Femmes: Beyond Lipstick (and Heels and Dresses)

Sometimes life clicks. You’ve been struggling with yourself for ages and are slowly getting a grasp on the situation. Little by little you fit your pieces together until there’s a silhouette of who you think you are. With each bit of understanding you sit up a bit higher until you’re on top of the world and nothing can stop you. Until you go on a date and a comment completely fucks you over.

“Actually, I don’t think this is going to work out. You’re a bit too femme.”

I had never been put into a tailspin by a word before. The word femme had existed in my world but it had never been heaved at me as a pejorative. If she had put it in crasser terms and said, “Honey, I am not attracted to you. FUCK OFF!” I would have taken it better; instead I was handed a rejection couched in a backhanded compliment, lumped into a category I thought no longer existed and summarily dismissed because of it. I was livid, and my god I would have stuck a stiletto up her ass if given the chance.

This was a few years ago, when I was coming out. When I learned that by accepting the label gay I had somehow opened myself up to having a thousand other labels tacked on, some of which I could choose, but plenty of which I couldn’t. There seemed to be so many more wonderful words and phrases to describe the more masculine queers: Androgynous. Butch. Boi. Masculine-of-centre. All of these powerful terms that are seen as compliments and imply you fit into this subculture. Although I often read their complaints about failing to fit into a heteronormative world, the only thing I could think was, “Hey… at least you fit into one of them?”

Meanwhile I was stuck with “femme,” a label I couldn’t own. Even though femme tends to be the blanket term for queers that aren’t androgynous or masculine, the only queerettes I saw that happily claimed the title were unabashedly feminine. They were ladies that preened and prepped. They showed up on your screen in lipstick and lingerie. They had their pick of either world, these perfect girls with curves that caused boys and bois to do a double take. Some might call them lipstick. Some might call them high-maintenance. Some might call them straight. I was positive I wasn’t one of them and most of all, I doubted they would consider me one of them.

Some of my friends laughed at me when I told them I was stressed out about being seen as femme. To them I was just Kristen, as labeled or unlabeled as when we first met. “Why should it matter what other people call you?” “At least you get by.” “If they are so obsessed with your grouping, you don’t want to waste your time on them!” “Labels don’t matter!” But unless you’re at a dyke bar wearing Mary Janes in a sea of androgynous hipsters clad in leather jackets, skinny jeans and Chucks, it’s hard to empathize, especially when you’re debating whether or not there was a point to coming out that night. Or to coming out at all.

I wondered if I should change my hair or stop wearing heels, or if I should butch it up a little bit in order to get a date and be taken seriously. I was antsy and fidgety about labels because it didn’t make sense that I could be called so many things when I hadn’t physically changed at all.

I know I was prejudiced against femmes when I was thinking these things, but at the time the only thing I could do was brood. I had no femme role models who looked and thought like me, who were brash and confrontational but still painted their toenails. There are lovely anthologies that embrace femme identity, but ink and paper only give so much solace when you’re trying to come to terms with yourself in a flesh and blood world. Surely other people felt excluded for being “girly,” but how the fuck do you compare experiences when you can’t pick your allies out of a crowd? I wanted to learn from other femme-identified queers, but it takes courage — more than I had — to seek out that camaraderie when the closest and most visible examples of yourself are being criticized as not representative.

I harboured reservations that would creep up whenever I heard the word femme. I remember hovering my cursor over the Femme checkbox on my Autostraddle Social profile a little longer than I should have. Even on a website I love and love writing for, sometimes I worry if I’m doing it right. Like Jeanette Young writes for the Link’s Women’s Issue, “We are often seen as heteronormative, apolitical, less radical, and less queer in a community where being visible and valued depends on being masculine or androgynous.”

Submitter Malloreigh of TomboyFemme

The meaning of the word changed for me once I started to see self-described femmes who embodied none of those negatives Young describes. Through tumblrs and blogs, I could see a femme’s exterior and also hear her voice. Just because you could paint on a cats-eye or work a pencil skirt didn’t mean you couldn’t also be a radical with political beliefs. Owning your curves (or lack of curves) had nothing to do with the male gaze, in the same way that being less politically radical didn’t stop me from being feminist, and staying true to my style and self expression didn’t stop me from being gay. Saying it now sounds so ignorant, but I could only see the strength of the word femme once I understood the breadth of its spectrum.

