A few years ago I attended a conference for queer university students in Victoria, BC and famed storyteller Ivan Coyote was one of the keynote speakers. I was standing at the back of the room full of queers, between my two beautiful blonde gay guy friends, when Ivan launched into my now-favourite Hats off to Beautiful Femmes: “To all the beautiful, kick ass, fierce and full-bodied femmes out there, I would like to extend my thanks to you. I know that sometimes you feel like nobody truly sees you. I want you to know that I see you.” It felt like the poem hit me squarely, thud, in my chest. I started to tear up behind my big gold sunglasses.
I have no way of telling how many times I have watched the YouTube video of that piece. If it was a VHS, I would have worn the tape out by now. And it still gets me. Because up until that moment I had never really thought about what being femme meant to me, past the fact that it could make it hard to pick-up at a lesbian bar, because people assumed that I was straight. As a white, cisgendered, able-bodied person I didn’t (and still don’t) have to spend a lot of time thinking about my identity, and more specifically my gender identity. (That’s privilege for ya.) Now Ivan was at the front of the room naming how I had felt since first-year university.
Femme has never been something that I’ve had to prove. I guess for those who don’t know I’m queer, or for whom queer is a foreign concept, I would just come-off as girly. For those who know I am queer however, I read as femme, femme, femme. I have been wearing make-up nearly everyday since I was 14. I am all things, pink, sparkly, lace and floral. I spend way too much money on my hair. The first time I set foot in a lesbian bar en route to another event, I was wearing a black, lace, semi-formal dress. I understand that femme is more that what you wear or how you look, but my femme-ness happens to manifest itself in glittery pink nail polish and platinum blonde hair.
But queer was (and still is) something I have to prove. When I started identifying as bi-sexual, some of my friends were sceptical. They even called me a BUG: bi-sexual until graduation. It wasn’t until years later, after I had become a regular at the local lesbian bar, and Queer Street West dance parties, and dated some magic number of women that I was taken even semi-seriously as a queer. Even today, some people think I’m just a really good ally.
Although I just officially, officially told my parents’ I was queer at the age of 25, I have never felt shitty about my sexuality. Almost immediately after my first RyePride meeting in first year university, I went to work on convincing folks that I was not-so-straight. Despite my shaved head and Ani Difranco obsession, I was met with resistance. Members of the queer community didn’t recognize me as one of their own. (Femme invisibility, it’s a thing.) I didn’t really find my queer community until about a year after I moved home to Halifax.
Partially I think people’s reluctance to see me as queer was because I spent my early twenties in a series of serious heterosexual relationships with cisgendered guys. But more so I think that folks couldn’t see my queerness, for my femininity. I mean, I never even went through a butch stage. Even when I was in in Jr. High, with my short hair and uniform of jeans and Club Monaco sweat shirts and there were rumours about me being ‘a lesbian’ (something I hadn’t even considered at the time), I was far from butch.
“Sometimes you are invisible,” Ivan continued.
“I have no idea what this must feel like, to pass right by your people and not be recognized.”
“I never get the chance to come out of the closet, because my closet was always made of glass.”
I’ve had this conversation with not one, but two people I’ve dated recently. For both of them, people had decided that they were big ole gays before they had a chance to decide what they were. This whole having to work to be seen as queer was unfamiliar territory for them. On a recent road trip to Cape Breton, I was telling a friend about a conversation I had just had with someone who wasn’t clued into the fact that I was a great big queer. “I guess you still get read as straight eh?” asked my friend. And, despite the fact that I date other queers, help to organize the Halifax Dyke and Trans March and was recently elected to our provincial LGBT organization, the answer is a definite yes.
While this does mean that I have to come out, over and over, to friends, to family, to guys, at work, it also allows me to challenge homophobic and heterosexist BS in a way others can’t. My femmeness, and presumed straightness, give me access to spaces and conversations that I may not have otherwise. And most of the time, I like explaining the word queer, what cis-gendered means, the difference between sex and gender, why Pride is political, to someone who might not have another queer or trans friend/family member/co-worker to ask these kinds of things.
Plus, I like knowing that by putting on a skirt in the morning, strapping on four inch heals, rocking bubble gum pink lipstick; I am also giving a polished middle finger to people’s assumptions of what it means to be queer.