There are so many layers of femme (in)visibility to me. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by straight people, by society at large. There’s how we’re seen (or not) by fellow queers. There’s how we’re seen by fellow dykes. And how we’re seen by each other. And of course, there’s how we see ourselves. And in all of this, there’s the personal, and there’s the political.
But I don’t really know how to write about it except in terms of my own experience. And of course, my experience isn’t representative of anything except itself. But I think there are probably parallels and similarities to and “mmhmm”s and head nods from other femme-identified folks out there.
It starts with not being able to see myself. That must be at the very root of it. As a little girl, I loved to play house, and I always wanted to be the mom. I loved to play school and wanted to be the teacher. I loved tea parties and dollhouses and dresses and patent leather shoes, I loved American Girl dolls and dress-up and imagining my future wedding. I was obsessed with Queen Elizabeth II as a little girl (I had a book about her written by her nanny) and with figure skaters and ballerinas. I fit snugly into my gender box. No questions asked.
Come junior high, I decided to start having crushes on the boys in my classes. Each year on the first day of school, I would scan homeroom for that year’s candidates. I carefully weighed my options, and within 20 minutes or so had selected the object of my external focus for the year. Seventh grade: Dillon. Eighth grade: Ryan. Ninth grade: Jason. In tenth grade I started dating, but never really cared much for the guys. In fact I think I was somewhat scared of them. Touching them, kissing them, doing stuff with them made me feel weird and nervous.
I’m not going to go over my whole coming out story here, but suffice it to say it took me quite a long time to come out to myself. I started questioning that year, tenth grade. I had a friend who I was in love with, but I couldn’t quite believe it. There was no way I was gay. It just didn’t make sense. I was a girl. I was supposed to like boys. That was that.
Understanding of sexuality is so, so so tied up with gender. That’s really what makes femmes so invisible. To ourselves as well as to others. There often aren’t any outward signs that we digress from the norm. They’re all inward. And society tells us (all of us, not just femmes) all the time that the inward things? Are figments of our imagination. Depression, addiction, anxiety, sexual orientation — it’s fabricated, it’s (no pun intended) just in our minds. You can’t get an MRI that says “whoops, there’s some depression in there, we’ll have to medicate you” or a pap smear that tells you “yep, yer gay alright, no two ways about it.” So unless you look different, unless there’s some physical proof of it (whatever it is), there’s plenty of room for people to doubt you. And judge you. And feel justified in doubting and judging. Because all that stuff? It’s in your mind. So I can tell you you’re wrong.
That’s what I, as a femme, was up against. Convincing myself that, actually, no, I’m right. That gut feeling that made me ask my mom, as an 11-year-old, whether it was normal to like other girls? That was right. Even though I liked ruffles and paper dolls and the Sound of Music. It took me so. long. to learn how to trust that feeling. I guess I’m still learning, really. In my first years after coming out for good, I went through all kinds of identity shifts, trying to settle on the self-expression that felt right for me. I just didn’t think it could be that I was both totally feminine and gay. I thought I was just fooling myself that I was gay. To be honest, I sometimes still do have those moments of doubt. “How is it possible that I’m gay?”
And, dude, I’m gay. I fuckin’ love pussy. The best compliment from mi’lady is when she looks at me in wonder, after a good fuck, and says, “you’re so gay.”
In fact, I think that’s probably the best compliment from anyone. Even people who mean it as an insult. To be recognized as gay makes me puff out my chest and stand up straighter. Really. I just want to belong here. I want people to know that I’m a member of the club. Sometimes, I do get some sort of signal, a wink maybe, and I just about die, every time. Especially when it’s the older, butch lesbians, in their late 30s and 40s. A wink from them is so gratifying. Not transgressive, not presumptuous, not inappropriate. Affirming.
I’ve spent up enough time and energy proving myself to myself, you know? I don’t have much leftover to try to prove anything to anyone else. So I don’t try, not much anyway. And for the most part, I don’t let the invisibility get to me. But those moments of visibility are all the more precious because of it.