On Femme Invisibility

November 23, 2009  |  essays

G at “Can I Help You, Sir?” asked about femme invisibility recently, and the topic has gone around the gender/queer blogs a bit, with some great posts and thoughts.

First, and probably most obviously: I am not femme. So I am writing from a perspective of having dated and known many femmes in my life, but I do not experience visibility directed at me, but through stories and my witnessing. I am only an indirect, at best, expert on this. But these are my thoughts on femme invisibility, i.e. femmes not being recognized as queer because of their gender presentation.

This is a real thing. Femmes everywhere and from all parts of my life have told me this. One of my first femme mentors, Tara Hardy, has multiple poems about femme identity, one of which quotes: “I no longer get sad if they ask me at the door if I know it’s dyke night: I get mad. I mean, how much pussy do I have to eat before you let me in the club?”

And early on, I knew I was attracted to femininity, knew I wanted to date femmes (though I wasn’t quite sure how). The revelation that there are gay women who like to be feminine, and that I don’t have to chase straight women who will, probably, by definition, leave me to date men, was a relief. But I know that that’s not so easy to grasp for many people.

At the Femme Conference in 2008, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said in her keynote address, “Femme invisibility is bullshit. You just don’t know how to look.” And I wanted to stand up and scream FUCK YEAH, because sometimes when femmes say “I feel so invisible” I want to say, but I SEE YOU! But I know I don’t always, not every single time, and I know I don’t make up for the other thousands of people who don’t see you, or for the discrimination and rejection from the queer communities that seems to continue, despite that femmes are a very significant part of queer communities.

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.

And gawd if that doesn’t get my boxers in a twist.

Especially since, let’s be honest, I fetishize the theorization of gender a little bit (or, um, maybe a lot), so the verbal explanation of gender and sexuality that femmes are pretty much required to do (because the sex-gender assumption is so strong) is all the more hot to me, and even sometimes MORE valid than the androgynous or rejection of femininity presentation of many other dykes and queers. Because, I mean, your strappy sandals are really hot, don’t get me wrong, but if you can’t use words to talk about femininity and sexuality and dykeness and a claim to queer culture and an acknowledgment of the complications of living in a culture which heteronormatizes femininity, are you going to get my blood pumping? Probably not. The femininity without the intention behind it is less appealing – to me, personally – than the ability to explain it.

From what I can tell, the issue of femme invisibility is at least threefold: visibility to straight folks, visibility to queer folks, and visibility to femmes themselves.

Passing: In/visibility to the Straight World

Not being seen as queer and recognized as radical by straight folks is a common complaint I hear from femmes. There is an added burden of constantly having to come out verbally, constantly having to remind the folks around you that you are queer, constantly having to deflect and defend yourselves against unwanted straight male attractions, since in this culture the display of femininity is presumed to be for the attraction of men, men’s gaze, men’s sexual advancement. It is seen as an invitation to being hit on, in fact. A girl out on the town and all dressed up in heels, dresses, lipstick, must be trying to “catch a man.” Of course, this isn’t true. Whoever this girl is, she could be wearing those things for all kinds of reasons, for her boyfriend, for her friends, for herself, for her wife.

And this is constant. Walking down the street, catching a cab, on the subway, at work, at a party, at a play, at a concert, in a bar – everywhere a femme goes, her femininity is assumed to be for men and to attract a man.

(This is also, in fact, one of the reasons femme-ness is subversive, and feminist: it re-creates femininity not as a tool to catch men, but as an authentic mode of expression for onesself and for queerness, disrupting this idea that femininity is “natural” for women.)

This is also called “passing,” and though I have had femmes tell me they like that they get to hear what people say when they don’t know someone gay is listening, I think generally passing carries with it a great burden, not privilege. The burden is that of constantly coming out, constantly having to argue with folks, constantly having to defend one’s orientation as gay when the sex-gender assumption does not line up.

There is also, as some femmes have mentioned to me, the problem that, after coming out verbally to someone (especially a man who is attempting to hit on you), you are sometimes in more danger than you were before, or than someone masculine- or androgynously-presenting is, because the person feels “tricked.” (I’ve written about this before, a little.) This defense is often cited in trans hate crimes, also – this notion that the trans person was presenting some other way than how they “really” are, therefore the hater was “duped” in some way.

Honestly, I don’t know what femmes can do about this particularly, aside from continue to come out. We – if I may speak for queer and gender and feminist activists – are trying to reach the straight world, we are trying to raise visibility and disrupt the idea that femininity is an invitation, but that is going to take some time. I hope there can be some assurance, regardless, that femme femininity is valid and not intended to be a tool of attraction for everyone, but for whomever it is you choose for it to be for. You can’t choose who sees you when you walk down the street – you put yourself out there in a semi-public domain and you can’t pick who you interact with on a daily basis. But you can choose what those interactions mean. And here, you just have a more advanced sense of this sex-gender assumption than they do. You are right. They are not.

Recognition: In/visibility to Queers

The second issue here is the visibility of femmes to queer communities. This, I think, is more personal and more of a vulnerable topic, since femininity (and expression of gender), to some degree, indicates desire and sexual signaling, and when those symbols of gender are not recognized as being symbols of attractiveness or attraction, that can be incredibly invalidating and disheartening.

It is a vulnerable process to put oneself out there, to make oneself available for rejection, to get dressed up for an event, to walk in and think, “my people!”, only to have them not recognize you as one of them. It hurts. It is a constant struggle.

It’s also frustrating to be hitting on people you are interested or attractive to and to have them not recognize what you’re doing as an invitation, or to resist or be skeptical of the validity of the invitation.

I understand the resistance, being on the other side of that equation, of a masculine-presenting person who has been taught over and over not to get caught up with straight women. I know a lot of butches and transmasculine folks who have a history of dating straight women, and the heartache of that inevitable loss is one we learn early. It is also dangerous – plenty of societal factors will jump in to police any attempts to “convert” a straight women to our lecherous queer ways, be it the girl’s boyfriend, friends, parents, or complete strangers, and because of the masculine presentation, the threat of violence is implicit or, sometimes, direct.

Not that this is an adequate excuse for the refusal to recognize femmes as queer, especially after a femme says “I’m queer” in some form or another.

I mean HELLO – butches and transmasculine folks and all of you queers and fucking everybody, while I’m on the subject – can we please just start to practice believing a feminine woman when she says she’s queer? Stop questioning her agency. Stop forcing her to defend herself. Stop being an ignorant idiot and realize that femmes exist and are real and valid queer identities. Any time you call a femme’s queerness into question, that is what you are doing.

Yeah so some of you might’ve had your heart smashed by a feminine straight girl in the past. I know. That sucks. You might be skeptical that you could get hurt again. Yep, okay, that’s valid. Entering into any relationship requires you to put yourself out there a little, and involves some risk. But regardless of her orientation, you might get hurt. Regardless of whether you marry this girl or date her for ten years or one year or just have a one night stand or just buy her a drink or walk away in one minute, she could hurt you. (No wait – she could reject you. You can choose whether or not that rejection is painful. But that’s a slightly different topic.)

Also: I’d like to put out there that, when in a queer space, it is okay to assume that the people in attendance are queer. Now, this does not mean that everyone is there for your own personal pleasure, and that it’s okay to blindly hit on anyone and everyone, so the “don’t be an asshole” rule obviously still applies. But if there’s a feminine person over by the jukebox at the dyke bar, it is more likely that she is gay than not. She still might not be – but if she’s in a dyke bar, and you are nice and thoughtful and polite and reasonable and respectful, it isn’t a problem to assume that she’s gay and to ask her if you can buy her a drink or tell her that you like her shoes. If she’s not gay, okay, depending on your goals of the evening (to pick someone up vs to converse with interesting people vs something else), be polite. If she is gay, that still doesn’t mean she’ll sleep with you. You might not be her type. She might be taken. You might be her type and she might not be taken, but she still might not sleep with you because for whatever reason, she doesn’t want to. Oh well! If you can, don’t take it personally, and move on.

