Femme Invisibility

Updated: Jan 26, 2020

It's right on our homepage - Ali and I like to think of ourselves as tinted chapstick lesbians. We love to dress up and be feminine, but we also identify with some more butch/tomgirl style choices. We are often mistaken for straight women, unless we're very deliberate in our clothing/shoe/hairstyle choices. Here's a little breakdown of femme invisibility, from our point of view.

When people think about what a lesbian looks like, most people picture a classic butch lesbian. Just as gay men are often thought to be feminine men, so are lesbians thought of as masculine women. Now both those statements are somewhat true - gay men are sometimes very feminine and lesbians are sometimes very masculine. There are many people out there who fit the stereotypes perfectly because that's just who they are. But what about those who don't?

Femme lesbians are those women who present as "classically feminine" and are sometimes referred to as "lipstick lesbians". These are the gay ladies who prefer dresses, having their nails painted, having longer hair - visual cues that have been assigned to classic western femininity. I've also heard that some ladies avoid the term "lipstick lesbian" because it plays into the idea that lesbianism and femininity are for male pleasure. I don't totally buy into that, but I completely see where they're coming from.

When you're a feminine lesbian, it's hard to be in queer spaces because you pass for straight. In gay bars, you will most likely be mistaken as a straight girl who came with her gay friends, or - god forbid - part of a bachelorette party. When we go to gay bars to see drag shows, we're very aware of what we look like. We don't want to be mistaken for straight Rupaul's Drag Race fans encroaching on a queer safe space. We often wear combat boots, ripped jeans, and plaid shirts to those shows. (In my opinion, straight people are more than welcome at drag shows. But if the show is at a gay bar, it's much more of a gray area because that is supposed to be a safe space for queer people to escape the heteronormative world).

Even at Pride events, people can get confused. Some Pride parades and parties have turned into a five-straight-girls-with-their-one-gay-guy-friend party, which isn't great. When you're a femme lesbian in that setting, it's easy to get grouped in with the disapproval associated with straight girls who are there just to take pictures and get points for "having a gay friend."*

*(I know not every straight girl at Pride is like this. There is a difference between being there as a straight ally and being there to make it all about yourself.)

It's also hard in the dating/social world if you're a femme lesbian. How will the other lesbians know you're one of them if you don't have a neon sign that says "HELLO IT'S ME, I AM GAY"? It doesn't really happen on queer dating apps, simply because women who put women as their preference are already assumed to be gay for obvious reasons. But if you go to a bar or other function looking for the queer lady of your dreams, it's hard to do without jumping up and down and shouting "HELLO CUTE GIRL! I AM A LESBIAN TOO, PLEASE TALK TO ME!"

However, there are benefits to being a straight-passing femme lesbian. We worry much less about getting jumped or attacked by awful people who are trying to hurt queer folks (though it does still happen). We don't face many of the prejudices (both big and small) that obviously queer people face every day. Ali and I are very, very privileged to be cis and white, and to pass for straight as well.

But when we hold hands and kiss in public, we can get very scary reactions. Honking cars, men making kissy faces or sticking their tongue out at us in a sexual way, and offensive offhand comments are incredibly common for femme/femme couples. Femme/masc and masc/masc couples, as well as those who are androgynous, can get these reactions as well. But feminine lesbians are hypersexualized to a very high degree, almost exclusively by straight men.

This goes back to people believing that feminine women are intended for male pleasure. It's the same idea as when two straight girls kiss at a bar to get attention from guys. It's the reason men ask lesbian couples for threesomes or send inappropriate photos behind the anonymity of a phone or computer screen. The notion that men have any stake in or ownership of feminine women (queer or otherwise) is disgusting.

Finally, it's just weird to get questions from random people like "Aw, are you two sisters? No? Best friends?" Some people make comments like "You're too pretty to be a lesbian!" or "You just haven't found the right guy yet." Why do random people feel the need to confirm we aren't gay for their own comfort?

We had a taxi driver taking us from LAX to our hotel for DragCon who was an older Russian man. He was hilarious, until he started talking to us about how we needed to find rich husbands. We'd been very obviously holding hands in the back seat, and this was not a short drive. We felt very uncomfortable, and decided to agree and continue to joke about the husbands we were looking for. We had no idea how he would react to us being together, so for our safety we lied and took the "easy way out" by agreeing with him.

So femme invisibility is a two sided coin. Yes, it can be a privilege in queerphobic spaces. But mostly we're sick and tired of being sexualized by men and being assumed straight until proven otherwise. We like to think the opposite way sometimes - we love to assume two girls or two guys together are a couple until proven otherwise! Or, you know, you can just leave them alone because it doesn't matter!

Note: Just to be totally clear, "femme lesbians" refers to ALL femme women who love women - including trans femme lesbians, intersex femme lesbians, bisexual women in a relationship with another woman, etc. Cis femme lesbians are just a fraction of the wonderful variety of gay ladies out there!

Photo by Christina Marie Photography

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