In the past, I aimed for neutral fashion, so I could stand out for my thoughts, not my appearance. Since I became a lesbian, I want people to know who I am without having to constantly come out. At the same time, I am afraid to leave the safety of straight passing. (Added bonus: I can check girls out without them noticing, teehee).
This is Part Two of Six of a mini-series on queerness and fashion, appearance, and visibility. Check out Part One too!
The phenomenon of women who are lesbian or queer, but ‘look straight’ and are presumed straight – often by the queer community and the straight community – is called femme invisibility. Femme lesbian Youtuber describes her experience of femme invisibility and people’s assumptions about the relationship between gender expression and sexuality here (e.g. “no, you’re too pretty to be gay, what a waste, so what did a guy do to make you this way, huh – you don’t look it, oh yeah – prove it”).
Often, the only way for me to be seen as a lesbian is to come out verbally. I find this stressful, even in environments where I have little fear for my safety. It feels like an unnecessary focusing of attention on me. When I do come out, straight people often respond with a respectful version of ‘who cares?’ I do. I care. That’s who! It irks me to know someone conceives of me in the wrong way. It’s a big deal, but at the same time, I don’t want to make it one. I wish people would just know I’m gay for the simple reason that I want to be seen for who I have worked hard to become (in my next post in the series, I’ll discuss why I want to be seen by other queers too).
When I meet a new straight man and we get along well, I feel a compulsion to come out quickly so as to not lead him on. This is always awkward, because it implies that I assume every straight man would want to date me. This is certainly not the case. However, I fear the awkwardness and hostility that can come when a straight men feels ‘friend-zoned’ (there’s a lot to deconstruct around toxic masculinity here, but that’s for another blog). So, I find ways of integrating my queerness into the conversation as early as possible with straight men. Previously, I would casually reference how I recently moved back from England where I went to live with my ex-girlfriend. But that story is years behind me now and I’m still struggling to find a way to integrate my queerness casually into conversation without appearing hung up on a distant ex.
I want to directly address conversations of the ‘oppression’ of femme queer women. I see a big difference between struggling with external validation and recognition for who I am, and facing violence or discrimination for looking a way society reads as queer. Yes, there is real pain in not being seen for who I am. This pain is hurtful, but it is not oppression.
In mentioning the downsides of femme invisibility, I want to mention the important safety that is found in passing as straight. Homophobia and gaybashings are still all too real. As Liz Hurst writes, “I come out when I walk into a room of strangers simply by existing.” I have the privilege to hide myself if it is necessary. In fact, for me the fear of what could happen is part of the reason I stay femme. I will explore this in further detail in another post in this series.
However, this privilege comes with a drawback. As Melissa Fabello writes, straight-passing lesbians “are free to be who we are – or who [the people looking at us] think we are.” Although it may seem inconsequential, it is invalidating and unpleasant to be constantly read as straight by every new acquaintance and passing stranger. As Emily O’Hara points out, when people assume you are straight it feels like being shoved in the closet over and over again. My discomfort is intangible and slightly irrational, but it is so real. Worse, is men who think they can turn you because there is still some straight left in you. In fact, I have never kissed a queer person in public without a man asking join. (Edit: As well, queer femme women and non-binary folks in relationships often have to make the difficult choice between hiding a relationship in public, or making themselves visibly queer and facing the danger that comes with it).
Like many queer people, my identity journey has been, and continues to be, an agonizing quest to understand and accept myself. I have worked so hard to become me and I want to be recognised for it.