Feminism | Posted by Dayton Uttinger on 10/24/2016

The Problem With Saying Someone “Looks Like A Lesbian”

My style has nothing to do with my sexuality.

My style has nothing to do with my sexuality.

Apparently, if you cut off half of your hair, start playing rugby, spearhead a LGBTQA group on campus, begin obsessing over Orange is the New Black, and break up with your boyfriend all within the span of a year, people think you’re a lesbian. After each of these developments, I registered my mother’s raised eyebrows, my friends’ giggles, and questions like, “You know you look like a lesbian, right?”

Not that I expected any differently. I knew that my lifestyle (and style itself) was conforming to lesbian stereotypes every step of the way. I’d figured that out for myself after being hit on several times by other women (although, to be fair, half the social events I attended during college were hosted by LGBTQA groups or my rugby team). The fact that I kept talking about TV lesbian dramas and complimenting others’ tackling forms during these events probably helped, too.

But while I’d laugh off my friends’ comments at first, I found them less funny as they persisted. I should wear a dress, or grow my hair out, or wear makeup, they said.

Here’s the thing: I know that I look like a lesbian. I can check off every single box of the stereotypeBut why does everyone seem to automatically assume that “looking like a lesbian” — whether you are one or not — is a bad thing, or one that must be fixed?

To be fair, I get where the association between one’s style and their sexuality comes from. There are plenty of times when people intentionally use style to serve as a signal for their identity — especially a “mating” signal.  Peacocks show off their feathers, we show off our figures and facial symmetry.

But here’s the other thing: style isn’t always about looking f**able. Sometimes it’s about showing support for your favorite comic book character. Or there’s a large bleach stain on your T-shirt, so you make sure to layer it every time.  Or you like rolling out of bed and running out the door, so long hair is a no-go.  Maybe your balance is atrocious, so your shoes are always flat and have decent traction.  Or maybe, just maybe, you’re displaying a part of yourself that has nothing to do with attracting a significant other based on heterosexist, stereotypical gender norms.  Maybe you just want to look badass in a leather jacket and combat boots.  Maybe you want to show that you’re original enough to shave half your head, just like every other hipster.  I mean, you can’t let them show you up, right? (Hypothetically, you know.)

And what about said heterosexist gender stereotypes that dictate our assumptions about others’ appearance? Maybe most men do prefer long hair to straight hair, “natural” makeup, and (apparently) sundresses.  But let’s back up here.  None of these are definitive “men only like” statements.  It’s not as if men completely reject short-haired women, or women with copious makeup, or women who only wear overalls. Everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, has certain aesthetic preferences.  No woman, heterosexual or not, should have to bend over backwards to alter their appearance to attract a certain “type” or partner.  And if somebody really does have a non-negotiable preference that goes against your style, do you really want to be with them anyway?

Ultimately, I’ve found the misconceptions I’ve encountered as a heterosexual, cisgender woman mistaken for a lesbian reveal the persistent confusion that surrounds gender expression and sexual orientation. The Genderbread Person explains it better than I ever could, but the short version is: Just because I might be exhibiting more “masculine” traits, doesn’t automatically mean I’m attracted to females. The assumption that I would be is a common one.  In fact, people are just now grasping that someone can be lesbian and feminine or gay and masculine. Because these variations in gender identity and expression threaten people’s preconceived categories, they often respond by enforcing closed-minded frameworks for trying to understand people’s behavior— like the idea that even in a same-sex relationship, there has to be a “man” and a “woman.”  In reality, relationships aren’t created because people’s masculinity and femininity line up perfectly, but because their personalities do.  

So, where does that leave me and other women who might be mis-labeled? Well, we could wear T-shirts declaring our sexual orientation. We could be more proactive about approaching those to whom we’re attracted, so our orientation (and desire) is hardly confusing.  If you’re not comfortable with that, though, online dating advantageously allows you to explicitly list your sexual orientation.  Plus, if you are heterosexual, there are more men than women who pay for online dating, so you have a wider range of choices. There’s gotta be a man that appreciates combat boots and short hair.

But I also personally don’t pin my happiness on that possibility.  Instead, I’ve just decided to not give a damn about how others perceive my self-expression. I’ve come to believe that changing oneself should never be an option. We should never sacrifice our self-expression based on what someone else might prefer.  That just means that they’re not worth it.

But that’s just my take. It’s ultimately your choice — just like your style.

