You Need Help: Battling Heteronormativity with Style

feature image via Shutterstock

So I just finished a summer job hostessing at a nice local restaurant. I liked the job, the pay, and my co-workers, and I’m planning on returning next year. However, I found myself stuck with a problem: I need help being perceived as queer.

I’m pretty used to getting read as straight by strangers because a) my sense of style is pretty feminine: long hair, winged eyeliner, skirts, etc. and b) heteronormativity is a thing, especially for people my age. This isn’t usually a problem for me, though, because once people get to know me they tend to figure it out pretty quickly (and by “get to know me” I mean “talk to me for longer than like 30 minutes”).

However, the workplace is a different situation. Most of the relationships I have with my co-workers are extremely casual, and our conversations, if they stray from work at all, stay mainly in the area of school and the weather. Thus, I keep getting read as straight. This comes with a variety of undesirable consequences, ranging from my fellow hostess trying to set me up with her brother to having to wait for weeks to find a way to work my girlfriend into a conversation with the gay bartender in a way that didn’t come out of absolutely nowhere. Not to mention getting hit on by far too many men in the 20-50 age bracket. Gross.

So, I need some help with finding ways to be perceived as a lesbian, barring cutting off all my hair or getting Ellen DeGeneres’ face tattooed on my forehead. 

 2014: the tabloids are ripe with alternative lifestyle haircuts. Celebrities from Riri to the Jenners are sporting tomboyish style; strictly queer style is ambiguous at best. Are they, or aren’t they? The answer is a little grayer than the days of flagging and secret lesbian speakeasys.

First things first, your style sounds lovely! I’m a sucker for winged liner and cute skirts. Yes, it’s super annoying to be constantly perceived as heterosexual as a default. In struggling with the same thing, I’ve come to a few realizations. Mainstream society seems to perceive female-identified bodies that subvert gender norms as non-heterosexual (whether that is true or not). So fucking with gender is an easy way to start that conversation. Shorter hair, tomboyish clothes and the ilk could be an easy way to visually communicate your lady loving ways. This is not to say that there is one way to “dress queer,” because that’s untrue. But if you aren’t naturally masculine leaning in your sartorial choices, how do you let everyone know about your lady-loving? What if all you want to do is wear traditionally “femme” clothing? I’ve got some answers for you, my sweet!

 In Work Attire

femme queen pin full size 1

via Etsy

You didn’t mention if you have a dress code at work, so I’m unsure how much personalized clothing you can wear while on the clock. Nina wrote a wonderful guide to signalling that you are, indeed a non-hetero person, even while femme presenting. If it’s within the restaurant’s employee requirements, I recommend wearing queer-friendly tees; Autostraddle’s merch store is chock full of them! Top it off with a denim vest for some extra queer power.

You could also find some super cute pins on your shirt/apron/top etc. A little gander on Etsy brought up several super adorable pins, badges and patches that would customize your outfits and start conversations in which you can be more vocal about your sexuality.

In Conversation

You are going to have to find creative ways of getting to the point. It might not always be quite as quickly communicated as you’d like, but sometimes a simple “I totally have a crush on Hannah Hart. She reminds me of my girlfriend,” works wonders if you’re talking about pop culture or Youtube or crushes. I usually find ways to sneak my sexuality in (at work) by enthusiastically talking about random cuties in a totally respectful way. You could also just go around introducing yourself as the resident lesbian, but you know, you do you.

In Awkward Romantic Interactions/Suggestions

shutterstock umbrella

“Nope, you can’t stand under my rainbow umbrella, ella, ella, EH EH EH.”
via Shutterstock

Now, regarding people trying to set you up with their brothers or random older dudes hitting on you, I’m not entirely sure that is something that can be completely eradicated from your life. In my personal experience, regardless how often I sport resting bitch face or dress more on the tomboy side of femme, street harassment/random catcalling/being hit on does not cease. Thanks patriarchy. In my ultimate vision of the universe, we wouldn’t have to put up with this bullshit, babydyke, but that’s not the universe we live in. Making it known at work that you’re queer will certainly help your co-workers refrain from sending you on dates with their little bros. But it probably won’t stop Joe Blow from telling you that “a pretty girl like you should spend some time with a nice guy like me.” Annoying? Yes. Infuriating at times? Of course. But you’ll learn ways to defuse those awkward situations and shut them dudebros down. My default is a death stare and “I’m not interested” but that might not be the best approach in a customer service environment.

So, my dearest, what I’m saying is this: you can sneak in markers, slip comments in to conversations and wear cute badges and t-shirts. At the end of the day, there will always be those close minded folks who decide what your sexuality is before you even open your mouth. And quite frankly, you do not need to pay them any mind. You’re flawless and you don’t need to prove your authenticity to anyone. Go forth!

