Friday, September 9, 2011

Femme Invisibility

In my professional life, I write about issues of queer visibility in higher education history. It has, over time, led me to think a lot about my own visibility as a queer person. I present as somewhat femme of center (#Idon'tbelieveinspectrums) because I have long hair, I dig eyeliner, and I sometimes wear skirts or dresses. I feel no need to apologize for this, as there is something sneakily sexist in assuming we should all ditch girly stuff and embrace boyish stuff no matter what we feel in our hearts. And, just for the record, I don't identify with femme anymore necessarily. I don't NOT identify with it either. I just don't think it really describes me, just like I don't think butch describes me, and one of the things I really like about queerness is seeing identities evolve over time. But I don't want to distance myself from a femme identity either, as though it is somehow less valid. It isn't, and because I get read as femme, I feel as though I can identify with the struggle for visibility.

But, looking a little femme means that people don't take one look at me and think "There's a gaywad!" unless I'm, you know, being decorated in rainbows for Pride. And according to the internet, a lot of people are talking about this. And clearly, it's something we need to be talking about.

There are ways in which I've made myself more visible, I think. I have a rainbow nautical star tattoo on my wrist. I have a nose ring and a purple streak in my hair, and the bag I usually carry has a bunch of gay pride buttons on it. And, as has been noted repeatedly, I plaster rainbows all over everything.*

It's been noted before that there's something easier about being femme, because you aren't as likely to be a victim of homophobia. This is probably true! But I don't want to sink into that comfortable place, for several reasons. First of all, I want my fellow queermos to know I'm part of the family. Second, visibility is my area of study. I think it's incredibly important for me to put myself out there - I've written about this before. I can't make space for other queer people if I'm not out there pushing boundaries. (And, as I have also said before, but it bears repeating: This is a personal choice. People should only ever be as out as they feel safe being, and I don't judge people who stay closeted, ever, unless they are Republican politicians.)

But what is it about girls with long hair and dresses that make people read us as straight? I think it comes back to this idea that sexual orientation and gender are intertwined, and this leads us to thinking that all gay men are swishy and feminine and all lesbians are softball-playing butches. Conservatives have used this against us, pointing out that our men are too feminine and our women too masculine, and therefore, we are somehow going to cause the downfall of the American patriarchy (we can only hope). I think that the people who transgress gender boundaries in bold, visible ways are brave (and often hot!). There isn't a right or wrong way to present or identify, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. We should all just do what we want. It's that simple. Kinda.

I might not have an Alternative Lifestyle Haircut, but I'm not trying to hide anything. Everyone is different, and until we get to the utopia in which sexual orientation is as incidental as hair color, I'm just going to go through life assuming everyone is queer until otherwise stated.

*No, not all gays are into rainbows, and that's cool. We've all got our thing.

Photo by Nic Bravo.


  1. **I'm just going to go through life assuming everyone is queer until otherwise stated.**

    I think that's a safe assumption. I'm pretty sure most people have (at least) that one special, unreachable person that they would discard all their notions and trappings for if they just wandered up to their door and knocked.

  2. Right there with ya. People don't see me as queer because I'm married to a man, love to sew, wear dresses, skirts, and makeup, and am quite happy in the kitchen. Yet, I would likely still date women if I weren't married to a man.

  3. Sarah: Right, that's true. Also, I think that all gender is performative, and therefore, all gender is queer. So it isn't even as much about whether people are homos, it's about whether it's possible for anyone to be hetero in the sense that the dominant cultural narratives want people to be. Furthermore, I like messing with stuff, and since the mainstream has a "straight until stated otherwise" stance for most people, I think it's fun to turn that on its head. Also also, I'm tired of people thinking that being assumed queer is an insult. It's a compliment, in my weird little rainbow mind.

    Drew: I hear you. When I realized I was too gay to be married to a dude and going through a divorce, I found a book called "Dear John, I Love Jane." Mostly it's stories of women who left their husbands for other women, or the idea of other women (as it was in my case), but one of the stories was about a woman who stayed married to her husband. Their marriage worked for her, and she considers herself bisexual, I think. Anyway, she wrote about the hardship she faced with being invisible and facing scorn because she was benefiting from all this straight privilege that came with being hetero-partnered. I wish the parts of the queer community that think they are entitled to decide who is gay enough to hang out would just stop it already. Family is family. We should be supporting each other.