Feminism / LGBTQ / Sex

Femme Invisibility: Why Guys Want Us and Girls Pass Us By

Invisibility at play in public scenarios

Let’s say you’re a feminine girl who happens to like other girls. You’re with your girlfriend at a bar one night, or maybe you’re there with a girl you’ve just met but may have some interest in. As you’re trying to get to know each other and enjoy each other’s company, two guys approach. “How are you ladies doing tonight?” they ask, seating themselves at your table.

What you wanted to be a date has suddenly turned into a group hang-out session. If you happen to have the energy to tell the guys that you’re gay and on a date (thereby exposing yourself to an onslaught of questions and even more unwanted attention), they take it as an open invitation to sit with you two for even longer. The evening has become sufficiently uncomfortable.

Scenario B: You’re sitting at a lesbian bar hoping to meet some other women and you realize no one is approaching you. At lesbian bars the majority of attention I (and many of the other femme gay women I’ve talked to) receive is still, ironically, from straight guys.

Femme invisibility is the concept that feminine women who have come out as gay feel that they lack a sense of community because we are constantly “passing” as straight in every-day life. It is feeling like people do not take our identity seriously because the way we present ourselves does not align with their pre-existing notions of what a lesbian looks like. It comes both from the belief that lesbians can be spotted in a crowd and the idea that there is an objective way to tell if someone is gay.

Why these scenarios are problematic

On a larger scale, believing that there is an objective way to detect whether someone is gay perpetuates the insidious “us versus them” divide (straight people look a certain way, gay people look another way) which in the long run keeps prejudice alive and rampant.

On a smaller scale, it causes femmes to feel like they lack a sense of belonging in society. We must constantly explain ourselves, put up with harassment from guys, and even convince members of our own community that we are not merely exploring or experimenting. As Mary Lambert stated in a recent interview with Curve Magazine,

“I had to constantly prove myself. I wrote this song so that I wouldn’t have to fight for myself in a gay bar. Sometimes in the queer world I felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have a cool haircut.”


The ironic thing about femme invisibility is that our behavior is all too visible and comprehensible in the bar scenario described above (hand holding, sitting close, the idea that we hook up with one another). But what we want to be visible for (our actual identity) continues to remain negligible. Why else would guys continue to insist on pursuing a lesbian? There must be some embedded belief down there that feminine girls who like girls are just “waiting to be converted” (I’ve always wondered why the gay male identity is taken so much more seriously; that when a guy comes out as gay, girls know to stay away, but when a girl comes out as gay, guys do the opposite).  And so, we’re all too visible in ways we don’t want to be, while what we want to be recognized for (our fundamental nature) remains invisible.

Modern-day representation in the media

We have certainly become more visible over the years as women such as Chely Wright, Mary Lambert, and Ellen Page have come out. Yet I still feel we lack representation in the public domain, especially in comparison with the number of openly gay men serving as examples in Hollywood. Furthermore,  though the media has come a long way in representing a range of lesbian characters on shows such as Orange is the New Black, The Fosters, Glee, and Grey’s Anatomy, I still feel that many of these representations portray lesbian relationships as rather tenuous and experimental. An article by Aimee Wee on the topic described the problematic portrayals of lesbian relationships as “movies constantly showing feminine gay women struggling to come out and then reverting back to heterosexual sex and relationships as the happy ending.”

Indeed, we saw this happen with Marissa on The O.C. We heard Katy Perry sing about it. The media even cast light on a real-life example of this phenomenon, when Eleanor Roosevelt rented a hiding home to engage in a lesbian affair during her time as first lady. Orange is the New Black featured a lesbian relationship, but a very volatile one. The female protagonist’s ultimate plans were to commit to a more stable figure, who perhaps not coincidentally, was embodied by a man. This didn’t paint any positive representation for lesbians, nor did it show a lesbian relationship holding any longevity or future outside of the context of prison.

From here on out

Ideally in the future, femme girls will no longer have to prove how gay they are. They will no longer feel like it’s hard to connect with other members of their community just because they don’t “look” like one of them. They will no longer have to be subject to intrusive questions when they are out and about with their girlfriends.

But to get there? If anything practical comes from this entry, like, what can you as readers do, it’s simply this: understand that there are many different “shades of gay,” not just those presented by the media stereotypes. Take girls seriously when they tell you they like other girls; don’t just assume it’s experimentation or “side play” on the way to finding a guy. There are certainly girls out there who fall under the former category, but there are just as many who are strongly committed to an identity of loving other women and staying in long-term relationships with them.

Eleni S. is a femme blogger and a graduate of UC Davis, devoted to social justice issues, teaching, and learning. Her love for writing has taken her to work a stint at Curve Magazine and as the author of a now-retired column in the UC Davis Aggie.

5 thoughts on “Femme Invisibility: Why Guys Want Us and Girls Pass Us By

  1. Maybe those guys are hoping that the whole idea of non-binary sexuality and gender isn’t just empty rhetoric? (Nah, they’re probably just being dude-bros :D)

  2. A couple comments I’d add:
    (1) I think it’s important to recognize that adhering to norms about femininity shields women somewhat from the more direct misogyny and homophobia. In other words, invisibility is a much smaller problem than outright hostility and oppression. I’m pointing this out because a lot of femme rhetoric I’ve seen makes femme lesbians (or femme LGBTQIAetc people, separating “femme” from its lesbian, or even female, roots) out to be an oppressed class and constructs absurd paradigms like “butch privilege,” which have no basis in reality.
    (2) I don’t think it’s just femme lesbians who have to “prove” themselves. All lesbians are challenged on their attraction to women (and rejection of men), because to be a lesbian is to challenge the patriarchal norm that takes male sexual access to women for granted. Butch lesbians may be identified as that hated class of women more easily, but they still get intrusive questions and sexual threats: What do you do in bed? When are going to dress normally and find a husband? All you need is a good dicking to turn you normal</i and so on. It's not that feminine women aren’t believed about being lesbians; it’s that women aren’t believed to have any sexuality beyond servicing men. As to answer the question you pose in your post, the reason why straight/bi women are unlikely to pursue sex or romance with a man they know to be gay, but straight/bi men don’t offer lesbians the same respect is that men feel entitled to women’s bodies in a way that women have never ever have.

    • Definitely think it’s important to point out. One of the things we also discussed was the idea of “straight passing” as a thing. Femmes often use this to describe themselves and their situation, but the very concept is undermining what they are trying to prove (i.e., that straight people don’t necessarily look a certain way, and gay people don’t necessarily look a certain way). I think the post successfully stayed away from these declarations, and successfully didn’t pit itself against other lesbians with other expressions, but rather talked about how misogyny and homophobia affect femmes in particular.

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