Send your questions to youneedhelp [at] autostraddle [dot] com or submit a question via the ASK link on Please keep your questions to around, at most, 100 words. Due to the high volume of questions and feelings, not every question or feeling will be answered or published on Autostraddle. We hope you know that we love you regardless.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Lydia O

Lydia Okello is a feminist, body positive, queer personal style blogger. On her website Style is Style, she showcases her panache for bright colors and power clashing. When she isn't pawing over Samantha Pleet collections on Tumblr, she's dreaming about havin' a kitten of her own one day. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr and on her personal blog.

Lydia has written 64 articles for us.


  1. <3 <3 <3 to you, question-asker!

    Let's all get Ellen DeGeneres forehead tattoos. I'm in. I wore a big homemade button all the time in undergrad that said "C*NT Lover" sans asterisks. But, you know, that doesn't fly in the grown up workplace. Your managers might frown on it as apron decor.

    • I have some temporary tattoo paper and I’ve been slowly drawing enough to fill the sheet and after all of this I might just have to add ellen’s face.
      You want one?

    • I had a “nobody knows I’m a lesbian” tshirt which I wore to uni lectures, aged 19, coupled with a shaved head and people still assumed I was straight… this was 12 years ago so maybe the penny would have dropped these days.


    i have at least one day a month when i really need that uterus necklace

  3. I have been having this issue in my very first big girl office job! I like dresses and makeup, and the dress code bans things like facial piercings and things that are not “professional.” I think my mega-cool boss who is a gay mom is catching on though. :-D

  4. That’s not a bad idea, I was thinking today that I should wear a pin that shows how genderqueer I feel on the inside. Maybe something that says, “Ask me about my pronouns” or “I use Ze/Xe pronouns”.

  5. There should be a whole article on who to conversate about sexuality when you’re femme. Maybe it’s because I live in QLD Australia but I’ve never had a squeaky clean coming out talk to any straight person. I avoid it like leprosy now.

    • As a fellow Queenslander, I can only recommend (small l) liberal bubbles. I love mine at UQ and leave it rarely.

    • I have the same thing in Victoria, Australia which is supposed to be less conservative then QLD so I can only imagine what it would be like there. It really sucks…

      • Actually, I had a really hilarious coming out experience lately. Myself, my girlfriend and my best friend were sitting eating after yoga with a guy from his class when the fact that we’d been to same sex dance classes that week came up.

        Random guy: Why same sex? Is it because there’s less pressure?
        Me: Uh, no, some people like dancing with people of the same sex.
        RG: Oh, ok
        My friend: Actually it was a bit disappointing, it was lesbians old enough to be my mother.
        RG: So what’s it like? It sounds like a good thing to do. Where is it?
        My girlfriend: Well, there’s regular dance classes for free at the uni, but I don’t know …

        It went on for ages. Once he finally DID realise we were queer, he was perfectly nice about it. But he was remarkably dense.

  6. I often bring up autostraddle/the queer community/queer culture when I think I’m being read as straight. e.g., “Hey have you read any good books lately? I’m in the middle of a queer YA novel about Polish mermaids, it’s pretty much the best.”

  7. Photos.

    -At your cubicle (if you work in an office).
    -And a cute kissy pick on your phone.

    These at least give people an inkling that when you say “girlfriend,” you DON’T mean you best friend from college (ugg)!

    • Oh god, you just made me think of an old job I had. Despite talking about my girlfriend and being completely and totally transparent about it, NONE of my coworkers could wrap their heads around it. I talked about her constantly, talked about our relationship, told people when our anniversary was. Talked about finding female celebrities sexy. Even said multiple times that I like women, referred to myself as lesbian. But no. They couldn’t get it.

      “Oh, you have to leave early to go with your girlfriend to a really important doctor appointment. What a good friend you are.” No. No no no. I’m a great friend, but, no. This is my GIRLFRIEND, not a girl who is a friend. “You mean your roommate, right?” No, I don’t. I really don’t.

      It took a good 4 months of me constantly correcting everyone, before I finally spelled it out in no uncertain terms. She’s not my roommate, unless by roommate you mean we literally share not only a bedroom, but a bed, where we often have sex, like we have for the past 2 years, in a monogamous relationship, with each other. One woman, even after that, still struggled to understand. She actually said “but… You wear skirts.” Ugg.

    • I find that mentioning EX girlfriends is more useful, i guess because it’s not commonly used in a same-sex-friendship-kinda-way.

