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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