Being Seen

Like many other bloggers, I’ve written about femme invisibility. In the last couple of months, I’ve come to the realization that my visibility, or lack thereof, depends largely on who I am seen with.

Historically, I have dated women on the “feminine” side of the spectrum. They had long hair, they wore skirts and dresses, they carefully applied mascara. When I was out with these women, we were perceived as best friends, sorority sisters, or drunk college girls looking for attention. Even when I was holding hands with or kissing a feminine girlfriend, we were met with comments of “I know you aren’t really gay, you are both way too pretty” and “So, am I the threesome you are looking for tonight?”

With Dora, no one knew what to think. She had long hair and noticeable breasts, yes, but she also wore men’s shirts with ties. In the eyes of society, and indeed my family, we were an ambigious duo. Were we best friends? Were we romantic partners? Our actions were usually what gave us away, but if we behaved ourselves, our relationship remained shrouded in mystery.

When I was seeing the boy, my perceived sexual identity was constantly fluctuating depending on how his gender was read. One minute, we were a straight couple. The next we were a butch/femme lesbian couple. And back and forth. Endlessly. I was both visibility queer and heteronormative, often at the same time.

This is all part of a larger trend. As I date women who lean towards the butch side of the spectrum, I find myself more visibly queer. When I am walking hand in hand with Linds, her with her short mohawk and cargo shorts, me in tight jeans and a fitted tank top, we are gay. We are gay, and you can see us. We are visible. We are role models to young teenagers looking for something, someone, anyone, with whom they can identify. We are saying “We’re here and we’re queer” without saying anything at all.

We are also targets. In the Piedmont Park area of Atlanta, someone zoomed by in an SUV, rolled down their window, and screamed “Fucking dykes!” Such words had never been directed at me before. I know Linds has heard that before. That and far worse.

I admire her, and everyone like her, for being visible. You are what people see when they think “queer,” and thus you are the ones who must constantly stand up for yourself. You are targeted far more than I will ever be. I can fly under the radar. It can be difficult to not be seen by your own people, and while that can hurt, I rarely worry for my personal safety. The preacher on the street corner spouting hatred doesn’t direct his tirade towards me. When I shop in the men’s department, salespeople assume I’m shopping for my boyfriend. Drunken frat boys might hit on me, but they never threaten me. (None of this is to say that any one group of people has it any easier or harder than any other group. Quite simply, we have different experiences and face different challenges. If you haven’t watched Ivan E. Coyote’s “To all of the kick ass, beautiful fierce femmes out there…” you need to do so ASAP. She words it way better than I ever could.)

Last night, I talked to Linds about this blog post and asked how I should refer to her. I explained what I was writing about and she asked, “So how do you feel about being  visible because you are with me?

Well, I love it and I hate it. I love that I am finally seen for who I am. I like that my sexual orientation is not being constantly questioned. It also makes me nervous. I’m used to the safety that invisibility offers. I feel like she can never visit my workplace. I can’t introduce her as a friend first and a girlfriend later; the girlfriend is already assumed. I worry that we are mirroring heteronormative society, that people will think she is the “man” and I am the “woman.” I also don’t want too worry too much. It is amazing. She is amazing. And I want to enjoy every minute of it without bringing in my academic background in Women’s Studies. As a dear friend advised, I can’t write a dissertation on my own relationships.

Looking back, I’ve always been attracted to slightly butchier women. The summer before 4th grade, I worshiped Dolphin, a girl scout camp counselor with spiked blond hair, baggy cargo shorts, and a British accent. At twelve, I told my mom, “I met this really cool girl named Robyn. She’s fifteen, and she has short hair, and wears boys shorts that she draws on with Sharpies. She doesn’t shave her legs and doesn’t care what people think of her.” (I should have known I was a lesbian then. And as fate would have it, Robyn and I dated four years later.) So while that attraction has been there for over a decade, I was always reluctant to act on it. Dating femme girls was safe. I could be gay, but not too gay. Call me a bad queer, but that concern totally influenced many of the decisions I’ve made over the years.

I’m feel more comfortable with my own identity these days, as well as with the varying ways that people may perceive me. I still wish that more people would trust me when I say I’m queer without requiring external evidence. I’d like to not always be defined sexually solely by who I’m dating, but also by what I say. On the flip side, I also recognize that change is slow, and this is the world we live in. All in all, I’ve been very lucky indeed.

Finally, to those who have made me a little more visible over the years- Robyn, Shane, Dora, and Linds- I thank you. I’ve learned from your challenges and I hope you’ve learned a little from mine. And hot damn, the world needs more visibly queer couples like us.

  1. August 13th, 2010
    Trackback from : Femmenism « Feelers Out

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