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Old 03-02-2009, 02:12 AM   #1
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Default Lesbian Invisibility and the Femme's Dilemma

I was responding to Butch's post about being queer in a non-queer world and got reminded of this wonderful article by Nick Lehner (source).

Quote:
Last night I had a strange and telling dream. My butch wife and I were in a store, buying some sundries nothing special, just those necessities of everyday American life, toilet paper, Kleenex, and cat food and the clerk called her "sir." This is not unusual. With her buzz cut and men's clothes, my wife does project a masculine image to those who don't look closely or carefully. In the dream, I rolled my eyes, feeling amused, proud, and annoyed all at once. Then, a customer made the same mistake, referring to my wife as a man. This time I lost my patience. My dreaming self fabulous in a slinky summer dress and makeup, long hair swinging angrily against my cheekbones leapt in front of the woman I love, turned to the customer, and cried, "She's a she! Can't you see her? Look, she has breasts!"

My wife, mortified, tried to square her shoulders as all eyes dropped to her chest. The clerk mumbled something, blushing under his acne and trendy haircut. The customer, a middle-aged woman in jeans, blazer, conservative loafers, slunk away apologetically. I was left alone in my pride and annoyance, my palms hot and slick against my hips. Tucking my hair behind my ears, I tried to regain my composure despite the jungle-beat of my angry heart, the heat in my cheeks.

I am the femme half of a butch/femme couple. I am also a woman who, despite some misguided and embarrassing attempts at a butch aesthetic (obligatory shaved head, baseball cap, baggy jean shorts), has always been strongly and unequivocally feminine. Because of this, some women in the lesbian community would say that I have it easy.

It is true that I am never mistaken for a man, never openly jeered because of my queerness. Not once have I been bashed, either physically or verbally. I walk down the street unharmed and unnoticed as a lesbian; men open doors for me; grandmothers on the bus look at my wedding band, nod, and smile approvingly. None of these strangers imagines that each night I go home to a woman, that I march in gay pride parades, that I fight their assumptions on a daily basis. And why would they?

The fact that I "pass" as straight does not release me from the strict codifications of contemporary American society. Rather, it implicates me in them. I am automatically seen as a straight woman, because I look like a woman. The assumption that I am straight, moreover, carries with it other assumptions about my availability to men, my desires, my habits. When I touch up my lipstick in a bar, the men around me presume that I do so for their benefit and that they can approach me. If I reject their advances, they can categorize me as a tease or a bitch. Only when I make it explicitly known that I'm not interested because of my sexuality, do they label me appropriately.

Hanging in the air between us is their excuse, whether spoken or silent: "...but you don't look like a lesbian." It bothers me that I must carry the burden of proof, that I must continually defend my selfhood. Why must I look like a lesbian? Why must lesbians "look" any way at all?

When I go out with my wife, things change. The leers appear. People stare, trying to understand. Something is "wrong" with us, with our being together two women who are outwardly so very different. Clearly we are not chums from the office or friends on our way to the one-day sale at Macy's. There is a dynamic created by our disparate appearances, a dynamic that does not fit mainstream explanations. Whether or not people realize that this dynamic is sexual as well as emotional, political, and ontological they do realize that it is alien, Other.

Even other lesbians regard me differently. When I'm alone, I can give a dyke the eye until the cows come home, and she'll never even glance in my direction. Or if she does, she'll glance quickly away again, paranoia in her eyes, afraid that she'll be caught cruising the straight girl. If I'm with my wife, however, that same woman will cruise me or grin at us in recognition, that subtle grin that invariably follows a positive gaydar reading.

This state of invisibility prevents me from feeling fully a part of lesbian culture. I live in fear of being seen as "bi-curious" or as a straight woman looking for kicks in the dyke bar. When I hear the whispers of the lesbians the obvious lesbians who surround me, I wish that there were indeed some sort of membership card or secret handshake. Only the presence of my wife, with her gently-possessive hand resting on the small of my back, indicates that I do belong. And while I cherish the completeness of the image that we create together, I resent that I am necessarily dependent on another person to prove my own selfhood.

