What is femme invisibility?
To put it concisely, “femme invisibility” describes the way in which traditionally feminine-presenting lesbian women are disbelieved, passed over, or intentionally ignored in gay and straight communities alike.
We are the “lipstick lesbians,” the girls who love sparkly eyeshadow and dresses, bright red lipstick and high heels. We choose to have long hair and tweezed eyebrows and manicured hands. In short, we adorn all the outward markings of the feminine. We also fiercely and unapologetically love women.
Femme invisibility is illustrated in phrases like: “But you’re too pretty to be a lesbian!” or “How will other lesbians know that you’re a lesbian?” It manifests in the stares of other patrons at gay bars who assume that we’re confused girls looking for a night of “exotic” fun, and the judging eyes of men who expect us to be straight.
There are more than a few problems with femme invisibility. The first is that it puts pressure on individuals to “prove” their queerness via physical appearance. It implies that queer women are supposed to look a certain way, and based on that look can be either granted or denied access to the LGBTQ+ community. Another issue with femme invisibility is that femme lesbians face the challenge of constantly coming out – of reasserting their identity as queer in spaces where the opposite is assumed.
Further problems (although these can be extended to butch-identifying lesbians as well) arise when two women in a relationship present their gender in the same way – butch-butch or femme-femme couples, for instance. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “but who’s the man in your relationship?” There isn’t one. That’s the point.
However, let’s not forget that femme invisibility does award us with a certain amount of privilege. Our femininity is not questioned or policed in public places, we outwardly maintain the status quo, and generally appear “non-threatening” in the eyes of society. This makes us less subject to harassment and violence than our more masculine-presenting or gender non-conforming counterparts.
But this is an issue in itself – there should be no double standards. We, like butch lesbians, are gay. Appearances aside, we all deserve to be treated with respect and acceptance.
To confront these issue, we have to shatter the idea that there is any one right way to look, think, behave, or be queer. When we stereotype like this, we erase astounding amounts of people who need, want, and deserve the support and resources of the LGBTQ+ community. A girl in bright pink lipstick and a miniskirt has just as much right to daydream about holding her girlfriend’s hand as anyone else does – and it’s time society started seeing that.
Follow Jenni and her girlfriend Ali on Instagram @ali_and_jenni!