Proof: In/visibility to Oneself

In the post Alphafemme wrote about femme invisibility, she touched on something very interesting:

It starts with not being able to see myself. That must be at the very root of it. As a little girl … I loved tea parties and dollhouses and dresses and patent leather shoes, I loved American Girl dolls and dress-up and imagining my future wedding. I was obsessed with … figure skaters and ballerinas. I fit snugly into my gender box. No questions asked. … it took me quite a long time to come out to myself. … There was no way I was gay. It just didn’t make sense. I was a girl. I was supposed to like boys. That was that. … Understanding of sexuality is so, so so tied up with gender. That’s really what makes femmes so invisible. To ourselves as well as to others. There often aren’t any outward signs that we digress from the norm. They’re all inward. And society tells us (all of us, not just femmes) all the time that the inward things? Are figments of our imagination. … So unless you look different, unless there’s some physical proof of it (whatever it is), there’s plenty of room for people to doubt you. And judge you. And feel justified in doubting and judging.

What a complicated, heartbreaking, turning-ourselves-inside-out that coming to a new identity process is. And when it is not marked by physical proof, when someone looks the same, there is no particular indication that Something Big Has Changed, so how do we know? By speaking of it, by talking about it, by documenting it in some form. Still, so much of the data we take in is visual, so even when our minds take in that something is different, if we don’t see the physical proof, it might not register the same way. I think this is also partly why the process of coming out as a dyke often involves things like cutting one’s hair off – which is the rejection of femininity and the association that femininity is performed for the attraction of men, yes, but also a physical marker that something has changed.

These are just things that are “true,” according to our culture: femininity is a tool for the attraction of men; dykes reject this and therefore don’t have to perform femininity; if you are a dyke, you also come to a more androgynous gender identity as part of your dykeness. Sexual orientation and gender presentation are so tied together – that is the sex-gender assumption in a nutshell.

It is a radical and subversive thing to occupy an identity that disrupts these social “truths.” It is hard. It is a constant battle. I think it does change, though, in two ways: we come to a more accepting, understanding place about our own identities, with a lot more sovereignty, so we don’t have to constantly feel defensive and at war with the world; and culture is changing, too. Culture is not a static fixed thing. Queer culture is advancing like mad. We are pushing the edges of it, calling into question the sex-gender assumptions in big ways. I think society is getting more accepting and understanding, as time goes on, and we do come to more solid places within ourselves, and we do get to know more and more people who are like us the longer we explore these identities.

A few more things …

Femme invisibility is gender discrimination based on the sex-gender assumption. It is not about you, it is about a culture-wide unspoken societal rule that says femininity is for the attraction of men and feminine women are straight.

Don’t take it personally. I know that’s more easily said than done, but I still think it’s true. There is not some magic femme symbol that, if you were wearing it, or if you were more gay, or “really” gay, they would have recognized it. This is their problem, not yours. There are many, many of us who recognize femme as a completely legit queer identity, as one of the cutting edges of queer identity in fact, and who know how difficult it is and how deep it runs. Your experience is valid, your orientation is valid.

Of course, femmes don’t always go through the process of invisibility. Lady Brett wrote a piece about the relative newness of invisibility in her life, and growing up a tomboy. There are so many ways to experience femme-ness and queer community involvement and recognition, and while claims to overarching truths can be called into question, our own experiences are always valid and real.

Chime in on this conversation, if you like. What do you think about femme invisibility? What has your experience of it been? What’s it like for you? How do you transcend these frustrating moments of invisibility, both to other queers, the straight world, and yourself? What have you witnessed in your femme partners or lovers or friends? How do you give a secret nod or wink to other queers?

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43 Comments


  1. Wow. Yeah. As a butch lez, I've often found myself defending femmes against so-called "enlightened" straight men who think they're trying to, as you so succinctly put it "catch a man". Hell, I even defend straight women who don't appreciate the male gaze as they walk down the street. And these same men have told me that if I "wear a little makeup and a skirt" that I'll "attract the kind of girl you're looking for." Really? I didn't know of any lesbian who fancies confused & uncomfortable butches in pseudo-femme drag.

    Femmes and butches have to deal with the same amount of crap from the straight world, just in opposite directions. Butches are an out target, while femmes always have to out themselves as a target. The fact that femmes have to deal with additional crap from their own queer community is just terrible. Have we become so entrenched in our own labelling/non-labelling of ourselves and rejection of the straight society's gender assumptions that we're alienating each other?

  2. Thank you for writing about this.

    I've had this issue for years (and you've gotten to deal with me kvetching about it lots and lots – thanks for listening). It's bad enough when I go to lesbian poker night, and get hit on by the only cis guy there, because he thinks I've wandered in to the wrong bar, just like he did, that I'm certainly not a dyke.

    But it hurts so much more when I would go to dyke nights, and have people stare at me, wondering what this "fruit fly" was doing there, when butch dykes would laugh at me when I offered to buy them a drink (because goddess knows no one was asking me), and ask me where my boyfriend was.

    I hated wearing rainbows, but I did it all the time, because I wanted people to know. I'd "gender drop" in conversation (similar to name droping, but more like "oh, well, my ex-girlfriend used to ____" or "this trans guy I was dating did this thing____."). No reason to other than it helped to "validate" my identity as queer to the people I talked to. I always feel like I have to out myself in conversation first, because I don't "look" queer, whatever that means.

    I used to tell people that I'd love to get a short "dyke hair cut" but couldn't, because I'd have a Jew-Fro. Then I stopped telling them that. I love my longer hair. I like it curly, and I like it straight, and I love playing with it when I get ready. While I wear jeans and t-shirt some times, I much prefer skirts and dresses (ah, the breeze! and the ability to have an easy quicky at all times). I don't wear a ton of make up, but I do enjoy what I wear. I like having the door opened for me by queer people, and I love cunt. Mine, and others people's. Period.

    When I'm out and about with Q, I am much more validated. We've talked about this a lot. As she is butch/gender queer identified, when she says "my partner," or we walk down the street holding hands, i am much more often seen as queer. Why? Because she "looks" queer, and so if she's queer, and we're together, I must be queer by default. Obviously. But I've also been out with her, and have had other people hit on her. On one hand, this is hot. My partner is fucking sexy and wanted and awesome. On the other hand, as very few people are out as poly, them hitting on her makes the assumption that even though we're sitting together or dancing together, I must not be queer, so therefore, she must be available.

    And this has gotten way too long. Time to make it a blog post of my own…

  3. Thank you for another poignant and beautiful piece of writing that gives me more words to help express my own fight. I'm not a writer and don't have the freedom to take the space to defend my femme gender expression in the workplace -professional theatre, of all spaces- where I'm feeling the burden most difficult right now. Borrowing some sound bites from this entry will take me a long way. xo

  4. What about those of us who are just girls? I'm 21 and pretty recently fell in love & simultaneously fell out of the closet, and to be honest one of the scariest parts (to me – I'm pretty introverted) has been trying to figure out lesbian culture, community, history, and expectations. I was worried about and prepared for bigoted reactions from my family, but not for my experience of far more disparaging and hurtful remarks from lesbians about how I'm not queer enough – my hair should be shorter! – or assumptions about how since I do have shorter hair than my girlfriend's I must have the "masculine" role in our relationship. And the number one comment from people I've told, queer or straight, has been "You're gay? Really? You don't look it." So to me, this quote from above has a slightly different meaning:

    "the inward things? Are figments of our imagination. … So unless you look different, unless there’s some physical proof of it (whatever it is), there’s plenty of room for people to doubt you. And judge you. And feel justified in doubting and judging."

    I was pointed to your blog, Sinclair, when I said, Ok, if folks are going to call me butch, or refer to these roles and labels, I might as well figure out what they mean. I don't know much about gender studies – I'm a computer science major! But I don't think I'm especially butch, or my girlfriend is especially femme – we wear jeans and t-shirts with sarcastic sayings on them, and converse, and our hair in ponytails, and fleeces when it's cold, and maybe skirts and make-up when we have a job interview or a date. We're just two normal twenty-something girls, products of our generation, and we're pretty similar, and not terribly fashionable either way. So while I don't know much about femme invisibility, I sometimes feel like I've experienced some sort of overall gay invisibility: "You sure don't *look* like lesbians."

  5. Hey Sinclair,

    Thanks for this article. I often struggle with the invisibility aspect and feel like sometimes I have to wear an "I'm gay" sign in ordered to get noticed.

    Great post.

  6. Mr. Sexsmith,

    You've made my Monday, and so have all of these comments!

    Just past a year in my first butch-femme relationship, and this issue has been coming up in myself more and more. As my partner explores his more visible identity, I have been forced also to grow and wonder about my own.

