On Femme Invisibility

By Jessica Mahmoud on February 4, 2017

Erasure of LGBTQ+ identities is a problem, but so is the fact that sometimes certain communities become invisible within an identity. An example of this would be the femme community.

As I explained here, femme is generally used to describe a person who expresses and/or presents culturally/stereotypically feminine characteristics. This term is also used to describe a specific lesbian identity (ie. butch/femme). This term should be used with caution since in some contexts it can be perceived as offensive.

Femme invisibility is the way queer identities of femme folks are sometimes seen as invisible because of their gender expression.

History

In the reading that I’ve done, I honestly feel like femme invisibility always existed. In the book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of the Lesbian Community, the author explains that butch lesbians, “had two indicators of identity — attraction to women and desire to appropriate masculine characteristics – fems only had one; logically, femininity did not set them apart from other women” (Kennedy 336).

In the 1940s and 1950s, the author explains that butch and fem identities differed in that there was a fragility in the fem community. Historically, the community believed that fem lesbians lived at least of some of their lives with a man and therefore might also be interested in men (385).

Sexual Orientation

Because lesbians and queer women are often assumed to look a certain way, whether that be more masculine presenting or have an undercut, those who are feminine face femme-invisibility. They can become invisible in and outside of queer spaces because they don’t fit the “look.” This affects lesbians, queer, and bisexual individuals, but is historically and probably most prevalently talked about in the lesbian community.

Gender Identity

Today things are obviously a lot different. We know that lesbian (and queer women) are not only femme and butch. We also know that not everyone identifies as a woman. Femme-invisibility also affects the visibility of one’s gender identity. While this may affect trans folks, I think it’s important to also mention the nonbinary community. Oftentimes if a nonbinary person is feminine-presenting, they may not only be assumed to be straight, but also cisgender.

Femme on Femme

As I’ve mentioned, there is a stereotype of relationships to be butch and femme, which forces on gender stereotypes in gender expression of replicating a straight relationship. Femme invisibility comes in when two femme folks are together.

As explained in the book Desire: Women Write About Wanting:

“In the ‘real’ world, we were seen as just two girls out for the night, our handholding seemingly a mark of our girlish affection. Our relationship invisible, disrespected. In the queer world, we were seen as two femmes out for the night.”

It becomes this in group/out group understanding of two folks just in a relationship as if their gender expressions make it invalid.

Privilege

While all of the above is horrible to have to deal with, I want to also mention that there is a privilege here. Many femme folks (besides men and trans men) are assumed to be straight and therefore are not as at risk of facing discrimination and homophobia.

On the flip side, they have to face invisibility. They may not have to deal with discrimination, but they are being stereotyped and put into boxes that don’t fit them. They may even feel left out of the queer community because they don’t “fit” the look (Fabello).

Conclusion

I recognize that I may have left folks out of this post. For example, there is not talk about discrimination that goes on within the circles of gay men. That said, any invisibility is not fun to face for folks who may feel left out of the queer community (Fabello).

I hope this helps you recognize the struggles the femme community may face. I suggest using it as a mental call to action of not assuming identities by gender expression.

And to all my femme folks, keep doing your thing!

Check out the list below for the sources as well as other suggested ones for further information.

Sources

Fabello, F.A. (2014). Femme Invisibility: On Passing Right By Your People and Not Being Recognized. Everyday Feminism. http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/femme-invisibility/

Kennedy, E. L., & Davis, M. D. (1993). Boots of leather, slippers of gold : The history of a lesbian community. New York: Routledge.

Warren, L. S. (2007). Desire : Women write about wanting. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Suggested reading and watching:

O’Hara, M.E. (2015). Femme invisibility is the dirty little secret of the queer community. The Daily Dot. http://www.dailydot.com/irl/femme-invisibility-queer-community/

Poetry: To all of the kick ass, beautiful fierce femmes out there… by Ivan Coyote. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q7IzwUa_kI

Cale, M. 10 Issues With Femme Invisibility. Dopes on the Road. http://dopesontheroad.com/queer-culture/10-issues-of-femme-invisibility/

Originally published on Color It Queer

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