On finding femme


Lisa Andrews calls me a lesbian. We are down the bottom of the playground, a group of girls gathered by an alcove in the hedge. We have been playing ‘Witches Boarding School’ and I am excelling at my role as the evil headmistress, intent on locking my mischievous friends in their fictional rooms. Lisa has broken some arbitrary rule and I am scolding her when she spits out her rebellion.

“I don’t have to listen to you – you’re just a lesbian!”

Just a lesbian. I’m 9 and all my possibility is squashed into a single word and I don’t even know what it means. I ask mum and she explains that sometimes women fall in love with women. I don’t understand why that means Lisa doesn’t have to follow the rules of the game or why she doesn’t have to listen to me.

Later that week, Mrs. Neff asks me to think about wearing longer dresses to school so I don’t distract the boys on the days I have to clean the blackboard.


For my 10th birthday, I tell Mum I want to host a dinner party. Dad dresses as a butler and Mum makes a cake that looks like a cheese platter. I invite only girls, and in a strange foreshadowing of my queer future, I tell half of them to dress as boys. I wear a full suit with a cummerbund, draw a moustache under my nose and tell everyone to call me Prince Cuthbert.

The princesses arrive in makeshift petticoats under huge polka-dot dresses from their mothers’ wardrobes and the other princes and lords wear tweed jackets, stiff pants and top hats. Everyone is paired up and we eat spaghetti and cake and drink soft drinks from wine glasses. I feel powerful in my suit as I spin Princess Megan across the warm cement of my drive way.


He’s my first real boyfriend. This is a thing I said about my last boyfriend but this time I’m pretty sure it’s true. He sneaks over after Mum goes to bed and we have sex on the pull out couch in the room at the bottom of my garden. The sex makes me feel awkward and powerful and sad all at once. He is lying naked on the couch and I am sitting up, my t-shirt covering my chest. I ask if he thinks I’m beautiful. He pauses.

“Don’t take this the wrong way…” He puts his hand over my knee, “You know I think you’re beautiful…” His thumb traces a circle around the edge of my kneecap, “I just don’t know if anyone else would think so. You’re a little bigger than most girls, you know?”


Love Cats is playing loud and distorted while I throw a sticky sweet shot down my throat. For a second, there is only whooshing between my ears and a heat beneath my hair. I forget in that second about the size of my thighs under my too tight dress. The music comes rushing back as Kat wraps her arms around my waist and pulls me backwards to the dance floor. I dance and my red curls leap from my head and light the bar on fire.

Later, we are outside, sitting on some steps and I am rolling Kat a cigarette. Two years of smoking and her fingers are still too clumsy and drunk to roll her own. She is telling me about some boy or other with long, unwashed hair. She feels ungainly, she says, too solid for this particular boy who is mostly into girls, you know the kind – soft and proficient at eyeliner. I light her cigarette and the opening strains of Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT drift through the window into our conversation.

“This song always reminds me of you.”

I cough, surprised. She takes a long drag, her eyes closed.

“You’re just so curvy, you know? So… womanly.”

At 21, I feel too fat, too sad to be womanly.


There’s this drunk girl sitting at the end of the bar. Her short hair is messy and one side of her collar points to the ceiling. It’s 3 am. My curls are stuck with sweat to the back of my neck and I look out of the corner of my eye at her. I swallow, walk up and ask if she thinks I should cut my hair.

“Do whatever you want, it’s your hair.”

“But do you think it will make me look more gay?” If I don’t say the word, I figure she won’t know.

She frowns, shrugs, looks me over then looks back at her beer. I want her to look at me again. I want her to smash her lips into my skin, to lose herself in the smell of me, the sound of my breath. She’s doesn’t even look that interesting, but she looks gay. I want her to tell me her secrets.

“I just feel like no-one knows I’m a dyke with this mess on my head.”

“Why does it matter if anyone knows? Why is it anyone’s business?”

She gulps down her beer.

“Is it just so you can get laid?” She laughs and stumbles out of the bar.


I’m reading a queer blog. My girlfriend is lying in bed next to me, eating vegemite toast and reading Bill Bryson. My hair is gone, shaved off in a moment of rebellion and excitement. The blog is about how to recognise femmes. I don’t know the word without its usual suffix – fatale. The blog tells me that you can spot a femme by the size of her earrings. My hand drifts to my earlobe, still aching from the hoops I wore to work.

“Hey, lovely, listen to this.” When she doesn’t look up, I pull the Bryson from her hands.

“This thing on the internet says that girly dykes are called femmes!”

“What are you talking about?”

“It says you can recognise a femme because she often wears a bandana in a cute knot on her head!”

“That’s just like you!” Her enthusiasm passes and she falls back into Bill’s pages. I stare at the screen and stroke a ghost curl on the back of my neck.


I choose a red lipstick and a pair of sparkly pink unicorn earrings. A strappy top so that the rainbow tattoo under my collarbone is on display and lots of sunscreen because it’s unusually bright out for the end of March. I get to the cafe too early for the date and slip into the bathroom to nervously pee and reapply my lipstick. When I come out, she’s waiting and she grins. I order a cheeseburger and a chocolate chip cookie. My hairy legs feel sexy under my jeans, my fingers feel long and my tongue soft.

When she makes me laugh, everyone knows I’m gay.

Image: Frederic Frognier


IMG_8437_1Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.



  • Anni Wawrzynczak commented on May 25, 2016 Reply

    Great read Gemma. Love the format and the word images

    • Gem commented on May 25, 2016 Reply

      Thanks Anni! 🙂

  • Lillian Meyer commented on May 25, 2016 Reply

    Absolutely gorgeous! I love your writing style – it flows so well.

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