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“I know you’re queer, but you just seem very straight.”
I’ve been told this on multiple occasions, usually by people who haven’t known me for a very long time. At first glance, most people do assume that I’m straight—I have long hair, a higher-pitched voice, and I almost exclusively wear dresses in pastel. If you actually hear me talk candidly about girls, it becomes very clear that I’m far from straight. But, just from appearances, I don’t fit the stereotypical idea that many people have of what queer people look like.
And that’s got me thinking. Clothing doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and people do make judgments about my identity based on my appearance. I can choose to embrace, oppose, or ignore those judgments, but they still exist. And they affect the way that I move around in the world as a cisgender queer woman. It’s important to note that I can only speak to my own experiences of womanhood and that other queer women, specifically transgender women, may have different experiences with presentation and perceptions of queerness.
Femme-presenting cis queer women are often erased from the LGBTQ+ community because they’re seen as “not queer enough.” Even in queer spaces, they are perceived as straight and may have to constantly come out in order to be recognized as queer. On the other hand, femmes have the benefit of being able to hide their queerness in environments where it wouldn’t be safe to come out.
Less feminine-presenting cis women, some of whom might be described as butch, often face different issues. These include not being seen as “real women” or having their gender questioned and invalidated. Butch women have been queering gender norms for decades, and they’ve faced a great deal of harassment for their presentation. But, many people do stereotype them as queer, which makes it easier to find other potentially queer people in a crowd. And very few in the LGBTQ+ community question their queerness—they can enter queer spaces without people wondering if they’re just allies.
The fact that the gender binary of masculine versus feminine exists even in the LGBTQ+ community is a testament to the pervasive ways that binary thinking harms everyone. While there’s nothing wrong with identifying with a particular presentation style, just as is there’s nothing wrong with identifying with a particular gender, the problem begins when we box people in by telling them how they’re “supposed” to look and assuming their identities based on appearance.
I’ve always strongly identified as femme. I love dresses and skirts, polka dots and hearts. I’m also pretty used to the perceptions and assumptions that come with being femme, as I’ve dealt with them my whole life. For better or for worse, I know that many people assume that I’m straight until proven otherwise.
But I’m not gonna lie: Sometimes I’ll watch a Tegan and Sara video and wonder, “What if I dressed like that?” I mean, their clothes are stylish, and their general vibe is fun and fresh. I kinda dig it. I want to try on vests and overalls, blazers and combat boots. And maybe a bit of flannel. I want these things not necessarily because I want to personally validate my queerness, but because they look cool.
But then the worry sets in. What would it feel like to walk around campus knowing that every single person who’s laid eyes on me has immediately pegged me as queer? What would it feel like to not be able to hide a part of my identity that I’m still at least a little bit ashamed of?
Less than a year ago, I was at the mall and saw a butch-presenting person trying on a jacket. I loved the way the jacket looked on them and how it fit their entire aesthetic. After much deliberation, I bought the jacket with the full intention of wearing it all the time. But, once the initial excitement of the purchase wore off, I didn’t have the guts to leave the house with it on. To date, I’ve only worn it once: during an interview for a queer organization. Immediately after the interview, I took the jacket off and changed into a dress and cardigan for the rest of the day. In my mind, the jacket was fine for explicitly queer events and spaces, but too queer for my everyday life.
Now, I’m re-evaluating the importance of these rules and guidelines that I’ve created for myself.
There is a part of me that’s inherently feminine and genuinely loves traditionally feminine things, and that should be embraced and validated. But there’s another part of me that wants to explore different ways to look and exist in the world. Right now, my fear of subverting gender norms and being truly open about my sexuality is the main thing stopping me. In a nutshell, I’m afraid of being seen as “too queer.” Which is ludicrous.
I am queer, so there’s no such thing as me seeming “too queer.” In the same way, I am black, so there’s no such thing as me seeming “too black.” I should wear what I want to wear, and if it fits a stereotype, so be it. If people look at me and assume that I’m queer, great. They guessed right.
And if I choose to present as femme, it should be because I like it, not because I’m afraid of being perceived as “too queer.”
I need to spend more time actively combatting internalized homophobia and becoming more confident in my queerness, which will give me more freedom to explore all the ways that I want to express myself.
So, the next time someone tells me I look straight, I hope I don’t feel relieved. And if I do feel relieved, I hope I think a little more about why.
Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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