Thursday, November 2, 2017

Queer signaling and femme invisibility

Is there a "right way" to be queer? Queer theory advocates subversion, transgression, destabilization, and volatility in the face of dominant hetero-patriarchal norm. It supports those who fall outside the boundaries of "proper sexual desire, gender performance, and anatomical form." It is, essentially, anti-essentialist. As a result, one could argue, it cannot/does not require any particular set of attributes, behaviors, or beliefs. However, I find myself questioning that conclusion.

In 1995, queer theorist David Halperin complained: “There is now a right way to be queer ... to invert the norms of straight society." His implication was that queerness had been commodified and distilled down to a particular image. Consider, for example, the image of an impeccably dressed and groomed fit gay man (later commodified for straight men as "metrosexual") or the image of an androgynous L.A. lesbian (think Shane from The L Word with her transgressive short haircuts and masculine or agendered clothing, or even Ellen Degeneres).

While the ethos of queer theory suggests there is no "right way" to be queer, the reality is that a large contingent of queer culture has adopted its own signaling practices and image standards. It is difficult to identify as queer based solely on sexual identity or desire. Rather, one must “perform” as queer in a manner that not only identifies you as queer for the outside world, but indicates to the queer community that you are "one of us."

This system, of course, has ramifications for those that don't choose to perform or conform to queer identifiers. I can speak specifically from my perspective as a queer woman who generally presents heteronormatively (on the more feminine side of the spectrum... aka a "femme"). I have never had short hair, I like getting my nails done and wearing makeup, and I frequently wear heels and dresses when I go out or to formal social events. I am generally only identified as (or suspected to be) queer when I am with an obviously queer partner or engaging in transgressive activities (for example, when I played rugby, a decidedly "non-feminine" sport, in college). These choices aren't made for convenience's sake. I am not actively trying to "pass" in straight society. While I am aware that my preferences are largely shaped by gender expectations of the society I grew up in, they are still my preferences, and I have no desire to "queer up" my look.

Not presenting as outwardly queer has obvious benefits. I am allowed a pass in spaces where visible queerness might be a profound social or professional obstacle – or even where it might be dangerous. It's easier for me to find clothing that reflects my own personal style and is made with women's curves in mind. I can use the women's restroom without being questioned or yelled at (a sadly common experience for my past girlfriends). However, this choice comes also comes with challenges. "Looking straight" means I must constantly "come out" to people – people at my job, people at school, to men who are interested in dating, and in just about every other social situation where I am meeting individuals for the first time. It means being asked to explain and justify my sexual identity to clueless people who assert "you just don't look gay." At the same time, without outward queer identifiers, I find I am also invisible to or discounted by other members of the queer community (a phenomenon identified as "femme erasure"). As a result I often find myself uncomfortably straddling the line between heteronormative culture and queer culture, feeling part of – yet also apart from – both.

Another challenge faced by queer women who present as femme is that they remain subject to dominant or toxic masculinity, not just from cis-men, but from members of the queer community who have retained or adopted practices that subjugate the feminine. When I dated more androgynous or butch women, others often assumed that I was the passive partner in the relationship. Restaurant bills would be put in front of my partners. While car shopping, salesmen first approached my partner who came with me. Past partners were invited by men to participate in activities that excluded or marginalized femme women (think strip clubs, cigars, golf), or were treated as inherently more intelligent, driven, or professional, simply as a result of their having a more masculine presentation.

Misogyny percolates into dating and relationships between femmes and other queer women too. Femmes are often expected to play the traditional feminine role, which involves taking on a disproportionate amount of housework/cooking or doing the majority of the emotional labor in the relationship. Some past partners assumed that if the relationship progressed I would be comfortable with my career taking a backseat, that I would take my partner's last name, or that I would spend more time at home with any kids that might enter the picture.

This is not to say that femmes are by and large dismissed as pariahs in the queer community, but it is interesting to see how sexism persists even in a movement that purports to reject patriarchy, gender barriers, and other expressions of heteronormativity. However, an increased movement among queer folks to make the community more inclusive of and welcoming to femmes heartens me. In fact, the butch community (the other end of the spectrum) has produced some of the femme community's strongest allies. I look forward to seeing how this movement plays out and evolves within the greater queer community over time.


Suzanne Connell said...


Thank you for such an insightful post and for sharing your personal experiences with us. I can only imagine the frustration you must feel when someone decides you may not fit into what they view as the archetypal 'mould' for a queer woman... whatever that's supposed to entail.

A lot of what you said resonated with me and forced me to think of and become mindful of ways I might sub-consciously assume certain facets of an individual's sexuality based solely on their outward appearance. Your post also reminded me of a close friend of mine back in Ireland who came out as gay a little over a year ago. I remember him voicing his frustration at the amount of straight females he knew who just assumed that now he was out he'd be their new 'gay best friend' and become 'one of the gals' almost overnight. He knew he was gay since he was about 12 years old and decided to come out when he was twenty. However, in that interim he had been perceived as a hyper-masculine straight guy by anyone who knew him as he enjoyed rugby, football and being 'one of the lads'. Now that he's comfortable with outwardly expressing his sexuality he hasn't suddenly acquired a propensity for dressing, acting or engaging in pastimes that are in any way different to what he has enjoyed doing all his life. However, it seems that some people are still incapable of wrapping their heads around this and expect him to also "queer up" his look.

