Lesbian dress-for-success: what does your look say about you?

As I do often, today I have been pondering the butch-femme continuum: it’s one of my favorite  conversations. This dialog is unending because the nuances are as varied as the women who wear the clothes…or lipstick, or chains, or boots, or tee-shirts, or fill-in-the-blank. We know the stereotypes: High Femme, Stone Butch, Androgynous, Mother-Earth, and more. (Here’s where I feel woefully old!)

a woman's legs and hips, black dress on a bed

When I came out some twenty-five years plus year ago, I had been moving around comfortably and invisibly in the straight world for awhile. Once I arrived, like many lesbians, I learned that what I wore helped to define who I was and what my place in the women’s community would be.

If you wore a dress, for example, that meant you were passive, less powerful, weak, closeted, passed as straight, enjoyed penetration, and didn’t touch or put your lips on your lover’s genitals. You may even be a failed heterosexual.

That was it. No more skirts for me, no sir!

If those same assumptions are not as widespread these days, our apparel and style still generates suppositions about us.  Try these on:

  • If you don’t look gay, you’re hiding.
  • If you don’t look gay, you are 
  • If you wear makeup and skirts, you really want to fuck a man.
  • If you wear makeup, you are a pillow princess.
  • If your partner appears more femme than you, everyone will think you are the butch.
  • If you don’t look butch enough, you can’t be the butch.
  • If you are butch, you want to be a man.
  • Femmes always look for butches.
  • Femmy-looking women are displaced heterosexuals.

I have heard a lesbian make each and every one of these statements, and I have heard the angst in the voices of the women responding to those statements.

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My friend Mona said to me today that the femme is really responsible for maintaining the status quo of this butch/femme dichotomy along with the attached expectations. She asserted that femmes are responsible for forcing butches out on a limb – revealing themselves while the femmes can continue flying under the radar.  I asked her for clarification.

Mona explained: butches by virtue of their appearance are visible, whereas femmes are not. She went on to say that because a butch usually moves upon femme-types, she risks making an advance on a woman who is not gay.

(See the article on flipping a straight girl here.)

Mona – a sexy, soft butch – is most anxious about is her intense discomfort around being recognized.  Mona is afraid, yet Mona is more afraid of being alone.

A woman I was with for a long time had judgments about women who had once been straight…who wore heels, wore makeup.  She believed that formerly-straight women were susceptible to the lure of the penis. She also thought that a chick who looked straight was sexy as hell – the flashier the better…all the more intensely desirable because she was at risk. How is a girl to win?

Nobody in the straight world really views homosexuality as a threat to their relationship: what husband stays awake at night worried that his wife is dreaming about kissing another woman? (Unless of course, it’s his fantasy…yep, I needed to get it in here.) Yet we lesbians often view our partner’s potential expatriation to the straight world as a persistent threat – always looming there, gnawing at our tranquility.

There are questions all kinds of people have about the fluidity of our sexuality – straight, bisexual, gay, queer, curious.  People wonder “when did she decide to be gay?” They don’t see the struggle because our anguish is silent.  There are no such questions around heterosexuality, so we see these questions as assaults on our identity…an identity which is often hard-won, tenuous or tortured.  Our sexuality isn’t defined by our clothes or accessories.  Is it?

I am not with that woman now, but like it or not, I donned her judgments and did my level best not to conform to them. I jettisoned my skirts and heels. Did I internalize her contempt?  I would have insisted not, but as much as I would like to turn away from the memory, I have to admit there was a part of me that questioned how I would be welcomed into the lesbian club if I did not reject everything that I had been before.

A huge amount of work, all that self-renunciation – it drains the spirit and muffles our voices. It dished out consequences that I couldn’t speak of or name for years.  The effort took its toll on the relationship as well: we have both since moved on – she to a girlfriend with long hair and long nails, and I…? That’s a story for another day.

For a long time my palms would get clammy when I thought about wearing a dress, but I eventually came back to myself and my stylish comfort zone. These days I do wear skirts – I have great legs, by the way – and I correct the misperception as soon as soon as someone assumes I am straight.

What does your look say about you? What do you carry with you? Is it who you are?

Or is it who you would like to become?

– Angie Bors

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