In heteronormative society, is femme the “acceptable” type of lesbian?
If there is any aspect of my lesbian identity that my parents are happy about, it’s the fact that I am femme (not that they are aware of that word). Their main concern upon my coming out was that I wouldn’t start “dressing like a man.” In spite of my attempts on several occasions to explain to them that I am feminine AND a lesbian, it just seems to go over their heads.
The conversations that we have go something like this:
Parent: “You seem to be dressing the same now as you did before you came out.”
Me: “…Yeah. Because this is who I am.”
Parent: “But don’t lesbians usually dress differently when they come out? You know, like Ellen.”
Then I try to explain that yes, some people change their appearance after they come out because they finally feel free to be themselves. In my experience, however, I have always felt comfortable being feminine, so I feel no need to change.
A look of relief will wash over my parent’s face. “Oh, okay. So we don’t have to worry about you chopping all of your hair off then?” they say with a laugh.
I humor them and laugh along, but the truth is these kinds of statements do hurt. It seems that being femme is the “acceptable” kind of lesbian in the eyes of my parents (and a lot of other straight folks). But what if I was androgynous? Or worse (in their eyes) – butch? Would my parents be less accepting? In some way I resent that being femme makes me more “palatable” to my parents and other straight/ignorant people.
Another form of this conversation happened while riding in the car with my dad. (They always find a way to trap you in cars for these kinds of conversations, you know?)
Somehow, the subject of my wardrobe came up again and he asked, “Okay, what I don’t understand is that there are lesbians who look like Ellen, and then there are lesbians who look like Portia.” (It’s always Ellen and Portia with my parents; I honestly think they couldn’t name a single other lesbian. Except maybe the Indigo Girls.)
“Now, if I were a lesbian, I would want to look like Portia. Why wouldn’t all lesbians want to look like her, and not Ellen?”
Stifling my laughter at hearing my father say “if I were a lesbian,” I tried my best to explain gender fluidity in terms he would be responsive to. So I substituted “looking like Portia” for “femme” and said, “Well, I do want to look like Portia. But some lesbians do not. Some women would feel as uncomfortable in a dress as you would, Dad.”
“I doubt that,” was his dismissive response, and that was the end of the conversation.
These and other experiences with my parents have brought to the forefront of my mind the fact that there are some ways that lesbians can look that are deemed more acceptable than others by those outside the LGBT community. It angers me that people are quicker to judge those who are more masculine-presenting, but it also disturbs me to be considered the “palatable” kind of lesbian.
I don’t want to be viewed as any less radical or representative of my community than my butch sisters just because I’m in a skirt. And I resent being considered the “right” kind of lesbian, because obviously there is no right or wrong way to be a woman who loves women. I think that it is this kind of thinking by heteronormative society that breeds a lack of respect for femme women within the LGBT community. Femme is seen as pandering.
Most of all, I am disturbed by being considered the “acceptable” kind of lesbian because I want those who love me (especially my parents) to accept me for me, regardless of my fashion choices.
So I have a few questions for you: Have your parents or other straight people made comments about your physical appearance in relation to your sexual orientation? Does it bother you that there are some lesbian identities that are viewed as easier to swallow than others? And, finally, how do you explain the fluidity of gender to someone who resists understanding?