    The past year has been an accomplishment, considering that it took weeks before my partner (then the cute butch I was chasing) realized that I wasn't just being a friendly pretty girl, I was flirting (It took a few of those "My ex-girlfriend made me this necklace" moments like Essin'Em mentioned).

    I'm also now experiencing the "gay by association" factor. My partner looks like a dyke, and we're holding hands at dinner, so therefore I must also be.

    Still struggling with this pesty outing that feels like it's never going to end. I realized that the outing process is a constant thing (you're always meeting new people and whatnot), but I never realized the edge that being femme would give to it. My father knows my partner and I share a bed, but still calls us "close friends", and I assume my appearance only encourages him to believe that I'm not serious.

    I have however, felt quite welcome at queer parties. I do think that part of the femme invisibility to queers is somewhat generational. Lesbians my own age (early 20's) seem much more eager to understand and accept my orientation (I've been asked to dance a few times), and the butch-femme roles aren't so distinct compared to parties where the average age of the dykes seems to be 40+.

    Anyways: Reading this has been empowering! Thanks all.

    P.S.: I'm curious about femme lit/articles/essays/etc… either there's a shortage, or I don't know where to look. :) Any help?

  7. Great post, thank you for writing it.

  8. Sinclair, I love you for diving into all the stuff that I'd love to write about, if I could ever find the time. So much here worth commenting on, but once again must run.

    I just have to mention, however, that this bit made me smile

    "And gawd if that doesn’t get my boxers in a twist. "

    J.

  9. Okay, first off, I absolutely love this blog.

    Second off, I always find too much to say about such things and with not enough intelligence to articulate lately.

    Clothes off…

    Well the closest I'll get to 'clothes off' on the internet is this:

    http://theitidentity.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/sho

    A warped response to a situation that has a different invisibility, but still feels the same.

    And keep writing, because if you don't, I figure you'll suddenly find yourself with a lot of stalkers.

    – Cal.

  10. Thank you for this. I was at a queer meeting the other night and was talking about polyamory and referring to my partner as He. After the meeting a woman came up to me with huge eyes and said: "What does poly mean?" And I explained…..and again referred to my partner…..and she said: "But I thought you were a lesbian!" And then her eyes remained open wide for the rest of the time I was there and she kept looking at me as though an alien would birth itself right out of my stomach – of course, the gay men loved me for it so I called the night a draw. ;)

    I have to say coming out for me was an unnecessarily hard process. I was 24 – and much like the woman you quoted I've always been very feminine – and I've always been attracted to masculinity – but something was never quite right.

    Thankfully, Tara Hardy took me aside and said "I think you're a queer femme." I had loads and load of gay and lesbian friends – I lived in a house full of dykes – when I came out they all got mad at me. Told me butch/femme was crap. That I was going through a "phase" and I was insulting them by doing so…..

    I've been to house parties where dykes have literally refused to shake my hand and say hello to me – let alone talk to me. In fact I've been to parties where dykes have asked the host right in front of me: "What is *she* doing here?"

    Yes, coming out was hard. Coming out over and over again is a bit easier – I know who I am. I know I may be the recipient of stupidity or bigotry – but it's never as hard as the first time. And really queers have made it much harder and caused me the most pain around coming out, way more than straight people ( – maybe because I "pass" though I so do not by virtue of my mouth which I flap all the time -)

    For these reasons "lesbian" has never felt like the right word for me. I call myself a queer femme, it just suits me better.

    And I am going to send this whole post and comments to a FtM guy I love very much who rolls his eyes every time I insist that femme is a gender.

    Thank you Sinclaire. This is how we build bridges and turn ourselves into allies…. I really appreciate this, and Ivan Coyote's recent piece. It means a lot. xoxoxo

  11. As a short comment – I grew up a tomboy, then poof – age 13 I had huge boobs and an ass that wouldn’t quit. Much to my chagrin, I still have both. In the early days of being an out and proud bisexual, I used to feel that I had to dress more “butchy” in order to let other gay women know I was there. Nowadays, I tend to prefer to dress masculine a lot more than I like to go fu-fu frills, but I still do like to “pretty it up” once in a while. I’ve found that, in a mostly gay / gay friendly environment, I’m noticed either way, which is really nice. In everyday life, in stores and such, I’m pretty invisible (to women, that is), though when I dress girly. So when I go out like that, I wear a little rhinestone rainbow necklace and a bi pride bracelet, just in case someone’s looking. But seriously, how dumb is it that I feel I have to advertise?

    Although… I have to say, no matter *what* I’m wearing, when I see a girl I’m interested in, straight or gay, I do what my friends call “the puffy butch peacock” thing, where I puff out my chest, stand up straight, and say things like “How you doin?” or “Thanks, darlin'” in this stupid southern drawl that I used to have but don’t any longer.

    Which just goes to show, you can take the me out of the butchy clothes, but you can’t take the butch out of me. lol

    It’s doubly hard for me, though, because I’m married to a man, and I often go out with him, so women just automatically assume I’m straight, even if I’m dressed more masculine. I guess they assume I identify as a guy and Hubby is gay? Which isn’t the case at all. I want to get a shirt made that says “Dear hot chicks: Please don’t assume I’m straight!”

    ::sigh:: ‘Tis difficult, this whole luv thing, but so much fun.

  12. I feel that I can relate very well to both sides of this issue: both the frequent invisibility of femmes, who must repeatedly "out" themselves, and more androgynous-presenting people who are "out targets."

    Unlike some who may relate to both sides because they have changed their outward appearance, I changed my geographic location. Earlier this year I moved from the San Francisco Bay to Edinburgh– the one in Scotland, not one of the various other towns of the same name around the world. While the queer scene is a little more visible than I had expected, the city is pretty socially conservative (well, most places are compared to San Francisco!) and the vast majority of the women you will see in on the street on on the University campus look very (traditionally) feminine. When everyone isn't wrapped to the eyeballs because of cold and rain, female masculinity sticks out a mile.

    At home I generally would "pass" in public without question and had to repeatedly confirm my queerness even in queer spaces–regardless of my short hair or sometimes outright TRYING to "look gay." Was it my makeup? My earrings? Who knows! Anyway, I arrived in Edinburgh with the same haircut and the same wardrobe and found myself getting the "gender check" multiple times in the average day. No one to whom I spoke about my sexuality questioned it– ever. I will say that that’s a positive change! In most outfits, men ignore me—in comparison to receiving an uncomfortable level of attention during previous visits to Scotland when I still had long hair. I felt (feel!) bewildered by other people's confusion and discomfort especially at close range, where my obviously feminine face, jewelry, and makeup should all be clearly visible. I think I am perhaps unusually attuned to it just because I don't know how to react to them either, and haven't yet learned to just ignore it and carry on. Moral of the story: femme invisibility is definitely relative.

    Walking home one afternoon, a car full of teenaged boys slowed down to yell "DYKE!" at me as they passed. I actually went home and cried– not because the word hurt me, but because I felt like I was openly wearing my sexuality in a way that I never had before. It made me a target in a country where gay-bashing can be open and virulent, and I was scared. I know that so, so many other queer-identified or simply "gay looking" people spend their lives enduring the strange looks, verbal harassment and much worse on a scale that I don't claim to have imagined, but this made the whole issue personal in a way it had never been before.

    Interestingly, I have found that having my gender implicitly questioned by the 'person on the street' makes me want to step up and claim my femme identity more than I ever cared to at home. I never used to call myself femme; I would squint and prevaricate and say “well, I guess that’ll do.” While I may appear less girly than the other femme or feminine straight women around me, I feel much more keenly aware of the symbols and practices that I DO hold on to, and they feel that much more important. When you see me waiting for my coffee, I’ll always be wearing my eyeliner.

  13. Hell yes. This is a great post. I've sent the link to my femme girlfriend.

  14. Sinclair,

    Thank you for the great post. As a "femme"ish woman myself who also has an academic interest in this subject, I truly appreciated your well articulated thoughts.

    I started to type a longer comment, but quickly realized that it was more of my own thoughts and experiences with the subject. I posted it on my blog at http://feelersout.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/on-fem…. If anyone reads this, be nice, because it's the first time I'm linking my blog anywhere.

