Invisibility Series: Queer Femmes

September 24, 2014 in inQueery

femmequeerbanner2What do you think of when you heard the word “lesbian”? Images of short-haired women wearing loose jeans and baseball caps? Two women getting married, one in a tux and the other in the fabled white dress? Or maybe you see an array of scenes from “The L Word”?

As members of the LGBT community, we know about falling outside the standards of a heteronormative society. Often we use physical indicators to let others know the queer identity we’ve claimed for ourselves. However, what about those who fall within society’s fashion/appearance norms but not society’s hetero norms? What about women who wear flowery dresses, bright red lipstick, love the color pink, and also happen to love other women?

Welcome to the world of femme queers.

These women maintain “normal” feminine habits and dress as part of their identity. As a result, society, with its “straight until proven otherwise” attitude, assumes they are heterosexual. For many femme queers, this can present unique and often uncomfortable encounters with everyone from their dentists to their baristas.

Lindsay King-Miller wonderfully discusses this issue in her article “My Life as an Invisible Queer”. She identifies as femme queer and faces the invisibility issue frequently. “Queer visibility is your basic double-edged sword,” she writes. “People who are read as queer tend to face more overt discrimination and hostility, while those of us with fewer obvious subcultural signifiers can slide by without much confrontation.” However, King goes on to discuss how this doesn’t necessarily mean that invisible queers feel any more safe; she is constantly wondering whether the person she is interacting with would treat her differently if they knew she was married to a woman. This kind of uncertainty can be awkward and potentially frightening. Does she out herself early on? Lie by omission?

King’s tongue-in-cheek solution is beautiful: “… if I could hire some kind of old-timey town crier to precede me into any room I enter, shouting ‘Lesbian coming! Lesbian coming this way!’… I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I’ll inadvertently reveal myself.”

Unfortunately, town criers don’t exist anymore, so femme queers have to find other ways to work their identity into the conversation. This can be a problem not only in heterosexual society, but also, truthfully, in the LGBT world, where femme queers often get mistaken for straight by other queers. This can be especially frustrating for femme queers who go to gay bars and wind up getting hit on by any straight men present. They may also get ignored by other lesbians or assumed to be “fag hags” if they go with their homosexual male friends. Add to that the fear a lot of femme queers have about inadvertently hitting on a straight girl in heterosexual society and that’s a lot of invisible pressure going on. What’s the solution?

“What we need is a total makeover in the way the world associates presentation and sexuality,” King writes. And she’s right. On a large scale, we need to change society’s perception of “normal” – normal shouldn’t immediately mean straight just like queer shouldn’t mean weird (okay, before it gained LGBT connotations, ‘queer’ started out life as meaning strange, odd, or weird but that’s beside the point). We need a society where no one assumes anything about anyone’s identity but rather approaches each new interaction with openness and excitement for learning about another human being.

So, how do we accomplish this?

Well, short of a major overhaul of our patriarchal society, which could include everything from eliminating the gender binary of our language to defeating sexism, maybe little steps are the way to start.

One of those steps is The Identity Project. A photography movement started by Sarah Deragon, The Identity Project is a collection of headshots of people paired with whatever identity labels they choose. The labels run the gamut from “queer femme sapiosexual switch” to “queer agender trans*asaurus rex” to more simple labels like “partners”, “married”, or “gay”. This project shows the versatility, diversity, and ultimately the label-defying awesomeness of the LGBT community.

Toni Latour has a similar, though more specific, undertaking: The Femme Project. Similar to The Identity Project, the Femme Project is a collection of photographs. However, these pictures are specifically of women who self-identify as femme queers. Sixty-four photographs illustrate the variety of femme queers with the participants ranging in ethnicity, age, style, body type, and experience. It is a perfect way to show that appearance means nothing beyond its intention: to showcase an individual’s style. With more projects like these, perhaps we can increase visibility and understanding for the various ways identity can be expressed.

We can also start within ourselves – the next time you see a girl with long flowing hair and painted nails wearing tight jeans, don’t immediately assume she’s straight. Don’t immediately assume she’s anything. Just smile, say hello, and get to know her.

For more information, feel free to visit these entertaining links:

Aurora Smith is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.