My Gender Is Dyke

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.


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Alexandria Juarez

Alexandria has written 1 article for us.

39 Comments

  1. I do wonder what the lesbian community is going to look like in ten years, My inner circle is still very much cis women but as you said, there are so many nonbinary lesbians now that you meet and there are more every day, and every other lesbian I find on TikTok uses She/They or They/Them pronounce. I still view myself as a woman but I do relate to your point about ‘Lesbian’ being an almost gender identity, which of course has been helped by the fact that non-binary afab people gravitate to the term.

  2. Very well written article. I do sometimes find it a bit sad, as an old person now, that young people’s reactions to heteronormative beauty standards and bullshit performative “female role” stuff is often not to identify with being a woman, rather than to criticise those restrictive ideas of what being a woman is. Of course, nobody is obliged to fight societal shit in their everyday life, and of course people are free to identify as whatever they want and that should be respected by everyone! But I miss the focus on broadening what a woman can be, masculine, feminine, on T, whatever. And I miss international female solidarity, the recognition that we all “victims” of patriarchy.

    Sometimes I feel like the current queer focus on gender as personal rather than political is a bit of a loss in some ways. Opposition to gender norms now seems to be framed in a “I don’t feel comfortable with it because I’m not female” rather than “these are ridiculous, let’s burn them down” way. Of course no individual has any obligation to fight the system! But I wish it was more explicitly criticised. Some young people have even suggested I’m non-binary because I’m butch and I don’t like female roles and expectations. But I’m not the thing that’s wrong here, those roles and expectations are.

    Sorry that was a bit of a ramble – just something I’ve been thinking of! Again, thank you for sharing your story here, and hope my ramblings are not taken as a criticism of you as they are not at all, just musings on current queer fashions. We had really strict butch/femme fashions when I was young, and I’m glad they’re gone!

    • What I find interesting is how two people can have the same feelings about how they fit/don’t fit prescribe gender expectations and come to different conclusions about themselves. I know people who see their nonconoformity within womanhood as “burning down gender systems” and people who see their identity outside of womanhood as “burning down gender systems”. The neat part is how the way we identify ourselves doesn’t even exist as a clear binary.

    • Hi Bea! I’d like to challenge the supposition that “young people’s reactions to heteronormative beauty standards and bullshit performative “female role” stuff is often not to identify with being a woman, rather than to criticise those restrictive ideas of what being a woman is.”

      I think that there is room for both, and that there are people doing both.

      I also think that both of those groups of people (nonbinary people and women who challenge gender norms) are, as you say, “fight the system.” Nonbinary and trans people fight the system. Women who don’t present traditionally fight the system. Queers of all stripes fight the system, and we can do it together.

      A nonbinary person and a woman might each consciously and joyfully reject an AFAB gender norm. Some of their motivations to do so might be similar. Some of their motivations to do so might be different. And once someone feels more free and secure in their selfhood and self-expression, he, she or they might also find aspects of the gender they were assigned at birth that they want to embrace, now that there is space to do so intentionally. That can be joyful too.

      I’m wondering if there’s room beyond your sadness for joy that nonbinary people have language and self-expression that works for them, that makes them happy, that helps them express and embody the totality of who they are. And I wonder if there is room beyond your sadness for the realization that we are stronger as a community when we are able to fully embody and express who we are, without others in our community feeling as though our doing so takes something away from them.

      Sending care. <3

      • Hi queer girl,

        Thank you for your eloquent and interesting response! You’re absolutely right that there is joy in non-binary people, agender people etc, finding a gender identity and definition that makes them feel happier, makes them feel more like them, helps them to escape the pressures of patriarchy, or for any reason they like. I do enjoy that people now dress much more radically than they used to, and that we’ve gone beyond butch/femme for example. I love that so many young people dress in gender-bending ways, for example. Many of the things that people used to tell me “you dress/look/do x like a man!” are now completely normalised. So definitely joy for individuals and gratefulness over the way society is progressing – and apologies that clearly wasn’t evident from my comment. I’m definitely not saying that people shouldn’t be non-binary or that they shouldn’t be welcome in the LGBT community or that they’re not also “fighting the system”!

        I do still think, however, that many of the young people I’ve met and stuff I’ve read on the internet – like this, for example – correlate gender identity with gender norms, roles and expectations. And while individuals of course should do whatever they like and feel comfortable with, I wish there would be more explicit criticisms of the causes. For example, we used to have political lesbians – women who were bisexual but chose to only sleep with women. Some people used to say they weren’t really lesbians. I think policing other people’s identities is horseshit, but you can recognise the validity of their identities while also critiquing the “roots” so to speak.

        Like someone posted up the top – I wonder what the lesbian community will be like in ten years in terms of gender, and while I celebrate people finding gender expressions that work for them, I will mourn the loss of political female solidarity, and will remain slightly saddened that gender fuckery is now mostly under the banner of non-binary.

        Of course, in the long term I’d like us to see gender as something as unimportant as hair-colour – but as our trans friends have shown us, gender identity is still incredibly important socially, to the extent that people are willing to harass and kill trans women. And misogyny is still everywhere, and to become “gender-blind” too soon is to miss the discrimination women face in every walk of life.