  15. Thank you for being so willing to think through issues that femmes face and write about it. It is much appreciated!

    I was a tomboy growing up and was never comfortable in dresses/skirts, makeup, etc. until I came to college and started "experimenting" with gender and realized that I loved dressing up super-girly and taking on all of the stereotypical female roles (cooking, coddling, crafts, etc…apparently also alliteration). This not-so-coincidentally coincided with coming out. I wonder if other queer ladies have had similar experiences where they were more masculine growing up and then became more feminine as/after they came out. Anyone?

    Regarding the perception of femmes in the straight community, not only is it perceived that presenting as a femme is intended for straight men, when you have two femmes together, that is also perceived as intended for straight men. My ex and I (both pretty femme) would go out to parties, clubs, etc. and often get approached by straight men asking if they could "join in," as if we were only interested in each other for their enjoyment. As offended as I was by this, the look on their faces when we told them "No thank you, we're not sharing" was often enough to stifle most of my rage.

    2. I'm so glad you mentioned people's refusal to accept femme's once they've come out verbally (queer or straight). I often forget that I present as femme when I am at a bar and talking to someone, and am generally a nice and engaging person, so men always think I am flirting. It still surprises me when guys ask for my phone number. I have gotten to a point where I just give out false numbers now because it is much easier than saying "no thanks, I'm gay" and then getting an angry response because they think I'm lying to get out of calling them. I have been asked to "prove it" so many times and I doubt this happens to other people who are perceived as queer by sight alone. At times I have had to leave establishments because the straight men there harass me for being a cocktease. If I presented more butch, I'd probably get a slap on the back and we'd be trading boob jokes within minutes (which I would LOVE to do, btw all you straight boys who meet queer femme girls at bars!).

    In response to "Femme in Edinburgh" who wrote about having "Dyke!" yelled at her in the street. My current girlfriend and I (who is also quite femme) were leaning up against a car one day in Wilmington, NC (Southern US for all you international folks). I think I had my arms around her waist, and this pickup truck full of teenagers drove by and one of them yelled out "lesbians!" at us as they passed. We both started laughing hysterically, because, to us, that was akin to driving past a pet store and yelling "dogs!" Like, thank you captain obvious! But also, we both kind of reveled in it because no one ever thinks we are queer and to have a stranger see the two of us, and see that there was same-sex attraction there, even if it was intended as an insult, was satisfying. I guess something is really better than nothing.

  16. In all honesty, i haven't witnessed much of the femme invisibility that i hear so much about. I used to think that perhaps it was a geographical issue- that i simply didn't live in a place where there was enough open queerness that such discrimination could even be noticed. However, i've since moved to a far more safe and liberal environment, and i still have yet to see signs of femme invisibility. In fact, i've seen just the opposite.

    If anything, most of the lesbian and bisexual women i've met would be considered more femme or androgynous than butch. I admit that i've twice been caught off-guard by femme women telling me they're gay (granted, one was more of a "sporty" femme and i was just plain oblivious that time 'round), but it was never some grand revelation and as far as i know, they've never been recipients of any of the discriminations you've mentioned. On the other hand, there've been times when i've been looked at oddly (i tend to wobble back and forth between androgynous and extremely masculine) by a number of femmes, as if to say, "Do you HAVE to be a walking dyke stereotype?"

    One key difference, i think, might be generational. Every time i read or hear about femme invisibility, it generally seems to come from a slightly older crowd. I'm twenty-three and i've noticed that within my age group (i'd say it includes folks in the 17-26 range, just 'cause i can), femmes and femme-ish tomboys seem to be the norm.

    There's a much larger "grey area", as well, and i wouldn't be surprised if that also played a role in helping to eliminate femme invisibility. Queerness is becoming increasingly accepted and visibility is soaring. With the rise and influence of queerness, it's to be expected that the dualist stereotype of butch/femme will help people realize that you don't have to stroll around with a buzz cut and boots in order to be a full-blown, boob-lovin', muff munchin' lesbian.

  17. I don't have this problem in the gay community, strangely enough. I think when I show up at a gay event, people just assume I'm queer. But I do have a problem with it in the straight community. Someone I worked with–a gay man, by the way–was shocked–shocked I say!–to learn I was a lesbian. No straight person ever looks at me and thinks I'm queer, even though I'm not the femmiest person out there. There's such a stereotype that lesbians are masculine and straight women are feminine. I even thought that too, before I realized I was gay, which was WHY I didn't realize I was gay right away. That's why it was kind of nice to see all those femme lesbians on the L Word, stomping all over that sterotype. I don't know the answer, but thanks for bringing this up.

  18. I was at the gym last night and on my way out, I looked over and noticed a butch looking at me. She was working out on weights (it does not get much hotter than that) and she turned around to look at me and then kind of stared as I walked by. That never happens. I smiled warmly and went on my way but oh my goodness how that stayed with me for the rest of the night – as did this wonderful post. These days, maybe because I'm much more comfortable with myself, I don't get upset at not being seen. As I've mentioned in a previous comment, for me it's more important to be seen by someone who is willing to actually see me rather than to just be visible to all. I don't wear a rainbow necklace or anything like that, but I do nod and smile at every butch I see so I do try to put it out there in my sweet way. But being seen back makes me glow out loud. Thank you for this post, you know how to make a femme feel special.

  19. When I first came out I remember my ex girlfriends friends worrying I was bisexual because I was ultra femme and didn’t fit the mold of the group. I told them, "Don’t' worry about me. It's her you should worry about if you’re worried. She's the one that still likes to *uck men." (no offense to anyone that is bi and reading this) Just cause I wear heels, makeup and low cut shirts does not mean I’m straight OR bisexual. Queer/Gay/Lesbian is not in your clothes. It’s in you.

    When I first came out I found it very hard to be scene by the community because of my femme ways. During that time, in the Midwest, it was all about abercrombie shirts with the middle tucked into your jeans showing off your belt. Oh, and ball caps big time. ( Remember this? ) I’d walk in with short skirts and heels with low cut tops and makeup.

    I was in Rockford, IL and I didn’t look like anyone else in that bar. There was not a lot of butch/femme. So I changed the way I dressed, gained a strut, and worked things differently. I am actually very glad for it because it is another way to express myself. I liked it very much but decided in the most recent year to try girly clothing again.

    Now, I find the scene has changed. (maybe because of the L word???) There is a variety of femme’s walking around all the time. Butch/Femme is more visible. And I no longer feel my sexuality is questioned when I walk into a dyke bar. Perhaps the scene has changed but more over, I have changed. I know who I am and for the most part I don’t need anyone to validate me. I don’t need to fit into the group. And yes, I will don my boy clothes every now and then and add that swagger cause it feels sexy as hell. I like the fluidity.

    In a lot of ways, I may be femme visually, but that butchness has not gone away by a long shot.

    I totally get the flirting thing too. I’m friendly but I’m not flirting with you men. There is a difference.

  20. Validating your own queerness is what is truly tricky and frustrating. Just a few weeks ago I freaked out looking at my then clean closet and clothes for trash. All femme. For an entire day, I thought, "I've got straight clothes in my closet! What does that mean???! Oh no!" And then after that day, I got back to normal. I have to admit, lately it has felt a lot of drag. But femme is that in my opinion, when your queer/lez. It's playing dress up. Knowing your mocking or playing up a gender role. It can be fun. But I do like it more when I've got a butch partner to play off of and with.

    ok, I promise I'm done talking. For now. lol.

  21. oh, so many good comments!

    before that, though, thank you for writing this – fascinating as usual. some of what you mentioned makes me think that the biggest problem here is not invisibility at all: it's, i guess you could call it agency. it shouldn't matter whether i am performing my femininity for myself, men or women – i may or may not be preforming it for *you,* and i shouldn't have to explain myself beyond that. i mean, yes, it's great when a guy will respect that i'm gay and not interested (it should happen more!), but really, that's not good enough. i'm straight and no interested should be just as good – it's not relevant if i'm single or not, straight or not, drunk or not, etc. and the same things certainly go for girls! this is a continuation of your "don't be an asshole" rule. and a pet issue of mine.

    femme in edinburgh – i wasn't really femme at the time, but this sounds extremely similar to my experience in belfast. the degree of femininity there really surprised me (in fact, so much that i started looking closely for outliers, and, excepting a very few dykes i knew personally and the rare ireland rugby shirt, i never saw a girl in belfast in anything that wasn't specifically, notably feminine). and then there were the comments and questions from strangers. if people were that rude to us, it's no surprise i never met an out gay man there.

    feminatrix – me too! with regard to the tomboy-to-femme transition, that is. i wrote a bit about that in my blog on femme invisibility. also, "that was akin to driving past a pet store and yelling “dogs!”" made me laugh lots.

    i also think it's interesting what some people (tristan and marissa, perhaps others) have said about this being generational. partly, i see what they are saying. it does seem with people in my age group – and especially a bit younger – there is a sort of broader range of gender accepted in the gay community, and that being feminine isn't inherently seen as un-gay. but being "traditionally feminine" is (and, really, i think traditional masculinity on butches is as well).

    clearly, a lot of this is locational, or otherwise dependent on your scene (or maybe yourself), because my story is just about the opposite if marissa's – when i used to go out by myself it was the 40ish dykes who i found friendly and accepting (and clearly *recognizing* me), where all the dykes my age were either writing me off as straight or too busy being cool (hard to tell which, really).

