So, a few months ago (early December), I was reading about Femme Stuff while working a reception job. I spent the whole morning reading primarily about femme invisibility and ended up writing a Twitter Thing about how the postal carrier who turned up with the mail around Noon had asked me if I’d ever considered being an actress because I was “using my facial expressions very intensely”.
What I thought was “Shit, I’m totally doing that”. But what I meant was… I’m flagging.
Flagging hard, to no-one in particular, wearing all of my sparkle on the outside because I was reading about how un-see-able I am to other queers.
That intense, almost theatrical, expressiveness is a thing that makes femmes intimidating and fascinating, but sometimes I wonder if that Femme Dazzling Smile (like a butch nod, if you will) that lights us up when we see each other isn’t just us saying “I See You, Femme!” but is also us asking “Do you see me?”
I mean, maybe that’s just me.
But I do wonder if we turn up the volume on our already/often pretty innate intensity, particularly in queer spaces & contexts, in the hopes of being recognized as Family when we don’t (necessarily) have fades / asymmetrical haircuts, or rock a pin-up aesthetic, or have leopard-print on that day or what-have-you. (As a side note, I have a pair of Fake Cat-Eye Glasses that I got for doing cam work, and I sometimes want wear them around town just to see how that effects the way others perceive me. I don’t know if that counts as “field work”…)
It’s a weird thing. Kind of nice to know that it shows up, even when I’m not consciously doing it? Kind of heart-breaking to know that I try That Hard to be visible even when there’s nobody around to see me?
An anecdote: Back in November, I went to a combination book-launch/dance-party/AGM/fundraiser (you know how that goes), and had all my dazzle on when I headed home afterwards. Halfway home a butch-of-a-certain-age, under a big umbrella, chatted me up for no discernible reason at all. Unexpectedly visible. Who knew?
I just about floated home. Not because that particular person was particularly exciting, just because: she (they?) recognized me well enough to flirt, noticeably, with a stranger in spite of drizzly night + my warm coat & non-heeled boots.
It was so freaking validating.
I’m in my late 30s. Most het-cis dudes don’t catcall me. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve “aged out” of the Easy To Intimidate range, or what (I am not complaining, if I have), but, despite that, most of the attention I get on the street is from people I’m fairly confident are cis dudes. They flock like cis dudes in their 20s who are trying to prove their manhood. Then again, maybe I think they’re cis guys because 100% of everyone else has a pretty solid idea of how uncomfortable it is to hear “How’s my wife?” from a stranger, sooo… What I’m saying is, it’s not necessarily “business as usual” to be all “Hey, Lady” when you’re QAF.
Years ago, on a day that was warm, but not nearly warm enough (so probably in late April or early May), I went out in my leopard-print skirt, my alizarin monster-fur ¾-sleeve jacket, a pair of dangly earrings, and a slick of raspberry lippy. I didn’t know it was Femme Visibility Day until I logged onto twitter that evening. But someone else did, some other femme with pin-up-girl bangs and winged eye-liner, who looked me in the eye like she’d seen something holy, reached out her hand, and said “You. Look. Fabulous!”
She gave me a smile that lit up the street, and I walked home wearing a crown.
One single day to throw away all the toxic, internalized shit that insists on telling us that deliberately-feminine-presenting people are always straight, always binary, always either cis women or wanting to be read as such (and I do not mean for safety reasons)… That it’s rude of us to plaster an unverified marginalized identity or two all over someone else’s unconsenting body, like we would be shaming them, just because they look familiar in some way. That it’s better (safer? Less painful? For whom?) for us to assume that the person with the fancy fade and the delicate Monroe piercing, is a “metro-sexual” straight, cis dude, not a brother-fem gay guy or genderqueer and pansexual or a trans dyke rocking Lesbian Haircut Number Two; wiser or kinder (are you kidding me?) to assume that the person with the scuffed, cuffed jeans and the crimson extensions, or the red, red lipstick and the fedora, is a cissexual straight girl not a genderqueer, sexuality-queer trans fem/me, a cis bi-dyke, a trans lesbian.
