What Does a Lesbian Look Like?: The Autostraddle Roundtable

What does a lesbian look like? Until a few years ago, mainstream culture was pretty sure they knew the answer to that question, even though they didn’t. A lesbian looked like K.D. Lang or the gym teacher, right?

Now, all bets are off! The patriarchy and the lesbians have been warned and men are increasingly disarmed to meet girls who “look straight” but turn out to be gay (See: Chasing Amy) while women are increasingly disarmed to meet girls at gay bars who “look straight” (See:  The L Word). Meanwhile, the Obviously Out & Proud Homos wonder why they’re still getting hit on by men, and we’re all wondering why the doctor told us to close our eyes and think nice thoughts about our boyfriend while he administered a painful shot.


This doesn’t come out of nowhere. For centuries our civilization has measured a woman’s worth by her attractiveness to men, and our ensuing beauty rituals and fashion choices have long been attributed to desiring male attention/approval or acting as mindless slaves to the omnipotent power of the beauty industry.

Defining the minority’s “other-ness” by emphasizing obvious physical differences has been a key technique used by those in power to subject and withhold political & social power from the minority. On a practical level, it’s easier to openly express prejudice when you feel you can visually identify any potentially offended parties in your midst.

It’s weird, being part of a self-identified minority with no absolute methods of physical identification. Of course homos aren’t alone in that weirdness, but in a world where people are accustomed to easy people-labeling techniques, there’s people on every level who seem, in some way, to want to instantly be known and to know others based on physical cues.

It’s weird, being part of a self-identified minority with no absolute methods of physical identification.

But as lesbian culture moves out of silent secret places into the mainstream, and as civilization moves towards accepting style’s separation from Self as they once had to do when reconcving women eschewing dresses for long pants (while realizing that many women would still self-select dresses and other initially successful options), rejecting the maxim that anyone who doesn’t “look gay” must be straight is one of many silent conceptual evolutions that could, quite possibly, redefine gender as fluid, style as costume and labels as an option rather than a necessity. You’ll hear a lot of us complaining about the idea of “butch” and “femme,” but certainly for some people those words are important and useful.what-lesbians-look-like-2

But with this fluidity and increased visibility of lesbians of all attitudes, styles, shapes and colors comes a new set of expectations from others in our community and outsiders. If women are wearing makeup and paying special attention to style for either personal reasons or because they want to look a certain way for other women — it’s no surprise we’re inspiring alternating suspicion from our own, and fear from the patriarchy.

Our cultural gender belief system and societal structure ties masculine & feminine gender roles to biological sex, and therefore people who have traits of one prescribed gender role are expected to fulfill all the rest of the traits too. Thinking that lesbians are like men and gay men are like women is so backwards — the old term is “inverts.”

So, here we are at the crossroads. How do these shifting expectations and judgments play out in our everyday life? When are we guilty of reinforcing stereotypes when judging others? Can you identify a lesbian just by looking at her? Do you want to be identified?

This week we ask:

What do people think they know just from looking at you?

What does a lesbian look like?



little-carlyI’ve always been boyish. When I was a little girl I was able to pass pretty easily as a boy. My standard uniform growing up was jeans (or Hammer pants, don’t ask), a giant Chicago Bulls Starter jacket, a Chicago Bulls hat, and my long hair pulled back into a French braid. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that once, on a field trip, a lady at a museum got into an argument with me over whether or not I was a girl. I swore off dresses altogether in the 2nd grade, which my mother supported, but the rest of my family had a harder time with (we’re all good now, though. My family doesn’t care that I wear ties all the time and loves my girlfriend, so things are good there). I still get called “sir” somewhat regularly, especially recently at my grandfather’s funeral, where many of the elderly folks kept asking my Aunt and Grandmother, “and who is this young man here?”

So naturally, I have a lot of feelings about this topic.

The stereotypes that I find the most annoying are the internal ones, the ones coming at me from other members of our community.

But I’m not entirely sure what side of the stereotype issue I fall on. On the one hand, while I’m generally desensitized to being called a boy, it’s still annoying. But on the other hand, men never hit on me and that’s really a blessing. What I really dislike isn’t necessarily the opinions that might be formed about me by the straight community, but the opinions that might be formed about me by other gays and lesbians.

I hate the term “butch.”

I really don’t like it and I especially hate when people use it to describe me.

Usually it’s people who don’t know me very well or who haven’t spoken to me very much who make this mistake, because if you’re around me for any significant period of time you’ll realize that while I look androgynous, I am most definitely a girl. I take forever to get ready, I am exceedingly vain (as evidenced by the fact that I check myself out — usually my hair — whenever I pass any reflective surface), and I have many neuroses about cleanliness, neatness, and coordination. My concept of gender is probably most similar to that of a gay boy, as those were the people I spent the most time around during my formative early college years, when I was really figuring out who I am. While I am handy around the house and a techy nerd who enjoys objectifying women, I’m also really into style, fashion, and don’t like icky things. [“You also lose in arm wrestling competitions, that’s pretty girly of you.” – Robin]

Carly & Robin Get Ready to Go

Those sartorial phases of attempting to make my outward appearance match the girl trapped inside have never lasted very long. I guess water finds its own level… or whatever.

