Posted by: alphafemme | November 17, 2009

femme (in)visibility

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, for months, really, and then when G posted about it recently it was just the shove I needed to actually sit down and write it.

There are so many layers of femme (in)visibility to me. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by straight people, by society at large. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by fellow queers. There’s how we’re seen by fellow dykes. And how we’re seen by each other. And of course, there’s how we see ourselves. And in all of this, there’s the personal, and there’s the political.

But I don’t really know how to write about it except in terms of my own experience. And of course, my experience isn’t representative of anything except itself. But I think there are probably parallels and similarities to and “mmhmm”s and head nods from other femme-identified folks out there.

It starts with not being able to see myself. That must be at the very root of it. As a little girl, I loved to play house, and I always wanted to be the mom. I loved to play school and wanted to be the teacher. 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 Queen Elizabeth II as a little girl (I had a book about her written by her nanny) and with figure skaters and ballerinas. I fit snugly into my gender box. No questions asked.

Come junior high, I decided to start having crushes on the boys in my classes. Each year on the first day of school, I would scan homeroom for that year’s candidates. I carefully weighed my options, and within 20 minutes or so had selected the object of my external focus for the year. Seventh grade: Dillon. Eighth grade: Ryan. Ninth grade: Jason. In tenth grade I started dating, but never really cared much for the guys. In fact I think I was somewhat scared of them. Touching them, kissing them, doing stuff with them made me feel weird and nervous.

I’m not going to go over my whole coming out story here, but suffice it to say it took me quite a long time to come out to myself. I started questioning that year, tenth grade. I had a friend who I was in love with, but I couldn’t quite believe it. 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. Depression, addiction, anxiety, sexual orientation — it’s fabricated, it’s (no pun intended) just in our minds. You can’t get an MRI that says “whoops, there’s some depression in there, we’ll have to medicate you” or a pap smear that tells you “yep, yer gay alright, no two ways about it.” 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. Because all that stuff? It’s in your mind. So I can tell you you’re wrong.

That’s what I, as a femme, was up against. Convincing myself that, actually, no, I’m right. That gut feeling that made me ask my mom, as an 11-year-old, whether it was normal to like other girls? That was right. Even though I liked ruffles and paper dolls and the Sound of Music. It took me so. long. to learn how to trust that feeling. I guess I’m still learning, really. In my first years after coming out for good, I went through all kinds of identity shifts, trying to settle on the self-expression that felt right for me. I just didn’t think it could be that I was both totally feminine and gay. I thought I was just fooling myself that I was gay. To be honest, I sometimes still do have those moments of doubt. “How is it possible that I’m gay?

And, dude, I’m gay. I fuckin’ love pussy. The best compliment from mi’lady is when she looks at me in wonder, after a good fuck, and says, “you’re so gay.”

In fact, I think that’s probably the best compliment from anyone. Even people who mean it as an insult. To be recognized as gay makes me puff out my chest and stand up straighter. Really. I just want to belong here. I want people to know that I’m a member of the club. Sometimes, I do get some sort of signal, a wink maybe, and I just about die, every time. Especially when it’s the older, butch lesbians, in their late 30s and 40s. A wink from them is so gratifying. Not transgressive, not presumptuous, not inappropriate. Affirming.

I’ve spent up enough time and energy proving myself to myself, you know? I don’t have much leftover to try to prove anything to anyone else. So I don’t try, not much anyway. And for the most part, I don’t let the invisibility get to me. But those moments of visibility are all the more precious because of it.



  1. those moments of visibility ARE precious.

    sometimes i find myself trying to carry myself in a certain way. in a way that i think other dykes will notice me. that they will say, “hey, she’s one of us.” and give me the nod/wink. it’s amazing what that nod can do for a femme girl!

    i think, ultimately, it comes from within. from that acceptance from within. from that trust. that courage. all those things. all together, they are what make us our amazing femme selves. and while some people may question that, we know what it all means to us.

  2. Are you inside my head?

    Since breaking up with my last girlfriend and really being out on my own, I struggle so much with this. I’m so ok with my gender, I look so heteronormative and enjoy all that privilege without even thinking about it (the two kids and dog certainly help that image…).

    But distinguishing myself as one of the club, a queer, it’s so hard on a day to day basis. Honestly, I have *never* gotten a nod or a wink from anyone acknowledging who I am – it’s frustrating at best. I’ve often thought perhaps I should try to look more like a dyke (at least my idea of it) and maybe I’ll find more dates, find more lesbian friends, have a more active social life, but at the end of the day, it’s just not me. And if I know anything about this journey, it’s that I have to be true to who I am, no matter what obstacles I face.

    Authenticity is really the key to life and if it means I’m overlooked and ignored by the queer community, so be it. I’ve gotta be who I am.

  3. I’ve never gotten a wink either. ::pouting::

    This was a fantastic post and I’m glad you held it in as long as you did because it came out perfectly. Go, you fabulous femme, GO!