  22. Brilliant post on a topic that's been on my mind recently.

    I've just started at Uni, and I'm an invisible femme everyday. I'm in Bristol, England, and though it's not London or Brighton, it's got its share of gay bars, and the University's LGBTSoc is excellent.

    I came out to my friends when I was 16 (I'm 19 now), and the past three years have gone by with few issues – being accepted as gay (out with gayer looking friends) on the scene and passing with family, so I could come out when and how I chose. I'm very femme, so I always pass, and though it can be a hindrance in gay bars, overall I think it makes my life easier. I'm in hall and was out to everyone within a week, but I came out on my own terms, just dropped into conversation. It means I can surprise people by coming out, and gives me a chance to challenge the little homophobic comments that are so readily said ('oh that's so gay') in front of me, when they would probably not be mentioned if a more masculine woman was present. I still immensely enjoy coming out, and explaining the sort of butch girls I like, so I don't mind that aspect. I definitely have more straight friends (female and male), because people who would otherwise judge get a chance to know me as a person, instead of making a decision based on outwardly appearing 'different'.

    Queer invisibility is much more of a problem though, largely because around here the assumption that a gay bar is frequented by more gay women than straight women isn't necessarily true. Case in point: tomorrow night, most of my hall are going to a gay bar, but LGBTSoc are going too. My hall are going for the cheap drinks deals, good cheesy music and nice atmosphere, but I'm disinclined to go, as knowing large numbers of the straight people there, and looking straight, mean that it probably is fair to assume that I'm straight. While the decline in homophobia is a wonderful thing, it has had some rather annoying side effects. I don't like wearing rainbow things, as to my eye I look like a straight girl who had an accident in Claire's accessories, but I'm beginning to feel like it's my only option. Some bars are better than others for this, but in the absence of a lesbian handshake I still feel I want a space that is entirely gay.

  23. Thanks for this, Sinclair, so eloquent as always!

    I just wanted to respond in particular to Tristan's comment. Tristan, you say that in your generation (which is my generation too, btw), you've seen quite the opposite, that femmes aren't in fact invisible, that we have become more of the "norm" in lesbian identities.

    I think, though, that that's missing the point a little bit. Invisibility in the sense that Sinclair writes about (and in the sense that I wrote about it as well) isn't about how many of us there are. It's about how *identifiable* we are. To put it another way, it's not that femme is seen as unacceptable. It's that femme isn't seen as *gay*. Those really are quite distinct issues.

    The issue of whether or not femme is "acceptable" is a very, very interesting one, with a lot of layers of complexity, and it's something I'd be very interested in investigating at some point.

  24. Thank you for this post. I have certainly been educated in this subject through the interwebs in the past few weeks and feel like I can articulate my own feelings about it much more clearly in my own head.

    Your point that hit the closest to home for me was about constantly having to come out. I think I've said this before, but I thought once I came out to my friends and family, it'd be a done deal. That the angst would be over. But instead, because I am cis and femme, it's a constant battle against people's assumptions. The fact that I have two kids from a previous het relationship doesn't help any, but it's a constant sea of blackwater and I have to judge on a daily basis whether or not to come out. Similar to Essin' Em, I tend to 'gender drop' too – as in, "Oh my ex*girl*friend and I used to go there all the time" or "my *partner* is a police officer" or whatever.

    I like the point about agency. I think it's important, but I do not think it's the only solution to this. I am who I am, regardless. I dress the way that feels most comfortable and if I were to go out of my way and get a dyke haircut or somehow present differently just so I could announce through presentation or cues that I am queer, that would be inauthentic. Perhaps authenticity is really what we're after here and for everyone to be accepted for their authentic selves.

    I don't have much experience in queer culture; there isn't much of it in Wyoming, so I don't know anything about that aspect. But I absolutely know about the constant struggle of coming out because my authentic self presents as pretty heteronormative and if I were to present any other way, I'd be faking it.

  25. @squarepunk

    I'm not sure what Sinclair has to say on the matter, but i want to be a voice to you saying that it's totally ok to have unintentional, un-theorized, unremarkable gender. There are some queers (and for obvious reasons this blog attracts many of them) who really really like intentional, extremely thought out gender dynamics, roles, identities, presentations, etc and that's important to them and what gets them off.. But, there are also lots of queer people who don't really care, or who have some gender preferences but they're not at the center of their sexuality or desires or identities. So, if you want to be a "normal twenty-something girl" who likes other similar people, then go for it. That's awesome. I could certainly stand for a little more unremarkable gender in the queer communities i'm involved in.

  26. Thank you, so very much, for writing this. As a femme, I really do find it hard to feel comfortable interacting with women I'm interested in when we're not in a gay club or an explicitly identified GLBT space.

    Thankfully, my life has been relatively free of discrimination from other lesbians. Really, the only way it's been a hinderance is in recognizing myself. I really couldn't put a name to it until you wrote about it here and I think it's very true. When you're not constantly rejecting or rebelling against the sex-gender union, it becomes very easy to convince yourself that you're not "like them." What really added to my confusion growing up was the fact that I find some men asthetically pleasing. The equation on my mind was:

    appreciation of some men – any need to dress or act butch = straight

    (I also want to say that reading this blog has inspired me to play around a lot more with what it means to be femme and how I can make myself more visible to both strangers (be they straight or gay) and to myself. I'm planning to try out my first strap-on this weekend because you made it less weird and intimidating to express that part of myself.)

  27. Oh Sinclair, your brain is so hot.

    What a great post – thank you. I have faced some femme invisibility, but nothing "hateful" (for lack of a better word). Usually just a lack of the "nod" back from butches I smile at in daily life.

    As others have pointed out in other ways, I think this invisibility is mitigated by other factors – age, culture, etc. I find that my body size plays a big role in how invisible I am; the fatter I am, the more invisible I am to both straights and queers. But when I am thinner, I am much more invisible to queers (and unfortunately, not to men). It's a challenge to try and parse the levels/types of invisibility.

    Thanks for seeing us.

  28. Oh also, your third part about invisibility to oneself made me realize something.

    I've always felt like my queerness came from intellectual and political choices, that I had decided as a feminist not to have sex with cismen anymore although I couldn't help but being attracted to masculinity.

    I had tried really hard to become a lesbian, by cutting my hair short and having sex with straight girls or lipstick bisexual girls, and I didn't feel sexual desire for them.

    And therefore had decided that butches would be what was most suitable to both my feminism and my attraction to masculinity.

    It sounds pretty ridiculous now that I think about it. It sounds like I am saying that I'm not really queer, that since I'm a feminine person attracted to masculine persons, I'm basically heterosexual. That my queerness is a operation of my brains, a strategy, that I could act upon it.

    Actually something probably changed in my DESIRE, and not just in my THOUGHTS, when I stopped having sex with men. I have not DECIDED to stop having sex with men. It's just what I'd been telling myself. Probably that explanation I had for my queerness was some sort of integrated femmephobia.

    I remember thinking that since my ring finger was not longer than my index, then it meant that I wasn't really a lesbian, not a "primary" lesbian (just like the shrinks in France differentiate between "primary transsexuals" who felt like men in women's bodies or vice versa since they were 4 years old, and "secondary transsexuals", to whom they usually deny hormones and surgery, because they are delusional, Nature hasn't really made a mistake in their case).