My ultra-feminine appearance demands that I come out, continually and verbally, something that my butch wife rarely has to do. Her butchness marks me as a lesbian when we are together, for the outward signs she exhibits of her orientation short hair, swagger, men's clothes extend to me in an aesthetic osmosis. Alone, I must deliberately expose myself if I want to be identified as queer; otherwise, it's assumed that I'm heterosexual. I have a silver labrys on a chain around my neck, but few get close enough to see it, and those that do rarely realize its significance. Many people, to my chagrin, think it's a dragonfly not an Amazon battle-axe and a symbol of my lesbian heritage.

In many ways I enjoy my anonymity. It's like having a secret, to which only a few privileged or insightful people are privy. Yet, I am frustrated by the assumptions on the part of the grandmothers, the businessmen, the store clerks which interpret my sexuality as something secretive. At times it's tempting to re-create myself in the stereotypical lesbian image: to chop off my hair, trade my Kenneth Coles for Birkenstocks, and invest in some declaratory t-shirts. Just once in my life, I want to be called "sir."

I've learned, since coming out as a femme (a very different process than coming out as a lesbian), that I can't have it both ways. I love lipstick, the feel of a garter belt against my thigh, the way my skirt swishes when I walk. If I were to eschew these outward signifiers of femininity, I'd be lying. When one closet door opens, another closes.

I do occasionally feel guilty, despite all the femme rhetoric I've internalized, that I am not doing my part to further the cause. The lesbian and gay movement has, from its conception, relied on tactics of visibility and the old adage of strength in numbers. If I have no clearly queer face to add to the crowd of queers being counted, I lessen the tally by one. If I am an invisible lesbian, in the eyes of the mainstream, heterosexual world, I'm no lesbian at all.

If silence equals death, as the old Act Up slogan insists, what does invisibility equal? Invisibility, I believe, is its own form of silence. To cloak my own, unique, feminine personality in the outward garb of a stereotype, however, is an equally dangerous silence. I am continually grappling with new ways to speak my self, verbally and otherwise, in order to let that self shine through in all its manifestations, to all observers.

Perhaps it's not so odd, then, that I dream of misrecognition. Issues of gender and transgender, butch and femme, masculine and feminine are on my mind lately. I think of them each time I plug in my curling iron or see a cute little black dress in a shop window. Because of my proclivities and my penchant for makeup, the straight community misrecognizes me as often, if not more so, as they do my butch counterparts. What's worse is that I am often not recognized at all by the lesbians with whom, my long hair and red lips and high heels notwithstanding, I so strongly identify.
What are your thoughts?
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Old 03-02-2009, 04:10 AM   #2
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That was a truly fascinating read - thank you so much for sharing. The line that sticks hardest though is the one where she speaks about how making herself conform with the stereotype is its own danger, its own form of silence and lying even. My thoughts on this piece: I think its critical that she remin the kind of lesbian that she is. She enjoys and loves the trappings of the typical female, why allow herself to be bent and shaped by society's blindness and ignorance. She is not denying her homosexuality - that would be the problem. In fact she wears it with pride - turning herself into a stereotype would make a mockery of her sexuality and those women in her community who are more masculine, who "look" the part.
Isn't it strange how often this kind of concern can be applied to so many different groups of people and different scenarios - like the mixed race people in my country who, during Apartheid, passed as white to avoid the harshness of living as black people. How harshly do you judge in that instance? Nway, I seriously enjoyed this piece.

Last edited by Tau; 03-02-2009 at 04:17 AM. Reason: wanted to add more
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Old 03-02-2009, 06:04 AM   #3
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That was a great read, Cors. Thanks for posting it. I have to say, I can understand exactly where she is coming from, even if I am nowhere near femme at all. Since I look like a hardcore lesbian, people assume that is all I am, and as a result I a) don't fit in well with many lesbians because I look one way but experience my sexuality and gender a different way, which is as a bisexual/queer, for lack of better terms.