I run a little fashion blog called Tomboy Femme over on Tumblr, inspired by this struggle with labels. I call myself a tomboyfemme because I think it describes where I sit at the centre of a continuum – compared to most female-bodied queers, I’m femme as hell, but in a group of heterosexual women, I’m immediately called a tomboy. Tomboy femme is a term I’m comfortable with others claiming and defining for themselves, but for me it describes the comfortable niche I’ve settled into between butch and femme, representing my queerness as I feel I want to. Still, it can be quite tough around queers who think I look too straight. – Malloreigh

“So, I didn’t always identify as femme, because I didn’t know it was an option, because I didn’t know it could be positive,” writes Connie Laalo, a woman who is an unabashed lesbian. And a queer. And a femme. Though our paths never crossed while we both lived in Vancouver, we eventually met online when a mutual friend posted a link to Beyond Lipstick, Laalo’s thesis for Ryerson University’s MA Fashion program, and as soon as we started talking I knew she got me. Unlike other projects that simply want to put faces to the name, Laalo wanted to learn how femmes saw themselves and each other in their own terms.

I am not trying to tell a story about femme identity – I am just trying to facilitate the articulation of the femme experience. There are participants who have a vastly different concept of femme than I do – but I completely believe that each experience is valid and authentic and I feel I have a responsibility to include every voice that participates in my project. I really think the strength of Beyond Lipstick comes from the multiplicity of expressions. – Connie

So she did. She gathered anonymous portraits and the answers to three simple questions:

What is your definition of femme?

Do you represent your sexuality through your clothing?

How do you identify another femme?

Her small sample of femmes “expressed a theme of empowered, conscious femininity that was intentional in its choice of self-representation.” The major thread was that in the face of adversity, of judgement, no fucks were given. Here were women who knew that they might be judged or read as straight, but they had to dress their truth. Some chose hyper femininity, relying on silhouettes and garments from the 1950s. Others simply refused to dress more masculinely than they were comfortable with. It showed a spectrum of style in which no representation of femme was in any way more correct, as long as the wearer felt right.

The submissions were as varied as the submitters themselves. Some used conventions that spoke to a background in feminist and gender theory. Others wrote with typos, slang and crass terms. All opinions were equally valid. Quotations have been preserved as submitted.

Someone who does not identify as a butch, androgynous, or otherwise masculine labels with a female body.

I am strong in my sense of self, not caring what the world at large thinks, yet painfully aware that many perceive me to be aloof and pretentious when I walk in the room in towering heels, perfectly buffed appearance and fitted dress.

I think I represent queerness less through clothing and more through my presence as a whole. By clothes, I get read as straight, and aesthetic definitions of femme piss me off to no end. It is not glitter or makeup or a pencil skirt that makes me femme. When I wear men’s jeans and a tank top, I’m femme. But I think most often, my gender expression is femme in that it’s feminine clothes with big presence, taking up space, walking confidently, looking you in the eye, checking you out, coming on to you. It’s a tension between what is traditionally “masculine” and what’s “feminine,” and really everything you think is either is both.

There is nothing superficial or shallow about it. It”s NOT something some man or patriarchal society makes me do. It”s my self expression, and just one of many in our multi faceted world.

I dress up in a way that makes me feel comfortable as I am and follows my own personal style of a mixed look depending on the day and occassion.

i love to dress in sexy, feminine clothing, although certainly not dresses or high heels necessarily

my flamboyantly feminine excess queers me automatically in any context. While my clothing/style may not scream lesbian, it most definitely says something

No, there is no way to tell I’m gay via my clothing and to try to do so would be going against who I am.

This is my sexuality of femme, I am more polished than any straight woman I know.

