an old Photo Booth picture of me
Having no lessons in what queer femininity meant, I decided to just sort of blend. I was given permission by my community to sort of take on an androgynous appearance. I cut my hair short, telling my hair stylist that I wanted something feminine, but not girly, and something clean, but not masculine. It was easy. I was interesting enough (red hair was really all it took) to stand out, but boring enough to blend. What I wore was a sort of utilitarian soft butch style for many years. I worked for Trader Joe's, so big muscles and the ability to not look like a slob were the only requirements. I wore boxy men's Hawaiian shirts and hiking boots all the time. When I went out, I'd ditch the Hawaiian shirts and wear Indigo Girls t-shirts to Melissa Ferrick concerts. I didn't have a gender identity beyond queer dyke**.
For many years I was in a circle of friends mostly comprised of High Femmes and because I was neither uber-femme nor uber-butch, they often pushed me into the role of token butch, probably because I liked wearing cargo shorts. I used to frequent butch-femme.com, a social network for butches and femmes, but I was often shunned because my appearance and proclaimed identity didn't conform to their model. Once, a former friend of mine who fancied herself a trainer of "baby butches", decided she was going to train me. She taught me how to walk on the outside, she forced me to carry her coat, and so on. I raged at the experience. When I proclaimed that I had the heart of a femme, one of my femme friends said I was a burlap sack femme, all of the potential with none of the follow-through. What was intended to be a hilarious joke triggered me in profoundly deep ways. I met a butch online and we were set to meet up at a club. When he saw me, he ignored me. When I messaged him later and asked why he wouldn't approach me, he said, "you aren't femme enough."
Interestingly, I found that when I was in a relationship with someone, and generally a someone who was butch-identified, that I would slowly migrate to a more feminine aesthetic. I'd try mascara, I'd get a pedicure, I'd look at dresses, and sometimes I'd even share my décolletage with the world. These migrations to a more feminine appearance were always met with resounding delight from my friends and community, and while the attention from my beloved was always validating, I felt completely overwhelmed with the exposure (physical and otherwise). I felt like the world never saw me as anything more than a burlap sack femme, and I couldn't quite uncover the point of trying. A year or so into my relationship with Em, when I was comfortable wearing earrings and I had ditched the cargo shorts, one of my former friends at the lesbian bar told me she didn't believe what was going on with my appearance. She told me I was butch, and that what I was trying to pull off was ridiculous. This person is insignificant, but those words weren't. They spoke to all of the insecurity and confusion I was feeling inside. They validated those things.
Ten years since coming out, I'm in a position to more clearly articulate my identity, gender and otherwise, and I'm finding it challenging in the most exciting and daunting of ways. Like my mother, I am feminine, but in what I/we perceive to be a "practical" way. As I have moved away from my local queer community, both geographically (kind of) and psychologically, I have been able to find a balance, mostly, with regard to wardrobe and grooming. Recently, after attempting to grow my hair out in an effort to look more "girly", I decided to cut it all off again. Like the word dyke, I am reclaiming my burlap sack femme or femme-lite identity. I am giving myself permission to explore things like eyelash tinting. I'm taking better care of my skin. I'm considering make-up.
These things do not a femme make, and I know this, but these are things I have always wanted to let myself discover and have never given myself a chance to explore. These are physical manifestations of the person I know myself to be in my mind, heart, and soul. It's an interesting thing, as this is a complete reversal of what I have perceived to be the life lessons of a girl. I envy my peers, queer and straight, who are experts at femininity/femmeininity. At the same time, I feel like I am in a unique position. I can give credence to the fact that a femme-identity has nothing to do with make-up and pink and pretty things. What this has taught me is to have a greater understanding of the gender spectrum in general. It has taught me to also listen when people are speaking softly about themselves, and to believe people when what I see does not mesh with who they say they are inside. This journey, and my periodic blips of invisibility, have helped me become a warmer, more genuine person.
** Some people who read this might turn their nose up at my use of the word dyke. As a queer woman, I am in a position to reclaim that word, and I have. It is a component of my identity and occasionally, in safe space, I will pull it out to sort of clarify who I am to my community. Not all queer women use that term, or like it. But it suits me much more than lesbian.