Femme Invisibility: On Passing Right by Your People and Not Being Recognized


By Melissa A. Fabello

“So? How do you attract women, then?”

I let out one of those awkward laughs that sound more like blurting out Surprise!

“I’m serious,” my friend wailed, seeming embarrassed for having asked.  She broke off a piece of the brownie that we were sharing and stuffed it into her mouth, a look of defeat on her face.

“I don’t know.”

Her head cocked, she raised an eyebrow at me.

“I don’t!  I mean, there are some things that you can do.  For instance, I used to wear a ring that had a little pink triangle on it.  It was one of those it-takes-one-to-know-one kinds of things, so I could flash the ring if I was trying to flirt with the girl at the coffee shop.  Or, another way to get around it is just to hang around lesbians.  Then you know at least that everyone around you is into girls.”  I stopped to crush some ice with my teeth, the shards splitting in my mouth, shattering across my tongue.

“Make some more lesbian friends.”

My friend let out a sigh.

And as someone who spent her high school and college years being sure to secure rainbow pins onto her bag and proudly wearing “I Kiss Girls” t-shirts in hopes of attracting the right attention, I can’t blame my friend for her frustration.  With my wild, long curly hair and perfectly and permanently applied black liquid eyeliner (atop, of course, shimmery bronze eye shadow), I am not the poster child for lesbianism.  Pastel sundresses, lacy push-up bras, and vanilla-flavored lip gloss would not, as it were, come as accessories with Stereotypical Lesbian Barbie – if there ever were such a thing (let’s be honest, for us, all of our Barbies were lesbians).  Instead, femmes are the surprises.  Femmes are the ones who are asked, rather rudely, how we can possibly be lesbians if we paint our nails.  We’re the ones who have to fight to be noticed for who we are.

In her brilliant, stunning, perfect poem “To All of the Kick-Ass, Beautiful, Fierce Femmes Out There,” queer writer and performer Ivan Coyote says, in a touching, brutally honest way: “Sometimes, you are invisible.  I have no idea what this must feel like, to pass right by your people and not be recognized, to not be seen.”  Femme invisibility is, indeed, a problem within the community, and there is no easy way to get around it.  Lesbians are a group of people who have, for years, fought to subvert the dominant paradigm in an attempt to be allowed to love freely.  And, as is consistent with other subcultures, we have therefore adopted our own norms: our own clothes, our own lingo, our own identities (and sub-identities, and sub-sub-identities…“I’m a high-femme who dates exclusively butches and soft-studs and sometimes pre-op trans guys, but there was one time when I slept with an androgynous chick who identified as a boi…”)

And as lesbianism became more than just a sexual orientation and grew to include a political affiliation and social movement, it became more important to find ways to set the community apart from society at large.  Our lesbian foremothers did this by adopting those similar characteristics, by ensuring that what we had in common – our clothes, our lingo, our identities – couldn’t be touched by the outside world.  The problem is, those characteristics didn’t include high heels and false lashes.  If anything, those preferences were pushed out of the boundaries of lesbianism altogether.  And even though now that what’s considered “lesbian en vogue” is high-tops and snapbacks (what is up with that?), the same problem remains: lesbians are supposed to look a certain way.  In fact, a recent article by Style.com, detailing the hot trends for spring, went as far as to say that lesbian chic might be “here to stay,” implying that there is a definitive lesbian style. And according to Style.com, the tell-tale fashion sign that someone is a lesbian is combat boots – how clever! This editorial faux pas just proves that if you don’t fit the stereotype, then you might as well be straight – a sentiment echoed in our own damn community, for Chrissake!  Unfortunately for a femme, this fight doesn’t get any easier depending on whether you’re in the company of gays or straights.  Femmes are almost always overlooked.

Sometimes, this works to our advantage.  Femmes are, of course, afforded the most social privilege in the marginalized group of lesbians.  We are not immediate targets for verbal harassment, physical violence, or other explicit homophobia the way that more visually-obvious lesbians are.  At job interviews and family reunions, we don’t have to worry about sideways glances; we don’t have to think up explanations ahead of time, deciding whether or not to shame our mothers by telling others the truth behind why, we still don’t have a boyfriend.  With femmes, no one asks.  We are free to be who we are–or, who they think we are–because we look the way that we’re expected to.  We conform to society’s female gender presentation box.  We don’t make people nervous.  But that also means that we are subject to, as Coyote puts it, “coming out of the closet – again and again, over and over, for the rest of your life.”  Because whether we are “at school, at work, at [our] kid’s daycare, at [our] brother’s wedding, [or] at the doctor’s office,” there is always someone who we think we should tell.  Maybe it’s our favorite co-worker, or maybe it’s the dental hygienist who always asks if there’s a new man in our life.  Maybe, like me, it’s the high school students that we teach who keep wondering why they see us so often with another woman.  Being femme means constantly contemplating who to come out to and when – because no one affords us the benefit of hesitating before expressing the assumed pronoun of who we’re dating.  It doesn’t even occur to them.

That’s not to say that we have it worse or harder.  Oh no.  I’m definitely not saying that.  What I’m saying is that we have it differently, and that being ignored, being assumed to be something else, is equally as offensive and homophobic, stereotyping and discriminatory, as the rude glances and comments and punches thrown at our more studly counterparts.  It’s another side of the same coin, whether the offense is coming from a well-meaning straight person or in the form of a joke from someone in our community.  Our gender presentations shouldn’t be mocked any more than our sexual orientations should.

And so to all of you, yes all of you kick-ass, beautiful, fierce femmes, out there, remember this one striking line from Coyote’s poem: “You fight homophobia in a way that I never could.”  So keep on fighting. Keep proving that there is no right way to look like or be a lesbian.

And if in the midst of all that fighting you have a minute to let me know which lipstick shades are hot for fall, could you tweet it to me?