  8. I don’t have anything productive to add to the conversation, but I just wanted to note that you could probably have a buzz cut, combat boots, and a flannel shirt and still get hit by dudes if you’re working at a restaurant. They really do not seem to care because, as Lydia said, the patriarchy.

    • Why is that because of patriarchy? I mean, yeah, if the guy knows that she doesn’t date men, then it’d be a dick move to ask her out. But, I don’t think you can assume that just because she is MOC.

      • It’s the patriarchy because guys feel entitled to hit on who are serving them at restaurants. Things you don’t need when you’re doing your job–especially in a service industry where your tips are based on whether someone thinks you are friendly enough–being sexually harassed by anyone at all ever.

        I agree that you can’t assume someone is queer just because they are MOC, though.

  9. What’s the minimum requirement for pieces of queer flair? How many signifiers do I need to wear before I’m noticed??

  10. I agree with the comments above, wrt to being hit on, does it matter who is doing the hitting on if the issue is that you’re in a relationship? I mean, would it be any less awkward if you were being hit on by women, while partnered-up?

    I also think our biggest method of communicating our lady-loving-ness is to just say so…if someone is setting you up with their brother, you can say, “oh thanks, but I think my girlfriend would have something to say about that!”

    You could probably use the same line on randy patrons too!

    Oh and yes, I have a bald-headed, masculine-presenting, lesbian friend who does get hit on by male patrons all the time

    • There are reasons to want to communicate your identity to others that are totally independent of getting hit on or trying to find someone to date. I personally don’t like it when people assume when my various identities are other than what they actually are. Straight girls also get hit on by people that they aren’t interested in, so I didn’t think this was intented as a “i get hit on by people i’m not attracted to” problem so much as “people assume i’m straight when i’m proud of my queer identity and want to comunicate it to others.” after all, there is no guarentee that her straight co-waitress won’t turn around and try to set her up with some random girl on the basis that they are both gay and should thus date.
      Plus, as a healthcare professional I’m really interested in finding a subtle way to do this with my healthcare uniform (scrubs, coat), not because i want my female patients to hit on me or anything but because I want to make it clear that i’m there for them on lgbtq issues if they are having problems from other staff (some of whom are pretty homophobic and/or just not that familiar with lgbtq issues or how to talk to someone without being awful by accident)

  11. Or you could just move to Portland where no one will ever in a million years assume that you’re straight.

  12. What I don’t recommend is telling someone who’s catcalling / harassing you that you’re gay because, rather than leaving you alone, they’ll just get more aggressive.

    • I can STRONGLY agree with that statement, it just eggs them on. “More of a challenge” or something? IDK. Again…thanks patriarchy

      • I support you in shutting them down if you want and if you feel safe to, but yeah…they may act like more of a D.

        I also feel like you just not being interested in them should be more than enough reason for them to leave you alone. But, that patriarchy thing…

  13. I can only speak from personal experience, but I used to be super femme. When it became important for me to let people know that I might not be the straight lady they think I am, I started dressing (surprise!) kinda like Kristen Stewart (I already had the plaid flannel and Converse and Vans and whatnot) and sporting a Tegan Quin -esque labret piercing and alternative lifestyle haircut. Unoriginal, perhaps, but definitely inspired.

    Now with my cute short hair and little piercing I feel like I can throw on a skirt or dress, makeup if I feel like it, and I still have that “hmmm, is she or isn’t she?” thing going on. That may not be your specific thing, but what I’m saying is maybe find some queer lady looks you like that still feel like “you.”

    Getting inspiration for different looks from favorite celebs is easy because there are so many pictures of them online. I get a lot of femme inspiration from Mary Lambert too. She is amazing with her dresses, long hair, winged eyeliner, and red lipstick, but she is queer as hell and it is awesome.

    Also, maybe this Autostraddle gem will help?

  14. I can honestly say in my current job I have never been hit on by anyone and in my former job in an extreme sports store only chicks hit on me…the uniform included plaid flannel…WIN!
    In bars/restaurants tho…it was bad, the bouncers defended my honour a lot…and folks it was the early 2000s where most straight girls had long hair and wore heels and I looked hella dykey. Angel from buffy haircut, docs and cords…shirt and tie. Agree totally with above comments r.e. Patrons hitting on you. It’s unavoidable.

  15. I love this article! Though, I actually find I get hit on MORE by dudes when I let my queer flag fly in my outfits, because when I’m feeling particularly COC I put a lot more time into (and have a lot more fun with!) getting ready than when I just throw on a dress or jeans and a blouse to go out and also tend to exude more confidence on those nights, probably. The other night I went out in a bowtie with my hair slicked back and my eyebrows maxed out and COULD NOT lose this guy who wanted my number. The patriarchy is dense.

