Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history. A few weeks ago, I was sent Issue 129 of Granta Magazine in order to review this piece. I thought today would be a fitting day to let you know my thoughts on Andrea Stuart’s piece ‘Tourist.’
Andrea Stuart grew up in the Caribbean and moved to England, where she still lives, at the age of 14 in 1976. This piece reads like a memoir, peppered with delicious imagery and extended metaphors. The most notable of these is that of the eponymous ‘tourist,’ a term often used by the lesbian community with somewhat derogatory connotations to describe what they perceive to be a heterosexual woman dabbling in their lifestyle. In fact, Stuart was herself referred to as one by Carla, her first openly lesbian partner. However, Stuart goes on to recognise that in a certain sense she was indeed a tourist, uninitiated in the ways of a community previously alien to her. Arguably, we all go through transitional phases like these in our lives, negotiating one’s place in the gay scene is just one of this situation.
The nineties sound like a delightful decade of sexual liberation and experimentation. However, Stuart notes that many lesbians were still not out in their personal and professional lives. Heteronormativity still reigned supreme, indicated by Stuart’s own mother declaring, ‘Of course you prefer women; everyone prefers women. You just can’t marry them,’ when her daughter finally comes out to her. Now in the 2010s, in a post-marriage equality world, in some countries at least, the LGBTQ+ community still grapples with similar assumptions. The fight that came to a head at Stonewall is still not over, far from over in fact. This makes for very relatable reading.
The piece brims with a rich sense of intertextuality, Stuart appears most inspired by the work of French writer Colette, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Here is a young intellectual, ardent queer feminist seeking her place in the world, looking to her predecessors for affirmation of some kind. She finds it to a degree in Freud, in Blake but never more so than in Colette’s sense of ‘virile femininity.’ Here is a woman reclaiming what it means to be a woman and that includes her sexuality. Sexuality and the third wave of the Feminist movement were very much intertwined, a shift to lesbian or bisexual relationships represented for many ‘a direct or indirect attack on the male right of access to women,’ and a rejection of the housewife lifestyle to which women had been tethered for centuries.
Alongside this new landscape, there is an accompanying set of unwritten rules and even unfamiliar language. Stuart grapples with what we would now call ‘femme’ representation, that is a lesbian woman who presents herself and dresses in a more conventionally feminine way, as opposed to the ‘butch’ who favours a masculine presentation or the many shades of androgyny that lie in between the two. Stuart notes that the 1980s and 1990s marked the rise of the so-called ‘lipstick lesbian,’ that she picked her timing right in terms of being able to forge herself a space within the lesbian community. Lesbian woman had for so long adhered to dress codes and such like to indicate their sexual orientation in a covert manner and now suddenly lesbian women could express themselves in different ways, or were at least beginning to do so. There was no one type, something certain circles still ought to bear in mind today.
There are many endearing passages that recall the fumbling stage of new love. As early on as the first line, Stuart notes: ‘The first time I was spooned by another woman I could not sleep. I was used to the contours of men.’ Lines such as this will be familiar to many who have first sought to adhere to the societal norm of heterosexual relationships before experimenting with the same sex, whether they go on to identify with labels such as lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, straight, anything else or nothing at all. Stuart recognises a sense of fluidity within female sexuality that is not often discussed but to which I’m sure many readers will relate. Stuart seeks to capture this ‘burgeoning spark’ and does so with beautifully evocative language.
She also notes that a few decades on, her own current, long term lesbian relationship in many ways mirrors ‘a rather conventional familial structure, except with two women as heads of the household,’ but the irony and paradoxical nature of this is not lost on her. Though one could also argue that such equality of this is the ultimate way of undermining the traditional structures that underpinned traditional society, by emulating it in radically different contexts that previous generations would have lambasted as outrageous. Is not equality, after all, the end goal of the Feminist movement? All these years on, we are still far from attaining this equality in many areas including, but not limited to, women’s rights and gay rights. We need more voices like Stuart’s to remind us of this, especially in our current hypersexualised society, in which mainstream pornography often portrays sex between women in a reductive way, designed purely to titillate men. Should we not still strive to reclaim our own sexual and gender identities, just as the women Stuart describes did in the 1980s and 1990s? I for one, definitely think we should.