wine from a female-owned vineyard, or a medium-nice bottle of vodka, preferably gluten-free).
Now that you’ve flagged, talked to, and seduced a queer woman with you cooking skills, how do you do the thing? My How to Sex series has some excellent primers—particularly, How to Blow a Strap On, How to Eat Out a Non-Op Trans Woman, and How to Ethically Take Someone’s Virginity.
Good luck, you amazing queer woman, you. Your care package of bulk miso, plaid flannel, and Coexist bumper sticker/tote bag/unisex t-shirt are in the mail!