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“i’m at the control tower”

November 18, 2009

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.

Lady Brett

"The Negotiation Limerick File" - The Beastie Boys
6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2009 7:52 am

    Fantastic post, as always. It’s so interesting how many levels of visibility and invisibility you’ve experienced and I’ve really enjoyed reading your perspective on each. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. November 20, 2009 1:36 pm

    Huh, interesting, so different from my own narrative. I went through a phase in college of presenting as distinctly boi-ish, and the best part of all that was being unequivocably recognizable (and recognized) as gay. But that was on PURPOSE. And it wasn’t quite right.

    I’m definitely still trying to reach a comfortable space where I can vacillate at will or at random between high femme and boi, depending on my moods/whims, and be entirely comfortable in all of it. I think I’m still practicing what it feels like to know what I want, what feels right. It’s hard to know sometimes!

    Also: “having a girlfriend in hand is a really handy way to look more gay.” HELL YEAH. Love it.

  3. November 22, 2009 10:28 pm

    “… it makes me feel more visible to visibly acknowledge others’ visibility.”

    I just said something very similar while commenting on alphafemme’s post about femme invisibility. Interesting.

    I can definitely appreciate the spy aspect of femmes. There have been several occasions when I apparently appeared too gay for some people to approach, yet they’d approach my gf at the time, not realizing she was also gay. She did a lot of advocate work, so to speak.

    Thanks for the post. So good of you to share this with us.

  4. November 23, 2009 10:53 pm

    “It just doesn’t matter most of the time.” Ditto. I really relate to what you’re saying here, even though the path I traveled to arrive at my femme identity was rather different from yours.

    I think using our femme-inity to challenge stereotypes about what a lesbian/queer woman looks like is important and powerful cultural work.


  5. November 25, 2009 10:49 pm

    And i think every time someone is surprised that i’m gay that is just a visible expression of their picture of “gay” broadening.

    YES!! How many, many times have I been around that track?? A million and one times. Maybe two million. It’s soo interesting to see people’s faces when they had “NO IDEA!” Hey, I’m undercover ;) Being a spy, I like that! Some feminists think it’s placating the haters because to appear feminine is to be non-threatening; I think it’s more important to be comfortable in your skin. I like to switch back and forth between feminine and andro too…but I just can’t give up femininity. I think part of me would die.

    I’m not sure if i define flirting broadly or if i just have a bad habit of flirting with everyone, the same basic idea holds with the simpler recognition-seeking interactions.

    Yes, please! I always try to “flirt” with lesbians. There is no doubt that I’m putting the extra sparkle in my eye and saying hello. Please see me!! I’m ALL about the SOLIDARITY.

  6. OllieBelle permalink
    March 13, 2011 12:59 pm

    “Oh, and having a girlfriend in hand is a really handy way to look more gay.”

    I’ve found that this doesn’t neccessarily work all that well if your girlfriend is also femme. People (including other queers) often don’t read two feminine women being physically affectionate (holding hands, sitting close to one another etc) as a couple. This is partly because of how affection between women is more normalised than affection between men (at least in the UK). Girls can be really tactile with their best mates, over here, but also because of the assumption that feminine girls who do show affection, or sexualised behaviour (like making out) are doing it to titilate men, rather than out of interest for one another.

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