Femme Invisibility: The Boundaries of Queer Womanhood

I spent the majority of my adolescence pretending I was straight.

In reality, it wasn’t that difficult – being a feminine person. I fit right in with my heterosexual friends, though in my mind I was a neon sign in a dim-lit street.

Fast forward to present day and I, an out and proud lover of fellow females, find myself having to prove my queerness. It’s a plot twist as ironic as choking on a lifesaver – if only fifteen-year-old Sophia could see me now, right?

I cannot count the number of people who, upon finding out that I am gay, respond immediately with “You don’t look it!” or, “You’re a lipstick lesbian for sure!” In fact I have to come out to most people I befriend, at some stage, because I don’t fit the lady-loving bill. While the change in situation is good for a giggle, this is unfortunately an issue for many queer folk who don’t identify with the stereotypical aesthetic of their sexuality. 

When it comes to queer ladies who adopt a style widely accepted as ‘girly’, this issue is called “femme invisibility”. Not only are we indiscernible to the heterosexual community, but also our own. As Hannah Cooper from FemmeMeetsFemme points out, this often poses difficulty connecting to the queer social and cultural world – leaving us afraid of finding no one to identify with, or having to constantly prove ourselves.

This sentiment is shared by WhatWeganDidNext’s Megan Evans, who voiced the lack of people like her, a femme lesbian, to look up to for reassurance in her youth. It is difficult enough to mentally overturn the ingrained paradigm and express oneself without boundary, let alone continually justify this in the outside world.

Though we mostly live in a society which is much more progressive than our history, its heteronormative undercurrent is no secret. Simple evidence of this is found in the age-old questioning of “Who is the man?” in a lesbian relationship. Or, indeed, in the generalising of queer women as people who look and dress differently to those who are heterosexual. These sentiments are dangerous alone in their internalised gender roles, but become exponentially more harmful when delivered under an accepting front.

When “I’m completely okay with who you are and what you’re about” is followed with “You’re too (pretty/manly/etc) to be (sexuality other than straight)” it becomes all too easy to internalise this traditional way of thinking. I know, because I internalised it and so did many of my fellow gaybies.

After hearing similar phrases from many of my – well meaning, though ill informed – friends, I immediately bought every plaid shirt in the city and considered cutting my hair. I didn’t, because I’ve been growing my mermaid locks for seven years, thank you very much, but it did get to me. I couldn’t see the inaccuracy behind their way of thinking because I was constantly assured that my sexuality wasn’t an issue in their eyes.

Unfortunately, this feeling is a common one amongst feminine queer folk, with many women citing periods wherein they attempted to assimilate to a style registered as traditionally gay.

For me this ended on one fateful day, wherein I suddenly realised that I didn’t really have to prove anything to any one – this is about to get real Lizzie-Mcguire-cheesy, so get ready for that.

It became abundantly clear that my love of makeup, long floaty skirts and other things traditionally decided as feminine did not equate to heterosexuality, and I stopped feeling the need to voice that. How did I come to this epiphany? Representation. Public figures such as Ingrid Nilsen and Rachel Whitehurst, who are openly queer and unchanging in their femme appearance, helped me feel no shame in my gender representation, lacy lingerie and all.

Obviously, this is just my situation. Though the principle applies across the board – representation matters. Gay men who don’t fit any of the stereotypes, bisexual and pansexuals, transgender people or those who don’t identify with a gender – the variance amongst sexual difference is as vast as that of hair colour, and it needs to be shown off. Not just for those in the community, but for all those who – willingly or not – enforce these heteronormative views.

I will not spend my adulthood convincing people of my sexuality. So, if you need me, I’ll be applying my eyeliner with wings thick enough to fly away from anyone who tells me it makes me less gay.




About Sophia Skea

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Beauty blogger and pun enthusiast. Lover of winged liner, kitties, and the Oxford comma.