Connie of Beyond Lipstick

In completing her thesis and imagining Beyond Lipstick’s future as an exhibit or a film, the project caused Laalo to rethink its strengths and pitfalls. In her original call for submissions she was only looking for femme lesbians. She corrected her call-out and asked for all femme-identified women, trans* inclusive. “I think many individuals can connect and identify with femme as an empowering interpretation of femininity that is essentially queer.” Her research made her realize that the term could encompass men, bisexuals and straight women as well, so Laalo is still looking for new submissions. She wants to expand her portraiture collection to represent femmes of colour, genderqueer and trans* femmes, femmes with disabilities, elder femmes, fat femmes, working class femmes, male femmes and every other incarnation that needs to be acknowledged.

Although the submissions showed that femme was as powerful as its butch counterpart, the answers revealed that we still haven’t overcome our greatest challenge. “I usually say that someone is gay until proven straight. I will flirt with any girl until she tells me she isn”t [sic] interested. How else am I going to find out?” asked a Beyond Lipstick submitter. Femme (in)visibility is as difficult a problem as ever and will probably continuously haunt us. Effing Dykes pondered the idea, asking readers what to do given that femmes and femme-lovers seemed to be missing each other completely. The only thing I can suggest is that people who fall under the umbrella learn to share their space and find friends beneath it — that they try to be out as an everyday role model, not for the doubters or the critics, but instead for themselves and the closeted femme that doesn’t know she can exist. Whether people choose to wear a rainbow or correct an assumption, the only way femmes can make progress is to talk about it and do something. Laalo’s original call-out put it best: “We are only invisible if we sit by the sidelines, allowing others to be the face of lesbian identity.”

If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket to Baltimore this weekend you can attend FemmeCon 2012. From August 17th through 19th you have the opportunity to share stories and experiences with femmes, Femmes, fems and allies. The three-day fest brings out performers, vendors and speakers embracing their femme-inity. Fit for a Femme covered her attendance two years ago, boasting that “you’re just not prepared for that kind of awesome until you see for yourself how much momentum can be built on the strong and lovely backs of femmes of all stripes” to much applause by Autostraddlers. Laalo will be participating in FemmeCon and giving a Saturday morning talk on Beyond Lipstick. There’s still time to register!

Hopefully other femmes have already overcome their own insecurities, but if not, just remember there’s a Google’s worth of people out there like you. Or keep Ivan E Coyote’s “Hats Off to Beautiful Femmes” bookmarked as a mantra whenever that irksome doubt comes up.

I want to thank you for coming out of the closet. Again and again, over and over, for the rest of your life. At school, at work, at your kid’s daycare, at your brother’s wedding, at the doctor’s office. Thank you for sideswiping their stereotypes.

I never get the chance to come out of the closet, because my closet was always made of glass. But you do it for me. You fight homophobia in a way that I never could. Some of them think I am queer because I am undesirable. You prove to them that being queer is your desire.

* Please note. I’ve included photos of Beyond Lipstick participants that were submitted to Autostraddle. The project is anonymous and no contact information was stored. I recognized faces and asked for permission to use their pictures in the capacity of Autostraddle Contributing Editor. Connie Laalo’s work has not been compromised.

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 138 articles for us.


  1. Fantastic insight for this cobwebs & dust bisexual man. I have so many Lesbian friends that I’ve been labeled a Dyke Dork. MANY of them are lipstick/dyke couples, a dynamic that, for me, makes the world a better place to inhabit. Thanks MUCH!

  2. Love. There are so many nuances contained in “femme” that often go unrecognized, which compound the issue of femme (in)visibility. For example, can femme be incorporated into genderqueer presentation? I think yes. Gender is performance, and there are infinite possibilities.

  3. I love this! Usually, I’m only read as queer if I’m holding my butch girlfriend’s hand or I stamped rainbows all over my clothes, otherwise most people assume I’m straight. Regardless of whether someone reads me as gay or straight, most people expect me to be weak and ditzy. I think that many femmes have similar problems, since society tries to define us while we don’t get a chance to define ourselves. Being femme doesn’t mean we can’t be queer, strong, intelligent, confident, or powerful, but many people believe otherwise because we have been conditioned to think that femininity equals weakness, passivity, and heterosexuality.