  29. Being invisible as queer because I am femme is something that is a problem when I am in the metro, or in the streets, and I see someone who is visibly queer, and I want to express attraction and/or solidarity. Last summer when I was stuck in an airport for hours and hours waiting for my flight from NYC to San Francisco, I started trying to find queers in my boarding gate. And then when I spotted a cute genderqueer person, I did all I could to make myself visible to them. I was less and less subtle : staring, smiling, re-applying lipstick, showing my garter-belts, putting on my Lexington Club sweater and trying to make the logo conspicuous (“Lexington Club, San Francisco : where every night is ladies night”, it says)… To no avail. I felt so invisible. I gave up, feeling despaired. Then, aboard the plane, cute genderqueer and I happened to be seated next to each other ! We started talking, and in the first minute I dropped as many names as I could to prove I was queer : Michelle Tea, the Homo A GoGo Festival… It turned out that, earlier in the boarding gate, I was the one not seeing that while I was trying to get their attention, they were busy writing me a cute letter, which is why their eyes weren’t meeting mine. We ended up fucking on the plane and having a very romantic summer crush. Fuck femme invisibility !!!

    Funny that you should write about this now : just recently, a femme friend of mine asked me for advice on femme in/visibility. She just got in a relationship with a transman, and she is struggling with the loss of visibility that entails for her. basically, she is used to being with a butch which makes her visible, but now as a couple they pass as straight. and as I have been with someone trans for quite a long time now, she wanted to know how I dealt with that.
    Here is what I answered :
    I guess I’ve come to see invisibility as something that defines femmeness. Having a butch with you to make you more visible is not a solution, it just makes the problem more obvious : you can’t be visible on your own, your queerness has to come from your partner. People will still think that you are a straight girl who was corrupted by a butch, you weren’t really a lesbian before you met this girl who doesn’t really look like one anyway, so you’re not really a lesbian at all.
    In my queer community, people are always much more surprised when they learn that someone who is butch has had sex with men – they aren’t really shocked when they learn a femme has had sex with men. A butch is seen as more of a lesbian even in the queer community.
    Femmes are not really dykes, either they’re attracted to masculinity and therefore they’re kind of heterosexual (since they’re attracted to otherness in terms of gender), or if they’re attracted to other femmes then they’re just doing lesbian porn for men, kissing to make boys horny. I guess what I’m trying to say is that invisibility is kind of a fatality and I’ve come to be resigned to it.
    I guess somehow if I’d really wanted to be visible as queer, I would’ve made other choices in terms of identity. Not that being femme was a choice, but it has to reflect my needs and my personality. So one of the reasons why I’m femme is probably BECAUSE it makes me a spy, an invisible queer, because I pass, because I can pretend. Of course sometimes I resent it, but it’s also comfortable. My identity as a femme probably matches my needs and my personality, and for some reason or other it suits me better to be invisible than to be visible, as the lesser of two evils. So having accepted that invisibility is a part of femmeness that is inherent to it, it has never been that big of a problem for me to be rendered invisible by the fact I was in a relationship with a trans. I’ve accepted it and have never given that much thought to how I could solve the problem.
    Also, I think one of the main reasons my boyfriend transitioned was NOT that he felt he was a man deep inside, but that he wanted to be able to choose when to be visible and when not to be. Basically, he doesn’t identify as a man, he still identifies as butch, but it was too much for him to be stared at, assaulted, confronted with so much hatred all the time, and he just needed to be able to negociate when he wants to be out and when he wants to be closeted. Being femme allows you to do that, and transitioning to pass as a man also allows you to do that too, to a certain extent. But being butch doesn’t. When you’re butch, you are constantly out and visible, even when it’s a danger for you. So basically the fact that his transition has so much to do with the question of his in/visibility, makes it easier for me to empathize and to accept the compromise I’m making by losing some of my visibility for him to be able to choose his.
    Also I guess the fact that he is out as trans to the people around us, even my Jewish grandmother, makes things easier. If he wanted to pass as a man to more people than just strangers in the streets and the salesman at the grocery store and people at his job, it means I would have to be closeted as queer to a number of people. But I’m lucky he is even ok with being out to my Jewish grandmother, which avoids me the humiliation of saying “I have a boyfriend” after I’ve said “I’m a lesbian” and my family said “it’s just a phase”.

    Anyway, there would be so much to say on femme in/visibility, because every single femme has experienced struggle around these issues.
    Thank you Sinclair for being so thoughtful, so articulate, so cautious and so considerate (and do I have the right to say so hot ? I feel like I’m sexually harassing you). You are doing everyone in this community a service every time you write a word, whatever it is that you write about.

  30. The standing joke at my house is that I need a shirt that says "Just Straight Looking." The way that I've always portrayed my gender has been in the traditional sense: long hair, makeup, heels.

    In the straight world people are always surprised to hear that I'm married to a woman. In fact, one of my professors brought it up last week. I don't mind as long as the comments, questions are genuine and respectful. Straight folks are never going to wake up one day suddenly enlightened.

    The thing that does drive me nuts and I'm still struggling to deal with is what to do when a man makes a comment along the lines of " Maybe I just haven't been with the right man." Ugh. Yes, yes, your penis is magic. I used to make a joke out of it but lately I've been getting pissed. I ask them if they are really straight. This seems to make a few of them think a little or at least leave the area.

    I feel the most invisible when out with my wife. She's butch and is acknowledged by other women. I get nothing. Seriously, many won't even look me in the eye. When I first came out it was so disheartening. I guess I'm still a bit sad but short of changing the way I do my gender I've just learned to accept it.

  31. I'm going to steal Meldyke's intro – Sinclair, your brain is so hot!

    You so eloquently put into words concepts that I find difficult to express myself.

    It was such a struggle for me to accept that I was a lesbian. I had many deep rooted issues with my Christian family background and my own internalised homophobia. Now that I've finally gotten to my happy lesbian place in the world I feel like I should have crowds of cheering gaymos egging me on! But alas, I'm still falling through the cracks.

    Thank you for validating me.

  32. I wanted to thank you so much for this article, it's really wonderfully written, and speaks so much to my experiences.

    When I came out in university I went through a tomboy phase of presentation, because that's what you did as a lesbian when you came out. Baggy t-shirts, baggy-shorts and backwards baseball cap. But as I headed towards grad school, I was like "fuck it" because I wanted to be able to openly admit that I loved all the girly crap … skirts, dresses, nice tops and makeup … and shoes *grin*

    I got a lot of shit for it … in fact, in the town where I was studying I knew only one other femme my age, and we bonded immediately, but I even had one ex-girlfriend of mine yell at me about how I was not really queer because I had spent 5 mins discussing lipstick.

    I often will wear something a little less feminine to a gay bar to mark myself as gay … seriously, it's that strategic … not to mention, given I'm tall and athletic, not being seen as trans (not that there is anything wrong with being trans, but I'm not, and if people see you as such, you get a whole different demographic hitting on you), or if there is some other queer event I'll tone down how I was dress compared to if I was going to a straight space.

    But I also have the added problem of I'm a femme who is more attracted to other femmes. And I totally hear the other commenters that have mentioned how our sexuality as femme couples isn't even allowed to exist outside of male access … I've been in bars with the woman I am dating, we'll be quietly flirting, kissing and just talking, and we've had sooooo many guys buy us drinks, come talk to us ever though it's bloody obvious we're on a date, and proposition us. And yeah, some of them do get pissed off and insulting when we turn them down, as though we owe them our sexuality somehow.

    This is not to say that I think butches/tomboys/jocks/etc are ugly …. far from it, I think they are really attractive, and soooo admire them for their crafting of non-normative gendered presentations of womanhood. But they're just not what I'm attracted to … I've dated enough where I know what I want.

    But this adds in an additional aspect of invisibility … not only am I marked as straight when it comes to being in public spaces, but those I find sexually appealing are also such … and yes, I've also been burnt a bunch of times by straight chicks (or, I would be safe enough to be the 'experiment' for straight girls, which actually really gets old fast) … in fact, a joke from my friends was that if Sarah (me) thought a girl was hot, that generally meant she was straight.

    Hell, I have a gathering to go to tonight, and I got invited by this really cute woman who I have been admiring for a while, but I don't know about her sexuality …

    Femme invisibility isn't merely an oppression, nor is it merely a privilege. It's both. I get to be safer in a non-overtly-queer marked presentation, while my more masculine sisters don't get that. But I also get my identity marginalised and doubted, even amongst those with whom I supposedly share a sexuality.

    I just wish I also didn't constantly feel like I also have to defend as a femme just being attracted to other femmes either.

