Femme Fashion Is Queer Fashion

reneice charlesWhen I came out to myself the one thing I was most excited to do was find my queer fam. I’ve always been an idealist so at the time I thought being in queer community would mean having a magical bubble space with none of the misogyny, racism, fatphobia, and all their shitty cousins that were commonplace in my closeted life. I was completely used to being overlooked and oppressed by straight cis people in their spaces, but naively thought that wouldn’t be the case in queer ones. Upon this acceptance of my sexuality I started putting more effort into my outfits as baby queers do, and got really into wearing favorite things that I felt incredible in but used to save for special occasions. Like the dark denim zip front dress that I rediscovered and wore at least twice a week cause the way it accentuated my hips made me feel unstoppable. I also bought myself a coming out present; a black bodycon mini dress with a v-neck that screamed “titties!” I felt more confident in my clothes and therefore hotter, and I was hotter — cause I was dressing more like me. Not different, just more.

I remember thinking my newfound confidence would last forever, but like many fierce femmes that came before me, I inevitably learned that femme = invisible in far too many queer spaces. I wasn’t noticed, and the way people engaged with me and other femmes when they did was noticeably different. There was often less energy, less genuine interest or attempts to connect and definitely less flirting than with the queers that had the “right” look. I ended up feeling just as lonely surrounded by my new queer peers as I did living as an outsider in the hetero world, but it hurt exponentially more. These were supposed to be the people I fit in and could be myself with.

Instead based solely on how I dressed, people constantly assumed I was straight. When I finally got the courage to start asking others why they made that assumption the answer was always the same: they’d frown just a little, squint their eyes and furrow their brows like it was painfully obvious, then say “cause you’re so femme.” Emphasis on the so to ensure I knew it wasn’t a compliment. Then when I’d correct them and divulge my sexuality they’d often go on to assume things about my personality type and sexual preferences that they also deemed boring or somehow less than. I had this interaction so many times and found each one so infuriating that it wore me down.

Fighting so hard to be seen by the community in which I’d hoped to find acceptance and understanding was tiring and hurtful. I was frustrated with feeling continuously obligated to announce and defend my queerness, and “prove” that I belonged time after time. I desperately wanted to be flagged and accepted as queer on sight. I wanted to belong.

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

Fighting so hard to be seen by the community in which I’d hoped to find acceptance and understanding was tiring and hurtful.

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

That desire launched me into spending hours online intently googling “how to look queer” with my notepad at the ready. As I read the advice available to me, I couldn’t help but notice a theme. I was presented with options like: Chop your hair off! Wear cuts of clothing that only flatter thin, smaller chested bodies! Ditch the heels and don’t you dare wear makeup! Buy a warehouse of crew neck tees! Get into menswear! The more androgynous or masculine you can be the better! Every single result was a rejection of feminine presentation and style. As if straight people and culture owned all rights to feminine presentation and choosing to identify with femme style meant denying my queerness. Article after article presented the erasure of femininity and simultaneous embracing and uplifting masculine presentation as the ultimate way to succeed at visibly queer fashion. It broke my heart.

Of course as I scrolled through image after image of the digital poster children of queer I was reminded it wasn’t just my being femme that was a barrier to looking queer, my fatness and race were also at play. The message became clear then, and still is now, that to be visible, desirable and queer is to be white, masculine of center, thin, and serve stellar “sexy yet brooding” face. I had to look like Ellen, Ruby Rose or Tegan and Sara, not like me. There is nothing about my body or style that matches that aesthetic, and I know now that that’s not a personal flaw, but I didn’t then.

reneice charles in a floral sundressI sat there staring at my laptop screen soaking in the news that my love of flirty summer dresses, brightly hued tights, wine-colored lipstick and smiling radiantly in photos made me invisible to those I wanted most to be seen by. I thought I had to make a choice between authenticity and visibility. As a black queer femme, fighting to find and maintain my place in the world despite the objectification and oppression that is living in the misogynistic heteronormative gaze was already a constant struggle. Add to that being met with the realization that femmes are still measured and devalued against masculinity in the queer community, and you get the reason I panicked and got my first piercing.

