I first kissed a woman when I was 19. We were drunk on the “Moonlight Bus”, an old white double-decker that offered pub-visits to the worst places in Canberra. She was a friendly acquaintance. I seem to recall convincing her to kiss me “to make my boyfriend jealous”. Upon noticing our extended make-out session, my (ex)boyfriend decided to take a picture – one I would reflect on many times in the coming year.
This scene might be described as a gross effect of raunch culture, where women play at desiring other women for the gaze of men. But for me this moment was more complicated. In the following week uncertainty clung to me. I visited a close friend and told her I was surprised to find I really liked kissing Tess. For some reason I had harbored the assumption kissing a woman shouldn’t feel anything like kissing a man. My friend told me, ‘Hannah, you are not a lesbian. You are the straightest person I know. So what if you kissed a girl, get over it’.
After all, I had long straight hair, wore lots of makeup, and outfits that resembled the costuming of Mean Girls. I dated jock-y men. I didn’t like playing sport. I liked watching romantic comedies, and read a lot of Cosmopolitan magazine.
I too had assumed I was the straightest person I knew. The evidence did stack up. I had spent four and a half of my teen years dating a lovely man, only parting ways when we got to university and had to learn to be our own people. Earlier in high school I was a born-again Christian, much to my pagan single-mother’s dismay. I attended church every Sunday. I constantly bickered with my mother about wanting to be a “normal” family. I made friends with the most conservative people I could find.
In hindsight however, my straight past wasn’t quite so narrow. When I was eight years old, one of my (inappropriately) favourite films was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I distinctly remember being relieved I was “born a girl” because in my mind I would have been a drag queen as a boy. Growing up I knew just as many, if not more, same-sex couples as straight, and was raised by a pack of lesbian and bisexual aunty figures.
Even as I grew into my adolescent desire for normality, my interest in queer icons like Xena, Tank Girl and Doris Day never waned and my biggest crush was Ian Thorpe, who I had plastered all over my walls. Then there was the time I fell for one of my best friends, Jane, in year twelve. We’d listen to Missy Higgins and I’d write her secret love songs on the bus. My high school boyfriend was understandably jealous, though I didn’t acknowledge my quiet infatuation with Jane to myself, for a long time.
That is, until Tess.
Amidst dating strings of men, a year of kissing and occasionally sleeping with women at parties and gay bars went by. I started to entertain the idea that maybe I was bisexual. One night in my residential hall after a party, I made out with another female resident who had been flirting with me. We kissed on the couch for hours. The next day she told everyone I was a “weirdo” and stopped talking to me. I visited the hall sexuality officer. She took one look at me and suggested I probably wasn’t lesbian or bisexual, maybe I was just “a woman who likes to sleep with women”. In my awkwardly tight yellow jeans, I attended a champagne breakfast being held by my university’s queer collective. I approached the only two women there, who appeared to be organising the music. “I love Joni Mitchell!” I said to break the ice. They took a step back from me. “We’re not gay, we’re just here to support our friend.”
The truth was, I didn’t know how to identify myself.
During my honours year I quit men altogether and openly(ish) identified as a lesbian. I spent the year mostly desperate and dateless, awkward and unsure in my own skin. After years of expressing interest in – and even dating – women, the raised eyebrows of my housemates seemed to ask “but aren’t you the straightest person we know?”
Two years later I went back to university to do a PhD on queer lives and identities in online spaces. Though I hadn’t done gender studies in my undergraduate years, I had managed to write nearly every politics, philosophy and psychology essay on questions of sexuality. My honours thesis had been dedicated to the question of “the lesbian” in Simone de Beauvoir.
In my personal life I was dating men and women, sometimes simultaneously, and things felt messier than ever.
Lost in research trying to find a specific hook for my work, I stumbled upon the term “femme”. I had heard of the idea of butch and femme lesbian identity before, but hadn’t given much thought to it. I knew it referred to same-sex female couples in the 1950s, who would pair up and adopt masculine and feminine roles and dress. I never thought it might be relevant to me.
But visiting the Sydney Femme Guild website, I read about the burgeoning femme movement. I saw pictures of “stereotypical” feminine women, and women who were playing with feminine presentation. They identified as queer – lesbian, bisexual, and other shades of gay. They talked about feeling marginalized and invisible in the broader queer community, often being read as straight, or rejected for not being perceptibly queer enough.
Finally I had found a term that reflected my experiences, a term that fit me. Things started to fall into place.
I read everything I could find about femme and was excited to find a growing community online. Even though I felt like I had found my “place” I still felt anxious to understand what femme should look like and how I might do it better. I found femme is often associated with ideas of empowering and reclaiming femininity, but largely the people “doing” femme try to avoid prescribing what that should look like. Certain norms of femme presentation were definitely apparent when I first started searching – at the time the 1950s rockabilly look was taking off in the femme scene – but for every “high femme” there was someone else claiming to be “tomboy femme” or “hard femme”. The femme possibilities seemed endless.
I ended up changing my research direction so I could investigate femme identity specifically. I connected up with people who had similar experiences, confusions and desires as me. I stopped being so worried about the significations of the clothes I was wearing, and the politics of who I was dating. I found myself becoming heavily involved in activism around social justice issues. Finding my queer place in the world gave me some peace to feel legitimate, to direct my energy outwards instead of being weighed down by constant internal reflection and agony over my interpersonal life. At last I was growing into my skin.
Image: Sarah O’Malley