When we arrived at Noel’s house in our first night in New Orleans, we are greeted by a handful of lesbians watching a DVD of their drag king show they had just performed in. There was Noel on the screen, dancing onstage in guy’s clothing. The last time I had seen Noel, who is an old friend of one of my besties, she looked like a completely different person. She had longer, curly, angelic blond curls, wore tight jeans and lip gloss, and slept with guys. She was a ballerina and a flirt, the most stereotypically “feminine” woman you could possibly dream up. But as I observed her in the first few minutes of New Orleans, she looked happy, comfortable, and completely at ease with herself.
Days later, we finally go out to breakfast to interview Noel (left, on Magazine street), who moved to the city to meet her mom, a native New Orleanian. Noel’s mother had relocated to NOLA after her daughter’s college graduation and had urged Noel to come down and do some work after Katrina. Noel worked for Common Ground for a little and established a media collective, then worked for non-profits and schools until she started doing video editing on a freelance basis. After a little while, we ask her about the dramatic recent changes in her life. “The process was slower than you think,” Noel tells us. “I kinda knew I was gay when I went abroad to Stockholm and the girls were all free to be a little bi. Then I took a look at Loren Cameron’s Body Alchemy [a book of transsexual portraits]. At first I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s kinda sexy,’ then ‘No, this is too alternative, too weird.’ But eventually I ended up dating a transmale for 9 months.”
Noel describes her straight life as unnerving for years—“I don’t know why, but I felt like I had to be the girliest girl. Other girls weren’t very nice to me, and guys were just ridiculous. I felt like I wasn’t well-respected and faced the most absurd amount of harassment, I even had gender nightmares…I made drastic changes to make my experience as a woman better…being with women feels so much better for me.” Noel does connect her recent experience to feminism, but notes that she was a feminist from the start—“My mom was a huge tomboy and I had elements of that, too. When I dated guys, I always wanted to take on some masculine traits and be ‘one of the guys’ and they just weren’t into it.”
She sees straight guys, out of everyone, as the most stuck in the gender binary. “If a guy hooks up with a guy, it’s epic, but with girls, it’s more accepted. People are progressing…but so far it’s just little pockets.” To Noel, the future of feminism includes expanding definitions of gender. “I really like the fact that in the queer community, genderbending is an actual activity, like our drag show. It’s just inefficient and unintuitive to separate genders.”