        Sending best wishes to you, may you find happiness in whatever form of gender expression works for you, and maybe at some point societal change will slow down enough for me to catch up! ;-)

        • hi bea! i appreciate your response. but what if what you are framing as a “loss of female political solidarity” is actually transformation into the next iteration of that solidarity? what would that look like for us as a community? not all *change* is *loss,* and as a person who is certainly not *young,* I will say that I think perhaps transformation/revolution/etc. feels most like loss when we are centering our own experiences.

    • “Sometimes I feel like the current queer focus on gender as personal rather than political is a bit of a loss in some ways”

      I agree with queer girl’s comment but also, I would just like to say that I don’t think this is wholly true, it’s just that its application has shifted. There may be a decrease in “political lesbians” (which I would attribute also to an increased comfort with saying you’re Lesbian, and increased comfort in saying you’re Bi while only dating women) but I have many friends who are bi/queer and would only date other queer people, regardless of gender.

      Gender is still political but rather than defying gender stereotypes (which people still do) they are defying Gender altogether.

    • I’m oldish – 52 – and I have had similar thoughts to what you express here, but now I see the two sides that you’re refering to as two points of the same thing. People who “choose” to identify as trans or enby *are* fighting societal shit in their everyday life just by identifying as they do – they may also criticise restrictive ideas of what being a woman – or man – is. Both can happen at once. Third wave feminism had good and bad things going on. Younger people are right to adopt new tactics and new ways of thinking as they carry feminism forward.

      • I’m just chiming in here to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation, and how much I think the whole thing has been handled kindly and with grace when these conversations can so often go other ways. I’ve had similar thoughts to Bea despite being younger – I find it really easy and natural to extend solidarity to trans and nb people but I sometimes struggle with the way individuals describe their nb identities. It’s never enough of a struggle for me not to respect them, and I think it’s cool that we can have different words for similar experiences, but it’s so nice to see this stuff being talked about thoughtfully!

        What’s been interesting for me is reading old lesbian separatist stuff – this idea that a universal female solidarity has, sadly, never really existed. I can’t find it anywhere but I found an old publication (I think Rita Mae Brown was involved?) in the 80s where lesbian separatists asserted lesbian as distinct from woman in terms of how they’re seen in society, and I found it really fascinating – it feels like some of these ideas have always been here, the language is just changing all the time. It’s cool, it’s exciting, I’m grateful to share and build solidarity with all of these different communities and think about meaningful ways to destroy gender-as-oppressive-hierarchy with you all!

  3. I’ve read a couple articles featuring or mentioning non-binary lesbians now and I still can’t wrap my head around it. Lesbian: a woman who likes dating and/or sexing other women. A non-binary person: someone who is not a woman nor a man, being a tertiary gender option and identifier. How can a non-binary person be a lesbian? It follows that the definition of lesbian would have to change to allow it, since under the current definition of lesbian, a non-binary lesbian makes no linguistic sense. Either the definition of lesbian changes, or the non-binary folk need to do some wordsmithing and come up with their own terms for attraction that center their identity, because it makes no sense at the moment.

    • The definition of lesbian has changed in the minds of a lot of younger people in the community to include non-binary folk. Some say the official position ‘women who like women’, other say ‘women and non-binary people who like women and non-binary people’ and other prefer ‘non-men who like non-men’. It’s early days so it’s the wild west out there right now.

      • I know everything is very much in the Wild West early stages right now but I’d like to register my distaste for “non men who like other non men” because I don’t like to define my sexuality as an absence of men, as though men are such a default that you have to highlight their absence constantly. I’m curious to see where this dialogue ends up, though – I find all of these changes super fascinating.

    • I think it’s worth noting that the definition of “lesbian” has encompassed many different nuances over the course of its history that weren’t strictly “a woman exclusively attracted to other women” – in other words, this current language shift isn’t a sudden and unprecedented phenomenon, but rather part of a normal linguistic process of continual adaptation that many words undergo

    • Agreed. Needing to refer to oneself as AFAB nonbinary or nonbinary lesbian is inadvertently sex-essentialist and TERFY. Lesbian denotes sexuality and non-binary is gender-specific. Why conflate them? Are we really just talking about agender and/or androgynous gender presentation, here?

  4. !! even just the title of this piece is an exact thought i’ve had but never felt like i could talk about or have seen talked about. seeing it named in print like this is such a trip so thank you for this holy shit !!

  5. To the TERFs: this is why nobody can have an adult conversation about the politics of, say, being non-binary: because faced with your irrational bioessentialist hate, the only reasonable response is unconditional support.

  6. the way i GASPED when i read “many nonbinary lesbians are nonbinary because of their lesbianism. Because living without attraction to men alienates many from conventional, cis heteronormative womanhood.” i feel so validated!!

    i’m a nonbinary lesbian but i struggled so long with finding a gender identity and accepting that lesbians can be nonbinary. my pronouns are they/them but in spanish (my first language) i go by “ella” because while i’m not a woman, i’m not not a woman?? i don’t know!!! but i’m allowed not to!!

    i have a spotify playlist about gender literally called “can dyke be a gender identity?” so this totally hit the spot, thank you.

  7. As a late-to-the-party lesbian (50 when I figured it out), I think it’s appropriate to point out that the glory of living at this time is that we are all figuring out that lesbians can come in all kinds of packages. For a period of time, I tried out presenting myself as more “dykey” because no one typically reads me as lesbian. But that did not feel like me, and I finally realized that I do not have to look any particular way to be a lesbian. I can just be myself – the person I’ve always been, just with a better understanding and acceptance of who I am. And my girlfriend loves me just as I am (I know – Lucky!)

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