A few weeks ago, a very dear friend of mine got in touch because she was very hurt by something that had happened to her. She was with a group of her good friends that day, and one of them began talking some smack about a “really dikey lesbian” who works in a coffee shop down the road. Apparently, this girl was “super creeped out” and “annoyed” by this “butch lesbian”. Because ew, lesbians.
Other guys and gals in the group chimed in, adding to the chorus of ew’s and ah’s. They too were grossed out by this lady, because why would anyone choose to look like that? And, ewwww, she’s gay, so she’s totally just going to be a creeper and hit on all the girls, because hey — if you’re a lesbian, you’re gonna do that to anything that has a vagina. Totally tooootally not cool, Dikey Lesbian.
Now, my friend does not live in a socially conservative place. Her friends aren’t right-wing crazies or ultra-religious folk wielding signs damning the gays. No, these guys and girls are a pretty liberal bunch. Most of the boys in the group are out and proud gay young men. And the girls are, you could say, typical socially-liberal young women.
All in all, they’re are a bunch of open-minded, gay-lovin’, gay marriage supportin’, city livin’ college youngsters who know that calling a gay man a f*g isn’t cool, and that being liberal and unprejudiced is.
Now, you could say that there are a lot of things wrong with this situation all on its own: hate speech, homophobia and the problems with liberal trendiness are a few that come to mind.
But to top it off, this group of young people spat out this gut-cutting hate speech at someone they cared about, who was standing right there in front of them.
You see, my friend is a gay woman who is not yet completely out. Like so many others, she is struggling to navigate on the confusing and really freakin’ difficult path of coming into her own sexual identity and figuring out how to face all of the challenges that come with that.
This friend of mine is also what is considered characteristically “feminine” in the stereotypical, Western gender binary sense: She has long beautiful hair, wears makeup and pretty dresses, and is a talented dancer and singer. Out or not, I’m pretty much one-hundred percent sure that she will always be her girly cis self. It’s her femme-y personality, fashion-sense and mannerisms that make her who she is.
The main reason why her peers didn’t even think twice about the hurtful and homophobic things they were saying is that my friend does not fit into their mental image of what a lesbian should “look” like. In their eyes, because of the way she outwardly appears, there is absolutely no possibility that she could be gay. Why should they censor their ignorance and homophobia when there are no “real lesbians” in sight? Even the one or two very close friends who know about her sexual orientation didn’t think twice about joining the hateful rant. When she talked to them about it afterwards and how hurt she was by their genuine sentiments, they didn’t understand the problem. You’re not a real lesbian, they seem to whisper. You don’t fit into that mold, so our hate speech doesn’t apply to you.
At first glance, this situation could be seen as just an example of some of the shameful homophobic remnants that force their way out when nobody’s looking, the black shards of prejudice, hate and fear that slice through progress and maim the marginalized, the outcasts, the ones who are different. That group may be ready for the flamboyant boys, but not the butchy girls. Noooo way. Not yet. We can’t include those types into our inner circles of acceptance.
But this also speaks to a much larger discussion pertaining particularly to the issue known as femme invisibility, and all of the harmful heteronormative baggage that comes with it.
Simply put, femme invisibility is the phenomenon that many feminine gay women face when they are not seen as being gay by the community around them or the people they encounter — both gay and straight alike. They are, quite literally, “invisible” — passed over by members of their own community, and those who are outside of it. And when they are open and out, femmes are often treated with skepticism and contempt. Over in the straight arena, you’ve got the heterosexual men who are all googly-eyed over the thought of their sexist porn fantasies coming to life (gross, back off, and no you can’t watch); while in the gay and lesbian arena, femmes are often hard to outwardly identify and may be met with a raised eyebrow or a judgey squinty eye.
Megan Evans, a gay rights activist and writer, sums it up in one of her HuffPo articles on the subject:
The assumption of heterosexuality is twofold when you’re a feminine lesbian: it comes from both the straight and the gay communities… Gay men often proclaim, “But you’re too pretty to be gay!” Lesbians look at you like you do not belong. Straight men try their very best to convince you that if you sleep with them, they’ll open your eyes to what you’ve been missing. And straight women aren’t sure whether they should behave the same way with you as they do with their other friends.
To raise awareness about femme invisibility, Megan recently launched a Femme Visibility Campaign on her and her wife’s popular website to raise awareness about the feminine diversity within the lesbian community. (P.S. If you haven’t checked out their joint blog, you should. It’s too adorable for words.) She aims to give fellow femmes a platform to “help change stereotypes”, both within the LGBTQ community and out. Lots of girly lesbians have submitted their photos, proudly showcasing the femme-y way they choose to present their gender and sexuality.
So what’s the problem with femmes? And why can’t people wrap their heads around gay women who choose to be wear a little more lipstick and frilly skirts, and a little less chopped locks and boyish jeans? The same, by the way, goes for stereotypically-masculine gay men: you’re a manly man who’s also gay? But but but, no! How? Why? This we will call bro invisibility, and it’s just as bad as its female counterpart.
The truth is, deep deep down, people have a big problem when things stray from conformity, even when your sexual orientation is non-conformist. If you are not straight, then you are gay. And being gay means dressing and acting a certain way, so that the people around you can recognize those traits, put you in a little box, wrap you up and place you on a carefully labelled shelf in the recesses of their mind where you’ll be nice and oh-so-safe.
But when your sexual orientation doesn’t match your gender presentation, tensions arise, and people start to get uncomfortable. There’s no box to put you in; no meticulously labeled shelf. Even the wrapping paper has gone missing. What you are, and what you represent, isn’t safe anymore. And people like feeling safe. So instead of challenging those rigid ideals of the gender binary, it’s much much easier to assume that manly and girly equal straight, while tomboy and flamboyant equal gay.
And when two femmes date each other, or two manly men happen to fall in love — now that is a direct and very real challenge to patriarchal heteronormativity — the idea that all intimate and romantic relationships must have within them a distinctly recognizable gender binary: the masculine must balance the feminine, and vice versa. Hence the question many lesbian and gay couples are confronted with: “Which one of you is the guy?”…Ugh.
When two of the same gender presentations combine, it’s even more of a colossal social disaster. Gender roles are taught to be distinct, gender presentations are taught to be distinct, and both are tied to biological sex. So alas, we are forced to fall into the male-female, dominant-submissive, breadwinner-housewife binary, even when our relationships might be same-sex.
What I’m saying is that we have it differently, and that being ignored, being assumed to be something else, is equally as offensive and homophobic, stereotyping and discriminatory, as the rude glances and comments and punches thrown at our more studly counterparts. It’s another side of the same coin, whether the offense is coming from a well-meaning straight person or in the form of a joke from someone in our community.
Amen, sistah. Amen.
Bottom line is that assumptions are dangerous, visciously hurtful and reinforce the stereotypes that kill us slowly. Something’s gotta give. Femme Visibility is good, but I have yet to see a male version to compliment it. And my friend, my very dear friend whom I love, is still deeply hurt by the words of her peers. Their sentiments still sting. That day, they single handedly knocked back her trust meter a few notches. The world is not safe or accepting yet. It’s a long, long road ahead.
Written By Alia Gilbert
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Rainbow mask by Tinnzy.