Wednesday, October 9, 2013

His tongue on her neck

As part of my recent intensive course in Portugal, we were required to engage in a fieldwork exercise. Between Friday night's group dinner and Saturday's afternoon class, we had to find somewhere in Lisbon to observe something to do with sexuality and morality. From what I understand, in the previous cohort, many people went to church. My classmates had different ideas.

Of course I looked for a leather bar. I found an English website devoted to gay bars in the city. There was exactly one leather bar listed. It was a men-only deal and stress was placed on being in fetish gear. I think had I had the correct fetish gear, I could have talked my way in. Conversely, had I been male, I could have gotten away with jeans and my Docs. Luckily, I had a back up plan. There were two lesbian-friendly gay bars.

That Friday night was the kickoff for the Lisbon Queer Film Festival. Most of our group went out to eat at a traditional Portuguese restaurant. (Lured away from my vegetarianism by fresh octopus, I succumbed. Let's just say I wouldn't recommend deep-fried cephalopod. I know some people dig calamari, but it's just not for me.) Afterwards, we climbed about a million stairs to get to the Bairro Alto, which is a charming district during the day that transforms into a hubbub of nightlife after dark, like the French Quarter of Lisbon. The Queer Film Festivals was holding their opening party there at midnight and several of my classmates decided to do their fieldwork there.

On the way, we had the mandatory shot of ginja, a type of liquor soaked in sour cherries that is common in the region. I don't normally drink, so it went to my head pretty quickly. It also tasted a little like cough syrup, which probably says more about how people in the US flavor all their medicine to taste like candy than any judgement call about another culture's method of imbibing spirits.

We went to a bar Valerio was familiar with which was also listed on my website as a gay bar. There was nothing overt, no rainbow flags or anything, but the clientele was split between male/male couples and male/female customers, so the bar seemed at least gay-friendly. Our group had a couple of drinks while everyone waited for the Queer Film Festival party to start. A good friend met me in Portugal for the last half of my time there. She and I decided to split off to visit the lesbian bars on my list before we were too much in our cups to get any good info.

The thing about anthropology, for me, is that it allows me to explore fearlessly in ways I don't feel empowered to do when I am just plain Misty. I am shy and socially awkward in new situations. I have little filter and tend to talk about inappropriate things, making other people uncomfortable unintentionally, which embarrasses me. As an anthropologist, however, I am fearless and bold. I listen more and am less likely to blurt out the first thing that comes into my head as I am engaged in embodied learning. I know that it appeared like I was taking my assignment too seriously when I could have hung out and drank with the group, but I wanted to learn more about Lisbon in a way I couldn't do with a group.

Fieldwork, even for a couple of hours, would be hampered by my nonexistent Portuguese, although many people spoke English. I decided a bar would be a good place to at least watch people, their body language, their eye contact, their dress. Earlier that day, Miguel Vale de Almeida came to our class to discuss the political climate surrounding the LGBT movement in Portugal. He had noted that the community isn't well defined, in part because many people do not come out in the same way they do in the United States (again, one day I'll post on that topic). I was curious to see how a website directed toward Anglophone gay men would classify a lesbian bar.

First off, let me say that bars in Lisbon are tiny. I mean, everything in Portugal (except the castles and monasteries) tended to be smaller than the sprawling spaces I am accustomed to. But seriously, Purex could have fit inside my one bedroom apartment. For me, I begin to study the field by analyzing the space as it is being used. This gives me a starting point, a way to work myself into analysis.

The bar was divided into three areas - behind the bar, the front room with tables and chairs, and the back room with overstuffed chairs and a couch and a small dance floor with a live DJ. Sad to say, I did not visit the bathrooms, and so cannot speak to those areas. Again, there were no rainbow flags or anything that would obviously point out the nature of the bar as I am familiar with in the US. Behind the bar, however, there was a bird cage full of lipsticks, all open and pushed up. I am not sure what it symbolized, but I found it noteworthy. With more time, I would have asked about it.

Rather than rehash all of my fieldnotes, I'll get to the point of the title of this post. The bar was entirely staffed by women. During my time in Lisbon, I saw a handful of women of any age with short hair. Honestly, I was glad mine had grown out to pixie length since I shaved it last June. The women working at the bar and the one spinning had shorter hair (except one). I am not sure whether this indicates a sign of gender bending in the same way it (sometimes) does in the US.

For sure, there were gay men there as customers, mostly lounging in the back space on the comfy couches, cuddling one another, or in one instance, dance together very intimately. There were two genderqueer individuals, possibly transmasculine. They were hanging out with the gay men and left shortly after the dancing started.

