It’s not a ‘Femme’ Thing – The Power of Clothing & Identity

1 04 2016

The Tomboy & the Awkward Teens

Growing up, I was a pretty awesome tomboy. I ran to keep up with my two older brothers, scraping knees and dirtying dresses to try to climb into the forbidden tree house in the woods. I caught frogs and bathed turtles in the dog’s water bowl. As a preteen, I went back and forth between wearing baggy clothes to hide my shape, and conceding to my best friend’s fashion advice about short shorts and makeup. Like many girls that age, I struggled to be comfortable in my own skin as I tried to define who I was. However, I was the girl who always picked up other people for photos, in order to prove my strength. I also taught myself how to sew my own clothing around age 14 in order to create a unique style that fit my body the way I wanted it to.



I learned the incredible power that clothing can have over perception. Dressing like a girl also meant being ogled as a girl. Sexism was alive and rampant, and men from 16 to 60 regularly honked or made comments as I walked down our small town streets. My best friend thought it was cool to get hit on by older men, and she loved the attention. I, on the other hand, hated it. I didn’t want boys to see me that way, and I developed a fear of being stared at or hit on by the opposite sex. If I’m invisible, I’m safe from that objectification.

By the time I started college, I had overcome much of my body image issues, thanks in large part to the unconditional love of my high school sweetheart, who is by and far the most respectful man I have ever met. With his gentle love and support, I started to feel confident in myself, and in control of my life. I dressed how I felt best, and didn’t concern myself with what other people thought. I started to shed myself  of the most eclectic attire that I hid behind in my youth, and started to search out a style that could be both uniquely my own, but also professional. As I started my career as a young Architect, I liked looking put together, because it made me feel like an adult who deserves to be heard. I dressed for respect.


Dressing for ‘Real Life’

I donned appropriately fitted suits at work, trying to balance comfort and professionalism with pieces of feminine flair. As a young woman in a male-dominated field, I had to balance many aspects of my appearance, to look serious, yet distinctive. I had no desire to repeat the offenses of the 1980s, with ridiculously bulky shoulder pads to compete with male body types. I had to look like a peer, but not a dude. In lieu of the fashion-forward blouses that the secretaries and interior designers wore, I learned to wear conservative collared shirts in collars beyons the blue or white of my male counterparts. If I was feeling a blue pin stripe sort of mood, I might add -(gasp!)- dangling, sparkly earrings! I wore my long hair mostly up in a bun or a low ponytail, but would let it down when I felt the need to look more feminine. Outside of work, I was still an active athlete, and often wore comfortable shorts with ample pockets, and practical sports bras beneath tank tops or t-shirts. You never know when you might run into someone with a frisbee and have an impromptu game of ultimate, after all! I owned one pair of strappy black dress shoes with a chunky heel that I could walk in, for that rare occasion that required me to wear a dress. For the most part, I dressed only feminine enough to be clearly identified as a woman, but never accused of being ‘girly.’

Even in my twenties, being hit on by guys gave me the creeps. I avoided unwanted male attention by dressing in a way that should not say, “Hey look at me!” and I think I escaped the worst of the sleaze. Yet, it still happens, and no matter how polite or nice the guy may be, I never know how to respond, and I hate the attention. Being in a long term relationship gave me a shield to protect myself from such unwanted attention, and I learned to quickly insert “my boyfriend” into all conversations with the opposite sex- just to be clear. I had no interest in any other men, and was grateful to have the safety of my relationship to help fend off occasional suitors.


Switching Teams- the Lesbian Uniform

My previous partner of 14 years is a very masculine man, tall, with broad shoulders, strong arms, a square jaw, and a deep voice. Compared to him, even in combat boots, or chuck a boos, I was always the feminine one.

Then, at the age of 29, I met a woman. Not just any woman, but my soulmate. And a lesbian.

