When I was in high school, I had a crush on a beautiful girl. She was short, lush, and took no prisoners. She wore her sexuality on the outside and seemed, to this shy awkward girl, to be completely fearless. I’d watch her wipe off her lipstick before eating, then carefully reapply it when she was finished. I lusted after those lips, those R-rated curves in our PG school, and that attitude. Even as I dated boys, I continued to want her. One of the boys I dated ALSO wanted her, which led to some thoughts that were definitely more Gossip Girl than Degrassi. I realized somewhere in the middle of my epic crush (I think I quietly desired her for close to three years) that I wasn’t only intensely attracted to her. I was, in fact, an awful lot like her, in my own way.
I have always been “girly.” Since childhood, getting dressed has always been more of an opportunity to wear costumes than be functional. I didn’t understand the complexity of performing gender that young, but in retrospect, that’s exactly what I was doing. In my later teens, you could find me wearing vintage 50s house dresses, velvet formalwear, and redesigned choir robes to school.
With the dawn of my big girlcrush, I started to think about how I could get people to understand my attraction to girls without having to actually say anything. I turned to contemporary media representations of lesbians, not that there were many in 1990. One thing that stood out was the image of androgyny bordering on masculinity. And weird hair. The mullet, the short-long, the buzz cut… None of these seemed quite right for me. They all felt foreign when I thought too much about it (and this from the girl who cut off all her hair at 11, leaving a foot-long rattail. What? I had a crush on Aimee Mann in her ‘Til Tuesday days!).
My compromise “look at little dykey me!” ‘do was a skater-inspired cut: floppy on top, shorn halfway up the back. When that elicited no response, I turned to a chelsea, sans side fringe. Both cuts satisfied the “hair of mixed unusual lengths” requirement, but rather than anyone identifying me as queer, they just thought it was one more weird thing I did. Eventually, I gave up on trying to roundabout out myself and adopted an appearance that made me most comfortable.
I left high school for university. Women’s Studies. Surely I would find all kinds of women who got the complexities of being simultaneously feminist and feminine. Sadly, that was not my experience. It felt like those whose gender presentations included make-up, heels, and form-fitting clothes were seen as “bad feminists” – and certainly couldn’t be taken seriously as lesbians. So I cut my hair off again. I started dressing like a Seattle rocker. Yes. Flannel. And jeans. And ballcaps. If being a good lesbian feminist meant looking nothing like me, I would perform good lesbian feminist.
Guess what? It didn’t work. I was a sham, and an uncomfortable one at that. I had little self-confidence. I kept falling for straight women, because none of the women I knew who identified as queer had the energy or performative gender identity that cranked my turn. Around this time, I started reading more queer history, discovered femmes of the early-mid 20th century. They were strong, and fierce, and feminine as hell. And, there was historical precedent for femmes who loved femmes. They (and butches who were into butches) were generally treated with derision by their communities, but knowing that there were other kiki folks who’d come before me bolstered my confidence. Fuck it. I stopped worrying about others’ perceptions and embraced what fit. I was floofy and flouncy and fierce, unashamed of being identified as a lipstick lesbian. Femme fit.
When I started dating cismen again, this caused another ripple. I was “male-identified.” I was “buying into heteronormative ideals of womanhood.” I was attracted to femmes because my queerness was performative to meet the desires of men’s pornographic fantasies. Never mind the fact that I’ve been attracted to people with feminine gender performances (women and men alike) since childhood. Never mind that my performing androgyny or masculinity made me miserable.
I have since stumbled upon femmes galore. Maybe my circle broadened, maybe understandings of queerness have. I can’t say what’s made the difference, but I have felt a bit less resistance to declaring myself as queer+femme in the last decade. No longer do I feel pressure to conform to a particular image to instil confidence that my politics are respectable. This is good, because I think I’d look terrible with Justin Bieber’s haircut. I still find it difficult to find other femme-identified women who are attracted to femmes, but I know I’m not alone.