On Femme Invisibility

Sinclair Sexsmith posted a fantastic article today entitled “On Femme Invisibility.” As I have both a personal relationship and an increasingly undeniable academic interest in this subject, I simply had to share.

While I am often called “femme” within the queer community, I still haven’t decided how I feel about the label. On the one hand, I think it could be both empowering and subversive. On the other hand, it’s yet another box. (This could be, and eventually may become, another post in itself.)

That said, one of the things that Sinclair said was, “One of the bottom-line issues about femme in/visibility, for me, is that it is a form of gender discrimination. When someone refuses to recognize a femme as queer, that person is saying, straight women are feminine, dykes are not, therefore your gender presentation trumps anything that might come out of your mouth about how you identify or who you are, and I am more right than you are about your identity. The sex-gender assumption is too strong and too fundamental for many people to be allowed to be overridden.”

I couldn’t agree more. While on an average day I would consider my dress fairly innocuous- jeans and a tee-shirt with a pair of sneakers- I still read “femme.” Even after cutting my hair the shortest it’s ever been, I still look “girly.” I’ve thought about cutting it even shorter, but as a curly headed gal, I’d end up with a ‘fro. I don’t usually wear make-up, or at least not more than chapstick and a little concealer. My nails are kept short and unpainted. Half of the time I am wearing my work clothes of gym pants, a “staff” shirt, and running shoes, with my hair in a pony tail. Despite the fact that I’m pretty darn gay, I am constantly assumed to be straight.

This is where the subversive possibilities unfold. As there is this culture-wide unspoken societal rule that says “femininity is for the attraction of men and feminine women are straight,” I am breaking the rules. I can surprise people with my queerness. I can be an undercover agent.

I am aware of this interplay and sometimes I use it to my advantage. When I go out, I often “dyke-it-up” in hopes of being read as queer (more likely than not, I’ll still read as “femme” and therefore “straight”). However, on occasion, I consciously play up my femininity. I’ll wear a dress or skirt and blouse, and heels. I’ll actually put some effort into my hair and paint on some makeup. Generally, this happens when I want to feel pretty, or when I am dating a woman who is either quite femme herself or on the more “butch” side.

When I’m “femme”ing it up purely for my own enjoyment or self-confidence, I tend to be approached by men. This, of course, is no surprise, but it can also be discouraging. Here I am, wanting to feel good about myself and my ability to attract attention, and yet I only get attention from those who I do not desire. In fact, I have been blatantly asked at gay clubs and in other queer spaces, by both acquaintances and strangers, “Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Should you really be here?” Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I’m a lesbian. Do I have to proof it by sleeping with you? Do you need to see my official gold star?

When I am with another femme woman, it’s as though we are saying, “We’re hot, we’re pretty, and no, you can’t have us.” We’re fucking with soceital assumptions. I have found, however, that men don’t let that phase them. Two attractive, feminine women can’t possibly be lesbians. At the very most, we’re doing it for male attention. What we really want, obviously, is to have a threesome with every desperate guy at the pool hall.

One Halloween, I went to a gay bar dressed as a pirate. I will admit that it was a bit of a slutty pirate costume, but, I really wanted to wear the red pleated mini skirt, the fishnets, and the black boots, with the white tattered top and the brown bustier. I looked hot, I knew it, and I was ready for a fun night out. Despite the fact that I was clearly there with someone, my femininity made me a target for male harassment. So here I was, at a gay club, holding hands with and kissing the girl I was seeing, and a male acquaintance decides he must buy me a drink and put his had up my skirt. If I wasn’t underage and driving home, I might have accepted the drink, but the fact that I read “femme” should never have made me a target for unwanted gropes and grabs. He sure as hell wasn’t approaching any of my more “masculine” female friends.

The final thing I have noticed is that I often “femme” it up when involved with more butch women. Part of it is wanting to satisfy my partner. If I know she likes it when I wear matching lacy lingerie, I just might do it. Of course, I have to like it too. In these cases, in public, I am often read as “queer” by association or as “the straight girl” that a dyke is dating. Either way, as soon as I am alone, my queerness is once again questioned.

I don’t mean to sound whiny. All I want, really, is for my own self-identity to be respected. You are not the expert on me, and my gender presentation does not dictate my sexual orientation. While I honestly believe in a certain degree of fluidity, I would appreciate not constantly having my queerness questioned. Sinclair Sexsmith summed this up fantastically, but I had to add my two cents.

  1. It’s not whiney to want to be seen by your community, and to not have people make assumptions about you all the time.

    Also, regardless of your identity, femme doesn’t have to be lipstick and heels. Goddess knows I wouldn’t be a very “good” femme if that was the case 🙂

  1. May 19th, 2010
    Trackback from : Being Seen « Feelers Out
  2. August 13th, 2010
    Trackback from : Femmenism « Feelers Out

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