Within 30 minutes of googling “queer piercings,” I decided an antitragus piercing would be my queer beacon and found a friend to walk me to the shop and get it done. I got the piercing, it hurt less than I expected and I loved it for two weeks before regret sunk in. I still liked the earring but I hated that I’d chosen to get it and alter my body solely because I’d been convinced I wasn’t enough. I’d also been wearing all black and leaving my dresses and tights untouched and I was miserable. It wasn’t me. I decided then that all I could do was be me and do it proudly. I dove right back into my femme flow and bloomed there. I found my femme queer community. I gained a stronger understanding of my femininity, of where it draws its power, and how it’s perfect and unique from anyone else’s expression or interpretation of femme. I learned to revel in my femininity and know that it is absolutely queer as fuck to be luxuriously femme. I gained more body love through curating my style and finding out what I feel best in. I also never let anyone make me feel less than for being femme again.

I still face all the same issues of erasure and invisibility in my life now but I use them as moments of education and empowerment rather than feeling ashamed. I wear crop tops and bodysuits with the word femme scrawled across them in neon pink. I defy the notion that my femininity is for or about anyone but me. I see softness as a strength and my ability to maintain it as resistance. You cannot tell me that being femme is anything other than magical. I also do everything I can to lift up the femmes around me and strive for visibility because this trend of treating all things femme as weak and undesirable has to end. It strips us of beauty, inclusion, sexuality, of acknowledgement and of our right to existence as the gorgeous, fierce, dynamic beings we are. It takes away our power and places it directly into the hands of the patriarchal, misogynist forces that perpetuate femmephobia and make my daily life harder. I’m all set on hardship, thanks!

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

You cannot tell me that being femme is anything other than magical.

but make it fashion divider - black squiggle

I want better for the queer community than this. I want better than entire groups of beautiful people being devalued and excluded because of their clothes and the patriarchy. Femmes need our counterparts within the queer community to validate and uplift femininity — in addition to masculinity — as a valid and complete queer presentation. We need our community to see us, hold us, and hold space for us. We need this community that prides itself on shattering oppressive norms and beliefs to continue that work by erasing the harmful and outdated associations between gender presentation and sexuality rather than erasing femmes from the narrative; by challenging femmephobia and misogyny; and by decolonizing and expanding our standards of beauty and making them as inclusive and diverse as all of the incredible queer identities in existence, leaving none devalued, overlooked or erased. Then the only criterion for any queer to “look” or be visible as queer could be wearing whatever it is that’s the most authentic expression of who they are, and making that authenticity fashion. bmif tombstone

reneice charles in a floral pantsuit


edited by yvonne.


Reneice Charles is a just another queer, liberal, woman of color using the Internet to escape from reality and failing miserably. She received her MSW from New York University and is an Entrepreneur and Vocalist living in Los Angeles. She spends her spare time wishing she didn't have to use her spare time convincing people that everyone deserves the same basic human rights.

Reneice has written 61 articles for us.

44 Comments

  1. What a wonderful voice. Thank you.

    A couple of months ago, a group of queer friends and I were denied entrance to an LGBT dance venue because the bouncer (a gay man) believed that since some of the group wore long hair, boots and dresses, we weren’t actually queer.
    It wasn’t the first time, but being discriminated against and denied entrance to a safer dance space based on “straight” appearance truly stung.

    • I’m doing so much side eye over here. Gatekeeping within the LGBTQ+ community enrages me. One literally cannot create a safe queer safe spaces while also policing gender presentation. I’m sorry you experienced this 💜

    • I had a very similar thing happen! We weren’t denied entrance but all evening we were approached by gay men asking if we were really queer. And this was in a woman-centered space. It was so frustrating and obnoxious.

  2. RENEICE. YES. Wow, I just.. I love this?

    Once I got to process my feelings about the first girl I fell for I wrote a poem saying “Desde que te quiero uso más vestidos”. Because it was true, accepting that I was queer gave me the freedom to embrace my fat body and allow myself to wear dresses, something I had shied from because I didn’t like my legs (and if I look past my body issues, that’s probably also a moment when I decided to let go of much of my internalised misogyny and that part of me that whispered that girly things were stupid, frivolous and had nothing to do with being smart and strong).

    So I was very conflicted once I got to the ~scene and felt that I was invisible, that wearing lipstick and skirts and heels meant I read as straight, or confused or silly. I didn’t feel hot in masculine clothes because I couldn’t pull androginy, I wasn’t flat chested, I didn’t have abs. My jaw was too soft. I was soft, and I liked embracing that. But I felt shamed for it. To my straight (and gay male) friends, I don’t look femme. I don’t wear that much makeup, I have bad posture, I wear heels that are comfortable and I don’t brush my hair to go to work. But when I surround myself with queer women, my kind of femininity is suddenly too flowery, too pink and too polished.