…That assuming anything else would be met with hostility or confusion or even anxiety, a whole other sort of Unrecognized to the one we’re used to from random androgynous-queers on the street, and all the more painful because of it.
The validating Butch-of-a-Certain-Age in that anecdote? The femme who made a point of telling me she could see me? Those encounters are the polar opposite of the queer dances I tend to go to. Queer dances run by femme friends. Queer dances where I at least kinda-sorta know the other regulars. Queer dances where I still walk in with the working assumption that people who don’t know me personally will be wondering what the Straight Lady is doing in their space.
And, to a point, I know that this is basically “Don’t Self-Reject” on a social scale. That I’m assuming every sort-of-stranger there is going to look at me the way my own femme friend looked at the cab-load of 20-something other femmes and assumed they were a bunch of het-cis kiddies crashing the dance during Pride.
The assumption (the fear) that I won’t be seen as “belonging” in a queer context is definitely partly pre-rejection (pre-jection?), but it’s also the end result of every time a more “obvious” (read: masculine) queer doesn’t pick up on my traffic-stopping lipstick & leopard-print skirt, every time the androgynous youngsters at the hippy indie grocery store only turn on the “Oh! You’re one of us!” familiar-smiles when I put money in the Ten Oaks donation box, every time someone I met at That Queer Thing, One Time looks right through me (huge, hard-to-miss me) on the street because I no-longer have Queer Context to flag for me.
It makes me a mix of sad and angry every time.
It’s funny / not-funny, strange / not-strange, that I get Recognized by people who I’m reading as older-than-me cis gay men – the ones who sing their sentences in much the same way that I do (so probably some degree of fem, even in the land of No Fats No Femmes Adonis-hungry gay culture) – more often than I get recognized by butch women in my own age bracket. Fellows who stop me on Booth street, in my pencil skirt and plunging neck-line, to say “Honey, do you have a light”, or who stumble, tipsy, up to me in my five-inch heels and mini dress – fresh from the Alt 101 drag show where the only people who gave me the nod, or looked anything like me, were there to perform and in costume – and inform me “Oh, sweetie, they’re gonna love you at CP” only to correct themselves with “Then again, maybe it’s not your scene” when they hear me respond in soprano… because everyone knows that a feminine cis-lady is straight, right?
This is why I try extra-hard to dazzle-smile at the baby femmes I see on Bank Street, or Somerset, or in the art classes I work for. This is why I try to assume that anyone whose style and bearing a just a little “too much” for where they’re standing – too glamourous, too skin-confident, too aware of their own sensuality – is one of mine, no matter where I find them.
The ones with Nefertiti eyeliner and pink-purple-blue hair extensions.
The ones wearing sun-dresses & stockings in November.
The ones with delicate wrist movements and shy smiles who paint fairy-wings on me in art school.
The ones who dye their armpits to match they eyebrows and scalps.
The ones who name themselves “queen” and “bi-gender” to strangers, but whose body-language says it before they ever open their mouths.
The ones who lounge on the counter, one leg crossed over the other, in deep v-neck t-shirts.
The ones who do the social/emotional labour of keeping up their end of a conversation.
The ones who sidle up to me at parties, because I’m taller than they are, and ask me where I got my shoes.
The ones braving dyke march with long, long hair and flowers in their hatbands.
The ones with boyfriends and big jewelry and hot-pink lipstick who call everybody Darlin’ in the office.
The ones with natural hair and magenta-cerulean plaid back-packs and huge earrings on the bus.
The ones who pluck their eyebrows so carefully and tailor their rock-show tshirts into boat-necks with the sleeves ripped off.
The ones who wear their plaid shirts & blunnies with cut-off short-shorts and scoop-neck tanks.
The ones in skinny jeans and perfect, sparkle-diamond nose-studs.
The ones rocking cocktail party jewelry in their 9am classes.
All of them.
All of us.
I want them to know I see them. That we gleam like fucking rubies, like lights in the dark, to anyone who knows how to look.