It is very odd for me to realize that so much of the world needs to present and/or identify others by their sexuality right off the bat. People assume I look the way I do because I want to be overt in telling people my sexuality, and that is not at all why I dress the way I do. Nor is it because I want to 'be a man.' I look the way I do because it feels most like me, and that me does not define itself primarily by sexuality. It is about my own singular identity, not as someone whose identity is only defined by gender, sexuality, race, size, etc.

In fact, I don't have any hard and fast rules about how people should look or act in regards to their sexuality, so I don't understand why lesbians or anyone else would have difficulty accepting femme women (or why straight people would give a damn one way or the other), and I'm saddened to hear of the experiences of women like you, Cors.
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Old 03-02-2009, 02:54 PM   #4
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I realize that everyone does this, myself included, but why must everyone automatically try to label someone by their sexuality? I just don't understand why it matters at all. What do people get out of that?

In middle school my best friend had told me that another friend of ours said that she thought that I was a lesbian, in fact she was sure of it. It wouldn't have bothered me if she wasn't completely homophobic and felt uncomfortable around me, making fun of my so called 'sexuality' every chance she got. I didn't even feel like I could talk to her about anything anymore, because of the way she viewed me.
A few weeks ago another friend of mine told me that a lesbian in our school said to her, (My name's Alyssa by the way) "Oh Alyssa HAS to be a lesbian". I just don't understand it. I'm guilty of this too of course. Although I really don't think there's much hard evidence in my case at all. I mean yeah, sometimes when I see someone I suspect might be a certain sexuality I might inquire with a close friend, but the lesbian from my school really bothered me, just because she doesn't even know me. All she sees is my appearance. Sure, I wear hoodies and not so girly clothing, BECAUSE IT'S COMFORTABLE. Maybe I don't feel like being gawked at because my shirts are showing my cleavage or because I happen to look good in a certain pair of jeans. I dress comfortably because it's comfortable. Simple as that. Just because my clothing might scream butch to someone doesn't mean that's necessarily what I'm going for or that I'm a lesbian. I love you stereotypes. I just thought it was ironic because the woman in the article was expected straight, as I was expected a lesbian. Kind of a flip flop situation. I'm going to try to start working on that from now on, I'm just going to be completely impartial and non-stereotypical to everyone's sexuality until they personally tell me what they actually are, hoping for the same in return.

Also, I don't believe that lesbians that don't "look the part" have it easier than the ones who do. Why would the fact that no one can tell that you're a lesbian make it easier on you? That only makes sense if you don't want anyone to know. I'm sure that if you're a lesbian and you're married to another woman that you're okay with people knowing about your sexuality by now.... and the fact that everyone would just assume that you're straight when you walk into a gay bar because of your appearance bothers me. I feel very sad for anyone who doesn't feel like an important/included part of a community that is such a big part of their lives.

I'm not sure if I'm making too much sense, so I'm going to stop now before I start rambling.
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Old 03-02-2009, 05:20 PM   #5
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This is my our story. My partner and I, almost verbatim.


Thank you for posting this, Cors.
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Old 03-02-2009, 05:24 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by disaster117 View Post
I realize that everyone does this, myself included, but why must everyone automatically try to label someone by their sexuality? I just don't understand why it matters at all. What do people get out of that?

In middle school my best friend had told me that another friend of ours said that she thought that I was a lesbian, in fact she was sure of it. It wouldn't have bothered me if she wasn't completely homophobic and felt uncomfortable around me, making fun of my so called 'sexuality' every chance she got. I didn't even feel like I could talk to her about anything anymore, because of the way she viewed me.
A few weeks ago another friend of mine told me that a lesbian in our school said to her, (My name's Alyssa by the way) "Oh Alyssa HAS to be a lesbian". I just don't understand it. I'm guilty of this too of course. Although I really don't think there's much hard evidence in my case at all. I mean yeah, sometimes when I see someone I suspect might be a certain sexuality I might inquire with a close friend, but the lesbian from my school really bothered me, just because she doesn't even know me. All she sees is my appearance. Sure, I wear hoodies and not so girly clothing, BECAUSE IT'S COMFORTABLE. Maybe I don't feel like being gawked at because my shirts are showing my cleavage or because I happen to look good in a certain pair of jeans. I dress comfortably because it's comfortable. Simple as that. Just because my clothing might scream butch to someone doesn't mean that's necessarily what I'm going for or that I'm a lesbian. I love you stereotypes. I just thought it was ironic because the woman in the article was expected straight, as I was expected a lesbian. Kind of a flip flop situation. I'm going to try to start working on that from now on, I'm just going to be completely impartial and non-stereotypical to everyone's sexuality until they personally tell me what they actually are, hoping for the same in return.

