femme: the “acceptable” lesbian?

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.”

the only way a lesbian can look.. obvs

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.

dressing for me, not straight people

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?

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13 Comments on “femme: the “acceptable” lesbian?”

  1. April 22, 2011 at 12:28 am #

    My parents were very accepting of me and told me they loved me no matter what my sexuality was or how I decided to look.
    I just get annoyed when some one straight see’s me an say’s “Oh, your must be the Girl in the relationship.” I’ll just reply by saying the last time I looked butch style lesbians are girls/females to.
    ….or even when I’m with Jess (because she’s more or less femme to) “Which one of you is “The Man” of the relationship?” That get’s Jess angry. Her replay would be “Hey Asshole, do you see a dick on either of us??? If you think one of us is a man you should get your eyes checked.” Gives me a good laugh.
    I guess that drives me nut’s the most. All these straight people think there as to be “a man” in a lesbian relationship. If I wanted to date a man I would be straight.
    Some think it’s weird that Me and Jess are dating each other. They can’t comprehend why (as they like to quote it) “two girls” lesbians are dating each other. Like you mentioned everyone assume lesbian relationships are like Ellen and Portia. Again, drives me crazy!!! Kara XOXOXO

  2. scoomes
    April 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    While I agree that straight people often make assumptions about women with only their physical appearance to go by, I get it from the gay ladies too. I frequently get comments (joking and serious) from the whole spectrum about how my wardrobe (or even more so, my hair length) might reflect my sexuality. Usually it’s more complimentary and light-hearted coming from lesbians – but sometimes (especially when it’s a parent or someone who doesn’t know me that well) I feel like those kind of comments are basically round about ways of asking me to pick a side and say it aloud, which I’m really not into, regardless of who’s asking.

  3. scoomes
    April 22, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    p.s. I love that picture of you, Jules!

  4. April 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I’m not sure what I hate more, being seen as the acceptable lesbian (ie., one who exists for the male gaze) or not being seen at all. Neither is fair.

  5. stephaninipoops
    April 22, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    actually i often feel that the “right” kind of lesbian in a heteronormative society is an androgynous, butch, or more masculine-presenting woman. for some reason it is easier for people to wrap their minds around lesbians who appear more masculine. they somehow assume that if a woman is sexually attracted to other women, then they therefore want to present themselves as men. for instance my mother assumes that “real lesbians” all aspire to be men and that feminine lesbians are “fake lesbians”. feminine lesbians confuse people who assume that femininity translates into a desire for traditional gender roles, which is of course not the case

    • April 22, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

      Thanks for this comment, Steph! Really made me think. I agree that the “real lesbians are butch” mentality is prevalent. But I also think that gender nonconformity is hard for some people to swallow. There’s something about feminine lesbians that I think can be more comfortable for heterosexuals – maybe precisely because of what you said – they don’t actually believe that femmes are lesbians, so there’s always that chance that they will “straighten out.” What do you think?

  6. Jennifer
    May 30, 2011 at 12:21 am #

    thank you so much for sharing this! i had to laugh out loud, recognizing so many of the same comments and conversations with my parents. (my mom: …”well i just don’t understand….you’ve always been so feminine…..i mean, i never would have suspected that you were a lesbian….you just like wearing dresses so much”) i appreciate you generating discussion around this subject in a way that is compelling and entertaining. i REALLY enjoy your website!

  7. Renata
    August 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    Thats so crazy because I was one of thise people before I came because of what society thought. I would tell my straight friends that I wouldnt talk to studs b/c if a dude is what I wanted then I would talk to a dude. But after falling in love with a stud I realized that the woman, regardless to her fashion traits, was who I was intested in & I came to be more happy with my self and to hell with society

  8. RainyDay
    October 13, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Getting the “fake” lesbian comment is what really gets me raw. Especially when men say things like, “How do you really know if you’re a lesbian? Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy.” To which I reply, “How do you know if you’re straight? Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy.”

  9. student
    May 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m actually a gay guy but switch a few pronouns in this article and it applies to me exactly. I always bristle (read: get pissed off) when people say “I like you because you’re not one of those effeminate gay guys. It’s like you’re not even gay.” It’s offensive for all the reasons you mentioned and I feel like I’m failing the gay community by giving people what they see as basically having their cake and eating it too- they get to be soo accepting of gay people without having to accept anything, really.

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