It took me years to learn that the only rule of “how to look queer” is “do you”.
Last month I bought a dress for the first time in years. On the face of it, it was a very normal thing for a woman to do, but it felt like an act of rebellion.
Ever since I came out two years ago at age 27, femme – the term for a lesbian or queer woman embracing a “feminine” identity and style – has felt out of my reach. I’ve never quite had a handle on butch, the “masculine” equivalent, either. They’re rich with history and meaning in lesbian culture, but as a bisexual woman I was never sure if I could define myself with those words at all, let alone which one was mine. Since bi culture lacks a widely known equivalent, though, they were all I had to teach me how to be visibly queer.
The more reading I did on queer websites like Autostraddle, the less I understood. What, for example, was the difference between soft butch and tomboy femme? Everyone already seemed to know or they’d developed their own personal definitions, which was nice for them but unhelpful for me. I just wanted someone to look me up and down and assign me a label, like a lunch table in Mean Girls.
I performed a lot of classic baby queer moves in my first year out: getting a side shave, buying Doc Martens, shopping on the men’s side. My friends threw a “trash wedding”-themed engagement party to which I showed up in baggy ripped jeans and a t-shirt that said “ButtStock” on the front, with a cartoon of a mostly-naked woman. The swagger I developed when one of my friends mistook me for a cute boy from behind was unbelievable. In my straight life, I’d have gone in something on-theme but low-effort and spent the night feeling like I hadn’t tried hard enough. Femininity looked natural and beautiful on other girls, but I never did feel like I’d learned to “girl” properly. That night I looked around at the other women in inventive variations on wedding dresses and felt nothing but freedom.
My mum had never known how to be a girl either, so she couldn’t teach me. Dressing up to go out had always been a tightrope between seeing her in the mirror or feeling like a kid playing with eyeliner, but when I wore a floral suit to a wedding for the first time I finally felt truly badass. Gleefully, I got rid of all but three of my skirts and dresses. The survivors were an odd bunch. I kept the navy polka-dot circle skirt, which I suspected was handmade: a find from a Chiswick charity shop, in a stretchy fabric that made it twirl like the dresses I dreamed of when I was five years old. Then there was a grey and white pin-striped shirt dress and a dinosaur-print pinafore dress. I didn’t want to wear any of them now, but I couldn’t let them go. Every time I opened my wardrobe for a collared shirt, those printed dinosaurs dared me to finish off their extinction.
I was 14 when I watched a friend dabbing on concealer and, Eve-like, became aware of the shameful nakedness of my own face. After that, I never went outside without makeup to hide my spots and dark under-eye circles. I’ve worn concealer to the beach and tied up office bathrooms for half an hour every morning to do my face.
For a sapphic femme, using beauty for the benefit of other women can feel powerful and subversive. The beauty industry tells us we need makeup to look acceptable; feminism counters that it’s just another tool of the patriarchy to subjugate women into spending our time, effort and money on turning ourselves into ornaments. Makeup users of all stripes like to say that we do it for ourselves, to accentuate our features or for self-expression. I appreciated a good sparkly eyeshadow but there was nothing empowering about beauty for me: I just didn’t want people to see how my face really looked.
Now that I was out, it felt like the perfect opportunity to step forth from under the thumb of patriarchal beauty standards. What actually happened was that I kept on covering up my spots but now I felt like a coward for letting the side down.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t see plenty of examples of straddling that line – Kristen Stewart, Ruby Rose, Noelle Stevenson, anyone who ever showed up to a red carpet in full hair and makeup and a snappy suit. But I was married to a man, which felt like starting queer school a year behind everybody else, and I was scared no one would ever clock me as queer unless I compensated for my “straight-passing” marriage by looking extra gay – that is, butch. Invisibility is a perpetual problem for femmes no matter what their relationships look like, and being out felt so good that I was determined it wouldn’t happen to me.
I revelled in how confident I looked in a blazer with short hair. I started singing the male parts at karaoke and discovered that sometimes I could make girls fluttery and twirly, as if they felt safe and beautiful when I felt strong. But as far as I understood it, butch was also about rejecting society’s demand to be attractive to men – so the shorter my hair got and the more blazers I wore, the more like a fraud I felt. Who did I think I was, cropping my hair like that and then parading around with lip gloss and a husband?
I gradually got used to the sight of my bare face during lockdown. I still congratulated myself every time I left the house without makeup while trying not to look too hard in the mirror. Then, because we were rearranging our bedroom now that we spent so much time in it, I bought a dressing table. It looked like a desk, plain and sleek, and I told myself it would give me another spot to work from home, but it had a hidden flip-up mirror and I knew exactly what I was going to do with all its storage space.
I sat down on the floor with all my beauty products in a pile. I thought about dumping the lot, but it gave me a funny ache in the chest to think of scouring these pretty things out of my life. I set aside the purple holographic lipstick I’d never used, but kept the sparkly golden cheek highlighter. I liked how they looked all neatly arranged afterwards and I liked how I looked with shimmery cheeks and my eyelashes curled and maybe I just liked this stuff. Maybe I could opt back in.
The shops started to open again. Normally I’m a bloody-minded shopper who will drag myself after a particular thing for hours, but I can relax in charity shops. I know I’m not going to find exactly what I want and what I do find will be something I didn’t know I was looking for. The dress I wasn’t looking for in my local Crisis shop had long sleeves, a high neck, pockets, a skirt longer at the sides and a cross-stitch style floral print in soft blue and brown and dusty pink and warm yellow. I held it up to my shoulders in the mirror and thought about the boots I’d wear it with. I put it back.
I have this lesbian friend who’s as butch as they come. I came over all giggly once just watching her put a flatpack bed together. Another time, she showed up in a sweet knee-length tartan dress and she owned it just as much as her usual singlets and snapback hats. I kept waiting for someone to raise an eyebrow; nobody did.
I didn’t wear dresses anymore. Because…why? Because they’d look weird with my hair? Because I was trying to prove something? Because they weren’t “allowed”? What was the point of opting out if I’d just opted into a different set of standards? Who decided whether I was doing it right? Who, if not me, was in charge of whether I looked queer enough?
I wore the dress with Birkenstocks, my shaven topknot in a soft braid, concealer and lip balm on my face. My mum squealed over it and my in-laws said I looked nice. If it was meant as a pat on the head for giving in to patriarchal standards, I didn’t mind. I wasn’t doing it for them. Besides, I’d bought a men’s shirt with colourful marbled stripes that same day.
I’d been forgetting one of the things I love most about bisexuality: you can be anything. Our invisibility has meant we haven’t developed much of a culture of our own, so our roles and aesthetics are loosely defined, if at all. Last I checked, rolling up your cuffs and cutting your hair in a bob were the main two giveaways and those are far from universal. I didn’t need to borrow a label and try to squeeze myself into it. I’d been waiting for someone to tell me where I fit, but where I fit is in fluidity and movement and growth and the space between. My relationships can look like anything at all and so can I, and I’ll always be queer enough.
The polka dot skirt has come out of retirement. I wore it to the park on a hot day and it felt good to let my legs breathe free.