“Pass Right By Your People”: Femme Invisibility and Postwar Lesbian History

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Alix Genter, The College of New Jersey
As butch performer Ivan E. Coyote writes, “I have no idea what this must feel like, to pass right by your people and not be recognized.” While Coyote is not articulating a new experience, in the last two decades feminine lesbians have put a name to this phenomenon: femme invisibility. During this time, countless essays, articles, and blog posts have expounded upon this topic, creating a firm, if small, dent in the prevalence of femme misrecognition. Yet, queer historiography has lagged behind, continuing to privilege discussions of masculinity in studies of lesbians. Even scholarship addressing the cultural forebears and namesake of these modern femmes – butch-femme communities in the mid-twentieth century United States – most often focuses on butches with arguments about visibility and gender subversion, leaving femmes’ queerness and rebellion unexamined and overshadowed. But incorporating femmes themselves into these histories is only one piece of the puzzle; equally significant are the larger issues of gender normativity, inconspicuous queerness, and their impact on lesbian lives.

This paper historicizes femme invisibility within lesbian communities in postwar America, arguing that the cultural archetype of the “mannish lesbian” left queer femininity in a precarious state. Lacking the masculinity that was supposed to accompany same-sex desire, some femmes simultaneously doubted their queerness yet felt queerer than the butchest butches for failing to fit into a recognizable paradigm. Moreover, although they comprised half of most couples and many butches expressed a desire for glamorous feminine partners, femmes remained suspicious, prone to reverting back to straight life at any time. Confronting the “problem” of their gender normativity, femmes employed creative solutions to understand themselves as queer beings and assert membership in lesbian communities, manipulating dominant constructions of postwar femininity to produce distinctly queer gender identities.

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