In and Out Of My Femme Funk - straddling the apparent binary of butch and femme

Bound (1996)

As a gay woman, I feel like my identity has always been in a state of flux, because it’s never had the time to land where it feels natural, as it has always been subject to a socially predisposed idea of what that might look like. Because other people chose to define my femininity on their terms. Family, friends, society at large… I am a cis femme white woman, so this is just my own (very privileged) experience. I don’t pretend to speak for all gay women, especially not those who have been subjected to greater levels of violence and prejudice, including gay women of colour, non-binary people and trans women and men. You have my solidarity. I am speaking about an issue that I struggle with, and others may well too – to raise awareness. It is a privilege to have the safety and standing to even consider this an ‘issue’ when my LGBTQIA family elsewhere are closeted for fear of being disowned, or having violence inflicted upon them. I do not pretend these issues are on an even level. I'd simply like to discuss a subject that affects and interests me personally.

I spent most of my teenage years feeling round-faced, uncomfortable in my own skin, and closeted. While girls around me were flourishing in their femininity, I spent most of my time playing sports after school, staying up late watching YouTube videos of pop stars I was in love with, writing and staying in on Friday nights to get homework out of the way. I avoided the combination of alcohol and girls who liked boys while I internalised the thought that femininity was fickle and I didn’t need to participate in all of that. Looking back, what I was really dealing with was social anxiety and my lack of self-esteem; recognising the ways that I didn’t fit in, even though I looked like I was doing just fine.

Femininity has never been something I have been able to confidently master (ironic choice of wording). I had the basics, but I knew I fit somewhere outside of the lines that most girls I knew seemed to have acquired naturally, somehow. They knew how to throw clothes together that made them look “cute” or attractive. They had perfectly honed makeup skills by the age of sixteen, whereas I still don’t know what a highlighter is, or where to put it. They already knew what hair styles and colours worked for them. Even if these things weren’t necessarily true, they were certainly good at making it look like they knew exactly what they were doing, and made it seem so damn effortless. The amount of times I have tried to emulate that – tried to wear dresses, only to feel like a frube. Not exactly in the sense that they felt too small, just uncomfortable. I felt like parts of my body weren’t small enough and other parts weren’t big enough. Even when they fit well, I felt uncomfortable. You can see it in my posture or my face in pictures, too.

I’ve always joked about how I missed those lessons of becoming a girl. Another self-deprecating joke to add to the old habit of gay women making ourselves small so other people can’t. It makes sure everyone else feels comfortable in spite of ourselves.

In the past year I think I’ve finally been able to reconcile my relationship with femininity and express it on my own terms. I’m so proud to be feminine in ways, because it’s the one thing that the world continuously tries to objectify, destroy, yet simultaneously exploit (like having trans models to promote brands while trans people receive discrimination and are subject to violence in the streets from the very people who purchase those brands). Patriarchy tries to stamp on feminine qualities and tell us that being feminine is a weakness, regardless of gender, while it simultaneously fetishises feminine aesthetics. This is evident all the way down to children’s books, where typically masculine qualities like bravery and courage are celebrated over sensitivity and tenderness (although I think it takes bravery and courage to express sensitivity in the modern age, where everyone’s trying to out-joke one another about being dead inside because we aren’t otherwise encouraged to communicate overwhelming emotions).

Yet, for me, typically feminine qualities are the answer to so many problems in society; the ability to be vulnerable, to be expressive about love, are what connect us all together on a very simple human level.

But because of the world’s views of femininity, it often doesn’t know how to let people express it equally. Because I identify as cis femme, the question about wanting children or not regularly pops up, more often than I ever expected it would. When I think about my life I think of myself as a person who essentially has everything I need, in the sense that I’m not some half-formed thing. Being a mother would be nice and rewarding I’m sure, but it’s not essential in my life, and where I stand in my life right now, I’m quite happy in saying I don’t want children of my own. (A lot of people also seem to forget that I can’t have children the way a heterosexual couple can). I shouldn’t have to fight my corner in that as a woman and what it means, no matter how many people tell me I’ll change my mind. I am still a woman. It is still feminine not to want children. Femininity doesn’t boil down to your ovaries.

I’ve been wearing liquid eyeliner for about six years now by default. A lot of people have told me I shouldn’t wear it because it makes my face look more harsh, as opposed to the dainty, elegant look of a little mascara. I used to think that was a criticism, now I wear it specifically for that reason.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I thought this was about clothes, why’s she going on about children and teen angst?” then case in point, I’m trying to show how clothes signify a whole lot more.

In my life, I’ve often been treated in a certain kind of way, that is the result of a complex combination of privilege, prejudice, sexism and god knows what, which has often made a case to reaffirm my lingering apology for taking up space… something I’m still trying to unlearn. From my being, to my gender, to my voice, I am frequently patronised, assumed to be less intelligent and incredibly mimicable, so it seems. I’ve never understood the humour in ripping the piss out of someone (you like)’s voice and or/accent. People, I regularly observe, apply that to my sexuality too, as though my gayness is yet another part of me that they can overpower; another area that can be negotiated, moulded into whatever idea of me/my femininity/my sexuality they are most comfortable with and would like to project. This often involves sexualising me, or removing my sexual agency depending on who it favours.

