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Lesbian Invisibility and the Femme's Dilemma

I am automatically seen as a straight woman, because I look like a woman. The assumption that I am straight, moreover, carries with it other assumptions -- about my availability to men, my desires, my habits.

Nick Lehner

Issue #54, March 2001

Last night I had a strange and telling dream. My butch wife and I were in a store, buying some sundries — nothing special, just those necessities of everyday American life, toilet paper, Kleenex, and cat food — and the clerk called her "sir." This is not unusual. With her buzz cut and men's clothes, my wife does project a masculine image to those who don't look closely or carefully. In the dream, I rolled my eyes, feeling amused, proud, and annoyed all at once. Then, a customer made the same mistake, referring to my wife as a man. This time I lost my patience. My dreaming self — fabulous in a slinky summer dress and makeup, long hair swinging angrily against my cheekbones — leapt in front of the woman I love, turned to the customer, and cried, "She's a she! Can't you see her? Look, she has breasts!"

My wife, mortified, tried to square her shoulders as all eyes dropped to her chest. The clerk mumbled something, blushing under his acne and trendy haircut. The customer, a middle-aged woman in jeans, blazer, conservative loafers, slunk away apologetically. I was left alone in my pride and annoyance, my palms hot and slick against my hips. Tucking my hair behind my ears, I tried to regain my composure despite the jungle-beat of my angry heart, the heat in my cheeks.

I am the femme half of a butch/femme couple. I am also a woman who, despite some misguided and embarrassing attempts at a butch aesthetic (obligatory shaved head, baseball cap, baggy jean shorts), has always been strongly and unequivocally feminine. Because of this, some women in the lesbian community would say that I have it easy.

It is true that I am never mistaken for a man, never openly jeered because of my queerness. Not once have I been bashed, either physically or verbally. I walk down the street unharmed and unnoticed as a lesbian; men open doors for me; grandmothers on the bus look at my wedding band, nod, and smile approvingly. None of these strangers imagines that each night I go home to a woman, that I march in gay pride parades, that I fight their assumptions on a daily basis. And why would they?

The fact that I "pass" as straight does not release me from the strict codifications of contemporary American society. Rather, it implicates me in them. I am automatically seen as a straight woman, because I look like a woman. The assumption that I am straight, moreover, carries with it other assumptions — about my availability to men, my desires, my habits. When I touch up my lipstick in a bar, the men around me presume that I do so for their benefit and that they can approach me. If I reject their advances, they can categorize me as a tease or a bitch. Only when I make it explicitly known that I'm not interested because of my sexuality, do they label me appropriately.

Hanging in the air between us is their excuse, whether spoken or silent: "...but you don't look like a lesbian." It bothers me that I must carry the burden of proof, that I must continually defend my selfhood. Why must I look like a lesbian? Why must lesbians "look" any way at all?

When I go out with my wife, things change. The leers appear. People stare, trying to understand. Something is "wrong" with us, with our being together — two women who are outwardly so very different. Clearly we are not chums from the office or friends on our way to the one-day sale at Macy's. There is a dynamic created by our disparate appearances, a dynamic that does not fit mainstream explanations. Whether or not people realize that this dynamic is sexual — as well as emotional, political, and ontological — they do realize that it is alien, Other.

Even other lesbians regard me differently. When I'm alone, I can give a dyke the eye until the cows come home, and she'll never even glance in my direction. Or if she does, she'll glance quickly away again, paranoia in her eyes, afraid that she'll be caught cruising the straight girl. If I'm with my wife, however, that same woman will cruise me or grin at us in recognition, that subtle grin that invariably follows a positive gaydar reading.

This state of invisibility prevents me from feeling fully a part of lesbian culture. I live in fear of being seen as "bi-curious" or as a straight woman looking for kicks in the dyke bar. When I hear the whispers of the lesbians — the obvious lesbians — who surround me, I wish that there were indeed some sort of membership card or secret handshake. Only the presence of my wife, with her gently-possessive hand resting on the small of my back, indicates that I do belong. And while I cherish the completeness of the image that we create together, I resent that I am necessarily dependent on another person to prove my own selfhood.

labrys My ultra-feminine appearance demands that I come out, continually and verbally, something that my butch wife rarely has to do. Her butchness marks me as a lesbian when we are together, for the outward signs she exhibits of her orientation — short hair, swagger, men's clothes — extend to me in an aesthetic osmosis. Alone, I must deliberately expose myself if I want to be identified as queer; otherwise, it's assumed that I'm heterosexual. I have a silver labrys on a chain around my neck, but few get close enough to see it, and those that do rarely realize its significance. Many people, to my chagrin, think it's a dragonfly — not an Amazon battle-axe and a symbol of my lesbian heritage.

In many ways I enjoy my anonymity. It's like having a secret, to which only a few privileged or insightful people are privy. Yet, I am frustrated by the assumptions — on the part of the grandmothers, the businessmen, the store clerks — which interpret my sexuality as something secretive. At times it's tempting to re-create myself in the stereotypical lesbian image: to chop off my hair, trade my Kenneth Coles for Birkenstocks, and invest in some declaratory t-shirts. Just once in my life, I want to be called "sir."

I've learned, since coming out as a femme (a very different process than coming out as a lesbian), that I can't have it both ways. I love lipstick, the feel of a garter belt against my thigh, the way my skirt swishes when I walk. If I were to eschew these outward signifiers of femininity, I'd be lying. When one closet door opens, another closes.

I do occasionally feel guilty, despite all the femme rhetoric I've internalized, that I am not doing my part to further the cause. The lesbian and gay movement has, from its conception, relied on tactics of visibility and the old adage of strength in numbers. If I have no clearly queer face to add to the crowd of queers being counted, I lessen the tally by one. If I am an invisible lesbian, in the eyes of the mainstream, heterosexual world, I'm no lesbian at all.

If silence equals death, as the old Act Up slogan insists, what does invisibility equal? Invisibility, I believe, is its own form of silence. To cloak my own, unique, feminine personality in the outward garb of a stereotype, however, is an equally dangerous silence. I am continually grappling with new ways to speak my self, verbally and otherwise, in order to let that self shine through in all its manifestations, to all observers.

Perhaps it's not so odd, then, that I dream of misrecognition. Issues of gender and transgender, butch and femme, masculine and feminine are on my mind lately. I think of them each time I plug in my curling iron or see a cute little black dress in a shop window. Because of my proclivities and my penchant for makeup, the straight community misrecognizes me as often, if not more so, as they do my butch counterparts. What's worse is that I am often not recognized at all by the lesbians with whom, my long hair and red lips and high heels notwithstanding, I so strongly identify.

Nick Lehner is a high-femme lesbian writer and editor living in Rochester, New York. She recently graduated from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College, and also holds degrees from Syracuse University and Keuka College. When she's not vamping it up, Nick likes to cook, knit socks, and contemplate the mysteries of life.

Copyright © 2001 by Nick Lehner. All rights reserved.