  16. Alright, alright, my friend Emily has already told me all her hats look super cute on me so this is just the sign from the goddess here, I need more hats. Preferably a straw hat, or maybe one of those vaguely flapper lookin ones.

    Not that those will help with the spot-the-queer thing but who cares, I’ll look cute! And I already have, no shit, a plaid military cap, with pins on it. I’ll put my homemade “Space-Sexual” button on that and call it done.

  17. I’m more masculine presenting overall, although no matter what I were to wear, my head pretty much gives it away at this point, yet on the rare occasion I’m still hit on by guys. Fortunately it doesn’t happen often but it always totally throws me for a loop, like I need to look behind me and see who they’re talking to.

    On a similar but not the same note, I very often get read as homosexual when I’m not. I’m homoasexual. Not a huge difference but I still find it annoying! I’ve had people tell me that when they first met me they thought I was some player or something too, and I’m like the exact opposite. But still, it’s rare that I’m not read as some variety of gay. My ex usually isn’t and it annoys her to no end, so I get it.

  18. It’s so tricky in corporate environments with a strict dress code. I spent years trying to drop hints. The word “girlfriend” apparently just means female friend to everyone I work with. I’ve tried putting things on my bulletin board by my desk that are signifiers — I have tons of the cute magazine covers and drawings that were inspired by the Windsor case, but unfortunately (well, in this particular circumstance) I work at the law firm that represented Edie. People just think it’s work pride or something. I have no work pride, I promise!

    Now I just feel like it’s a permanent state. Has anyone else had that where you’ve tried and tried and enough years have gone by that it feels like it’d be a capital-letters BIG DEAL if anyone finally catches on? Seriously I get all sweaty and nervous now every time I’m about to say something so I just stop. I really wish it had sunk in early because now it’s a whole THING. Which it shouldn’t be.

    • I’m like this with my relatives. I figured I would just be like “oh yeah, I have girlfriend.” if anyone asked about my dating life. But between short-term relationships not worth sharing, deaths in the family, travelling, and other life-events, I’ve cultivated a 4 year relationship and now feel like I’ve hidden it. If anyone asked I would gladly share, but I think it’s just going to come to a family get-together where I bring the girlfriend and just deal with the shocked faces while Grandma boasts that SHE knew the whole time.

  19. The girlfriend was annoyed that not everyone gets the picture in her workspace, so I dolled up a few times and flounced in to steal her on lunch dates. Solved that problem. Except her dudebro coworker is apparently convinced I’m her sister despite being corrected twice. -throws all the shade-

  20. Straight people can be really dense sometimes though. At an internship with a bunch of very nice Southern boys when I was a baby gay and didn’t have my current coming out bag of tricks, I said to the group (as my coming out), “Omg I have such a crush on Katie Miller [who was interning down the hall.]”

    One of these nice Southern boys then responded, “Wait… isn’t Katie usually a girl’s name?” Like it was more likely that I had a crush on a guy named Katie than that I might be interested in women.

    • It’s southern everything where I’m at. We’re stuck in a completely heterosexual rut. I get things like this all the time.

  21. I have a couple cute buttons on my shoulder bag. My friend made them, and one says strong femme, and there’s a picture of epic eyebrows and lipstick covered mouth on it, and the other says fierce femme with a picture of a compact,lipstick,nail polish and lip balm on it. They are small enough to not be overly noticeable, yet big enough to still be a conversation starter, and have someone ask what they are. I do find a lot of non queer people don’t no what I mean when I say femme, so it’s a mixed bag.

  22. Also, if you don’t currently have a partner/don’t want one, mentioning exes or celebrity crushes can work.

  23. I wore my necktie and dress shirt complete with cufflinks to work. Got reported ‘anonymously’ for ‘inappropriate attire etc’ so i made sure I wore my PRIDE bracelet all the time and I show off my phone’s home screen which has my wife and our monkey, Bubbles. I usually do the thing where I try to casually throw my wife into the conversation i.e ‘oh yeah, my wife was asking about that the other day.’

    Then again claiming the ‘resident lesbian’ thing is totes legit because sometimes when you don’t, someone else suddenly does and you’re like hello, I was here first. so.

  24. This is a huge problem for me! I love the way this was written and the links are awesome! First, I was viewed as straight (because I had kids and femme dress) and then when I cut my hair off it’s either that I’m butch or still straight. I hate labels either way but it’s a common thing around here and it’s driving me mad.

  25. There shouldn’t even be any references to sex/gender or whatever in any professional job situation. Report any shenanigans to HR.

Comments are closed.