"Out-siders": Being Femme and Bi in Queer Spaces

The_Feminine_Eye_-_Photo_by_Alyssa_L._MillerI have previously written about my struggle with my appearance not being read as queer as I would like. Both alone and even less when I am with my partner. Though I am alternative, a lot less than I used to be as a teenager, in certain ways I do conform to female stereotypes. I have long hair, I wear makeup, I wear dresses and skirts (in fact I don’t even own jeans or trousers), and an obscene amount of jewellery. There are ways in which I don’t however. You will never see me in heels. 99% of the time I wear Dr Martens boots that are perpetually untied, my hair is not kept and glossy because I crimp it so it’s usually huge and wayward, my nail varnish will always be chipped and my facial piercings, black clothing and dark lipstick usually seem to put people on edge.

The way I dress has always largely been inspired by which music scene or subculture I was part of at the time. I’ve ranged from extreme grunge to punk to metal to a year where I exclusively wore second hand/vintage clothing (including shoes) to now which is a vague mixture of all of the above and anything else that I am inspired by, mostly comfort. Though being accepted by these subcultures is pretty easy, I have always felt slightly out of place for being femme, opting for ripped dresses instead of ripped jeans. Similarly now, the way in which I present myself as a femme queer woman excludes me from feeling comfortable in either mainstream LGBT or queer spaces. There seems to be a dominant dress code that queer women or feminine presenting people tend to adopt, and it is usually ironically leaning towards being quite masculine. Short hair, undercuts, tank tops, jeans, little to no makeup and other soft butch aesthetics are far more popular than long hair, dresses, patterned tights, knee high socks and layers of makeup. Even gender neutral or androgynous ways of dressing are masculinised.

While I understand that the rejection of femme aesthetics is probably also a rejection of mainstream beauty standards and ideals that are placed upon women, hence the popularity of not shaving in queer communities, but it also means that us queer femme presenting people are usually invisible or rejected from queer spaces (I mean this literally – I’m looking at you central London lesbian bars, who on more than a few occasions have failed to believe that I was interested in women).

This feminine invisibility erases the femme identity as having a valid place within queer spaces. It is now probably more subversive and a statement to be femme than it is to reject femininity. There are often negative attitudes towards femininity or pressures put on people to dress less feminine in order to appear queer or to “fit in”. We have to be careful not to start perpetuating dominant misogynistic ideas while fighting for radical queer politics. Or that while we are creating safe spaces for most, we aren’t excluding those who don’t fit into queer guidelines, especially those who aren’t or cannot be read as queer. It’s important that as a community we are empowering everyone and not just the majority within us. This argument goes for all minorities within the queer community who suffer from oppression.

How we represent ourselves is important, and especially important for the queer community where self-expression might have been discouraged or not allowed when we grew up. Creating safe spaces for people to experiment with self-expression, just as with identity, is important to the growth and strength of our community.

Though femininity is usually classified as weak and submissive, despite the amount of work usually taken to achieve it. I see femme identity as being strong, empowering, and unapologetic. It can be as extravagant or comfortable as you choose and each person’s way of expressing a femme identity will be the creative way that they choose to express how they are feeling. Sometimes the days I am feeling the worst, the least self-confident or anxious are the days in which I dress most extremely, and I understand it’s like that for other femmes too. When I am feeling down about myself I tend to yearn for my pink hair, even though its these things that would get me noticed in the street, they act as a kind of femme armour against the world and the things I have to tackle that day.

Femme identities are an important part of the queer community and we should be careful to notice the policing of queer identities. It’s not just negativity/misogyny towards femininity that is noticeable, there are fatphobic, ablest, classist, racist and transphobic ideals of beauty and queerness that are still upheld, and we should actively try to dismantle these kinds of negative discourses within the places that should be safe for us.

For more reading about how to support queer femmes, read Anna Bongiovanni’s comic for Everyday Sexism.

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Alice Ryder

Alice is a bisexual activist, blogger and gender warrior. She recently finished her Masters in Gender so splits her time between the fetish goth scene (she means finding a job) and volunteering for the National Domestic Violence Helpline. You can follow her on Tumblr (link- aliceryder.tumblr.com) and Instagram (link-aliceryder)

4 Responses to "Out-siders": Being Femme and Bi in Queer Spaces

  • Laura Hurt says:

    I think this has to do with activist feminism and lesbianism. Burn the bra’s, hate the men, despise making yourself available for the male gaze by using make up. So how can you as activist feminist lesbian date a woman who wears a bra, pretties herself up, and not only not hates men but even has slept with them?