Nothing can prepare you for switching from straight culture to gay culture. Everything you think you know about who you are and your place in society is rapidly dispelled. Dating a woman is entirely different than dating a man! There’s no ‘his’ and ‘hers’ expectations, no gender roles to despise, you are suddenly free to follow your heart! The dichotomy of masculine and feminine almost entirely disappears. (Almost). There are no longer any lines in the sand, or an understood balance of yin and yang. Nobody looks at you and asks, “why is SHE going to play with the guys while her boyfriend makes dinner?” In reality, I found this transformation quite liberating, yet I learned just how much I still clung to those stereotypes that I fought so hard to break down.


Pin the Tail on the “Femme”

When I started dating Bethany, everything changed. She herself is a dichotomy of masculine and feminine, with her short but funky hairstyle, her feminine curves, and her extensive tattoos. She can rock a dress all night long, only to change into carharts and wrench on her motorcycle the next morning. Being next to her suddenly brought into question some parts of my own identity that I never expected. When people see us together, especially straight people, they immediately want to categorize us, to be able to clearly label us, in order to push their own comfortable, hetero-normative gender roles onto us.


“Which one of you is the ‘boy’?” the unfamiliar breeders sometimes wonder. As offensive as this question is, in gay culture, the same things still happens, except it’s ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ instead of ‘boy’ and ‘girl.’  So when people see us together, they see Bethany’s tattoos and short hair, and immediately decide that she’s the butch and I must be – by default- the femme. F-E-M-M-E. Me??? Seriously? At first, I was extremely offended. I’m not a girly-girl, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, people want to put a label on me, and my long hair seems to be the only indicator they can see, so… “Femme” it is. All the sudden, now that I’m with a woman, my context has changed how people perceive me.  When she dresses ‘butch,’ I end up feeling more ‘femme,’ by default.

Looks can be deceiving. The reality is, I’m the one who gets called to remove the icky spider from the bathroom. I’m the one who deals with the tiniest occurrence of blood. I’m the patient yet tough negotiator. I’m the one who comes in from the yard with dirt under her fingernails every weekend. I’m the one who hates makeup. And I’m the Femme???

My wife is the one who loves getting dressed up in elaborate costumes with full, dramatic makeup. She’s the one with both a shoe and a wig collection that would make Theater Bizarre folks jealous. She’s the one who is sensitive and passionate, in need of more cajoling and reassurance. She’s the one who is incredibly thoughtful and considerate, and remembers everyone’s birthdays. So does that mean she’s the femme??


The truth is, we both are both. We joke that I’m a femmey butch, and she is the butchy femme. Within each of us, we have both feminine and masculine characteristics that play to our strengths.


Learning all the nuances of lesbian gender roles and identity is tough when you are new to the gay scene. Nothing translates from my previous life as a straight ciswoman.


Learning to Embrace Femininity

As a feminine tomboy, becoming an open lesbian was a real game changer. Suddenly, I had a new title that was way more effective than “taken” to ward off male attention. In the past, some men would literally hit on me and say “I don’t care if you’re married.” GROSS. But now, as a lesbian, I’m completely off the table for straight guys. (Obviously, there can be a sidebar conversation here about monogamy and polyamory, but that is outside the scope of my expertise or interest). Unlike the straight version of myself, being gay suddenly felt liberating. I now finally understand why it bothered me SO much when men hit on me. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t single, or that an individual was unattractive, it was truly that what I did not want sexual attention any men.


1898110_761767903905836_219651953483986976_nAs I learned what it meant to be comfortable with the title of lesbian, a shocking realization occurred. I spent decades of my life trying to break the perception of a woman being weak and frilly and liking to cook and clean. I revolted against traditional women’s work, even refusing to learn to cook until my mid twenties, because “that’s what they want women to be good at.”  I had never even made a pot of coffee in my life until I became a lesbian. Take that, male chauvinism! Now that I was no longer bound by the stereotypical gender roles, I learned that I can actually enjoy being feminine.


