This self-reclamation has taken years of learning and unlearning. I began being sexualized at a young age, as people would tell my parents I was “going to be trouble” when I was older; this continued as I was often mistaken for a young twenty-something when I was 14. Being treated as someone older gave me a false sense of love and approval, and I established most of my sense of self through these interactions. I dressed for the straight, cis-male gaze. I bought form-fitting dresses and skirts, wore heavy make-up, and kept my hair long. It’s important to note that at the time, I considered these choices inherently feminine. While I don’t wear dresses and skirts today because they just aren’t my style, I still have to remind myself that these fashion choices are not binary. An item of clothing is just that, and it’s only feminized or masculinized by the labels placed on them.
That certainly wasn’t my understanding of fashion and appearance in 2016, when I came out as a lesbian. I was dressing in the same style I had been for years, even if it didn’t match how I felt on the inside. But now I faced new troubles. Straight cis men and even some LGBTQ+ people assumed I was straight. Femme erasure—the assumption that femmes aren’t queer, or queer enough—is commonplace in the queer community. I wasn’t receiving coveted nods of recognition from LGBTQ+ people when I walked down the street. And so slowly, either as a result of this or coinciding with it, I began to feel suffocated by dresses, skirts, and form-fitting clothes. I chopped my hair short and started wearing baggy pants, sweatshirts, flannels, and t-shirts. Yet while I began being immediately recognized as queer by queer people, I remained unable to dodge straight, cis men who still percieved me as straight. This attention bothered me because it felt predatory and unwanted, but also because it worked to invalidate my sexuality and what I perceived to be the sanctity of that identity. Frankly, it made me feel that I wasn’t queer enough.
But regardless of these feelings, I still frequented queer spaces. Many of my initial interactions there left me disheartened, including a few instances in which queer folks told me that my face is “too feminine” to ever be androgynous. Initially, I took that as a compliment, however backhanded. But really, statements like it work to further box people into the roles that queerhood works to dismantle. Queerness is empowerment, an exercise in self-expression and the eradication of binaries, boundaries, and rules. How I am perceived doesn’t predetermine who I actually am. And to bang down the gavel in suggesting that I could never be seen as anything other than femme works to root us all deeper in patriarchal understandings of self. Femininity doesn’t always have to constitute the tangible and material. Instead, it can be a feeling, an embodiment of oneself, the inner propelling itself outward in aura and essence. My insides feel androgynous, existing on some spectrum of not one thing or another, and I think that essence reflects outward, whether it’s perceived properly or not.
My hair is shorter now, and I wear clothes that feel comfortable on my body. I still get approached by cis straight men walking down the street or at bars, but I know that’s not an experience unique to me. Being catcalled and propositioned by cis straight males is a result of the patriarchy, not my identity. Sure, I don’t want the male gaze pointed in my direction, but I no longer care about diverting it either. I have come to see myself as divine, beautiful in my expectation-defying existence. As Jules said, I’ve been considering that beauty lies in things that are not just petite and delicate, but broad and deep. Mostly, I’ve begun living for myself—for my own gaze. Real joy lives there.