  4. I’m a femme who love femmes. I feel like I’m in the minority which I find strange. I guess that’s because I don’t get the whole attraction to butch/femme coupling and also because I am a sucker for girly girls.
    I picture me in my 70s or 80s going shopping for high heels while in wheelchairs with my future wife. BLISS!

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve felt invisible, hopeless, and with no clear identity. It seems as though femininity is not accepted/ respected in any aspect of society.

    This gives me hope to know that there are so many Tomboy-Femmes out there!

    “I call myself a tomboyfemme because I think it describes where I sit at the centre of a continuum – compared to most female-bodied queers, I’m femme as hell, but in a group of heterosexual women, I’m immediately called a tomboy.”

  6. Thank you Kristen for this article ! I recently came out as lesbian , and i’m definitely more of the feminist role . Though , I am not attracted to very manly women …………. ( don’t get me wrong here i love all women … hahha ) so Tomboy -Femmes .. are exactly what i look for ! I just never knew that there was an actual term for that ! So once again i loved this article !!! Gracias

  7. oh my, I totally forgot to comment on this wonderful article!
    thank you!
    it’s so important to remind everyone that we are here and that there is, indeed, community.

    identifying as femme has done so much for me. it has been a way to get over people telling me I don’t look like a lesbian and that it’s no wonder I had a hard time finding a girl “looking like this”. when I found the term and started reading about femme identities, it helped with the way I felt about my body, too. it enabled me to FIRST start wearing short skirts and THEN lose weight.
    and somehow, since embracing my femme identity, I feel queerer than ever in even more feminine clothing, painted nails, jewelry etc.

    I started using the term for myself about three years ago, at first I kept it to myself, now I would even say that my gender is femme, if asked. I have no problem with being read as a cis-person or using the term for myself, even though I feel like it does not fit 100%, but femme comes first, female second. maybe it is because female is something that is given, assigned, while femme is something you take and own and create yourself.

    also, I started using femme(/boi) for myself because there are those days, too, and the days I look at men’s fashion for hours and wish I could switch to being a boy, sometimes. tomboyfemme is a nice term, too.

  8. too many times the whole notion of femme reads “femmes like to feel SEXY!!!” “femmes like to be taken care of!!!” “femmes wear EYELINER and HEELS!!!” we call bullshit…although we like the idea of “tomboy femme” as a way of breaking up the silly binary.

    Taryn is a “sissy butch”. Taryn wears tons of eyeliner and heels (though hidden underneath her otherwise tight bellbottoms and androgynous tight t-shirts and leather jackets, she says fuck the skinny jeans). Taryn is often mistaken to be a twink fag. She is a whiny emo boi skateboarder, and her girlfriend Lindsey has to carry her to the car when she drinks too much. She is muscular, skinny and tattooed. Lindsey is a total tomboy femme. She is curvy, long-haired, and will start fights with any straight guy who acts like a dick to her, Taryn, or any of their friends. She likes black lace lingerie, combat boots, and lipstick. She is enraged about being considered a “fag hag” whenever she ventures out to the gay bar without Taryn. It’s absolute bullshit that in order to be considered anything more than an accessory for (often condescending) gay men at a gay bar, a girl needs to look masculine or be accompanied by a girl who’s “butch of center”, whatever that means. In addition to judging someone by appearance, as is endemic to ALL females in society, it also places femmes as STRAIGHT unless they are ‘partnered’. I’m sorry, but this is just another instance where GAY MEN have it so much easier than lesbians. If you see a dude at a gay bar who isn’t flamboyant and girly, people don’t assume he’s straight, yet if these MEN see a girl at a gay bar who isn’t butch-partnered or butch herself, she not only has her sexuality assumed, but also is labeled a FAG HAG, ie, has no identity or sexuality on her own.

