I recently attended a lecture by Professor Amy de la Haye on interpreting gender in the context of the museum, specifically when exhibiting fashion/clothing. The pre-reading was a chapter on female masculinities in the 1920s – in a book called Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture by Laura Doan – and raised some interesting points on how we cannot apply contemporary definitions of gender identity and sexuality to history, particularly not without a thorough understanding of the context. This also applies to making assumptions regarding other people today.
Unless you’ve spoken to someone and understand their context, how could you possibly know what label they would choose for themselves? Clothing is a form of shorthand communication, but it can often be misread by others who don’t know the particular form of the language that you’re using. Queer identities can be easily misunderstood, especially the seemingly conformist and supposedly ‘straight looking’ femme identity. In a post entitled Femme invisibility is the dirty little secret of the queer community for The Daily Dot, Mary Emily O’Hara writes that:
Femme invisibility has been a longtime struggle for the LGBT community. It’s a problem experienced by feminine lesbians; by bisexual and trans women (both are assumed to be straight by default); and by queer and questioning women whose early romantic relationships with other women are almost always seen as a “phase” or “for attention.” The confusion of gender expression with sexual orientation is just as rampant within the LGBT community as outside of it–in fact, it may be even worse.
She also points out that “femininity is sometimes seen as the opposite of queer, for mysterious reasons that have no provable basis”, and interviews five queer femmes on their identity and gender expression to find out the types of ignorance they have faced. Femmes in cities all over the world are now seeking each other out in solidarity, in a similar way to how other LGBTQ groups have done in the past.
As I explored photographer Sarah Deragon’s wonderful website The Identity Project, looking at the myriad labels queer folk choose for themselves, I thought more about queer identities and clothing. Then I remembered that, last year, I took part in the Bluestockings Boutique blog‘s two part lingerie bloggers roundtable discussion on what makes lingerie queer. As well as interviewing me, Jeanna also spoke to Cora (founder) and Rose (columnist) from The Lingerie Addict, Denocte from Kurvendiskussionen, Jilly from Jilly’s Frillies, Caro from The Lingerie Lesbian, and The Technicolour Lover. When asked what makes something in lingerie ‘queer’, Rose replied:
What makes something queer is partially about personal perspective, but personal perspective is usually informed by cultural norms. I feel as though lingerie that looks queer to an American eye might not to a person from England, or that a Midwesterner might interpret every California surfer girl’s lingerie collection as pretty gay, etc. I think that “queer lingerie” is whatever lingerie makes you feel good being a queer person in your social context.
Having played around with using the labels bisexual, queer and femme myself, I figured, what better way to launch a new category of posts on Rarely Wears Lipstick than to take a (very brief!) look at queer identities and how we express them. It’s a massive topic, so there should be more posts to come. In the meantime, why not take a look at some of the other posts I’ve already written on LGBTQ identities?