I’ve lived in Edmonton on and off for the past nine years. I’ve been a lesbian the entire time. But it’s only been six months since I officially joined Edmonton’s queer community. One random day in April, I decided enough was enough and I (cautiously) marched into the Pride Centre for a Women’s Social Circle dessert potluck. It was an intimidating but worthwhile experience. I met a lot of gay women that night, and I have met many more since then.
I consider my gaydar to be decent. Had I met these women under different circumstances, my rainbow alarm would have gone off for at least half. I am sure most people would agree with me when I say that the butchy lesbian is the most visible. She fits the stereotype we’ve all been taught to watch for… short hair, boy clothes, no makeup, no airs. She is easy to spot.
Recently, I’ve been made aware of a phenomenon called “femme invisibility.” This is where the girlier, make-up wearing, shoe loving ladies feel unnoticed by their fellow gay dames in bars and clubs and other potential hook-up situations. A friend once lamented to me that women never hit on her because they can’t tell she’s a lesbian on first glance. She told me that she enjoys hanging out with groups of obviously gay women because that is one way she can show the world that she is fair gayme.
I found this fascinating and surprising. Before I knew any (other) lesbians, I hadn’t really contemplated this point of view. I hadn’t given much thought to how different the “femme” experience must be from mine.
I don’t really think of myself as butch, but I am starting to realize that others see me this way. Last week, someone actually used the word “butchy” to describe me. She has gleaned this from the cues I mentioned earlier – I have shortish hair, and I tend to wear unisex or boyish clothes and no make-up. I walk like a lumberjack. I’m tall, and I’m thick, and if I wanted to wear heels, I’d have to borrow a pair from a drag queen. I understand why people interpret my appearance as they do. I just don’t think they’re seeing the whole picture.
A few weeks after my first visit to the Pride Centre, I found myself having brunch with a lesbian I had just met. (Clueless noob that I am, I didn’t realize I had agreed to a date, but that’s a story for another time.) Our conversation meandered into some interesting places, and at one point we talked about the butch/femme dynamic. I was told that, for all its fabulousness, and for all its badassery, Alberta’s queer community is still kind of traditional-minded. I was told that the butch/femme binary is taken more seriously here than in other provinces. As an “outsider” from the east coast, I had never considered that notions of gay identity might differ from place to place.
Just after Brokeback Mountain came out, I saw an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal, where he was relaying some of the things people were saying to him about the movie and his role. While discussing the relationship between the two main characters (Jack and Ennis), a viewer was asking Jake to define which of these two was the “man” in the relationship and which was the “woman.” And Jake’s response was, to paraphrase:
“Neither one of us is the woman. That’s the point.”
I wholeheartedly share this view. In my ideal relationship, neither one of is the “man.” There is no man. That’s sort of why it’s awesome.
It sucks to feel like you have to conform to stringent butch/femme roles that were modeled after antiquated gender roles. It’s even worse to know that not fitting neatly into either category means you’re an outsider in a group where you were finally supposed to be an insider.
I’ve not only been told that I look butch, but I’ve also been told that my appearance means certain assumptions will be made about me. To fulfill a tradional butch role, I am expected to pursue rather than be pursued. I am expected to ask women out, pick them up, take care of them. I should be confident and strong, and ready and willing to deliver an ass-kicking to protect my woman.
Friends, this just ain’t gonna happen.
I am a clumsy introvert with no car and minimal self-confidence. Any hint of even a verbal confrontation is enough to make me cry like a little girl and run in the opposite direction. And I would probably trip while running away, because see above re: clumsy.
It’s not really fair to expect the butchier girl to ask the femmier girl out. It implies that femmes are prizes the rest of have to work for. The world already rewards the girlier-looking lesbians for better adhering to society’s expectations for women. Validation as a woman in this world often feels like a struggle to earn. Now I have to earn dates, too?
Obviously, women on both sides of this coin have their problems. I’m not saying femmes have things easy – in fact, they experience unique challenges that I am thankful not to have to deal with. But I don’t like the idea of the lesbian community reinforcing a sexist stereotype – that a girl who looks like girls are “supposed to” is a brass ring; something to aspire to. Something above us.
She gets to sit back and wait to be flirted with, and I’m supposed to sack up and put myself out there. I have to think of something clever to say. All she has to say is yes or no.
The person answering the question always has more power than the person asking.
As I said near the top of this article, I don’t really think of myself as butch – at least, not in spirit. In my mind, lesbian identity is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. I have masculine traits, and feminine traits, if we insist on labelling them as such.
I don’t wear make-up, but neither does my (very heterosexual) mother. No one ever taught me how to put on make-up, but even if they had, my sensitive skin would probably not abide it anyway.
I feel self-conscious in dresses because I am built like a giant rectangle. I wear comfortable shoes and clothes because I like being comfortable. I can assemble IKEA bookcases like a champ, but don’t expect me to fix (or even identify) a car’s alternator.
I’m useless in a bar fight, but I’ll give you my coat if you’re cold. I’m not a great provider, but I can bake and I always give thoughtful Christmas gifts. I probably wouldn’t make a very good boyfriend, but I am certain I will be an awesome girlfriend. And if superficial reasons and expectations are the reason I am single, well, that just sucks.
Femmey girls of the world, I implore you. Buck tradition, get off your chairs and do the asking.
I am likely to say yes.