Conversation with Parisa Parnian

By Yuki Keiser November 2006

parisa parnian/riggedoutfitters

1. The New York and Tokyo scenes

Profile: Parisa Parnian
Born in Iran's capital, Tehran in 1972 and raised in Arizona.
Parisa studied fashion design at the Parsons School of Design in New York and worked at several clothing companies before establishing Rigged OUT/fitters, her own clothing label, in 2004. Fashion by Rigged OUT/fitters has been featured on the American hit drama The L Word, while the clothing line as a whole has come into the spotlight of the queer scene.

―You're actually not originally from New York. Could you tell me how it was for you when you first came here?

When I came to NY from Arizona, I was 24, very feminine and glamorous. In American queer culture, you call it "high femme". So I came to NY and pretty much expected all the women to come on to me. I was so arrogant! I remember walking into my first club in NY on a Wednesday night and just standing around. I stood there just waiting and waiting, when three dyke-y girls came up to me and I thought, "Finally!" But instead, they came up and said: "Hi! We've made a bet. What are you doing in this bar? Do you even know where you are ?!" And they continued to ask, like, "Are you straight?! We don't think you belong here." It was so shocking for me!! (laughs). I thought, "What?! Why is this?! I had to defend myself - my gayness?!" (laughs).

―(laughs) Oh my goodness. When was this?

10 years ago. I had just happened to come to NY when it was super cool to be androgynous - with short spiky hair, leather, jeans. So there I was, looking like a princess, and everyone thought that I was either straight, or bi-curious, but not really a dyke. And that was my wake-up call in NY! Before I came to NY, I never had labels for anything. If I think back on the women I dated, well, some of them were very feminine and some very butch or boyish. I didn't have a preference. But then, I came to NY to find that it's so extreme here. It’s like, "WHO are you? WHAT are you about? Take a stand!"

―So, did you change your look ?

Yes, oh my god. (laughs) After a couple of years being here, I had a Moroccan girlfriend, and she very much appreciated feminine women. And I told her, "I think I want to cut my hair off. I think I want to be a drag king," and she was like "I'll break up with you, if you cut your hair!" But I did it anyway, you know. From long hair I went, like, to Elvis! Now, that was exciting!

―Did she break up with you?

We broke up later, but not because of that. We're good friends now.

―How is the scene in NY now ?

Even if NY is cosmopolitan, I think there's still a separation of races when it comes to gay bars. You know, like, you can go to a certain night club, and it will be all African-American women, you go to another night club, and it's all Latina women, Spanish-speaking.

―Are there many Asian women as well ?

I haven't been to a club where it's mostly Asian women, unfortunately. One of my really good friends, who is half-Korean and half-German, throws a lot of parties, and she's always trying to come up with parties for Asian gay women. But back to the scene, I think that in the Latina and the African-American circles, there's still a lot of femininity and masculinity, femme women and butch women. The scene I'm part of is mostly white girls, unfortunately. But not exclusively. It's more of the punk-rock scene. So, that's more about a lifestyle - what music you listen to, how you like to dress, how you like to do your hair...How is it in Japan ?

―I think Japan is a bit different from the US. What struck me at the beginning was, the first time I ever went to a lesbian club in Tokyo, a girl came to me and immediately asked me three things : first, if I was a lesbian, second if I was single, and finally if I was "neko" or "tachi". I was shocked to be asked about my preference for roles in bed just as soon as the conversation began - but that’s very common in Japan.

"Neko" and "Tachi" ?

―There are a lot of definitions for each half of the dichotomy. They can apply to sexuality, or looks, or the psychology. There are no strict rules but "Tachi" often means a boyish-looking girl, who's also supposed to be the 'active' partner in bed. I think it's close to "top" or "butch" in English. “Neko” is the opposite, meaning a girlish-looking girl, who is supposed to be passive in bed. In English, it would be like "bottom", or "femme". And - I don't know if you say it in English - but you have also "Riba", which means you're both.

That's "switch", you say "switch" in English! (laughs)

―Ok, right (laughs). So, in Japan, boyish girls are generally expected to be on top, which means they only give, and the opposite applies to the girlish girls; in fact, it's quite strict. Some Tachi don't even take their clothes off, and that's quite common. They're called "Bari-Tachi", like "ultra top".

Wow. Yeah, in English it's called "being stone". If you're a "stone butch", that means not only are you masculine and you are the one who does everything, but you don't want to be touched. You won't even take off your clothes.

―I thought in America everybody was "Riba" or a switch.

No... I mean, I think there are fewer roles in the US than in Japan, but I've still been with people into roles. I've been with a lot of women who are very, very, very masculine - or transgendered, but in bed.. they want to be bottom (laughs).

―Yeah, and that's common. I think in Japan, unfortunately that's less accepted. They're many boyish women who are bottom, but they can't or don't say it because it's not well perceived. People are often stuck - categorized by labels.

It sounds to me a bit like the fifties in America. If you entered a bar at that time, you were either a butch or a femme, a top or a bottom. If people found out that you were a butch and that you let your girlfriend do things to you, it was humiliating.

―Right. Currently it's not so dramatic in Japan, and it's changing, but somethings are similar. For example, now, you have funny words like "Suka-tachi, which means "a top with a femme appearance". "Suka" is an abbreviation for "skirt", so it's a "tachi (top) in skirt" (laughs).

(laughs) I think I'm one of those! That's so funny!

―Then you also have "Zubo-neko", which means a "bottom in a boyish appearance". "Zubo" meaning "trousers". So literally, a "neko (femme) in trousers".

Oh my god!

―Even though roles have become less strict in Japan, femmes often date butches, and you don't see many boyish couples. Actually there's a word for those couples: "Dannakei". But that's not very popular. The word "danna" means "husband", so it means "Two husbands together". In America boyish couples aren't unusual, right ?

It's very popular right now in America. They call themselves "fags".

―Yeah, yeah, I remember hearing that in Japan, too.

But in the fifties they had a name for two boyish girls together - and it wasn't good - "kiki".

―Interesting. There's one other thing - I don't know if you have this in the US. Now we have shirts or underwear that compress the breasts, for butches, to create a flat chest. They're called "Nabe-shatu" in Japanese. (Onabe is a term for women in Japan who live/work as men.)

Shirts to compress your breasts? Are you serious?! No, I've never heard of this! In US we have vests to wear under your clothes, but they are actually made for men. That's really cool. It's fascinating to me - that Japanese folks have already come up with this kind of things for women...and that in America nobody has yet. Oh, that reminds me of an amazing documentary I saw on Japan. It was about a bar where all the bar tenders are women who look like men and they serve you drinks and talk with you. And all the clients are women - most of them straight. They go after work and to be treated well!

―The women who work there are usually transgender. They do hormonal injections, and some have mastectomies. They act as hosts, and some perform in shows. This is more for straight women - a straight clientele. I mean, the hosts consider themselves to be men, not lesbians.

We don't have that in NY. It's really interesting to see other very large cosmopolitan cities and how they address the market.

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