Suddenly, instead of fighting for an expansion of equal gender roles, I could do whatever I wanted. With my beautiful soulmate at my side, I was liberated to be masculine one day or feminine the next, without fear of bringing down the perception of women as a whole. I enjoyed the secret pleasure of knowing that I could do more pushups than most of the people in a room, while wearing elegant attire. Wearing a dress still sometimes feels like I’m in drag, but I love it. It’s fun!

Most of all, my wife makes me feel beautiful and sexy in a whole new way, that makes me want to dress more flirtatious around her. Over the first year or two after coming out as gay, I rediscovered and redefined myself as a woman. I finally felt entitled to claim my femininity, without fear that it would discredit my other strengths. It was a glorious discovery, and a journey that I hope will never end!


Sincerely yours,

A happy, femmey butch


Landing Pad

17 02 2013

When we signed up with the high school exchange program, CETUSA, expectations were not very clearly explained. Our task, as it were, was not only to feed this boy from Thailand, and give him shelter, but also to help find his next landing pad. We had volunteered to host him for a few weeks, two months max. After that, we were told, he would move to a permanent home with a host family. Mere days after his arrival, however, we could tell that we would be searching for a way to keep him instead. The only obstacle was our absence during the month of January. Ironically, he would be here during the holiday break, and we would be kilometers from his family in Thailand.

The agency did nothing to help find another family, leaving the burden on us to scramble for a solution. What we needed, we discovered, was to find another family, preferably within walking distance of Ypsilanti High School, who could take him for a month during the holidays. This is not exactly a small favor to ask of someone, and let’s just say that volunteers were not crawling out of the woodwork.

One Friday night, we were taking dinner out at Bona Sera, a new establishment that had popped up 2 blocks from our house. As we rose from our seats, Bethany spotted another local lesbian couple, Lori and Elizabeth. They had recently had a marriage celebration that Bethany helped coordinate with a local DJ who wasn’t afraid to play the “Chicken Dance” song. As I introduced our son, and explained our current situation, I sensed their interest in our predicament. At that precise moment, Bethany strolled up and, without hesitation, asked if they would like to have a foreign teenage boy live with them while we would be away on our honeymoon. I smiled and rolled my eyes at her forwardness, as the couple stumbled to say that they needed to talk about it privately first. Despite their unwillingness to answer on the spot, they were clearly entertaining the idea, which was very promising for us.

Two days later, we received an email announcing their offer to host, and after a few more coordination emails with details, we had confirmed it. Lori and Elizabeth agreed to host Bank while we would be off to southeast Asia. This was BIG news, because it means that we can keep him for the entire school year! Problem solved!

Although we had not intended to host for the entire year, we were thrilled with the idea, since we had grown to love our new Thai son. Financially, this had sounded like a risky venture. A teenage boy? Don’t they have hollow legs? Why would anyone volunteer to feed one of those for an entire school year? Were we out of our minds?!? Luckily, Bank doesn’t actually eat much more than us, and is very amenable to our diverse, vegetarian cooking. Plus, although we get no stipend for our outlay, it is richly repaid in his kindness and gratitude. He’s a terrific kid.

“We can afford to keep the boy,” I announced to my wife, tongue in cheek. As the official ‘father’ of the household- at least according to the paperwork we signed to become his legal guardians- I felt that it was my duty to make this financial decision. As long as we stuck to our budget, we were in good shape. This did, however, require cutting back on eating out, a sacrifice that Bethany would suffer the most. She has gladly taken one for the team, and truly stepped up to play the role of the ‘Mother.’ She prepared balanced lunches for Bank to take to school, and often greets me at the door with dinner ready. She works hard to keep our large home clean and tidy, especially when we have guests coming to stay with us. She’s just missing the high heels and doily apron to complete the stereotypical housewife role. Of course, my wife is also a full time student, and committed community member. She’s basically a rock star, and I just go to work and bring home the paycheck. Yep, two lesbians and our Thai exchange student. We’re just your typical American family!

halloween housewife3

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