I've also walked into bars and nightclubs and looked at the queers all bunched together in their separate cliques--a word most would never use to label their own gang, but are quick to toss onto the groupings of others--looking moody and involved and somehow sealed off from the rest of the place, a cell. I've been insulated by a ring of my own friends and watched a dyke walk in alone, caught that second of pure social terror splayed across her face before the mask of cool aloofness kicked in and she joined her cluster of friends.
Wondering if I was paranoid, like I'd seen my own name scrawled catty on bathroom walls and website message boards often enough to develop a weird perspective--bitter, jittery, and sad--I started asking my friends about it. I didn't ask, "Do you think dykes are really mean to each other?" I asked, "Why do you think dykes are so mean to each other?" And no one asked me to explain what I meant, 'cause they knew. They paused, musing over the deeply bad vibes that infuse my dyke community here in San Francisco and, I bet, pollute the air at dyke gatherings in most cities large enough to have the luxury of shattering into subgroups and proceeding to talk piles of trash about each other.
I'm not talking about the honest venting that happens privately between friends, when you're trying to understand a conflict through conversation. I'm not talking about when girls keep making misogynistic comments around you and it's giving you an ulcer, or doing so much speed they're picking their faces off, and you need to talk about it. There's a difference between talking about the girl-bashing-girl so you can get a grip on how to deal with the situation, and talking your way through the daunting and complicated chore of informing your friend that there really aren't teeny spiders chewing up his skin and he needs to get his tweaked-out ass into rehab. What I am talking about is using dyke #1's bad attitude as an excuse to poison her people far and wide, people who don't know her and now, thanks to you, never will. Or using trannydyke #2's downward spiral as a nice justification of why you avoid him, or feel superior to him, or think he's pathologically fucked up when in this case, like every other, the truth is we are all just scared shitless of each other.
My friend Riley says she notices it most with butches and femmes, the butches trying to out-butch each other, and probably a lot of the friction between butch dykes and tranny boys being less about the politics both sides spout and more about masculine egos trapped in female bodies. Femmes compete with each other for power and beauty and dates, and indie kids scan for who is less of an outsider and more of a sell-out, hence deserving of disrespect and scorn. Whole generations of queer females turn against each other based on the trivialities of fashion (Birkenstocks vs. piercings, mullets vs. subdued Mohawks that sort of look like mullets) trumped up with righteous political rhetoric about sex and gender but fueled by what stinks of internalized homophobia--granola lesbians representing every babydyke's fear of edgeless Sapphic livin'; tattooed urban bulldaggers named Roger appearing, to older lesbians, like every stereotype of penis-envying female perversion they desperately do not want to be.
My trannyboyfriend Rocco says it's 'cause we were all outsiders in high school, and our identities are based, in large part, on who we aren't--the popular kids, the ones we needed to defend ourselves against. The problem with identities is they root deep as warts, and they are as ugly and painful to remove when they've stopped being relevant. We love our righteous outsider identities, and rather than challenge their appropriateness in our adult lives, we look around for the popular kids to pit ourselves against. And who we're looking at is each other.
And then there is girl psychology at work, which my wise astrologer friend Jessica claims is a chunk of the problem too. How we're taught to wield our power passively, holding out. It's how girls are deemed "good" in our culture, and it's also how we stay safe--by withdrawing, not being vulnerable, because we are so, so vulnerable. Our bodies are vulnerable to the violent whims of the world around us, and we toughen ourselves to both repel it and, should we have to, kick its ass. Our hearts are also vulnerable, to the fickle whims of the dykes around us--ourselves, really--vulnerable to the love and friendships we have, and the ones we don't have that we harden ourselves against. The drawbridge goes up and the gate clatters down and you are that princess, alone in your castle in a bar full of your people. In her book Depending on the Light, queer author Thea Hillman writes from such a place: "I do Patron shots, tequila cutting the blade of girls who look away. It's what they do. Sadly. Look away. Gay men pass and then look back. Girls pass and look away and never look back. I haven't learned yet not to smile."
I know I can shut my trap when the urge to talk trash flares hot and ugly inside me, and ask myself what exactly about this person, so like me, threatens me, pushes all my many buttons. I can stick up for queers when I hear their names rolled through the mud by someone who, in all likelihood, doesn't really know them. I can offer a good quality about a girl to offset the rotten ones being discussed, making her human, not a monster-dyke we can relieve our insecurities with through hating. I can stop bolstering my fragile identity by criticizing all in my community I imagine I'm not. I can catch a gaze and hold it.