    I feel like I’ve reached more of a balance now. I wear what I like, I’m letting myself wear clothes that may not be “flattering” for my size, buying lingerie, accepting that I swing between femme and tomboy femme looks depending on my mood and the occasion. I feel beautiful and present in my body.

    “I defy the notion that my femininity is for or about anyone but me. I see softness as a strength and my ability to maintain it as resistance. You cannot tell me that being femme is anything other than magical.”

    I’m kinda crying right now. Thank you.

  3. Wow 2 for 2 in relatable “But Make it Fashion” pieces! I literally did the same thing you did and googled “how to look queer” (which I’m pretty sure is how I first found Autostraddle!). I can’t tell you how many awkward men’s button ups I tried to make work despite my boobs and hips. Also, thanks for highlighting the role race plays in femme invisibility! As a queer femme Indian-American, people are constantly assuming I’m straight.

    Thank you for sharing this piece, and that floral dress is killer!

  4. Thank you Reneice so much for writing about this topic. The feelings of invisibility and erasure are so real! Femme styles have always been what I feel most comfortable in and like they are the most me, and I struggle with feeling like an outsider because of it sometimes. Thank you for your inspiration and story, you are wondeful!!!

  5. Well this is just lovely (as are your photos, swoons). And does a really great job of pointing out something I’ve just recently started struggling through – that it isn’t just invisibility you face as a femme, but also undesirability. It is a little disheartening to be so rarely validated as attractive or cute or fuckable in queer spaces compared to people with like a speck more masculinity, even when I know they see me as queer. I still have no idea what to do about it, but reading this helped.

  6. Feeling this SO HARD.

    My not seeing any queers represented in media who looked like me substantially delayed my coming out to myself because I didn’t identify with any of them and so literally had a hard time seeing myself as queer.

    Although I like playing around with different styles, I hate that feeling that the less femme I look the more positive queer feedback I’m likely to get.

    Thanks for this Reneice – and I’ve always LOVED your style and how damn gorgeous you look.

  7. Reneice: your work on self love and challenging communities to accept and hold bodies and presentations outside the norm reminds me to love and accept myself. You are my GD hero. Again. Always.

  8. Oh, this is so relatable. Especially the question: “are you sure you are a lesbian?” ugh.

    You know what: I like wearing dresses and lipstick and my hair is long and flowy and I fucking love it.

    Even though I sometimes flirt with a more traditional queer/still love the 90s look including flannel and combat boots, I refuse to give up my favourite red pumps.

    I have resorted to wearing rainbow pins, queer themed buttons or a rainbow totebag if I felt I wanted to get the message across.

    Reneice: you are a beautiful person and you are rocking that yellow dress so much it’s making me jealous. Thank you for writing this and making queer spaces a little more inclusive.

  9. Love this Reneice! As a bi lazy-femme who’s married to a guy, I sometimes panic if I have a day when I’m wearing something floaty and hippy, I feel so invisible and almost like I’ve ‘failed’ at being queer, but then I remind myself that whatever I wear is queer because my queer body makes it so. I am forever thankful to AS for helping me to see this over the years!

    • sue, i am ALSO a bisexual lazy femme who’s married to a guy. the struggle for visibility is so real, but i love AS for featuring essays like this one that celebrate all kinds of queer identities and styles.

      and reneice, thank you for this gorgeous piece. also, that JUMPSUIT.

  10. Thank you so much for this!! That was very similar to my experience when I came out, too. When I finally came out to myself, I thought that was it, rainbows and unicorns, yay, but then I discovered that I had to come out again and again and again, all the time. And the most advice anyone had for me was a Big Gay Haircut. I love my long hair so much and the idea that it was some kind of invisibility cloak keeping me from the women I most wanted to be seen by was devastating. I’m more confident in my soft femme self now, but I do wear a rainbow necklace every day and have a whole pile of different rainbow accessories, including earrings, kippah (I’m Jewish), and now that it’s fall again, my favorite rainbow jacket.

  11. Thank you so much for writing this, Reneice! You have almost, word for word, written down all of the things I have felt about fashion and being femme.

    I recently got out of a relationship and have been going to more queer events to meet people. Even as confident as I can feel, I still struggle to find inclusive queer spaces where there are no presumptions about my sexuality. I still get a lot of that classic backhanded compliment, “but you’re so pretty,” after I affirm my sexuality. It is truly exhausting.

    Your self love is so strong in this piece and it has reminded me to love my femme self.

  12. Thank you for this Reneice!

    I remember finally realising I could google “femme lesbian” back in the day to find people who dressed like I wanted to. Which was how I found Fit For A Femme and through her, Autostraddle.

