What Is Femme Invisibility?

What Is Femme Invisibility?

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

There is a standard image in our culture of what a queer woman looks like. When the word lesbian is mentioned, many people picture a heavyset, masculine woman with short hair—possibly a mullet-wearing a big flannel shirt, blue jeans, and construction boots. Perhaps she is wearing a trucker hat, or a beanie, as well.

In reality, they are many queer women who don't look like this. However, the picture we hold for lesbianism in our society equates to the image of the descriptor "butch."

If you aren't a part of queer culture, chances are that you've never heard of femme visibility, or of femme invisibility. Even though it isn't talked about much in mainstream heterosexual culture, the fact is that LGBTQ+ people who present as feminine women have been historically erased from the LGBTQ+ narrative. This has happened for many reasons.

This article will explore what leads to femme invisibility. Also, we'll look at what femme invisibility is and why visibility matters.

What Does "Femme" Mean?

A femme is a queer person who presents in a feminine manner. A femme can be a cis woman, a trans woman, a gender-nonconforming person, or a nonbinary person. This person may be a lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, or any other identity under the queer umbrella.

Any LGBTQIA+ person can identify as femme, but it's most common when people do that they possess some feminine attributes.

Femmes may have just one, a few, many, or all of the feminine features and styles that we associate with women and girls. To be someone who identifies as female and has the gender expression commonly associated with women is known as gender normativity, whereas masculinity in women is considered gender nonconformity or gender divergence.

These are some of the attributes a femme may possess:

  • Long hair
  • Clothing designed for women
  • Feminine facial and/or bodily features
  • Makeup
  • "Girlish" demeanor, speaking voice, and/or mannerisms

Feminine vs. Femme

Upon seeing these traits, you may be confused about how femme is different from feminine. After all, feminine women often wear makeup and clothing made for their gender, too!

The difference between femme and feminine is that femme is an intentional relationship with one's femininity as it relates to their queerness.

Identifying as femme is welcoming the fact that you present as feminine while simultaneously being queer. It eschews the idea that women who love women need to look masculine, and instead embraces the fact that people who look as society expects women to look may be just as queer as those who appear more masculine. Straight women are not femme even if they are feminine, just as they aren't lesbians.

The History of Femmes in Queer Culture

It was in the post-war culture of the 1940s and 1950s that the term femme began to be used to describe gay women who looked feminine. This was generally done within the context of butch-femme relationships, where one person in a partnership would be masculine-presenting, and the other feminine-presenting.

By being perceived as gender-conforming, femmes were usually not seen as gay or lesbian like butches were. Also, it was often presumed when a femme was in a relationship with a butch woman that she had been partnered with cis men prior and would do so again after.

Butch-femme relationships are no longer the norm for female relationship dynamics because we have come a very long way with gender expressions and identities in the many years since the 1940s.

However, femmes continue to not be considered as large a part of the queer narrative as others due to not being visibly queer. They are often left out of stories of LGBTQ+ activism, similar to how it was predominantly POC and trans people who began and spearheaded the movement in the 1960s, yet only received cultural credit for it in recent years.

Unlike people of color, who face more marginalization and systemic oppression than LGBTQ+ people who are White, it is the day-to-day privileges of femmes in society that have made their inclusion in the queer narrative difficult to acquire.

Privileges of Femme Invisibility

There are many privileges that come with looking like a gender-conforming straight woman, but they all center around one thing: blending in. By not looking visibly queer, femmes aren't as easily subject to harassment for their sexuality or gender expression. They aren't discriminated against by workplaces or educational systems for not presenting within their gender.

A femme may experience hardships and homophobia in the world because she is queer, but her physical presence alone is never the indicator of her queerness.

Challenges of Femme Invisibility

Just like there are privileges to being femme, there are also challenges. These are the most common ones.

  • Not being believed when they tell someone they are queer
  • Lack of recognition by other LGBTQ+ people
  • Being hit on and/or sexually harassed by straight men (though any human can experience this, it's particularly commonplace for femmes)
  • Parents and family who are shocked when they come out
  • An inner sense that they must "prove" their queerness because it isn't visible
  • Lack of acceptance within LGBTQ+ communities
  • The presumption that they are "bottoms" in the bedroom
  • People may not take their sexuality seriously
  • They are often told, "But you don't look gay," which is disrespectful
  • Strangers engage with them under a presumption that their partner is male

Why Femme Visibility Is Important

Femmes may not be visibly queer just by looking at them, but that doesn't make them any less important to the queer narrative of our culture. Femme visibility is important within both queer and straight spaces.

In queer culture, seeing femmes as LGBTQ+ provides them with a sense of community. Accepting them as no less queer than those who are less gender-conforming provides peace of mind, happiness, and the acceptance that everyone deserves.

Femmes represent the diversity of the LGBTQ+ landscape equally as much as those who appear more obviously queer do. Visibility enables them to fight for equal rights for all LGBTQ+ people alongside their peers.

As far as straight spaces go, a femme who is understood to be LGBTQ+ helps straight people make fewer presumptions about what queerness looks like.

Queerness does not have one look; it isn't just effeminate cis men and masculine cis women.

There is no specific face, body, style, or look that indicates one person is queerer than another. Some styles and features may be common within queer communities, but any living person can fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella no matter what their physical attributes or gender expression are.

The more we can understand that, and the less we can presume to know others' identities, the more joyful a time people who don't fit perfectly into societal expectations can have in life.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.