Every night I sleep on the side of the bed next to the wall, so every morning I have to clamber over my girlfriend to get out into the world. She’s a late, deep, determined sleeper, and she doesn’t normally wake up. If I accidentally dig my elbow into her ribs or pull her hair, she’ll let out a little whimper.
I get dressed and put on makeup. I keep my eyebrows plucked in dramatic arches and use a pencil to darken them. I smooth out my skin’s natural variations in color and texture with foundation and powder. (The label on the bottle promises to make it look like I’m made of porcelain.) I drag a black liner pencil over my eyelids and brush my lashes with mascara, maybe ten to fifteen strokes, until my eyes are bigger, more cartoonish.
I love makeup, but dislike the term femme, because it implies a level of agency that I do not pretend to have. It’s not as if there was some major point in my life—when I was born, when I first kissed another girl, when I came out—where the road in front of me neatly forked into masculine and feminine, or rather, into a myriad of different ways of performing myself that were all presented in an equally legitimized and appealing way. Like all women, I grew up being coaxed along in the direction of femininity, and, as a lesbian, that coaxing—although it has changed—has not exactly ceased.
I was hardly a beauty pageant child: I grew up in a household overseen by my mother, a feminist, Marxist, artist, single parent, and matriarch, who openly denounced everything from shaving to tampons as evil products of the capitalist patriarchy. The community of her friends who helped raise my sister and me included beautifully-dressed gays and butch lesbians, long-haired bisexual women who were deft with power tools, tough queer men with beards and large muscles, gay-looking straight women, men who wore drag.
And yet, I remember, once my mother was on the phone discussing an acquaintance she’d recently met, whom she and I had encountered on the street earlier that day.
“… But she was looking particularly feminine, so maybe she’s not a dyke.”
This fascinated me. I was perversely thrilled by the idea that at any moment, my mother could be assessing people around her and judging whether they were gay or straight. More importantly, though, this incident occurred at the end of my time at elementary school, and with it, the aftermath of a rather traumatizing and unsuccessful attempt to come out to my best friend.
“Well…” I’d said, my mouth swollen up with fear, “I do like some girls.”
“You like them,” My friend replied with cautious firmness. “But you don’t like like them.”
As it turned out, I did like like them, but in that instant it became vital that I did everything I could both to erase this conversation from my own mind and to squash any irritatingly well-founded suspicion my classmates now had that I might be, to use my mother’s word, a d-y-k-e.
So I bought the tight dresses and the push-up bras and the razors and the nail polish, and I am totally sure that, as a result, people were nicer to me, listened to what I said, were more willing to hook up with me (sporadic hook-ups with boys being a social necessity), and perhaps even gave me better grades.
Audrey Lorde’s speech about the master’s tools is dear to me. It is such a powerful phrase—“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—and also profoundly challenging, which is good. There are few things that irk me more than racist feminism, and, although it is less of a problem now, homophobic feminism is also terrible. (“We’re not all bra-burning lesbians!” I hear so-called feminists of my generation say, and want to slap myself in the face.)
But, like so many aspects of feminist theory, Lorde’s wisdom is not always easy to live by. Lorde’s speech focuses on issues completely unrelated to beauty and gender presentation; yet I know that when I put on makeup every morning, I am taking the master’s tools in my hands and using them to my benefit. I refuse to believe that I am, as some queer women and feminists like to claim, engaging in a subversive patriarchal act. I am a radical lesbian feminist, but I don’t believe there’s anything radical about me, a white lesbian with money to spare on beauty products, choosing to coat my face in makeup.
To me, femme is an excuse to avoid looking critically at ourselves and our choices, just like sex positivity is an excuse to avoid scrutinizing the reality of pornography.
I’m not claiming that it is some sort of easy pass in life. The deeply haunting essay “Femme Privilege Does Not Exist” by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson convincingly asserts that feminine presentation—especially for lesbians of color—can be, and often is, both radical and dangerous. And certainly, there are instances in which wearing makeup is radical and dangerous. For lesbians like Johnson who have been “correctively” raped by men who cannot handle the discord between their femininity and their sexuality, wearing makeup is radical and dangerous. For trans women who have been threatened, exiled, and assaulted for their gender identities, wearing makeup is radical and dangerous.
The master’s tools are not fixed objects. They change, depending on whose hands they are in.
When we’re out in public, at parties or other social events where we are normally the only lesbians in the room, my girlfriend and I are often told with patronizing earnestness that we’re “a beautiful couple.” And it is always said just like that, as if beautiful is italicized. It is an odd compliment to receive. On the one hand, I know the intentions of the person saying it are good, and I’m not in a position to forget that there are a lot worse comments they could be making.
On the other hand, there are layers of meaning underneath that compliment that are difficult to ignore. When people call us beautiful, it betrays approval of the fact that, despite being gay, my girlfriend and I don’t deviate too much from an approved standard of femininity. Beautiful applauds the fact that we are not “typical” lesbians, that we are not butch, that our existence isn’t a visible fuck-you to gender. People tell me all the time: “You don’t look like a lesbian!” and expect me to be flattered. (Instead, I feel another slap in the face coming along.)
I want to tell them: Butch is beautiful, trans is beautiful, hairy is beautiful, flat-chested is beautiful, big-muscled is beautiful. I want to tell them there is nothing more beautiful than a sandals-wearing, spike-haired, cargo-pants, eyebrow-pierced fat dyke, and I don’t want the way I look to imply that I don’t believe that with my whole heart.
But I can only be what I am.