After coming out as a lesbian, the weight of never having never felt “feminine” enough lifted briefly. While denying my attraction to women (even when it was glaringly obvious like when I begged my best friend to dress up as the Daria to my Jane for Halloween), finally accepting my sexuality eased some gender qualms. Before coming out, I clung to my femininity. If I started being perceived as androgynous or masculine, everyone else would be able to tell what I wasn’t ready to accept. I felt like there was no option but to cater to a heteronormative beauty standard.
But once I came out, I felt like I could finally experiment with my gender presentation. I felt like lesbians, unlike other women, were allowed to be gender nonconforming, androgynous, or even masculine. I cut my hair short, I stopped wearing acrylics, and I bought sports bras.
For many baby lesbians, immediately jumping to express themselves in these ways is very common. There’s even a TikToker whose main joke is handing out “outfits” to new gays: snapbacks, ridiculous shoes, carabiners. When embracing a new identity, feeling visible within it can be incredibly powerful, especially in queer spaces where signaling is often clothing and cosmetic choices.
Also let’s not deny that within sapphic spaces, masculinity and androgyny is hot. My friends oo’d and aww’d over the campus butches and their shaved heads and sleeves. When we went to the gym, we prayed we would see the buff athletes later on Tinder.
I suddenly felt desperate to prove I was still a woman, despite being a lesbian.
However, after a while the pendulum swung back the other way. I suddenly felt desperate to prove I was still a woman, despite being a lesbian. (Undoubtedly in part due to my conservative Chicano family making incessant comments about my unshaved legs or Doc Martens.) No matter how I was presenting, there felt like a gap between my sexuality and the obvious gender that corresponded with it. All modern definitions said my sexuality meant I was a gay woman attracted to other women.
When I read Stone Butch Blues, I was acceptably feminine. In fact, I frequently joked with my other femme friends about how we passed for straight or how my girlfriend-at-the-time and I had to constantly reject men at bars. My family was accepting of the fact that I was queer, but that often felt contingent on my femininity and womanhood. I still needed to wear dresses to important occasions to prove that I wasn’t that kind of dyke.
When trans-exclusionary feminists insist that lesbianism is about “females”, they are wrong on so many accounts. One, there are so many trans lesbians that our community would not be the same without. But it also speaks to the isolation of masculine, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary lesbians. Especially since many nonbinary lesbians are nonbinary because of their lesbianism. Because living without attraction to men alienates many from conventional, cis heteronormative womanhood.
I wasn’t a woman, but a lesbian, an identity so powerful it’s the closest thing to a gender I have.
In a time where many lesbians learn more about their queerness through media, we are fed lesbians who exist for a male gaze. The same way my family approves of my sexuality on the condition that I remain feminine, mass media portray lesbians who are conventionally beautiful, clean-shaven, soft-spoken and kind. Cottagecore sapphics who hold hands at picnics have become more familiar than the angry, feminist dykes with shaved heads. But both of these types of people exist in plenty in real life.
Womanhood is so often defined through the desire and approval of men. When you take men out of the equation, womanhood didn’t feel relatable to me. The Bechdel Test was designed not to prove how feminist something is, but to show how little media shows women separated from their relationships to men. When I built my world, embracing my queerness and love for womanhood, ironically, I was able to see my disconnect from it. I wasn’t a woman, but a lesbian, an identity so powerful it’s the closest thing to a gender I have.
Being nonbinary is so common amongst lesbians, I know more lesbians who use they/them pronouns than I don’t. I know lesbians with top surgery, who microdose T, who don’t want to be seen as a woman but as a dyke. When I go out, if I embrace normative beauty standards it’s exclusively for other queers I may meet. Society is terrified of women who refuse to be easily consumable, and they’re even more scared of those who aren’t women.
I feel like I have finally gotten off the carousel of performative expression, and now others’ perceptions of me are tucked away in a corner. Now, I love putting on makeup while having a little mustache. I feel sexy when you can see an inch of unshaved legs between my jeans and calf socks. When my partner and I are out, I am proud that there is no doubt that we are together. My friends and I clomp around after drinks while shielding our femme friends from the stares of dudebros. Knowing that I’m a lesbian, completely and in all forms of my identity, has done more than release me or set me free, it’s made me comfortable. I can exist quietly for all of the years I had felt like an imposter.