A group of six women came in together and began dancing together. I couldn't tell if they were necessarily straight or queer, as they danced relatively far apart and were not overtly sexual. They were certainly enjoying themselves without male company.

I did see two instances of women touching one another, in one case a woman stroking another's breast and a woman with her hand cupping another's butt. However, and this is a big however, both of the instances were done in front of what was obviously one of the women's boyfriends. All my years stripping, I am not a stranger to performing lesbianism for a male gaze. I do not think that invalidates same-gender desire but it puts a different spin on things, speaking from experience. During my heyday of sexiness for money, there was a marked difference between the women I flirted with onstage and the backstage romances. Maybe, one day, I'll come clean about that.

The most notable event of the night, however, was a disruption of this supposedly lesbian-friendly space. After an hour of dancing/fieldwork (big selling point of anthropology - these can be the same thing!), a man and two women came on the dance floor. He was obviously inebriated. He mugged for his friends. He inserted himself in other people's pictures. He took up a lot of space on the tiny dance floor. The women who had been in the center gave way to his antics, moving to the edges of the space. This was not done in deference but rather to avoid his antics. My friend and I continued to dance, making allowances for his general sloppiness.

After fifteen minutes of this, he caught my eye and started to edge in on us. Let me make it clear that my friend and I were clearly dancing *with each other* and not as two women dancing in the same space. The more insistent he became on inserting himself, the more we nuzzled up to one another. Then he started dancing behind my friend in order to force me to look at him. Then he licked her neck. I didn't actually see this, but I felt her shudder. I don't know what standard protocol is in other countries, but given my work experience, I have handled more than my fair share of drunk men edging in on my space. I shoved him away with my hand on his face, all the time smiling and laughing like I wasn't going to kick his ass. The reprieve only lasted a couple of minutes, as soon he was dancing next to me and eventually kissed me on the cheek. Once again, I nonchalantly shoved my hand in his face and pushed him away.

It's a stripper trick- pretend like you're flattered that Mr. Can't-Keep-His-Hands-To-Himself finds you irresistible, but you just have other things you need to be doing at that exact moment. I have poured beer on men, stepped on their hands with my heels, slapped them across the face, and worse, all the while smiling like it's a big joke. If you frame it the right way, you can get a guy to leave you alone without turning it into a situation that could result in escalating tension. It's a sad fact, but as a woman, I have to live with the fact that if I reject a man in the wrong way things can go tits-up quickly. Obviously preferring the company of a woman over a drunk party boy brings about another set of risks. I don't know how other women handle unwanted attention. Deflect and diffuse are my preferred methods.

In this case, I didn't feel too threatened as Mr. CKHHTH was with two other women, so it wasn't likely that he would press the issue after a couple of theatrical gestures to leave us the fuck alone. He did, eventually stumbling out the bar after a few more songs. My friend and I enjoyed some more dancing. At 2 a.m. we called it a night, although the party was picking up a bit. We blew kisses to the DJ and made our way back to the hotel, a bit tipsy and sweaty, but none the worse for wear.

What I found really interesting was reporting on my experience to my classmates. They were affronted on my behalf. I saw it as an example of how same-gender desire among women is not respected in the same way it is with men. I understood it as a pedestrian example of patriarchy and heteronormativity. But they were offended that such a thing would even happen. Although some of the men in my class identified as queer, I am not aware that any of the women did. I don't know if it was my experience as a queer woman, as a US citizen, as an ex-stripper, or what, but it didn't surprise me that man felt entitled to touch us, not in the way it seemed to shock them. One woman even asked if I complained to the bar so they could throw him out. That didn't even occur to me.

This being a class on morality, the question became whether he had acted immorally. It is tough to answer that sufficiently. I don't know enough about culture in Lisbon in general, much less nightclub mores, to judge. I had witnessed vivid examples of lesbianism performed for a male gaze that night, so he might not have been too off in thinking his attentions were appropriate. Once we made it obvious that we were having no part of it, he left us alone. For me, the most disappointing thing about the experience was that the other patrons, particularly the gay men, did nothing to intervene. When I was making it a habit of patronizing gay clubs at home (whatever state that might have been), they were pretty exclusively non-heterosexual. In similar situations, other people inserted themselves between drunk-straight-and-clueless and the objects of his (yes, exclusively his) unwanted attention. In Lisbon - no help.

It was an interesting experience and one that I am glad I had. It is at the ruptures that we learn about the structure. It is what makes it exciting to wake up every day and be an anthropologist. I didn't judge all of the continent based on the actions of one drunk man, although I was oddly touched that my classmates were so moved by what I considered as little more than a data point. That was my experience with heteronormativity in Lisbon, which was remarkable in its complete familiarity.