    Also that jumpsuit!

  13. Reneice, you are so gorgeous!

    I loved the comment above about being a lazy femme, that definitely is part of my style.

    Being disabled makes fashion more of a challenge. I had to stop wearing jeans because it made my chronic knee pain worse. I gained weight as I lost mobility and suddenly my wardrobe doesn’t fit. The only reason I was leaving the house was for doctors appts where I usually had to take my pants off to show my knee. I also struggled to put shoes on so I just wore my slip on Sketchers. I am currently in hospital post surgery, can’t wear anything tight around my wounds and need to make my legs easily visible for the doctors and nurses. Also, not allowed to wear make up or jewellery in hospital. It’s very hard to feel femme in these circumstances.

  14. YES! I love this so much.

    As someone who ranges from tomboy femme to lazy femme to more of the flowy/flirty/dressy femme thing you have going on, depending on context and my mood, I also find that there isn’t often room for that sort of range/changeability in many people’s idea of queer representations/fashion. You know? Like I usually wear tshirts & little boys’ sweaters and jeans with boots or sneakers, but I love getting dressed up & wearing a bright swingy dress with heels and more sparkly makeup. It’s so fun! But sometimes I feel like this is read as “confusion,” or people will make comments about like “woah! YOU look nice” *weird look*. I just wanna embrace all the things I like! Why can’t fashion just be like…fun?

  15. My sentiments exactly! I have always been very femme, and always will be. Up until about five years ago, I had long Ariel hair down to my butt! I’ve always loved sun dresses, nail polish and heels, and I think I just might be attracted to femme types too. It reminds me of the scene near the end of “But I’m a Cheerleader”. The defecting protagonist asks the gay couple to “teach her how to be a lesbian”… where they go, how they dress”. The couple tells her to just keep being herself. This was my favorite part of the movie.

  16. Thank you SO MUCH for this beautiful piece of validation!! I struggled for years with wanting to look, at the very least, masculine-of-center just to be able to give off that “queer” (read: androgynous) vibe. It wasn’t until I recently embraced a nonbinary identity that I was able to look at that vaguely uncomfortable effort and say “Fuck it, I’m buying an eyelet-lace midi skirt that accents what little curve I have and I’m going to rock it.” (I do, indeed, rock it.)

  17. THANK GOODNESS. I came out to myself around age 12, but grew up in a pretty conservative family and community so I’ve always presented as femme not only because I like it but also to feel reasonably OK. I also, tbh, love my long hair and am not that into button downs. That being said, it makes me real mad that the community I spent so long fighting to join seems to push me away because I don’t seem “queer enough.”

    FEMMES ARE REAL QUEERS. the end.

  18. THIS! This so, so much. When I first came out, I tried to dress more like the wlw that I’d seen on television. It was uncomfortable and felt like I was wearing a costume. When I started dressing in a way that made me feel like myself, I noticed that I started getting frozen out of queer spaces.

  19. I appreciate this so much! I range from lazy/tomboy femme to high femme and have felt so invisible in queer spaces unless I am wearing something more masc of center. Which sometimes I want to do – I love a good button up with boots when it feels right. But sometimes I also love heels and dresses and I always love lingerie and my long hair.

    But I know I’m also guilty of exactly the erasure you talk about because I am much more likely to clock someone with a “queer” haircut or masc style and as a femme I should definitely be doing better.

    Finally you are gorgeous and those photos are beautiful and I’m not gonna lie I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a picture of that black bodycon minidress because just your description had me needing to fan myself

  20. From another black, curvy femme who lives her best life in bright tights and 60s dresses, thank you for this. It’s only been by working in zine fairs and attending QTIPOC events that I’ve felt seen and welcomed. Before that, I basically gave up on my local queer scene because so much of it was femmephobic, especially if you’re black (since black queer women can only be understood if they are masculine of centre, because the queer community is still a microcosm of the racist, anti-black society we all live in). It made coming out a traumatic time because I constantly felt so rejected and undesirable in both straight and queer communities (I am bi in a hetero-seeming relationship and look too straight for queer people and too gay for straights).

    Now I mostly attend POC events because I know that I will actually be acknowledged and welcomed in those spaces. The zine world especially has boosted my confidence in who I am, and how radical my black femmeness can be. Now I very much think of myself in terms of ‘femme as in fuck you!’