  33. I've been told by many of my friends that I really should try harder to "look like a lesbian". That's cos when we walk through the city at night together as a group, I get hassled by straight guys who assume I'm fair game cos I am wearing a dress – despite being accompanied by a large group of fairly butch looking (but not butch-identified) folk (Obviously, my butch-identified friends would not venture such an anti-femme opinion!). Of course this unwanted attention is on top of any homophobic abuse that we – as an obviously queer group – might also have to deal with. There's a bunch of stats that show that lesbians are far less likely than straight women to arrive and leave venues at night in groups. We are more likely to travel alone through the city (despite police advice to women suggesting we travel in groups) as for many (and I am not just talking about femmes here) walking alone reduces our visibility as queer, in potentially dangerous spaces. Maybe this may help to account for why it is that we are targets of sexual assault at 5 times the rate of straight women. Right now, for me, thankfully this is now academic, as my butch husband would never let me walk alone through the city at 3am! Though, having being married for all of 3 weeks now, I must say that having a wedding band on my femme finger makes me feel both delirously happy and also, sadly, uber-invisible. But I do love introducing "my husband Linda" ;-)

  34. I am sitting here in lovely San Francisco, having just been inseminated by my butch partner with the gay man's sperm that we bought from the gay man. I am eating pineapple and reading your post about femme in/visibility, when my parnter says, what are you reading? and i say, sugarbutch about femme invisibility. and she says, i dont know about that. and i say, calmly, with my incredulity hidden, what? and she says, youre hot to death *everybody* sees you. and i say, thats! why i love you.

  35. Thank you so much for writing this. So often it is overseen by many that femme do exist. As a fierce femme, I struggle on a regular basis to be seen by my peers. I will be stared at when I enter a lesbian/queer venue…that is until my girlfriend comes up and touches my bottom or kisses me. Then everyone wants to be my friend. It even happens at coffee shops, stores, or in the streets.

    I am not the a fan of the rainbow attire, nor do I have a 6" button that states 'I love girls!'. I don't feel I should have to defend my right to be in an establishment of my own. And I don't think I should have to jump up and down to make my peers see me.

    And I HATE the guy that thinks I 'just haven't found the right man'. Ugh!

    I love my big boobs, big butt, wide hips, thick lips, curvy shape. I love my heels, make-up, red lipstick, hair clips. I love my pink bandana, smell good lotions, waist cinching corsets.

    Thank you for seeing us for all that we are.

  36. Ah Sinclair, truly a prophet, my muse!

    This is a subject so close to my heart right now. I've recently started a new relationship with a girl who is quite butch, though she has been rejecting the term for most of her life. We seem to have had the mirror image of eachother's issues. Having been out since the age of 13, she has experienced words like 'butch' and 'dyke' almost exclusively in their negative incarnations, we all know, or can imagine, the way a butch-presenting girl was treated in a large and fairly rough secondary school in a small town.

    I, on the other hand, came out late, 24. Having always been femme, and having been out with quite a few guys in this small town I was put in a position where I really had to prove my 'gayness'. Out with the heels and acrylic nails, in with the undercut and boy jeans, just to stop exes tryin to win me over. There was actually a sweep stake with a few local guys on how long before I 'went back to cock'.

    We have both had plenty of gay relationships before eachother, but neither of us have ever been with someone who fully appreciates her butch-ness or my femininity. She has always struggled with 'too gay' and I with 'too straight', I, like many other femmes, have felt regularly rejected by straight and gay communities.

    We are going through a transformation! This new-found admiration for what we have spent so long rejecting about ourselves has finally given us the confidence to enjoy presenting what we truly are. With her encouragement my hair is growing back, and I've started looking at dresses in shops again, and for the first time the other day, she actually smiled when she was mistaken for a boy in a supermarket.

    I was worried about growing my hair back, saying I didn't know if I'd feel gay enough. She told me making me feel gay was her job!

  37. There are so many things I could say about this, mostly about the overlap w/ biphobia, but I'll leave it with that old T-shirt from the early 90s that said "NOBODY BELIEVES I'M BISEXUAL". It was a take-off on the momentarily ubiquitous shirts that said "NOBODY KNOWS I'M GAY" or "NOBODY KNOWS I'M A LESBIAN".

  38. Attempt at writing a decent response: #3.

    I only realised I wasn't straight last January. My year has been centred on trying to come to terms with my sexuality and myself as a result of my closet door bursting open and burying me in whatever was in there anyway – and I still can't tell if I'm bi or gay. Whatever I am, I can answer a few of Mr Sexsmith's questions at least with respect to my experience so far.

    I didn't realise that femme invisibility extended to the gay community – talk about naive! I actually thought 'gaydar' would magically pick up on a bi/gay feminine girl. But now it seems obvious, and even answers a question I myself had about non-masculine gay women in my country/society: where are they, what do they look like? It's fairly safe to say that since most women here are extremely feminine [what is it about us European girls?], the majority of feminine non-hetero girls are thought of as straight unless people are told otherwise. The interesting thing is that although the male gay community is strong and easy to spot, the female one so far seems to be deeply underground and a closely guarded secret.

    Speaking for myself, I'm something of an anomaly. I like to dress up and go girly when I go out, whether with my girlfriend or my friends, but I'm almost all-tomboy at any other time. My hair doesn't really help anyone trying to guess – part of my gender identity crisis involved bobbing my curly hair, and it's taking ages to grow out [and before a certain length, curls inevitably look half the length they actually are]. While I think I stand out as non-hetero, very few straight folk seem to notice because of the foregone conclusion here that non-obviously-butch appearance = straight female. Orientation-hints such as 'my girlfriend' don't work as well as you'd think because being a bilingual country and having an odd accent, people think I use the word 'girlfriend' in the American sense of female friendship! Seeing is believing, and luckily for me the standard reaction seems to be hidden surprise and only bringing up the subject if I talk about it.

    Sometimes I wonder if non-hetero folk who see me when I'm not with my girlfriend recognise my own non-hetero identity. It doesn't help that I was terribly straight before my closet exploded – a friend of mine actually thought I was joking when we caught up after 2 years and said 'not only is the boyfriend long gone but my girlfriend and I are going strong and why-don't-I-introduce-you'. Our mutual gay friend's reaction when he found out about me and my girlfriend was 'I thought you were straight?' [not even a hello, would you believe it].

    So far, not being recognised as non-hetero hasn't caused frustration, except in the family scene because of obvious reasons. A few weeks ago a man loitering outside the law courts in the capital passed a comment while looking at me: 'all the women are either fat or lesbians' – and since I'm not fat, and was dressed particularly boyish at the time, I couldn't help laughing happily to myself for being branded by someone who only took one look. I do find it amusing that I'm a lot more invisible to men, mostly because I dress even more like a tomboy than I used to be – although come belly dance classes and shows I am eyed from face to hips just as lecherously as if I were all girled up. My girlfriend, while leaning further towards tomboy appearance than I do, also escapes branding. Several friends were surprised to find she was gay when I first told them we got together.

    If it weren't for my girlfriend [because she finds me attractive and shows it], I would feel very invisible. If men don't see me, and non-hetero women keep their orientation on the quiet and therefore would be subtle when eying me up [and I'm very bad at picking up subtlety], then I'd feel like no-one can see me – I wouldn't feel attractive or wanted. I've always hated that men seem to only notice women who've spent more than 5 minutes getting their outfit and face together, because I know most of those women aren't out to get a partner – most of them dress up because they LIKE to dress up, same as me when I get girled up! Sadly I can't say anything yet about the reactions of non-hetero women to the same thing, but I doubt they ignore women dressed normally, without makeup, whether femme or butch or in between, gay or bi or straight – or at least, not to the same extent as the men.

  39. So many amazing comments here, Sinclair. Trying to think of ways to make my contribution.

    I’m 34 and straight (ish). Had only relationships with men, including a marriage, until 3 years ago, when I fell in love with Nancy. I feel weird calling myself “lesbian” or even “bi,” because this is my first relationship with a woman, and also the last relationship I ever intend to have. I look and act as straight as I’ve been my whole life. Sometimes I call myself a “Nancebian.”

    Wait, that’s only partially true. Someone pointed out to me that Nancy allows me to be more feminine than I’ve ever been in my life.

    See, for me, masculine and feminine are more than just presentation and performance. They are spiritual, holy ways of being. Being “femme” is just a way of expressing outwardly what I feel inwardly. Same for Nancy, I think.