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  • Karen Bell Williams @ at 6:32 pm, October 26th, 2016

    Absolutely! I’m a married (to a man) mother of 3, and I’m also bisexual. Because I have always been extremely feminine and I’m married to a man, some people who find out that I am bisexual are confused. I fit so perfectly into the heteronormative straight stereotype.

    I really liked your statement, “In reality, relationships aren’t created because people’s masculinity and femininity line up perfectly, but because their personalities do.” I have found this to be true in the relationships that I have had with both men and women, and it is the reason that I chose to marry my husband!

  • Reader @ at 7:01 pm, October 26th, 2016

    I’m sorry, but you come off as a bit naive. People are often quickly assessed by the way they’re dressed. That’s why how we present ourselves matters.

    I was glad you acknowledged that the “Butch” lesbian look has an historical basis. So does the “Femme” lesbian look. (I guess today’s term would be “Lipstick Lesbian.)

    In homosexual bars of the past, there was a code for how lesbians dressed and it apparently was just as fixed and rigid as that for heterosexuals. (I’m a straight woman who knows a little about gay history.) You had to be super-masculine or super-feminine.

    There is a huge difference between being low-maintenance and dressing in a way that would lead people to think you’re a lesbian. I happen to be quite low-maintenance. I primarily dress for comfort, not to entice. I’m single. Nobody has ever assumed I’m a lesbian.

    The women I know who dress as you describe, including one of my sisters, who is married to a woman, almost always ARE gay. In graduate school, one of my classmates laughingly talked about how she conformed to the stereotype: She said she was a short-haired, glasses-wearing, vegetarian lesbian.

    There’s nothing wrong with looking like a Butch lesbian, but if you object to people mistaking you for a lesbian the solution is simple: Change your style.

  • pixiescure @ at 8:56 pm, October 26th, 2016

    Thanks for your article. I am a femme lesbian who also doesn’t conform to gender roles. I appreciate that you are letting people know that even straight women don’t have to conform to gender roles, and it doesn’t mean that you should call yourself “gender queer.” People can identify anyway they want. I dress differently than most people, but I’m not doing it to look the part of a lesbian. I’ve always wanted to be different and liked more interesting things than the general population. I also have butch, cisgender, female, heterosexual friends and guy friends who dig butch women. Thanks for reminding people that there are many ways to be a woman.

  • Jennie @ at 10:38 pm, October 26th, 2016

    Very interesting topic that I happen to have firsthand experience with. I am pansexual identified, but there was recently a time in my life where I was only dating and sleeping with other women. I shaved my hair, always wore pants, got tattoos of women on my arms (that I still love to this day. Nothing has changed in that department..), I wore combat boots (and still do), I wore leather motorcycle jackets (still do), and all the stereotypical dyke stuff. My main thing was to send out a message– I’m a lesbian and prefer women. I went to lesbian and gay bars and had a ball meeting women! I had amazing girlfriends and great relationships! I had lots of swag which turned on the ladies:) I insisted on paying for dinners and cabs and such. Soooo, I’m involved in the entertainment industry now and was tired of being type cast as a… lesbian. There’s so much more to me then my sexual preference. I have dated effeminate men, bisexual men, trans people, etc. I’m pretty open minded in that area, but definitely am happiest when I’m dating and loving a woman. And now for you– you know how you look, and the stupid stereotypes that are out there in our society. Why look like a stereotypical lesbian?? It’s going to confuse other lesbians and straight women and men alike. Are you in the closet or something? That’s really none of my business, but please do not be naive, like the other poster said, and pose as a stereotypical dyke and wonder why other women may come on to you. You know why they do it. I’m not saying that all lesbians sport short hair and combat boots– I have a cute bob cut and wear combat boots with gothic skirts! Some know I’m a lesbian, some have their suspicions, and some have no clue. And quite frankly, it’s none of their business. In this society, we are judged on how we look and present ourselves. That’s the way it is, and it is not gonna change.

  • timmyd @ at 8:18 am, October 27th, 2016

    I liked your article. Thanks for posting and sharing your experiences, thoughts and feelings. Talking about stereotypes, gender expression and sexual orientation are good things for all of us to share and help us better understand one another.

  • Tiller @ at 11:54 am, October 27th, 2016

    Strong.
    I love when i go out without makeup, in sweat pants and my hair up because thats when i get hit on my females the most. funny how females seem to be more appreciative of natural than a man.

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