When I present myself as typically “femme”, one of the main grievances of my day to day life is being read as straight. Not only is it just frankly annoying, repetitive and boring, it always takes a hefty blow at my self-esteem, as it undermines everything I’ve had to go through that I wouldn’t have had to if I was straight, and erases the door into a world within my personality through which I see the world in an entirely different way, from the music I listen to, to the things I care about, and why. I appreciate that as I perform/present in quite a traditionally femme manner (I have long blonde hair, I paint my nails, I care about clothes), one may not instantly assume that I am gay. It might be unfair of me to respond defensively because we’ve all been conditioned to see femininity that way (although, in 2019, you shouldn’t be assuming anything anyway).

What does bother me, however, is the reaction I get once I have made it crystal clear that I am gay, whether I have literally used the words “I’m gay”, or referred to my partner as “she” or “my girlfriend”. Nine times out of ten, people don’t believe me. From straight women, I get the “you don’t look gay” comment that I am encouraged to take as a compliment, and in that moment I know that what’s really being said is “Congrats! You had me fooled for a straight girl.” There, being seen as straight is the winning formula, the best result, which makes “looking gay” feel like a failure. Now they’ve clarified I’m actually gay, I watch the superiority resurface as they admit themselves above me in the social hierarchy. Certain boundaries become crossed, physically or personally.

From men, I get the same comment, mixed with the onset of a new challenge. “Convince me”, they may as well say, as they try to make me prove my gayness. They may not even be overtly aggressive about it, but once I say it, people will welcome themselves into my space as though I no longer get a say on whether I want them to sit at the table with me and my girlfriend in a bar or not. In those moments it’s really hard to not be rude, particularly when they ignore the polite, discrete suggestions that I am very uninterested in their attention without them responding aggressively, which has happened before, multiple times. Revealing my sexuality is not an invitation for you to ask “how” we have sex, or to expect me to share my backstory before you’ve asked my name, if I want to share that.
From gay men, I get a completely mixed response. I’m either celebrated for my femininity and ability to look straight, or I’m celebrated for when I present more butch, but the novelty of the latter wears off noticeably more quickly. I don’t feel as interesting to gay men when I present more obviously gay, which is ironic, given our similar situation.

From gay women, I also get an interesting response. I’m either difficult to read in the sense that I either pass as a straight girl playing with the fantasy, or I’m weak in the butch/femme couple dynamic, where I’m seen to be the femme one who is “topped”. This essentially reapplies the power dynamic of the submissive girlfriend in a heteronormative relationship that I never wanted.

I’ve seen it happen to people I know, too. Those who present more femme, and those who present more butch, are exposed to very different forms of treatment by all kinds of people. It is all confused in this strange distribution of socialised power, of who is made to feel more comfortable and why. In presenting more masculine, you are perceived to attain power of typically masculine traits, which is often tied in with the expectation of chivalry. Straight women may expect a butch-presenting woman to be chivalrous towards her, because it’s modelled by heterosexual stereotypes. Men tend to ‘respect’ butch women if they don’t outwardly loathe/deride them for being a ‘competitor’. When a butch-presenting gay woman is chivalrous towards me as she has clocked me as femme and I detect any tone other than kindness or politeness, I find it condescending. Because that means they see me as below them in the pecking order, and I get enough of that from het men.

But when I can blur the lines of butch and femme, (in a suit, for example) I feel my Ultimate Self™. Having come out at 19, it took my whole straight-passing adolescence, and my second adolescence as a gay to work that out. Maybe if we stopped making girls wear skirts and dresses as part of school uniforms and formal attire, as for non-binary people and for boys, I could’ve worked it out a long time ago, and perhaps that could’ve been the quicker start to a much longer process I’m still working out.

When I straddle the apparent binary of femme and butch, it feels like people don’t know what to make of me, and I like to keep them there. They don’t invite themselves into my space, they don’t assume anything, and they don’t ascribe their preconceived ideas of who I might be when I show them how I see the world, let alone when I open my mouth.

All of these things happen at any time. Coming out at work, meeting new people in any situation, even going to the hair dressers I’ve recently realised is another time to be prepared to be asked about my personal life and because it’s not a barber’s I’m being read as straight again.

Femininity is beautiful, tender and creative, but it’s impractical. Trousers with pockets, backpacks, and personal space are practical, so I’ll take those from the world of masculinity too, and then I can find everything in between. Femininity, and masculinity, aren’t binary. I’m a fan of the sliding scale.
Trying to understand where you fit in in the world, right down to the clothes you pick to wear in the morning, is really difficult when the world has already decided for you.

I might change my mind on everything tomorrow, but that’s the whole point of this piece.

I get to choose.