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

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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?

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Comments

  1. Melissa- It is not problematic that there is such a thing as “looking straight” and “looking like a lesbian.” Why would this be a problem? II have two co-workers who are “butch” lesbians and believe me, they WANT other lesbians to know they’re lesbians! They say it makes it easier for them to get laid, and I imagine it does!

    Like as not, you’re gonna be judged on how you look. If you’re a female with a “butch” haircut wearing a plaid flannel and baggy jeans, people will assume you are gay until you tell them otherwise. Expecting that people will NOT judge you based on your appearance is asking people to go against their basic human nature. I am sure that even you, perhaps subconsciously, judge and form opinions on people based on how they act, walk, dress, and talk. Asking people to NOT do this is a pretty tall order, in my opinion.

    If femme lesbians want others to know they’re femme lesbians, I gather it’s pretty simple to just say “I’m gay.” Just like when I had a shaved head and everyone assumed I was a lesbian, I would simply mention having a boyfriend and presto – everyone knew I was straight.

    I don’t really see the problem here.

  2. This is SUCH an underexplored topic. Thanks for writing! I’m also curious about how race complicates the butch/femme dynamic and how lesbians are read in communities of color.

  3. I’m glad that this article spoke to so many people. The comments were really nice to read.

    Kristy — It’s an act of implicit homophobia (on the part of society, not on the individual) to assume someone’s sexual orientation based on what they look like. It’s problematic that there’s such a thing as “looking straight” or “looking like a lesbian.” Does that make more sense??

  4. This article rocks. THANK YOU.

  5. Hi Danielle, Your sexuality doesn’t have to dictate what activities you like or how you dress. Do what inspires you and explore all the wonderful new opportunities and self-affirming people that come your way. As you explore your emerging identity, remember that you are whole and complete just as you are (and as you aren’t). Thank you for contributing your voice and insight! ~Pia

  6. I am a fairly girly, but also sporty teen who is struggling with her identity, and this article was awesome! I am having some crushes on some of my friends and am trying to figure out whether or not I’m a lesbian. I play three sports and I am also super girly, so I don’t know, but I do know that I would much rather spend my life with a woman than a man. This article shed some light on the steriotypes about lesbians and how they are not at all true. Thanks, Adios Barbie!

  7. To start with, I’ve always preferred to date males and have been with my boyfriend over six years. When I was going to university in a city that had a sizable Rainbow community, it was often assumed that I was a lesbian or actively bi, but really I was just exploring my options and being adventurous. I doubt the assumption had anything to do with how I dressed, but rather with how I behaved. I would speak out against intolerance towards those with non-hetero inclinations (people stopped making “homo” jokes in front of me), I hung out at the “gay bar” on a regular basis, and had quite a few non-hetero friends and acquaintances. In light of that, I think your advice to your friend is totally valid.

    In a related vein, the most common pick-up line from other women at the bar was intense eye contact accompanied by some declaration of my visual appeal. This allowed them to gauge my interest in a very general way, and gave me the chance to graciously accept a compliment without leading them on. My least favourite pick-up line was having my butt grabbed. It’s just as offensive regardless of the grabber’s gender.

    BTW, I’m really loving this website!

  8. I don’t understand how being assumed to be something else is acting in a homophobic way? What if it’s just an honest mistake? That doesn’t necessarily mean that that person harbors feelings of homophobia.