Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to see people I’m attracted to — really attracted to, people who I’d be attracted to in real life — on my television. Regularly.
The screen is a step away from reality for all of us; TV and movies are vehicles for our fantasies. But my guess is that most people’s responses to those fantasies conform, for the most part, to fundamental real-life truths. Straight women I know will sometimes use entertainment media to flex their homo-curiosity or aesthetic appreciation of other women, but at the end of the day their screen crushes are mostly male.
For me? Entertainment media is an alternate universe in which I am pretty much only attracted to people of a gender I’m not attracted to in real life.
My real-life sexuality is a bit complicated. I purposefully identify as queer, not as gay or lesbian. With my closest friends, the sum of my partners and crushes and flirtations speak for themselves. For the purposes of this discussion, suffice to say that I’m butchsexual: I’m primarily attracted to butch lesbians.* That means I almost never see my real-life partners or crushes or flirtations represented on-screen.
Before I came out to myself at 18, I felt some attraction to men on-screen, but I knew those attractions weren’t as strong as what my straight female friends were feeling. After I came out, those times I’d thought, “All girls sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the man in those Romantic Comedy Kisses, right?” suddenly made a lot more sense. I stopped expecting myself to identify with female romantic leads and feel attraction towards their male counterparts. But since I’m not oriented towards feminine women, I never really started feeling attraction to the women I saw on-screen. I was still more likely to want to be them than to do them.
In college I discovered queer masculinity and realized that I’m really, really into it. I started looking at male romantic leads again, but now I played with mentally genderswapping them, projecting my own burgeoning butch-femme romantic orientation onto everything I watched.
With a couple of my friends I’ve developed an inside joke about Men Who Would Make Good Butch Lesbians. I try to be careful about this, because I’m pretty sure most men have no desire to be butch lesbians, and I respect that. Furthermore, some men have to fight through a lot of bullshit from people thinking they are butch lesbians, and that is not a narrative I want to perpetuate. That’s why it’s an inside joke. Because what we really mean is, “I’m responding to these men as though they were butch lesbians,” or sometimes, “my pantsfeelings would be a lot less confusing if these men were actually butch lesbians.”
I love how subversive that feels. It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t straight, and even longer to realize just how central butchness is to my sexuality. That’s my history, I can’t change it; but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I believe that mainstream media’s erasure of — indeed, disgust for — masculinity that doesn’t come in a straight cis package helped keep me ignorant of my own sexuality. If I had seen more representations of queer people when I was younger, it might have been easier for me to consider queerness as a possibility for myself. If I had ever seen butches presented as attractive, maybe I would have recognized my attraction to them. Cheese could be your favorite food, but how can you know whether you like it if you’ve never tasted it? Is it any wonder that in the absence of the masculinity I wanted, I gravitated towards the masculinity I was offered? Now that I know what I like, mental genderswapping helps me fill a void. You won’t give me butches? Fine, Patriarchy, I’ll just pretend your men are lesbians. How do you like them apples?
Recently, my screen attractions have taken yet another turn. I’m not sure when it started, but I first noticed it with David Tennant. I thought Christopher Eccleston was absolutely fantastic and I was really, really sorry to see the Ninth Doctor go, but when he regenerated into the Tenth it was like a punch in the gut. Or, you know … lower. As I’ve grown more secure in my queerness and my attraction to queer masculinity specifically, I’ve started developing straight-up attractions to men on-screen.
I freaked a little at first. Did I need to rework my whole understanding of my sexuality? Again? But my absolute disinterest in unqueered masculinity persists in real life, unshakable and unfakeable. So after a couple of weeks of what the fuck, I decided just to embrace it. I do what I do. I like what I like. I have screen-crushes on people who would skeeve me out if they touched me in real life. Whatever!
Which still leaves me with very few representations of people I’d be real-life attracted to. Still leaves me with a major disconnect between my sexuality as I project it onto the fantasy of entertainment, and my sexuality as I experience it as a human being in the world.
The stories we tell each other through entertainment give us alternatives: wanting men or wanting women, being gay or being straight. But the realities of our lives and loves are simultaneously so much more varied and so much more particular than that. When we look to media as a mirror for reality, it can shape us and constrain our power of choice in ways we don’t always see.
This is what happens when the mirror lies. And this is one of the many ways that we, as cultural and creative creatures, adapt.
*This sentence originally read, “I’m attracted to transmasculine folks, especially butches.” The edited version is clearer and more accurate.