As A Lesbian I Rarely Understood My Straight Friends – Until Now

Photographed by Leia Morrison
Media is full to the brim with heteronormative desire. Just take your pick from the vast majority of books, TV shows and films. While representation of lust or love between people who aren’t cis and/or straight is slowly becoming more common, it is very much still an exception. This lays the foundation for straight desire as the norm. A norm that is universally understood.
Growing up with this distinctly straight framing of desire shaped how many people who don’t fall into that mould saw the world and understood themselves. It took me years to realise that I am a lesbian. I’d spent a lot of my teen years convincing myself that my gentle crushes on feminine men and 2D cartoon boys, as well as my confusing feelings about girls in drag for school plays, could all fit into normal, heterosexual frameworks. Once I came out at 19 and settled into myself, I realised that what I told myself about who I fancied was an attempt to fit my experience into a suitably heteronormative version. For a while this realisation left me with a lot of disdain for heteronormativity. But over time that shifted into a more generalised confusion.
Reading Megan Nolan’s first novel, Acts Of Desperation, felt like a release from some of that confusion. In some ways the novel is just a rehashing of a story we’ve heard before, following the lengths to which a woman will go to be with the man she loves. But throughout that relationship the narrator – and Megan herself – interrogates those behaviours, from the more mundane (like embracing domesticity for him) to the far more extreme (withdrawing from friends and accepting his humiliation of her). The protagonist’s desire for her relationship with the cold, unfeeling Ciaran to work manifests in startling ways but they are impulses a reader will likely recognise – either in people around them or in themselves. They were impulses I saw in my younger self too, both before and after I came out (but particularly before) when I attempted to temper my loneliness with attention. But unlike in much heteronormative media, the motivations driving the protagonist of Megan's book are constantly, sometimes painfully, questioned as she seeks to understand why she needs the love of a man in this way.
When you’re anything but cis and/or straight you will likely spend a lot of time questioning why your desires or your understanding of yourself seems so at odds with what you’re taught is ‘normal’. Who you want and who you are is something that must be justified. To yourself, and probably the world around you, too. This mindset means that you regularly scrutinise why you want who you want and why you do what you do to get them. But that cis women can and should desire men has always been the given.
Because of this unquestioning acceptance I never felt I fully understood the reason why my straight, female friends would do some of the more destructive things they’d do, or put up with the behaviour they did, while dating or in relationships with men. The things they would do often seemed trivial, like waiting the ‘right’ amount of time to send a reply so as not to look desperate and chase a guy off, or shaving their legs for dates even though they wouldn’t normally. Why these actions were required for men to like them remained a mystery to me. It appeared to be a problematic but integral part of dating and relationships which even the most progressive among them were willing to shoulder.
When I messaged Megan to tell her what her book had revealed to me as a woman who doesn’t date men, she told me that this was in part what she was going for.

I think it's pretty common to have seen a woman accept disrespect or worse in order to be with a man who, objectively, is not worth her time. I was attempting to get inside that dynamic and try to show how it can happen.

MEgan Nolan
"It wasn't that I had an interest in trying to explain the experience of being attracted to men to people who are not attracted to them specifically," she says, "but rather to anyone who has ever been mystified by it and how it sometimes expresses itself."
"There are plenty of women, straight or gay, who won't identify with my narrator at all, but most will have witnessed some version of the sort of delusional and/or self-obliterating tendencies I am getting at. I think it's pretty common to have seen a woman accept disrespect or worse in order to be with a man who, objectively, is not worth her time. So I was attempting to get inside that dynamic and try to show how it can happen, show what all these other conditions might need to be to have that take place."
The impulse to shape yourself in some way for the person you desire – especially when you first meet them – is universal, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. It is something I felt both when I was performing straightness and once I was out – I would mask or highlight parts of myself that I thought would make me more appealing. But the gendered power dynamics at play when you’re a woman who dates men appear to exacerbate the forms these impulses take. On a really basic level, I found that I did not have to present or justify the kind of woman I am when I started dating women. And with the woman I ended up marrying, I was able to be myself no matter how gawky or chaotic that could be. As Acts Of Desperation shows, it’s much harder to avoid internalised and externalised expectations of womanhood, when dating men, even if these expectations reveal themselves subconsciously. The novel shows how this can take extreme forms, as the protagonist focuses unbendingly on how to make herself the kind of woman that would be loved by Ciaran. Her machinations, for the most part, go unnoticed by him.
Megan believes that the protagonist’s need and lack of self is acute enough that she would likely have behaved that way regardless of her sexuality. "There is also something at play to do with Ciaran's masculinity – specifically – validating her. Not just the approval of someone loving her but in particular the sort of validation that a man, and a traditionally attractive one especially, brings." She compares this to how America shaped her perception of what it meant to be a ‘real person’ as a child compared to the "pale imitators" around her in Ireland, because almost all the culture she absorbed was American. "Similarly, until I was a bit older I had this subconscious perception that men were the real people of the world, the ones who were charismatic and took meaningful actions and could live rich textured lives. I felt like the nearest I could come would be to find a really attractive and interesting one and attach myself to him."
Interestingly, Megan points to when she began dating and sleeping with women as a time when she started to feel less cowed by men. "Realising I could really fancy and be in awe of someone because of how attractive they were wasn't specific to men, and that those feelings didn't have to be negative. Because women were less generally alien to me than men, I didn't feel scared of them even when I really wanted to be with them."

The impulse to shape yourself in some way for the person you desire – especially when you first meet them – is universal, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. It is something I felt when I was performing straightness and once I was out. But the gendered power dynamics at play when you're a woman who dates men can exacerbate the forms these impulses take.

This is not to say that all relationships with men are troubled by this sort of behaviour, or that to love and be loved by a man means your relationship will necessarily follow heteronormative patterns. But directly questioning the motivations behind the most extreme behaviours in straight relationships and not seeing such relationships as inherently normal enables a questioning of when these behaviours and dynamics are at play in all relationships. For Megan, that opens up space to question the ways that being in a relationship, particularly a straight one, has been made a validation of the self.
"I think it's very much the default position for girls post-childhood (sometimes before) that you're supposed to meet someone to settle with and that that relationship will shape the remainder of your life," says Megan. "Perhaps it's putting it too strongly to say it's promoted as 'the point of life' but I think it is commonly accepted as the appropriate narrative shape of life." This makes finding someone to love and be loved by almost a relief – not only to validate your understanding of yourself but as a sign you can relax and stop the search.
"But of course meeting a partner isn't the end of anything. So that disappointment that love – even when it's a healthy and mutual love, unlike the one in my book – hasn't rendered your life resolved and content can be quite overwhelming I think." 
"To be clear, I'm not against wanting to be in love or to settle down with someone," she adds. "If I think about my future in an idealised way, I of course hope to be in love and to have enduring companionship, but trying to free myself of the idea that it's the only way I will be at peace has been very important for my wellbeing and my relationships to other people."
Unpacking straight love and desire in this way felt like wearing prescription glasses for the first time. It shed new light on how I see my own past behaviour and the behaviour of straight people around me. More importantly, I think that taking an unflinching look at heteronormative dynamics as a curious phenomenon and not a 'given' is a crucial exercise that everyone should try. It shifts the expectation that straightness is the de facto state of desire. Not only that but it also opens up broader questions of how love and relationships are supposed to entirely fulfil us. In doing so, it creates more room for everyone to openly question and pursue their desires beyond heteronormative dynamics, whether that be queerness, singledom or refusing to cow to the men in your life.

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