Also, I don't believe that lesbians that don't "look the part" have it easier than the ones who do. Why would the fact that no one can tell that you're a lesbian make it easier on you? That only makes sense if you don't want anyone to know. I'm sure that if you're a lesbian and you're married to another woman that you're okay with people knowing about your sexuality by now.... and the fact that everyone would just assume that you're straight when you walk into a gay bar because of your appearance bothers me. I feel very sad for anyone who doesn't feel like an important/included part of a community that is such a big part of their lives.

I'm not sure if I'm making too much sense, so I'm going to stop now before I start rambling.
I think its the idea that as a femme woman, I can "pass" when out and about because I look/dress/present myself a certain way. I'm not butch, but I am very gay. The only way someone would know I am is if they see me engaged in a public display of affection or if I tell them I am. My partner doesn't have that "luxury" (though I even hate to use that word) -- she is straight up butch. There is no denying when you see her that she's gay. She isn't feminine at all and she wears mens clothing so even when she's by herself, people will assume she's gay whether she says it aloud or not.
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Old 03-02-2009, 05:47 PM   #7
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I think its the idea that as a femme woman, I can "pass" when out and about because I look/dress/present myself a certain way. I'm not butch, but I am very gay. The only way someone would know I am is if they see me engaged in a public display of affection or if I tell them I am. My partner doesn't have that "luxury" (though I even hate to use that word) -- she is straight up butch. There is no denying when you see her that she's gay. She isn't feminine at all and she wears mens clothing so even when she's by herself, people will assume she's gay whether she says it aloud or not.
Oh yeah, I totally understand what you mean. I just feel that if I was a lesbian, I would be more comfortable with being butch and with people automatically knowing that one part about me, rather than assuming I wasn't. I hate feeling excluded from things and communities that I'm internally part of but not externally (if that makes sense), and I feel as if this article kind of had that tone as well, besides the part where she said it was okay at times. This is just all my opinion by the way. I'm sure other people would rather not have everyone know their sexuality right away.
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Old 03-02-2009, 05:51 PM   #8
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I don't even know what I could say that wouldn't sound redundant or severely lacking in wit. Great read.
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Old 03-03-2009, 10:11 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by disaster117 View Post
All she sees is my appearance. Sure, I wear hoodies and not so girly clothing, BECAUSE IT'S COMFORTABLE. Maybe I don't feel like being gawked at because my shirts are showing my cleavage or because I happen to look good in a certain pair of jeans. I dress comfortably because it's comfortable. Simple as that. Just because my clothing might scream butch to someone doesn't mean that's necessarily what I'm going for or that I'm a lesbian.
Just to mention, it might not have been all about how you dress. She may have noticed where your eyes go, and where they don't, for instance, or how you react around certain boys and how you react around certain girls. Especially if that reminded her of herself, the clothing may have been just one small part of the whole array of hints she picked up on.

Still annoying to have strangers categorize you, however they do it.
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Old 03-03-2009, 01:52 PM   #10
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I don't even know what I could say that wouldn't sound redundant or severely lacking in wit. Great read.
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Old 03-03-2009, 08:53 PM   #11
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Just to mention, it might not have been all about how you dress. She may have noticed where your eyes go, and where they don't, for instance, or how you react around certain boys and how you react around certain girls. Especially if that reminded her of herself, the clothing may have been just one small part of the whole array of hints she picked up on.

Still annoying to have strangers categorize you, however they do it.
That's true, good point. Maybe that's it then. I just felt very stereotyped. My friend said that the lesbian didn't have any reason for it, she just got some sort of vibe from me? But I guess I also understand that because I get vibes from people, too. I don't know.
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