“You Don’t Look Like a Lesbian”: The Reality of Femmephobia and Femme-Invisibility

Anna is a second-year European Politics student passionate about politics, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and academic research. In my free time, I love reading non-fiction books (about pretty much anything) and painting portraits with oil colours.

[Featured Image: Image of a woman writing the words ‘girl power’ in a mirror. Source.]

“When I pass for straight, I feel like I fail

something else, myself mostly. But what keeps me invisible

often keeps me safe. Though there are streets

where I’m not sure if I’m safer

with hair long enough to pull,

or if a shaved head would make them want 

to prove my woman to me. If I’m more in danger

having breasts

or having them bound. Does the beast

prefer girl flesh, or queer?”

Megan Falley “Coming Out (And Being Pushed Back In)”

Being a femme lesbian is a condition that, as brilliantly put by the words of Hoskin, straddles “both privilege and oppression” (Hoskin, 2019, p. 698). 

To be clear, while the term ‘femme’ is a complex and contested concept in itself – and also one often applied to different sexualities –  this article will refer to ‘femme’ as feminine-looking lesbians.

Now, there are undoubtedly some advantages in being what could be considered as “straight-passing”. Being less visibly different from the expectations that society poses on our gender appearance, it is less common for us to experience street homophobic harassment, unless we are with a partner. Since we, as femmes, do not conform to what society expects of lesbians – that is a more masculine or androgynous look – we have relatively more choice over whom we come out to than butch lesbians.

However, there is a dark side to these small advantages. It is true that looking straight gives you a ticket into “heteronormative culture”, but it does so at a high cost made of internal struggles over one’s self identity, of objectification, sexualisation, invisibility and femmephobia within the queer community (Hoskin, 2019). 

First of all, femmephobia complicates the internal individual’s relationship with their sexuality. Femmephobia and femme-invisibility complicate the already emotionally laborious process of coming out, first to oneself, then to others. As evidence, Blair and Hoskin carried out a study of 146 femme queer women analysing their experiences of femmephobia and femme-invisibility. Some of the results that emerged from this study were rather concerning. First, a great part of women in the study described that they found it hard to understand their sexuality, as they equated being a lesbian with being masculine (Blair and Hoskin, 2015). Second, many participants in the study felt like they ought to transform their appearance to be more ‘butch’, as they believed that in that way it was going to be easier for them to be part of the queer community (Blair and Hoskin, 2015). Finally, the participants shared their experience of constant tension between on the one hand remaining genuine towards their femme identity and on the other the desire to fit in a lesbian community which seemed to value more masculinity than femininity (Blair and Hoskin, 2015).

Necessarily, given this phenomenon of femme-invisibility deriving from heteronormative expectations concerning what a lesbian looks like, femmes tend to experience discrimination even within the queer community. In the same study, the majority of participants (64%) shared how their sexuality had been repeatedly doubted, or even outrightly called fake by members of the LGBT+ community (Blair and Hoskin, 2015). It also often happens that other lesbians either do not recognise lesbian femmes as gay, because we are socially conditioned to expect that a feminine outlook corresponds to heterosexuality, or even actively, to call into question our sexual identity. As a femme lesbian, in the past I was often considered an attention-seeker, seen as somebody whose sole purpose of stating same-sex attraction was to tease boys’ attention, no matter that the meaning of lesbian is somebody who is not attracted to men (or male-identifying people). Very often these critiques came from other queer women.

Of course, femmephobia gets all the more amplified when it comes to what is outside of the LGBT+ community, that is heteronormative culture. That is because, in general, femininity, or a feminine-looking appearance, is equated to “masculine right of access” (Hoskin, 2019, p.694). You look like a woman, so that must mean that you are heterosexually available. In another study on femmephobia carried out in 2019, the results highlighted how femininity in looks is considered to mean that one is sexually available to men, resulting in sexual violence, harassment and invisibility (Hoskin, 2019). Indeed, being perceived as straight when you are not, necessarily means that you will be the target of unwanted attention.

Being a femme lesbian is a state of perpetual coming out, or as Megan Falley put it: “coming out and being pushed back in”. When men hit on you in a bar, on the street, at university, in the library or whenever, you are, in a way, forced to come out to them. Sure, you could also avoid that and just state that you are not interested. But we all know how that usually plays out, don’t we? “I am not interested”, and I am talking by experience, is almost always not enough. It is usually perceived as “try again” or “try harder” or “demand explanations”. 

Further, even if you feel safe enough to come out to them, since you are a feminine lesbian, chances are your sexuality is going to be questioned, devalued or objectified, and this is a best-case scenario kind of situation. Phrases like “you don’t look like a lesbian”, “I will turn you straight”, “that’s hot”, “can I watch?” are common occurrences. 

To conclude, I believe that the struggles undergone by femme queer women reveal something about society at large. When queer femmes’ identity is invalidated, “feminine beauty is reduced to a product for the purpose of male consumption.” (Horkin, 2019 p. 695). Femininity is distorted, seen as existing purely for the purposes of the male gaze and sexual use (and abuse). It is also devalued, considered inferior, lesser than its masculine counterpart.


Bibliography

Blair, K. L., Hoskin, R. A., 2015. Experiences of femme identity: coming out, invisibility and femmephobia, Psychology & Sexuality, (6)3, pp. 229-244. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2014.921860.

Falley, M. Coming Out (And Being Pushed Back In), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsjKCRFzqhI.

Hoskin, R. A., 2019. Femmephobia: The Role of Anti-Femininity and Gender Policing in LGBTQ+ People’s Experiences of Discrimination. Sex Roles (2019) 81, pp. 686-703. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01021-3.

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