  4. oh, i’ve been writing [my version of] this post in my head for so long.

    this is excellent, amazing. and it’s totally amazing to me how different everyone’s journey and place and whatnot is.

    oh, except this, this i totally identify with: “Especially when it’s the older, butch lesbians, in their late 30s and 40s. A wink from them is so gratifying. Not transgressive, not presumptuous, not inappropriate. Affirming.” oh hell yes. =)

  5. ‘Not transgressive, not presumptuous, not inappropriate. Affirming.’

    Simply amazing!

    Thank you for this.

  6. ~~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 totally relate to all of this.

    Gender is something I still struggle with day after day, and yes I have “gone butch” in order to be seen after being so darn frustrated I wasn’t. Even now, years after I came out I struggle with appearance verses identity. If I don a dress and heels and “look” straight to others, does that mean I’m straight? Society sure does justify this concept as well as do some in our community. Silly concept but it’s what goes through my head even though I know full and well I’m gay.

    I went femme-butch-high femme and now I’m moving back to a place where my gender is more fluid and I give myself permission to be high femme one day, tomboy femme the next, and queer the next and fembutchy the next.(etc).

    Being seen is so very important to me but I”m getting more comfortable in my skin and realizing I am seen. I just might not see it.

    Anyway, great post!! Thanks for putting it into wonderful words!

  7. Sometimes I enact what I think of as the “solidarity perve”, which is the check-out you do just to let some saucy queer you’ve clocked* know that you’ve clocked her- an acknowledgement, a finding of solidarity. Even if she’s not your type (“she” is general, of course- swap or remove pronouns to suit). When I’m outside of my queer enclave, far from the friends who know me and know who and what I am, getting a solidarity perve- or a nod, or a wink- in return is one of the only things that makes me feel like I’m not completely alone in the universe. Being someone who doesn’t necessarily present readable “queerness” in presentation makes the solidarity perve ever more precious.

    That thing about being told “you’re so gay” by your partner after a really good fuck? I’ve been told by more than one lover that I “fuck like a butch”. It’s always been meant as a compliment, but I’ve wondered why- why can’t I fuck like a voracious femme with a strong arm and clever hands? Why is assertive expertise in bed a butch-coded thing? I think I’d rather be told I was so gay.

    And yes, I also wondered how on earth it was possible that I could be gay, for the first few years that I was out, despite the screaming evidence in favour of that conclusion. I sort of felt like being gay was a prize for people specialer and gayer and probably less girly than myself.

    *ie, read/pinged on the gaydar/etc.

    • …why can’t I fuck like a voracious femme with a strong arm and clever hands? Why is assertive expertise in bed a butch-coded thing?

      Good question!! You know; it’s because of the masculine/feminine dichotomy. Such bullshit. Tell ’em you fuck like a woman lovin’ LESBIAN. ;)

  8. I loved this post. You said what I would like to be able to say about being a femme, but can never quite articulate. Awesome.

  9. Let me tell you a little bit about invisibility. I’m 50 years old and have white/gray hair. That makes me invisible to EVERYONE.

    I had to laugh when you said …”the older, butch lesbians, in their late 30s and 40s.” You mean those youngsters? Those pups who are just figuring stuff out? Yeah. But, I like a nod or a wink from them too…

    Since I like the role of observer, I don’t mind being invisible ~ most of the time. Other times, sure, I want to wave my rainbow flag and shout it out. Damn right I’m gay!

    At a work meeting recently, a baby dyke came over and sat next to me and started up a conversation. That made me happy. I don’t know if it’s because I look gay or friendly… still, I was glad of a kindred spirit.

    I don’t indentify as femme or butch and neither does my girl, although she looks butch. We like to mix it up and have let go of a lot of the ‘rules’ about how we ‘should’ look or act. I’m lucky enough to live in a city with a large population of queers (Portland OR) so walking around holding hands isn’t a big deal. But, I know that if I am not with my gf, I don’t necessarily look gay. I just look anonymous, like a middle-aged woman with no fashion sense.

    Would I like greater visibility? Sometimes, yes, although then I would have to forego anonymity. It’s a toss up.

    I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly though. I enjoy these discussions of gender/sexuality. Now, you kids get offa my lawn!!!

    • I actually originally just had the word “older” without any sort of qualifier, and then realized that I meant older *in relation to* my own age (and not just “older” as some vague age category), and that I didn’t just mean a *little bit* older, but generationally older. So, really, if a 60-year-old dyke winked at me, I’d be totally flattered and swooning too. Or an 80-year-old.

      That’s an interesting point about visibility v. anonymity. And it’s certainly true. It is a toss-up. None of us has it easy, that’s for sure.

  10. Beautifully written.

    As an (in)visible femme who lives in heels, pink, bling, and hair to my ass, I am daily asked if my “husband” does this or that. I’d like to say that I can let it slide, but, did I mention that I am also a strong and opinionated woman? Why must one assume that the rings on my left hand are from a man?