  21. Loving all these comments! It’s so so affirming to see that so many people feel the same way.

    Just want to give a shoutout to A-camp, because that’s the one space where I’ve felt like all forms of clothing/gender presentation are really welcomed and celebrated and everyone is assumed to be queer at all times so it’s way more chill. Getting ready for the dances is so fun, seeing so many people wearing like, a suit + glittery makeup, or a dress with their hairy bods on display, and any/all other combos of presentation. I haven’t been to camp in 2 whole years (money! *shakes fist at sky*), but I’ll always remember how that felt and try to take it with me to other places and recreate that feeling.

  22. Femme is very beautiful but intimidating to me, all those accoutrements that I personally could never master, I get so flustered.

    Be that as it may, if you make eye contact and smile at me, I’ll be there for you in a heartbeat, Mommi dearest.

  23. PREACH. You’ve managed to articulate the endless frustration so beautifully.

    I’ve struggled with this for so long, and felt so inadequate time and time again when people take it upon themselves to insist that there’s no way I could possibly be anything other than straight. When I ask what about me looks so straight it’s always a super ambiguous “you just look straight.”

    I agonized over ways to look less straight, or to be more visibly out. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I’ve googled queer fashion and tried to change my style, tried wearing a fake nose piercing, but though I find the alternative look to be very attractive it’s just not me. I also have a job that I could never show up to with piercings, tattoos, or half a head shaved. When I did try a more masculine look people said it looked like I was trying to fit in.

    It’s heartbreaking to keep having to prove my sexuality and disheartening enough to keep me away from queer spaces which should be safe and welcoming. I’m happy to hear you have been able to find your femme flow. For now, I’m happiest dressing how I want and staying away from the judgment and non inclusiveness of queer spaces.

  24. go femmes!!!!!!!! i love being femme. however, sometimes i still struggle with the desire to be seen as queer. when i try and change it up by wearing something more androgynous it feels weird on my body and makes me uncomfortable. strugs :/

  25. Every. Single. Word of this. Just gonna sit down and have a good cry now, which is my superpower anyway, but damn, I have shit to do. Also, I like girls and boys, so I think it’s even easier in some contexts for my cloak of invisibility to engulf me. Thank you, Reneice, you just spoke my life. I’d think I need to send you some flowers, honey. Mwah!

  26. Thanks you SO MUCH for this. I came out fully pretty late, at 33, and have struggled ever since with how to be in and find my queer community when I’m doubly discounted from both coming out late and being what I’m told is high-femme, in that I love 30s-50s pinup styling and am well into the “curvy” range! Oh and then add on bi, and in all honesty I feel like I’m pretty invisible in most queer spaces (UK based). I’ve been lucky in finding two wonderful women I’ve loved in that time, but I’ve never been able to find a queer space and community independently of them where I feel truly seen and comfortable. My equivalent of the earring was cutting my long hair to a short dark pixie, but it was never “me”, and I could never be the masculine leaning cool slim types that got all the attention and validation…. so I’m back to messy blonde locks and trying to find my way and my people! Your writing, and this piece in particular, helps a lot. Please keep doing what you’re doing 😘

  27. All of these comments really highlight why we need physical spaces just for queer women and nonbinary folx so we can see ourselves together in all our beautiful diversity. I’m so tired of having to go to the rich white gay boys’ spaces or once-a-month women-focused dance nights. I’m so lucky to live in a place that is *relatively* safe for us but I hate that it is at the expense of having a coffeeshop/bookstore/bar to call our own.

    Sorry for the rant but re-reading this article after attending a literary roundtable for queer women – where I knew we all had that thing in common and I also felt so seen – has just made me long for more explicitly queer spaces.

  28. I also want to show some solidarity for black femmes trying to squeeze into the “white” tags for what constitutes Masculine and Femme of Center. My (black, southern) girlfriend is very much traditional stud in presentation, but has a lot of softness. I don’t like being defenseless and since I live and work a major city, my “I don’t take shit”ness is at a high level and I’ll definitely punch or hurt somebody if I need to.

    Meanwhile, when I’m not barista-ing and not wanting to mess up my good clothes, I’m damn sure in those good clothes, looking fine AF. And my
    GF is forever encouraging me to be as femme or masc as I’m happy with on a given day. I feel safer in my more masculine clothing walking home alone and I feel powerful when I give speeches and do training courses in my sensible heels or boots and a well-fitting dress.

    But then again, at least in my corner of black culture, femmes just are a given and sometimes preferred, which is it’s own set of issues, as I rarely see masc/masc black couples and really only see femme/femme in under 30 spaces (I’m just over 30).

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