    We are tired of the way many gay men treat lesbians who don’t look like their punchline of lesbians. Straight women aren’t much better in this arena–Lindsey hears tons of lesbophobia at gay bars from straight women who assume she’s straight and is just there to coo over the “cute gay boys”. We’ve heard lots of people blame lesbians for the femme-phobia and assumptions that femmes are straight, but from our experience it’s usually the gay guys and straight women who treat femmes like crap.

  9. Just stumbled on this thanks to the wedding article. I feel 100% comfortable referring to myself as femme/lipstick, but this was WONDERFUL. Thank you. It’s nice to see all the femmes coming out of the woodwork.

  10. Pingback: Introductions « The Fierce Femme

  11. Tomboi Femme, I like that. I have always known that I am right in the middle of Femme and Butch but I’ve always settled on Queer as an all encompassing descriptor so that I don’t feel shoved into a box. Some days I’m Butch and some nights I’m Femme…I love the fluidity of gender.

  12. Wow…this article is amazing. I have been struggling with this for awhile- the fact that I’m queer, but I sometimes like to wear dresses, have long hair, so means to many people that I don’t look “gay enough”, but I also play sports, refuse to wear heels or makeup, so I am definitely not a girly-girl. ‘Tomboy Femme’… Works for me!

  13. This article couldn’t better speak to my life… Not only is it hard for people to take you serious about being gay when you are femme, but for moving to a new town it’s especially difficult to gain fellow lady-lovin friends!! Don’t get me wrong, I love all my hetro honeys.. but it’s hard to pick out other femme lesbians in a crowd to hopefully become friends with. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier if I just had a sign on my forehead.

  14. I can’t believe I am just finding this article! I definitely consider myself to be right in the middle of butch and femme but end up with the femme label out of default. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it doesn’t quite fit who I am. I have been trying to figure out a label for myself (because we all loveee labels don’t we?) and tomboy femme is perfect. Thank you!!

  15. I’m honestly not sure what category I’d fall into. I think I’m just barely a femme (or whatever is more masculine than that but not androgynous), and only really because I have long hair. Everyone usually assumes I’m straight.

    I mean, I have nothing against dresses if the event calls for it, but as far as everyday clothes, I’d say I’m closer to androgynous. Occasionally I’ll wear a nice sweater, but for the most part I wear jeans and men’s T-shirts. I never wear makeup. If I just cut my hair, I think androgynous would be accurate, at least it would most of the time.

    However, I have the hair of the girl from Brave, just brown. I’d either have to let it be the afro it would inevitably become, or spend an hour trying to straighten it. And then it would just curl up again 3 hours later. I really do want short hair, but…alas, I want short straight hair. I still may try it once I have the time to actually work with it.

  16. as im gradually becoming fully comfortable with my sexual identity as a woman who loves women, there is one thing that totally overwhelms me within the queer community – the obsessive need to label the self and others. of course labels can be helpful for the individual, if they feel it can be something which empowers. however the huge problem i have with labels, such as kristen has pointed out in the case of the term “femme” being imposed on her, is the following:

    “queer” identity, and the categories which have consequently arisen out of it, can be seen as a response which rejects the social pressures and expectations of conforming to heteronormative roles/norms. HOWEVER the politics around certain categories such as “femme”, show that queer identity politics fall into the same trap, the community seems to also expect it’s members to conform to it’s homonormative expectations. Whatever happened to the individual within all this? i personally do feel comfortable with any form of identity, category or normative behaviour being imposed on me. why has the queer community created what it was originally radically opposing?

  17. Wait what??? I LOVE femmes. I never realized so many people felt this way at some point or another! I’m really surprised to read this. I haven’t gotten the chance to read through all the comments but yeah, like wow. I guess there’s also the fact that I don’t know much about lesbians. I’m just beginning to learn. :)
    I have two gay friends in Cali that I went to visit and I asked them to point out any lesbians to me during my visit just because I know so little and don’t have an existing, or working, “gaydar”. Both of my friends are pretty girly and I wouldn’t have known had I not been told they were together the first time I met them!

  18. When I made my autostraddler profile, I didn’t know what to put when it came to the picking a label thing. My straight friends tell me I am butch most of the time, except when I wear dresses on the weekend. Some days I love my jeans, tank top, chuck taylors, aviators and leather jacket…and then next day I am all about flats, dresses, make up and nail polish. sigh, I am just me I guess.

