“i’m at the control tower”
In answer to G’s questions about femme invisibility, and a result of a lot of pondering. Among other things, why others’ experiences on this particular subject feel so generally out of line with mine – though some of the particulars are familiar.
I think it is notable in this case that femme is new to me. More, femininity is new to me. I didn’t grow up feminine. I didn’t grow up gay, or questioning. Though i did grow up queer, in the much more general sense that my grandmother uses the term.
Femme invisibility took me rather by surprise. I spent most of my life ’till college being mistaken for a boy fairly regularly. When my hair and breasts grew out, that sort of morphed into an assumption that i was a lesbian, which at the time i was not. I started dating a girl, to which everyone said, “well, yeah?” And for years after that, while i did slowly move towards “more feminine,” no one ever questioned my gayness. Basically my visibility status moved from “dyke!” to “huh, wonder if she’s gay?” or at least “oh, you’re gay? figures.” which, really, was not a notable change.
And then, suddenly (it seemed), one day a [femme dyke, if it’s relevant] was taken aback to discover, after spending a day together, that i was a big queer too. Mind, that was in a fairly queer context, where assuming i was straight pinned me as “ally,” not just as one of the many straight folks. And that was the first time that ever happened to me. It confused me, but mostly because it made me aware that my internal image of myself was not in line with the image i was projecting to people.
I wasn’t really upset that she had mistaken me; i was upset that it had taken me so by surprise, essentially because my self-image was lagging – it was stuck back when i didn’t wear skirts (and, if that failed, had a butch girlfriend).
I’ve gotten over that. I’ve been femme (and the girly kind of femme) long enough to be self-aware of it. With that inconsistency out of the way, i really don’t care.
I don’t think there is anything upsetting about being mistaken. Perhaps this is just habit; i have been commonly, publicly mistaken for things i am not for a long time, starting, i think, long before my memory gets reliable. Mostly mistaken for a boy. I was not a boy and i did not want to be a boy, but it certainly never bothered me. After all, boys were not a bad thing to be, even if it was not true. I still feel this way. I’m not straight, but there is nothing wrong with being straight. So, if i am mistaken for straight, i might correct someone, given the opportunity (as it is not true), but i would never find it offensive or upsetting (as it is not a bad thing to be). I suppose i fail to see how one could be offended by a mistake unless it is because of negative feelings towards the group you are assumed to be a part of.
Less specifically, it just doesn’t matter most of the time. If i’m at a queer event i just assume that people are assuming i’m queer. I don’t find that it affects much either way. In most situations it is just a non-issue, either we are not talking about personal things, in which case being gay is not relevant, or we are, in which case my girlfriend is almost guaranteed to come up (right after the puppies).
As for the positive side of femme invisibility, i like the spy aspect. When i came out, the one thing that really upset me about being gay was that i could no longer be an ally. Because allies are really important in getting people who are not friendly to even listen to your side of the discussion – essentially because it seems more credible to be able to say “i have no vested interest in this, but still support it.” Well, now, on occasion i get to play that part again, though slightly differently. I get to be the unintimidating queer.
In my favorite example, the woman who abruptly changed course and walked across the pavilion before resuming it to avoid my butch-dyke girlfriend while campaigning to take our rights away, and five minutes later came up to me to ask about Dog. We had a fairly long dog-related conversation, after which i really hope she saw me kiss my butch-dyke girlfriend. So, it was funny and a little snarky, but i really like that i have the option to do that. I mean, i’d rather things were such that people don’t avoid interacting with people who look too gay. But ’till then, i am fully interested in my ability to normalize gay. I can hope that it was eye-opening to that woman that lesbians rescue dogs too, and shop for vegetables and smile at strangers and wear skirts and long hair (and kiss butch girls. well…). That option is only open to me because of my femmeininity. And i think every time someone is surprised that i’m gay that is just a visible expression of their picture of “gay” broadening. Which won’t solve anything by its lonesome, but it’s a step in the right direction.
But of course there are times when being more visible would be cool. The main obstacle i found with being invisibly queer was picking up, of course, because that’s when you really want queer strangers to recognize that you’re, you know, an option. But i made me a nice – not tacky – rainbow necklace as a “what’s up.” (i gave it away two weeks after i started dating Jamie, to a friend-of-a-friend who complimented it profusely – i didn’t need it anymore.) The other, less slutty version of this is simply that recognition is cool, like alphafemme said:
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.
Either way, i found that people tend to be receptive to flirting. She may have thought you were straight at first, but if you think she’s cute, and you’re smiling like you think she’s cute, i guess that’s convincing enough. I’m not sure if i define flirting broadly or if i just have a bad habit of flirting with everyone, but i think the same basic idea holds with the simpler recognition-seeking interactions. That is, it totally makes me happy to see visibly queer people in public – especially couples and cute butch girls. And since it totally makes me happy, i find it really easy to smile like, well, like seeing them makes me happy. And, come on, how gay is that? Not that it always works, and not that you can always smile at strangers without looking like a creep (but even if i mush the smile down, it tends to make my eyes wrinkle up happy-like), but it makes me feel more visible to visibly acknowledge others’ visibility. Right.
Oh, and having a girlfriend in hand is a really handy way to look more gay.
"The Negotiation Limerick File" - The Beastie Boys