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From Furious To Frou-Frou

Learning to be straight in a gay bar

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First there was the creator of the lesbian show The L Word, saying in an interview that she wants to increase its style profile. Then came the news that Bravo is planning a female version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Hearing about both prompted me to look back to the days when I was making the lesbian scene and wonder what lessons I might have learned then about style. The story of how I ended up going at least once a week to a women's bar is a familiar one in gay-girl world: I was involved with a guy, the guy ripped my heart out and stomped on it with metal cleats. I got the impression during my time on the other side that there's a solid segment of the lesbian population that's been screwed over by men, with a sub-group of those who've been screwed over specifically by Daddy.

"That's it," I announced after being dumped by the flaming asshole. "I'm never sucking another guy again!" Boy, did that feel refreshing to declare, even though I didn't stick to it. Meanwhile, I'd had the obligatory lesbian fling in college, so I already knew that the oral sex was no worse with women and at least it didn't give you jaw strain.

Around the time of my trashing, a couple of co-workers wanted to take me to a girls' bar and I was like, "Oh, OK." I won't mention the place's real name because it wasn't officially a gay club. Located on Cary St. in Richmond, "Bunny's" was a corner diner by day but a lesbian bar by night, and was owned by a dyke named Bunny who always managed at some point in the evening to stealthily pinch my behind. If you're a fellow Bunny's alum, give me a shout-out.

I definitely picked up a few things hanging out with Bunny's ilk, and I think other straight and mostly-straight women could too, but I wouldn't say the lessons were related to the finer points of interior design or choosing wine. The apartments of "butch" gay women in particular were like bachelor pads: under-accessorized, borderline sloppy, and smelling heavily of air-freshener.

It seems to me that the instinct for stylishness is essentially a female trait, so the people who are strongest in that area are the ones with big feminine streaks, i.e., straight women with long nails, and homosexual men. That's why I doubt the Bravo concept of having a bunch of lesbians instruct a straight woman on how to live more fashionably is going to work out as well as the male version has.

Right, I know, all gay women aren't masculine, but a fair amount of them, the ones that don't need a difficult dad or a flaming-asshole boyfriend to spark their homosexuality, do often tend to have that, uh, hulking quality. The fact that I don't, I guess, worked in my favor when I was socializing in their circles. If your thighs weren't broad and your hair wasn't really short, you were in the minority, making you a prized commodity.

The main lesson I absorbed among the babes at Bunny's was how to be, for the first time in my life, a frou-frou, a term for a classically feminine woman. I hadn't caught the usual clues to the ways of a regular girl in school because the traditional gender roles had been scrapped. My set spurned bras and make-up, not to mention body shaving. We skipped right over the girly-grooming thing as well as how to conduct yourself on a regular date, since conventional dating had also been given the heave-ho. By the time I got to college, a date consisted of going to a guy's room to listen to strange, experimental music, smoke a bowl, and get your bones jumped.

When I entered the social pool at Bunny's a few years out of school, I really didn't have a clear idea of what the gender-game rules were, but swiftly realized that they counted even more in the gay world than the straight one. Maybe when everybody's the same sex, people have to work harder to establish themselves as separate. They gravitate toward sticking to the obvious, which are the traditional characteristics of male and female. You're acting out a pre-scripted role, so you'd better know your lines.

I discovered it was actually fun and confidence-boosting to play the part of a conventional, eyelash-batting woman. Not having any guidelines to such time-honored behavior had bewildered me and made me vulnerable to getting a raw deal from men, because the assumed rights had been erased along with the responsibilities.

So I have the gals at Bunny's to thank for teaching me, during those smoky, quarter-a-beer Wednesday nights, a lesson much more valuable than how to decorate my apartment or dress fashionably. They expected and inspired me to be a frou-frou, only to lose me again to the straight world, but at least this time around I know how to command some respect.

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