  19. love this article and love the comments! i can most definitely identify and find it quite baffling that such patriarchal stereotypes exist in the lgbt community. can we not just accept and love people for who they are and stop judging and criticizing?

  20. I’ve always felt neutered by the term femme as if it strips me of intellect and takes away my feminist points.
    I don’t know anything about make-up, I know my way around a vest, and I often go on passionate rants about misogyny on popular television with a thin veil of “empowerment”
    Yet I know that I am femme. I may not wear lipstick. I may own an assortment of 1950’s cocktail dresses. I may have relevant opinions about the singularity and nail polish and sex toys and Eve Ensler and intersectionality of identities.
    Can I be a tomboyfemme-inist?

  21. I can’t believe I just found this article! I have been a longtime reader and this just up and made me finally register (OH HI). I was just agonizing to myself whether to go buy a freakin bowtie & vest because of a recent “but you look straight” comment. I am annoyed (although not surprised) at how often the queer community reproduces patriarchal binaries/categories. I believe I dress too fabulously flamboyant to fit into many categories, love my dope big earrings, tight dresses and muumuus, have big boobs that will NOT fit fashionably into a button-down (that uni-boob shit don’t look cute), and yet will never, ever wear carcinogenic makeup or crippling high heels.

    There was a recent article I read — “Are we fabulous yet? The tyranny of queer beauty” http://inthesetimes.com/article/15624/are_we_fabulous_yet/

    Thank you for this article and this wonderful collection of comments. It is giving me the boost I need right now. <3

  22. Pingback: Autostraddle, redeemed: Beyond Lipstick - Invisible Word

  23. I don’t even know how I stumbled upon this older article tonight. I think it popped up randomly in the “First Person” sidebar… in any case, I am so glad I clicked on it. This is one of the best things I’ve come across here, and, as many others have said, this really resonates with me. I have always felt that femme is a transgressive, subversive identity, and simultaneously grappled with feeling like the most obviously gay girl when with straight female friends, and the least obviously gay girl around other lesbians. Well done, great piece.

  24. Thank you so much for this article! As a femme myself, when first coming out I felt that I had to masculinize my appearance so that I could fit in with the queer community. The article makes me realize it is okay to be femme and to be a lesbian.

  25. love the article! when i was younger, i always said: people are judged innocent until guilty — aka: straight until non-straight. but i prefer how these words were reordered and expressed here.
    it’s taken me years to feel comfortable expressing my femmeness, tho i was also never butch/boi — or at the more masculine id’d end of the spectrum. and this article is a boost as for the first time this weekend at a “girl-girl” gathering i was asked by another lesbian IF i’m lesbian. wow! that was weird!
    i definitely think confidence is the key to meeting and connecting with people. i’m attracted to more femme-presenting women and i see more and more nowadays — which is amazing! for me there’s nothing hotter than the idea of two confident, femme-appearing women, taking on the world together!!!

  26. This is such a struggle for me. I’m a ‘low’ femme. Long hair, jeans, tshirt etc. It’s difficult dressing for work cause the minute you need to be a bit smarter you need to figure out closed shoes, what kind of smart shirt etc. I hate dresses and skirts. I hate heels. All affordable smarter shirts are blouses. I feel like I’m in drag then, but masculine cut shirts are the worst shape on me. I’m tall and have boobs. My ideal womxn looks nothing like me. This all causes a lot of Social anxiety because I’m either invisible, too femme, uncomfortable or anxious. I can’t believe that at my age I can’t even dress right to feel good in my own skin and the dream of being creative with my gender expression just feels impossible. So I end up feeling bland and nerdy and anxious. Ugh. Is there a low femme community group out there somewhere?

    • I feel you! I’m invisible often too. I’m low femme. Girlie tops but also mix it up w more androgynous look. I like to smear the gender idea but always w femininity. Even if I swagger too lol. Lately tho I can’t seem to decide what clothes to buy. Such anxiety!

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