What does it even mean to present as queer anymore? That’s a question Grace Bonney poses on this week’s episode of LGBTQ&A, and I still don’t have a good answer. Grace, the best-selling author and creator of the website Design*Sponge, posits that in a world with so much overlap between how LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people present, the lines have been blurred and rendered moot.
Grace also discusses the redefining of historical gender roles in her relationship with her wife, cookbook author Julia Turshen, how they met over email, and why the process of figuring out your identity in a public space isn’t always safe.
Read highlights from the interview here, or listen to the full podcast interview on the audio player below.
You met your wife when she emailed you after you came out on your blog. That must've been a really good email.
It was. I mean, it's a super stereotypical lesbian story of email, date, moved in three days later, married four months later, dog, house, all the cliches.
I love that. I also love how many stereotypes about our community are true.
In my experience, I haven’t seen those as a negative thing. I think for a lot of queer women, they don't like that kind of stereotype, but that was my story. I'm not gonna fight it.
When I met her, we had both done a ton of personal work, lots of therapy. We were adults who knew what we wanted out of life and we really, really loved each other. We both really value communication and showing up in our relationship and that’s meant for many happy years so far.
Most of us socialized to expect men to ask people out and make the first move. You came out at 30. Did you have to unlearn those things?
It's such a controversial topic when it comes to queer women. Originally when I came out, most of the people I dated were nonbinary or more masculine-presenting. There were a lot of like very stereotypical gender roles. I may present as more femme, but that’s not necessarily how I identify internally. I know a lot of people who present as femme but actually have more “masculine” traits or dominance or things like that. Finding that right balance in a queer relationship with two women is really complicated.
I think one of the things I loved so much about my wife, Julia, was that we, for lack of better words, look real basic. We’re basic white girls who like shop at J. Crew, but we’re both OK trading back and forth with both gender identification and gender presentation in our relationship. That's really crucial to me. The “I’m going to play the guy. I’m going to play the girl” thing still happens in queer relationships a lot of times, and nobody wants to admit that because it doesn’t sound great. That’s something I struggled with a lot, in particular with dating women who identified as butch because I was expected to be the quiet, submissive one, and that’s not who I am.
So since both of you were aware of that and rejected it, it sounds like you’re actively able to choose what that looks like.
In real time, 100 percent of the time. Even just in the last like five years that we've been together, my own presentation and identity has been something that's been very fluid and evolving, and that's something we've each given each other space to figure out.
There were many years where I didn’t feel comfortable in anything that I would identify as female and I felt very much like I just wanted to be in the middle. I didn’t want to be on either end of the spectrum, and that's not something that Julia has ever pressured me to do. I have been in relationships with people who were like, No, if you become less feminine then I'm not going to be attracted to you. Or If you become or act more “masculine,” that won’t work for me. They're entitled to those attractions, but it's uncomfortable.
You can’t blame them because the only models of healthy relationships we’ve had, in the media or in life, for so long have only been a man and woman acting out historical gender roles. It makes sense that we would then want to model that.
Yeah. I don't honestly have any judgment for it. Just for me, it’s a deal-breaker, but I respect that a lot of people feel really comfortable in those binaries.
And coming out and then becoming comfortable with your queerness is a long process. I’ve only felt comfortable presenting queer in the last couple of years.
Especially for women, what does that even mean? To present in a queer way. When I came out I fell into a group of people and there was so much pressure for me to radically change my appearance. You know, you had to shave your head, have tattoos, piercings. You couldn’t wear anything vaguely feminine unless you wanted to be a high femme, which was never going to be me. And I almost did it. I thought, No one will ever like me unless I'm clearly identified as queer.
When I came out, I moved to Portland, Ore., for a summer to just figure myself out. I was like, How do I date women? Most people in New York and in my little circle knew I’d been in a relationship with a man, so I took myself to Portland to figure out how to date, and almost every single person I hit on had that stereotypical queer look and they were all straight. There're so many people who have it that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I came home and was just like, I just need to be who I am. That's just a thing I'll always have to deal with. Nobody's going to look at me usually and say that she's queer. At the end of the day, that's not as important to me as it used to be. That's a part of my identity. It's not all of it.
How big of an influence did it have on you that you were a public figure when you came out?
I don't really think I'm a public figure. I'm well-known within my niche and I think a lot of people were very turned off by me coming out. They felt like everything I’d said must have been a lie then. Figuring out a delicate part of your identity in a public space is not the safest place to do that. It took me a while.
I used the words "public figure" because, among many other accolades, you have almost a million Instagram followers, and so I don't know a better word for that.
It's funny because a huge chunk of those people have no idea I'm queer. I can write about my wife constantly and they’ll say, "Oh, you and your sister are so cute." We look nothing alike. I think it's a willful ignorance sometimes. Whenever I do talk about things more overtly or politically, I get DMs full of people who say, "Keep your political agenda out of here," or "Stay in your lane." In the lifestyle niche, I think women, in particular, are expected to just be very quiet and stay in a very pretty box.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Subscribe and listen to the full podcast interview on LGBTQ&A.