    Someone I follow on Twitter talked about a “visible femme” sticker or button that they have. Sometimes I wish that “gaydar” was real. Like there was this chip in us or something that when we passed each other on the street we could just know.

    Just because I do not fit society’s opinion of what a lesbian looks like, doesn’t make me any less of a lesbian. I enjoy making love to my girlfriend just as much as a butch woman does. I love her kisses and her short spikey hair and her crystal blue eyes. I love the curve of her ass and the strength or her arms. Just as a butch woman loves these things.

    I hate being (in)visible…..

  11. This IS a great post! Particularly when I first came out, I also struggled with questioning myself because other people questioned me as a result of my femininity. So silly. I KNOW I love the ladies.

    Also, as DeDe described–and I think you’ve said something similar in one of your femininity posts too, alphafemme–I’ve tried to go butch just to fit in with the other dykes! That’s so sad, isn’t it? I’m not high femme or anything, but I’m always very conscious of whether I’m gonna get my beloved Lesbian Street Cred (that’s what I call visibility). Which I won’t unless I dress andro. And that’s OK for the weekends or casual wear, but not in general. In general, I pass for a straight girl. *Sigh.* The role of visibility in lesbian culture, history, and community is just FASCINATING!

    Question about Lesbian Solidarity, though. Cause I’m waaaay into it. Do y’all think that, maybe because of femme invisibility, that femmes are more likely to look for and/or offer the wink, nod, smile, greeting? I’ve found that, in general, duh-dykes and butches can a little standoffish when it comes to mutual dyke recognition. I wonder if it’s maybe because they’re tired of being recognized, while I’m desperate for it…? Anyways, I think the importance of SOLIDARITY cannot be understated!!

  12. I keep coming back to read this post so I decided I might as well just comment on it. So this is my comment:

    I’ve had this happen far too often but sadly for me, the LGBT community that I operate within doesn’t have labels such as femme, butch or andro. It’s like a cake mix, lot’s a different ingredients but all coming out to be the same in the end.

    My invisibility usually happens because they don’t understand the concept of the femme and butch labels (also stating that this community is basically 18 – 25 year olds who’ve been around the area since they were born). It’s odd to have so much culture on LGBT but to have it with no real relevance in this community.

    So, that’s my say.

  13. One thing that I am bothered by most about being femme is the constant ‘coming out’ that we are forced to endure. Just because I do not have short short hair and wear cargo shorts and a leather wrist cuff doesn’t mean that I like to feel breasts pressed against my bare skin! Working in the LGBT movement was one of the most liberating times in my life. I never was questioned about who I was or who’s arms I went home to at night. It was amazing to talk openly about my girlfriend at the time and not be worried about how it may affect my relationships with co-workers.

    Since that time, my girl and I broke up and she decided to transition to male. I’ve recently found myself questioning my own sexuality and my gender expression has a lot to do with that. However, I know that I can analyze my sexuality until the cows come home and I will still want to end my day with the woman of my dreams.

    Hopefully with more diversity coming to the lgbt community – more….universally accepted expressions and the removal of stereotypes we place on ourselves – we can all live in one happy queer world.

  14. I don’t think there’s any way I can know who is gay and who isn’t; I just try to make the most of it when I *do* recognize it, with eye contact and a smile, a wink, etc. I want you all to feel like you belong, and in doing that, it helps me feel like I belong, too. It helps it all make sense to me.

    Great post, again. If you ever get tired of hearing me tell you what an insightful writer you are, just let me know.

    • I mean, is it possible to get tired of hearing that one is an insightful writer? Doubtful :)

      And that smile and wink DOES help me feel like I belong, so keep on doing it!

  15. […] the post Alphafemme wrote about femme invisibility, she touched on something very interesting: It starts with not being able to see myself. That must […]

  16. If you look conventionally feminine you are invisible to other gay women. I I came out late, my 40’s, and I just bought a rainbow heart lapel pin, which I’m going to wear.
    Why? To let other women know what gay women look like. To let other lesbians know I’m one, maybe something wonderful will happen:)

    to let the idiot men on the bus who try to pick me up know I’m not interested.

  17. […] […]

  18. I kept coming back and reading this over and over so I’m going to have a say. Or any type of say that I can have.

    I haven’t encountered much of this invisibility, but I do have a different kind.

    If you want to read a warped view of femme invisibility.

    – Cal.

  19. As a baby butch, I really try to look out for you (in)visible femmes. It is so unfair that people assume that femme=straight, and while I am a very visible gay, I still can understand your frustration.

    Thanks for posting this. It really helps me realize how ostracized femmes feel. I’ll be sure to wink at every cute girl I see, just to say, “I see you. You belong.”

  20. […] the other day I linked to a post on femme (in)visibility and “coming out to oneself”, which discussed the link between gender presentation and […]

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