    Awesome article Alice, I recognize myself in what you wrote about how you dress. I am also very feminine but not ladylike. I will sit on the curb and sit in the grass in my dress hihihi 🙂

  • Bi woman here, but happily married & not bothered about how I pass.

    But I have been shocked by the experience of my attractive female long haired friends (one of whom is bi, one lesbian) . Forced by [male] bouncers to kiss intimately before being “allowed” into a gay club night, that kind of thing. Way to make someone feel safe from the outset, right?

    Ugh, ugh, and triple ugh. The world still has a long way to go before it is truly accepting.

  • Lina says:

    Great article! I have never understood why liking women means that I have to be masculine. I’m not super feminine, but I’m definitely more feminine than masculine and I don’t think I need to apologise for that or feel awkward about that. Who I am and what I do is no one else’s business. I hate that people think they can limit you and put perimeters on your existence just because they have a preconceived idea of who you should be.

  • Rebecca says:

    Great article.

    People who have cognitive problems telling one colour from another or one style from another or who had better things to do with their teenage years than shopping and primping and endlessly trying to ‘fit in’ when they were told they looked awful anyway let alone later on trying to buy anything to fit a 4ft 11 bloated with steroids or fit into a changing room or who have to get round the average clothes shop in a wheelchair may not have a look nailed! It sounds whiny but we are living in an austerity era and when people say that “everyone has to tighten up we should all take some of the burden so disabled people should suffer too” it actually means you are lucky if you can afford to update your wardrobe at all.

    Standing at 4ft11 when I’m not sitting down, I’m doomed to be assumed femme! And yet….. I was discussing this on a forum with a trans disabled woman. Do people have any idea how tough it is getting clothes to fit a six-foot woman with scoliosis? Do they have any idea what the _opposite_issue is like ? 🙂 Leggings and jumper dresses are sanity savers and actually keeping circulation healthy and feet safe is more important than look. Being bright blue is only a cool look for HAIR!

    With even a mild scoliosis the doctors didn’t pick up on til I was late 20s nothing is cut to allow for a shortened spine. Finding anything that doesn’t make me look like a frump involves spending more than I can afford and hours of shopping time (which means energy) And so even when I don’t have a self image that is everything my critical family have told me is badly put together, I have to negotiate a system as fraught with rules, traps and “Ewww, what is she wearing?” as any vapid straight-homophobic media obsessed mirror watcher?

    I’m TIRED of being judged! What’s feminist about imposing a whole new set of rules about beauty? I felt so GOOD when I first came out and then the realisation crept in…bisexuals are the outsiders of the LGBT. Well said Flash! Funny thing: first thing I did when I came out to my long term partner was put on a dress. Maybe it was just to reassure him I wasn’t running off or maybe I just felt happier in my blue, 1950s style lace eyelet dress? !

    Yes, I have hips, I am not built like a drainpipe!) I find it frustrating that essentially bucking the trend only creates a NEW set of beauty standards. It’s ironic that a culture that is meant to be open minded is still going to read me as less queer because I’m not butch can’t dye my steroid-stressed hair purple without losing what’s left of it and where image is if anything EVEN more important than in the mainstream!

    Really demoralising if you don’t think of yourself as attractive at the best of times and misogynistic is right. Bad enough feeling half dressed even when you find stuff you like because as other disabled queers have commented, if you have to work round a scoliosis or a orthopaedic insert that means you’ll never see me in heels, you’re trying to shoehorn yourself into a beauty standard in more ways than one! Who thinks a crip in a chair is attractive, even were I ASKING? And whoever I’m sleeping with, I have a much better chance of enjoying a sexlife if not trussed into jeans that leave me bleeding from places hetero society does not discuss! The plain fact of crip culture (if we had one) is that however mild your disability there are limitations that are not ‘read’ correctly by ableist people. We’re living in leggings because we HAVE to. We aren’t wearing makeup because we’re allergic or we can’t put it on that well. It’s not political and that in itself isn’t cool! So far, the bonus is that DMs are great ankle support and are now recommended for those of us who need an orthosis!

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