Recently a fellow lesbian told my girlfriend Robin that she was also into “butchy girls,” which Robin found hilarious. So, earlier this evening when I was thinking what I’d write for this roundtable, I had a realization: the stereotypes I find most annoying are the ones coming at me from the inside. It’s other lesbians who assume I’m “butch” and it’s my gay boy friends who make the annoying lesbian jokes. So until we can learn not to pigeonhole other members of our community, we’ll continue being pigeonholed and stereotyped by the world at large. And perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch but I think there’s something there.

However, I admit that I do exploit my looks and the stereotypes therein and use them to my advantage. I don’t surround myself with straight people who would have generalized ideas about me and I also know that I can maneuver a crowd of straight men and not get hit on once.

So am I really the most reliable narrator? I’m obviously gay and am OK with that but I do think that the heteronormativity still prevalent in our society is extremely harmful and just kind of silly at this point. Assumptions only do one thing and we have all heard that joke before.

current carly2One thing I do know is how to spot another lesbian, so here’s a big hint: there is no set way to figure it out! It’s almost 2010, and while there are still the cargo-shorts-wearing, cell-phone-clipped-to-the-belt, be-mulleted sports fans out there, there are also younger lesbians who look just like anyone else. I think my gaydar is pretty decent but I can’t tell you a specific list of things that I think lesbians have or do, it’s just a sixth sense I guess. Takes one to know one?

Although Robin would like me to add here that when I first met her I didn’t know she was a lesbian, so there you go.

I’ll leave you with a conversation I had with my grandmother this weekend at my cousin’s wedding:

Nana: Carly, when I heard that man call you a boy at the funeral I was just… so mad!
Carly: It’s ok Nana, I’m used to it.
Nana: (shakes her head in disgust.)

This, from the woman who forbade me to wear a pants when I was in the 4th grade. My, we have come a long way!

Jan: Everyone thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants and play sports and I’m not pretty like other girls. But all I really want is a big, fat weiner up my…
Andre: Amen, sister.
But I’m a Cheerleader


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  1. I am coming to this late, real late..i think all of us have to look at others and accept them for whatever..personally i hate the use of partner..i have a partner in another country and he and i collaborate on our art and teaching every single day..i am sure his wife has no idea…it makes no diff..we are true partners in the best sense of the word..as to looks..some in my community look stereotypical but never seen ties…never..i am a tomboy but always very casual but nice casual…no belts ( reminds me of work when I worked) and no slacker clothes…and i wear short hair and nails…i am a swimmer and have been for many years….have very wavy thick hair..long hair is not an option and nails are killed in the chlorine. Here in Canada, no one asks…it is rude anyway…love whomever and screw all stereotypes!( PS most people even the gay ones do not think I look enough gay) LOL!

  2. I have the opposite problem. I am a ‘bi’ girl i hate that label but I do like men and women. I feel like straight people think i’m ‘too gay’ coz i like rainbows and *shock, horror* kiss my girlfirend in public, and gay people think i’m too fem /straight coz i wear dresses have long hair and have only had one gf.

    Its rediculous, if i’d never had a boyfriend i still think i’d struggle to fit in any box, i like outdoor adventure sports, bugs dont scare me, neither does mud, wrestling (arm or not) is fun and I love a bit of banter (along with lots of my other ‘masculine traits’ but I have long blonde hair, wear make-up (some of the time), and love my pretty dresses, tight clothing and skirts.

    So stuff if with boxes and label, i think while they can be helpful there are often limiting and exclusionary and we are never going to full live up to what they perscribe.

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  4. I love this article because it’s so varied: I also love what Riese says about ” We’re talking about wearing a dress on Monday and a tie on Tuesday”, because that completely sums up my gender presentation! While my gender stays (fairly!) constant at female, my expression is super fluid, and I definitely am more androgynous on some days and more femme on others. Thanks!

  5. As a nearly androgynous transwoman who identifies as lesbian this was always a problem for me. There is a tendency to be mistaken for an effeminate gay male, butch female or just plain vanilla male depending on the day.

    I have found that people tend to signal their sexual identity most reliably in very subtle ways that have more to do with body language, mannerisms, spoken language on an interpersonal level rather than mere fashion. You have to own your own identity and project it as best you can all the time to find the ones who will really love you for who you are. We all exist on a spectrum and it is a wide one.

    As others have commented, it shouldn’t matter if the whole world knows your preference, just the ones your interested in.

  6. I’m still trying to accept myself as more gay-leaning than bisexual at this point in my life. Along with that comes issues of how I present myself. The good news is, I’m getting more comfortable with just being myself! This article was a nice reminder that I don’t have to look any one way, and I can just be myself (and that it’s okay for that to change as I change – it’s all valid). Thanks for that. <3

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