    I think you should all come live in Atlanta. Here, in the middle of the Red sea, it seems that we really are the “city too busy to hate.” Most of our friends are in what you might call “butch/femme” relationships, but no one ever calls them anything except love (or, big mistakes, considering the case). Maybe it’s partly generational; I’m not acquainted with many 20-something queers and I certainly don’t go where they go. We’re just all living happy sub/urban hetero-normative lives and never being judged for much of anything within the confines of our communities: social, religious, geographical. Maybe it’s just because this is the place queers come to raise a family.

    The only place I ever really feel this femme invisibility is when I go to Prides, and Nancy and I go to a lot of them. She gets hit on all the time. (I mean, she’s hot. Really, really hot.) Me, not at all. Not ever. Not no how. And I’m pretty sure I’m not hideous. So either I just don’t hit the cues for what most lesbians find attractive, or they all assume I just a straight friend. And that sucks, because I like being hit on, by men or women.* :-D (There’s also the issue of having to constantly come out to people explicitly, but, for me, that’s compounded by having spent 10 years of my professional life as a straight person, and so having to reset – previously correct – assumptions.)

    Which brings me to the one thing in this discussion with which I take a bit of issue: femmes getting their bikinis in a twist when men admire them and don’t automatically assume they are gay. Look…if gender is a performance, it’s meant to be seen, and the nature of the world means we can’t choose who buys the tickets. When I a man hits on me, I take it as a complement in the same way I would if a butch were hitting on me (please, please hit on me!). The unacceptable attitude, from a man or a woman, is to assume that that performance is specifically for them, and to act offended when they find out that it isn’t.

    Also, for you butches out there living in safe communities: hit on a straight woman. I mean, I get that my former straightness is easily called into question. But the few times I’ve been hit on by women in my life, including by Nancy, it was more of a complement than any man could give me. I guess I just assume women are better critics of women than men are.

    *Also, entertaining the idea that’s it’s more clear to butch women that I’m with Nancy than it is to other femme women. And so they steer respectfully clear.

    (Also, Sinclair! It's been a week! Time to grace us with another post, n'est-ce pas?)

  40. Wow, thanks for writing about this. I'm not an active participant in the queer community anywhere and only got here when a friend linked this… Suddenly the past few years are making a whole lot more sense to me.

    I was pretty feminine (not overtly) until I realised I was bisexual. Downgraded the girliness a little. A few years later I realised I am a lesbian, and girliness began to feel downright uncomfortable. It is, I believe, not exactly the same as what Alphafemme went through but in a similar vein. Instead of not accepting the idea of myself being a lesbian because I was feminine, I didn't accept the idea of myself being feminine because I'm a lesbian. (Being burned by a girly girl who turned out to be straight didn't help, that's for sure.)

    It was helpful to read this article, truly, especially since my (femme) GF has expressed her opinion on the situation, i.e. she likes her girls as girls – not trying to insult anyone here – and I've no problem with that because, honestly? I quite like myself as a girl, too. (By saying 'girl', I mean 'girly girl, not butch'.) Your text made me realise that it's okay to be gay – and a girl. Talk about cultural conditioning…

    And as for the secret wink, I reckon the rainbow badge with two high-heeled boots in it that's visible on my bag will be enough of a hint to other queer people. ;)

  41. Thanks for writing this, and also to everyone who commented because I *need* these things in my life. I'm still struggling a little bit to define who I am, gender-wise, because everything feels a little uncomfortable. Most people call me soft butch or low femme, but I'm not sure that the "soft/low" part of it is really who I am.

    I think I might have some defenses up still from having grown up being inundated in GIRLS LOVE TO COOK AND CLEAN messages and wanting to buck that system like nothing else. My queer identity has helped immensely. I realized I was bi last year, and the friendships and sex partners (and friendly sex partners) that I found through my local community were amazing and sometimes life-changing. But now that I am with a straight man, I feel like I am denying myself a part of my identity somehow, and that's uncomfortable. So now a feminine-ness that might have come out otherwise is being stifled because I am in a traditional hetero relationship.

    This is more than I can really pick apart in one comment on someone else's blog (haha), so I am going to stop here. But suffice to say, this woke me up to some of the feminine things I tend to do and just pretend that I don't necessarily like them, and I am hoping that this is the first step to becoming more comfortable with those things. (Thanks, too, to Feminatrix up there!)

  42. thanks so for this post and all your shared writing. this whole femme in/visibility thing is something i've been hashing out for a long time- maybe i'll have some answers when i'm an old lady. luckily i get to figure it out in a close circle of fucking radical femmes for all of whom femme means (and looks) something different.

    we all met around the same time, and right off one of them started calling me the scraggle femme. i'll gladly take that, and if you ask my gender identity/presentation, that's what i'll say.

    i identify as femme, and damn if i'm not a sucker for antique silk lingerie and 1940s dresses. but it's almost more about attitude, about being gracious and tough and knowing how to receive attention. i like to think of femme as a superpower. here's the deal- i fix bikes, ride trains, grow food, and while i love to be taken on a date and get my dress dirty running through alleys or fucking in the park, i'm more likely to be in greasy work pants, black boots, and big hoop earrings, trying to get you to ask me to come over and have a beer. i like to put my hand on the small of a pretty girl's back and have her look at me under smoky eyelids. i'll open the door for you, maybe especially if my heels are higher than yours, and i want to be courted. scraggle femme. it can get confusing sometimes, wondering if i'm femme enough, or if i'm using an empty word that's betrayed by how i look. visibility becomes key here in claiming hardworking femme from the grasping tentacles of androgyny.

    i could go on and maybe render this more compellingly. for brevity's sake i won't. so let's push it, my brilliant extended community. i think we've got some really good tools for figuring out this gender stuff. let's start getting our hands dirty in the messy complexity of femme and butch and every other queer gender. let's talk about femme chivalry, about coy butches, about topping from the bottom and all of those glorious possiblities.

  43. Thank you for this.

    This is a great summary of some of my own struggles as a feminine identified queer. I’ve never been troubled about my sexuality in the sense that I felt it was dirty or shameful to be attracted to anyone, regardless of their sex or gender, but I have had trouble making myself visible to both the straight community and the queer community. In addition to what you said about constantly having to come out, to assert my queerness, I would like to talk about another struggle I have personally.

    Passing brings with it certain privileges among straight people. In my professional life I meet many people, a lot of them internationals, and I’m always afraid of “offending” them. I don’t want to isolate myself from a potential network connection that I may need for my research or travels (I’m working on a MA in Southeast Asian Studies). This is a great and constant internal conflict within me, when and if I should reveal myself as a queer person. I feel that the very fact that I even struggle with decision is offensive to the queer community. I am proud of my queerness and I do own it, and please don’t be mistaken that if confronted with a direct question about my sexuality I would certainly assert that I’m queer. But often the situation is not as simple as that. Instead, when I start feeling like people are treating me like a straight person I get uncomfortable and feel it necessary to correct their assumptions. When I do, that is also uncomfortable because they often don’t know how to react.

    I went through a similar process of marking and owning my new identity as a queer person. I cut my hair, started wearing more masculine clothing, and just acting like what I thought a woman who likes women had to act. This is also a problem of not having enough varied examples of queerness in society/media (It also didn’t help that I came out while living in Indonesia where lesbians have strict gender politics). Ultimately, I decided that wasn’t me. I would not call myself a girly girl, but I do like wearing dresses from time to time, I do like wearing lipstick, and GAWD do I look so much better with long hair! What helped me own my femininity was finding a partner that appreciated my femininity and didn’t question my queerness. Although that relationship has since ended, it gave me hope that I can find someone who appreciates me for me–a feminine woman that loves licking pussy, loves women inside her, and loves and appreciates women (people with vaginas) across the gender spectrum.

    I know everyone has their own unique struggles in this world. I just wish more open-mindedness, compassion, and respect for ourselves and others, for all of us.

Trackbacks

  1. On Femme Invisibility « Feelers Out
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  8. Femme Conference Will Be in Baltimore, August 2012 and the Question: What is even DISCUSSED at a “femme conference”? : Sugarbutch Chronicles
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  12. femme lesbians and flirting - Empty Closets - A safe online community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people coming out
  13. Being Not Queer Enough (Problems of Femme Identity) | Struggling Hero

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