You Need Help: How Do I Navigate Femme Invisibility Without Changing Who I Am?

Q:

How do I let people know I’m a lesbian without having to shout it from the rooftops? I love my long, single-colored hair; getting my nails done, and wearing jewelry. Plus, I have a “professional” career, meaning no visible piercings, crazy hair styles, visible tattoos, or diverting too far from the norm of “business attire.”

I’m not a social butterfly to begin with, so it’s difficult for me to constantly try to find a moment to bring up that I’m gay. Please help?

A:

Hello fellow femme! I too like getting my nails done, wearing a full face of makeup no matter what and generally have a vibe that friends have referred to as “a mom trying to blend in at a club.” I know what it feels like to worry that The Gays™ think you are just tagging along.

Here’s the thing — you aren’t! I know it is hard to feel like the way you are most comfortable presenting yourself is what is keeping you apart from the community you belong to. But this is your community, you get to take up space, lipstick and all.

As with most things, context is king. Is it easier to express your queerness when talking with friends vs when you are at work? Probably! Take a moment and think about the spaces where it feels important to signal your queerness — what do they look like? Is your workplace somewhere you feel comfortable being out? If the answer is no, that is absolutely fine. It would be extremely naive of me to pretend that being out at work is a viable option for everyone; that is simply not true. We all need money to live, and you don’t owe your workplace every part of yourself because they pay you. Not to mention, if you have been working from home for the last year, it makes sense that it’s harder to make your queerness legible. In the pre-panorama time, a large part of being out at work for me was embedded in casual conversation with coworkers, something that doesn’t happen when you can’t step out to grab a cup of coffee after a meeting.

Let’s set work aside and ruminate on your social life. The spaces we occupy have changed dramatically in the last year, and I would wager that is part of the problem too. Even for those of us who are not super social, it’s hard to feel visible when you aren’t being seen by people! Unfortunately, I do not have a solution that will end the pandemic and get us back in the world at large, but maybe this is a moment for some self reflection?

When you think about your social life, who makes it up? Are your friends mostly straight? Mostly queer? A mix? I am not much of a social butterfly myself, but when I, you know, deign to interact with people, we are constantly talking about what I affectionately call “gay shit.” It’s a natural extension of the fact that almost everyone I know is queer. There is shared understanding and context (truly, it is king!) to all of our conversations. Is part of the reason you feel invisible is because you don’t have a lot of friends in the community to reach out to?

If you have a hilarious, deeply gay group of friends, ask yourself this: Are there queer femmes in your life? Getting to know more queer femmes has made a world of difference in how visible I feel on any given day. I don’t mean just the kind of uber high femme lesbians that make up the world of like, Grey’s Anatomy, but nonbinary femmes, hard femmes, lowkey femmes, femmes of all kinds! A femme identity means a lot more than the stereotypes we assign to it, and learning what it means to other people can be a really wonderful and eye opening experience for you, and the way you express yourself.

Now I think you are ready for my secret weapon, the thing that really flipped the script after years of feeling invisible: I simply refuse to be invisible! You mention that you don’t want to shout that you are a lesbian from the rooftops, and of course, there are places that would be unsafe to do that — but you might consider the possibility that there are more opportunities to do so than you think.

Because at the end of the day, what really made me feel erased was not the nails or the lipstick or the hair. It was shame. The world teaches us to think about queerness as something that needs to be disclosed, like codes for NASA shuttles, and that kind of messaging can be really damaging! We live in a society where compulsory heterosexuality is an unending, constant pressure, and as much as we try to push against it, it worms its way into our thinking as much as racism and capitalism and all the big evils of the world do. It can tell you, for instance, that it’s wrong to shout your identity from the rooftops, when honestly, it can be really empowering!

So here’s my final bit of advice: take note of the times you feel a prickling sense of uneasiness about your gay place in this world and try to chase it back to the source. Try to unlearn all the bullshit the world has told you about who you are. It will probably be hard, it will probably be uncomfortable, but I know it will be worth it.

Then come meet me on the rooftops, kay? We’ve got some shouting to do.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.

Christina Tucker is writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia. Find her on Twitter or Instagram!

Christina has written 85 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I agree with all this advice, but I want to add: I do have the crazy colored hair, the short nails, and the piercings. And, surprise, I still get the men at gay bars asking me why I’m there and if I’m the straight friend tagging along, because even with all our signifiers, I’m still femme and that’s all they see.

    Femme invisibility sucks and even if you changed a lot of those examples, you’d still be invisible to many because you’re still femme. So don’t let it change the things you enjoy. If you love long nails and normal hair colors, keep doing that! There’s no wrong way to be femme.

  2. This is lovely advice!

    Here are a few more things that have helped me combat bi erasure as a lazy femme cis woman married to a man.

    Social media. Being publicly out on social media feels comfortable to me and it also does some of the heavy lifting for me with the people I already know. Like I know my aunt knows I’m queer because she likes my National Coming Out Day posts but we don’t have to have a big convo about it.

    I’m also a member of several queer FB groups. You might find online femme groups or follow some femmes on the platform of your choice.

    Pride jewelry – I never, ever got a “I see you nod” until I started wearing pride pins. Now cute baristas will tell me that they like my pins with that “I see you” inflection and it makes me giddy every time!

    I have a couple heart shaped enamel pins – one with the rainbow colors and one with bi pride colors – that I used to put on my work sweater, back when I worked in an office and kept a sweater at work to combat the AC.

    To Christina’s point about finding community, I consciously started looking for lgbtq+ community a few years ago to combat bi erasure. I’m still looking but I’ve found some groups I like.

    I’ve found that these groups make it easier for me to be out in casual conversation – which I did not expect. But it feels pretty natural to talk about volunteering for a service day with a queer group or reading a book for my lgbtq book group, etc.

  3. This is glorious writing.

    And as someone who tries desperately to signal their gayness and often gets read as straight nonetheless….you will never be gay enough for some people and that is their problem, not yours. I see you! I see all my good friends who feel invisible because they don’t look like a #tiktoklesbian! You are valid!

  4. I definitely feel this, thanks for this great article Christina! I was a very feminine “straight” girl most of my life. Then when I realized I was actually bisexual, I tried making some more masculine outfit choices. Tbh they didn’t really fit my style, and people still didn’t realize I wasn’t straight!

    Now I fluctuate between femme and tomboy outfits, but when I really want to signal that I’m bi, I make sure to wear pins or a rainbow bracelet or a beanie. Those tend to do the trick, when I’m at a gay bar for instance. I also make sure to say, “Well, my ex-gf…” or somehow insert that I date girls & nonbinary folks into conversation. I’m currently single, and I feel like I still really have to spell it out for people. It seems easier when you can reference a current gf or wife, I think.

    Hugs from a fellow invisible gal pal!

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