I really sympathise with your feeling of constantly having to "come out" to people because you don't outwardly present yourself in a way that people can easily categorise you as either queer or straight. As I vocalised in class last week, I have a problem with this onus that is placed on the queer community to "come out", as it reasserts this notion that heterosexuality is society's benchmark and that anyone who doesn't conform to this must expressly and repeatedly highlight it. It must be exhausting to have to re-assert this over and over again because society can't seem to compute that lovers of make up, high heels and manicures can also be queer.

Aoife Mee said...


Thank you for your very personal post about what it's like to be a "non-conforming" queer in western society. It reminded me of a documentary I watched as part of a Gender and Development course I took back in my home University in Dublin. The documentary follows the queer community in Jamaica, where attacks, murder and rape are common occurrences against LGBTQI people, with little to no retribution or justice brought against those responsible. After being forced from shacks, derelict buildings, and their own families, many homeless LGBTI Jamaicans have found refuge in the storm drainage systems of Kingston — known locally as the gully. The film is a heart-breaking illustration of what it is like to be queer in the developing world, where "coming-out" results in the most severe forms of social and political marginalisation as well as violent persecution.

However, the documentary highlights, like you have in your blog, the importance of community in challenging stereotypes and promoting acceptance of those who don't conform form to heterosexual or homosexual norms. Indeed, it was amazing how, in the documentary, the queer men and women had formed a strong sense of community and found a safe sanctuary in the gully. This support and acceptance of each other left many of them hopeful, rather than despondent, that change will come.

Glen Oh said...

Thank you for sharing such a wonderful and honest post! As someone who doesn't carry the traditional identificatory markers of being queer, your post resonated with me on so many levels. I don't know how I am perceived by others, but I imagine that I come off as incredibly straight-passing and often find myself overcompensating in queer spaces. Whether that be by speaking with a feminine twang or punctuating my words with a limp wrist, I feel that I have to signal that I am in fact "one of them."

I am reminded of a specific line from the documentary "Intersexion" we watched in class. There was a very muscular and masculine person in the video who said something along the lines of how his intersex identity was wrapped in his very masculine-looking exterior. So too for me, I feel I have very purposefully adopted a traditionally masculine appearance in law school, so as to not outwardly present as queer.

Kim Angulo said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. Your discussion of the pressure to "perform" a queer identity by having short hair, being more "masculine" or dressing a certain way resonated with my experience coming out and coming to terms with my sexual orientation and gender expression.

For me, sexual orientation and gender expression were intimately tied together because I didn't want to be invisible to the queer community and I did not want to have to constantly come out anymore. When I went to college I had long hair and wore more feminine clothing. After deciding to come out I wanted somehow to feel like I was part of the lesbian culture that I saw on TV and around me, which was, as you said, a performance of being queer. I wanted to avoid being both visible to heterosexual culture as straight and invisible in queer culture because I "looked straight." I made the decision to cut my hair short because I didn't want to be invisible and I hated constantly coming out to people. It took me years to figure out my personal line between wanting to signal to other queer women that I am one of them, and expressing my female gender identity in a way that feels authentic and less of a performance for other people.

I also appreciated your discussion of the sexism within the queer community and the gendered expectations of people based on their perceived level of femininity or masculinity. This is an issue within the queer community that would benefit from feminism and feminist theory becoming more prevalent. Thank you again for your thoughtful piece.

mxengel said...

Thanks for sharing such an amazing post! I loved your discussion about what is happening inside the LGBT community. A lot of feminism tends to focus on the relationship between men and women and rarely looks at the way it can affect queer people, especially when in relationships.

You did an amazing job characterizing what it is like to be inhabiting the gender norms social structures force upon us starting at birth, and trying to be in the queer community. Sometimes you do not know if you are acting a certain way because you want to be, or because society wants you to be. Regardless, some people in the Queer Community think that you are still tethered to social constraints, when in reality you just like the way you look and talk and feel. Because that is you.

I think what some of us sometimes fail to realize is that we are never just one thing. We are all our experiences, all our social constraints, all our life lessons. We are an amalgamation of things. Some of us are fortunate to realize that we act the way we do because of these social constraints. But, when we recognize that we are the way we are because of those social constraints, we can choose to either rebel against the restraints, or decide that even though we may not have chosen or originally wanted to be that way because we like the way we are now. If you recognize and see the constraints, you are no longer bound by them, or in some instances, less bound by them. I think you explored this idea wonderfully and really enjoyed your piece!

sdgrewe said...

Thank you for writing about this. Your post really resonated with me, being more recently “out” and navigating being seen as such by both the queer and non-queer communities. Clothing, jewelry and hairstyles turned out to be a huge part of this. While getting ready to go out with other queer femme friends, we sometimes talk about things like whether we’re wearing enough flannel to make our identities clear (“How will everyone know I’m bi without a nose ring?”). It’s lighthearted, but appearance definitely is a consideration when you don’t look like a stereotypical queer person. I’m not sure if it’s helpful to have some signalers to our own community or if it just perpetuates more stereotypes.

As to why sexism persists even within the queer community, I think it’s difficult for people to fully unlearn patriarchal viewpoints that pervade the rest of society (namely, that femininity is inferior). It might also be a way of assimilating to the mainstream, like how queer proponents of same sex marriage often stressed their similarities to straight couples in order to appeal to the traditional. This is obviously problematic because it continues to place heterosexuality as the default, as well as all the baggage (gender roles and misogyny) that comes with it.