Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Loud Lesbians on a Train: London’s LGBT Community and Breaking British Norms

September 20th, 2010 · No Comments

Many of us have already talked ad nauseam about the rules governing Tube behaviour. No eye contact. All extremities and personal belongings to yourself. Never strike up a conversation with your fellow passengers (unless it is to moan about a delay or some noisome activity going on in a station).

However, we have also observed many exceptions to these rules, mostly in the form of young couples and Public Displays of Affection in varied locations and to varying degrees of intensity.

Beyond this, I have noticed that the LGBT community- particularly lesbian couples and cross-dressers/transgendered individuals- is extremely present here in London. As a group, they seem much more open and accepted here in London than some of the other cities I have been in. What the cause is, I don’t know- perhaps it has to do with the laws (I believe gay marriage is legal in England)?  As someone who has and has had LGBT friends, I heartily applaud the apparent acceptance the community enjoys here.

[From one of the LGBT London support sites: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/images/kulgbt.jpg]

Anyway, as I was making my way back to the Arran House one day, I had an encounter with a lesbian couple that broke almost all the English rules of behaviour (not THAT kind of encounter . . . don’t get too excited, gentlemen)

I was transferring from one line to another and noticed two women in front of me holding hands and I remember thinking to myself “Awww, how sweet. I wonder if they’re sisters? Or . . . are they a couple?” While the TV show The L Word may be set in Los Angeles, I have not seen many gay couples – particularly lesbians- who feel comfortable enough to openly express affection in public.

We ended up in the same Tube car and the only open seat happened to be next to one of them. The other, a heavier woman, sat opposite and, within seconds of the doors closing had started fighting with the teenage girl sitting next to her (who, interestingly, looked and sounded to be foreign, not White-British). I quickly assessed the situation: both women were black, but the heavier one (who clearly was the femme in the relationship) was strongly taking on the Angry Black Woman persona while her partner (who was very butch) didn’t interfere except to say, “Do you have a problem with my girlfriend?” The butch lesbian was the one sitting next to me, so I turned to her girlfriend sitting across from me and asked if she wanted to switch seats with me so they could sit together. She seemed very surprised and pleased that I had offered but declined- I think she wanted to make the person sitting next to her uncomfortable for a little while longer (she said as much herself) and then leaned over and kissed her girlfriend next to me. As she continued arguing with her neighbour and generally drawing attention to herself, her girlfriend sitting next to me struck up a conversation, asking where I was from. As it turns out, she had visited the States once and stayed not 10 minutes from where I grew up! When the train got to their stop, both women took hands (the heavier one glaring daggers at her antagonist- frankly, I couldn’t decipher what the cause of contention was but it sounded like the issue had arisen from the woman’s size – maybe taking up too much seat room? – her race or her obvious sexual orientation) wished me a pleasant stay in England and departed.

After they got off the Tube, the girl who had been fighting with the heavier woman glanced at me suspiciously and then looked away. I’m still not certain what my crime was, that I was talking to people on the Tube at all, that those people were lesbians, or that they were black. Perhaps a combination of all three.

Since that incident, I have seen several more obviously-lesbian couples and some obviously-cross dressing or transgendered men walking around on the streets. From what I have observed and experienced, it seems to me that the gay community here is much more open, much more free about expressing affection and- as I experienced on the Tube- much more willing to break with the established rules of English social behaviour. And yet, the irony is there were still the restraints of other behavioural roles – the gay persona as well as the racial persona- coming into play. Perhaps the moral is that all people – English, American, black, white, gay, straight, whatever – are always adhering to some expected social code. We can reject some and embrace others but one is always present and guiding our public behaviour.

As a dedicated people watcher, I found this whole experience and the attention it made me pay to individual couples just fascinating. I tried very hard in my relation of it to use as netural and widely accepted terms as possible, hoping to cause no offense to anyone on any account.

Tags: 2010 Elizabeth

Am I allowed to laugh at the Barclay’s guys wearing top hats?

September 14th, 2010 · 4 Comments

Last night at Barclays Wealth was the first time I have ever been to an event where I was expected to mingle with rich, important people with one of my intention being to network for possible jobs (the other being to represent my school and my program, but I’ll get to that). I felt I was supposed to get dressed in formal clothing (painful shoes, scary make-up processes, scary hair frying devises) so I wouldn’t stick out as someone that didn’t care about the program, and it was kind of stressful. I recognize that a lot of people like dressing up, and that is great (they were super helpful and made it way less stressful). But I don’t like dressing up. I rarely dress up, and when I do, I’m really uncomfortable. I also have no idea how to network. I’m perfectly happy talking to strangers, but I don’t know what any of the social customs are for that particular type of event. The fact that I was wearing fancy, uncomfortable clothing leads me to believe that I am not expected to act like myself even though that is what I expect a person’s advice would be if I asked them directly. Otherwise I would being wearing normal clothes, the clothes I wear when I am expected to be myself. There are unwritten codes of conduct and a change in clothing and appearance denotes that those codes need to be enacted. I don’t think anyone could overtly tell me what those codes are because they are codes that you only learn through practice, and people that know them are unconscious of them because they seem natural.

This brings me to class. We’ve been spending all this time talking about how class in England is so weird because it’s based on habits and lifestyle choices when in America it’s mostly just a tax bracket thing. I really think we’ve been exaggerating this difference quite a bit. Class in America might be about tax brackets once you get there, but if you want to get rich, you probably need a sweet job, and if you want a sweet job, you probably need to be good at mingling with rich, important people. People from lower classes in the United States and in England alike do not get the same opportunities as the upper classes to practice mingling and all the social customs that go along with it (being comfortable in fancy clothes, which hand to hold your drink in, the best hand shake, how to politely find important people, what subjects are taboo, what jokes are okay, how coarse to get with language, how to gracefully enter and leave a conversation, how much criticism of society is acceptable and what part are off limits, how to show off without seeming like a jerk, etc.).

As a disclaimer, I’m not trying to paint myself as a victim and say that class limited me here. The fact that I’ve never had to look for a real job and that I just don’t like wearing fancy clothes limited me, but that is expected because I am young. But that experience of being really uncomfortable brings to my attention that there is a huge difference in social customs. Dickinson gave me this opportunity, and I’ll be better at it next time. What about people who just don’t get this opportunity in the first place?

For America, it’s the same thing we hear over and over again. The American Dream is a myth that propels itself by a handful of people who actually make it. People from lower classes have the deck stacked against them in more ways than one and the rich have just hte opposite. For England I think it’s a little more complicated, and I invite anyone to put their two cents in because I’m still trying to work it out myself. If England has a more rigid class system in which people take pride in their working class characteristics, how do they learn the social customs necessary to network and make more money? How can we even say that England has a rigid class system if Kate Fox says that middle classes have so much class insecurity that the use of bizarre upper class sounding, French terms are now characteristic of middle classness? If class in England is really not about money and success, is it the ends to some English equivalent to the American Dream?

Tags: 2010 Jesse