Back in 2012, I took part in the 10×10 Photography Project, photographing Canadian LGBTQ+ artists. When I applied, I commented to my roommate—a gay man—that while I identify as queer, I don’t feel like I fit in with the community. I’m too femme, I obsess too much about makeup, I’m bi, etc. “I’m the wrong kind of gay,” I told him.
“I don’t think it’s you,” he said, after a bit. “I think it’s a larger issue within the community.” For femme bi, queer and lesbian women, makeup can be a double-edged sword: it gives you the ability to show your individuality, to pass in society as someone who isn’t openly displaying his or her queerness, but—within the community—femme looks tend to get erased, with makeup acting less as a way to stand out and more as a way to be ignored for being seen as “not queer enough.” While the LGBTQ community are making efforts to be more accepting, one issue that remains is the erasure of femme women. I have short hair, but I wear lipstick (lots of it). I’m married to a man, but I am attracted to women (and men, but you get the idea). Without the standard visible markers of gay womanhood (“Shut up and get me my flannel! It’s time to read stuff on Autostraddle!”), makeup can leave femmes on the outside.
For all the rainbow makeup tutorials, makeup and queerness can be at odds. The world of high femmes—marked by “traditionally” feminine looks, including makeup—tends to be one that’s more invisible within the community. “When more femme queer women wear makeup, we run the risk of our identities as LGBTQ people not being taken seriously, both by straight people and other members of the community,” says Sara, a queer woman in Toronto. Even terms like “lipstick lesbian” play into the idea that a makeup is related to “faking” queerness. Femininity is something that tends to be treated as existing only for the gaze of straight, cis-men. “It speaks to the issue in the queer community that—regardless of your gender/s—if you perform traditional femininity, at best you are erased and at worst you are actively looked down upon,” Sara notes. “It reeks of misogyny and the queerer than thou/”queer enough” expectation that permeates the scene.” Makeup—outside of certain arenas, including genderqueer and alt looks—plays to that, leaving femme women (especially bi or queer women with male-identifying partners) in a weird position.
For better or for worse, queerness in women tends to be aligned with being “butch,” with makeup being one of the first things to go. Even for women who lean towards a femme look, it is still assumed that they will have a more masculine partner (god forbid two femme women get together, we might all explode). All the brightly coloured lips in the world can’t make you more visible. “Wearing makeup takes away from perceived queerness, since a large part of queerness within the community comes from being visible,” says Sara, “Yet this feeds into a culture of brushing off those who don’t qualify because they aren’t performing a very particular (and usually masculine) form of queerness.”
Makeup—while sometimes a shimmery signal of queerdom—has the ability to wipe away any sense of sexuality outside of straight, cis womanhood. “I do think there were some sort of queer markers (in terms of makeup), which are now assimilating into the mainstream,” says Claire, another queer woman in Toronto. “I used to feel that non-traditional lip colours were indicators, but those colours are now much more common.” It can feel like being the invisible (wo)man: Lipstick is just the bandage, the only thing that people see.
There was a piece in the National Post last year that looked at the idea that “gender neutral” basically means “male.” Gender neutral tends to get depicted as pants, as flat bodies and short hair. Femininity is for straight women, but maleness is for everyone. I’ve been writing about makeup for several years now and I constantly have to fight the urge to downplay it to male friends and coworkers. It’s not stupid, it’s not silly, and it’s not just the thing of pretty, brainless ladies. Lipstick does not determine who you are inside. For Claire, she sees some brightness on the horizon, saying, “Embracing my queerness has, in a strange way, given me permission to be more adventurous with my makeup and not feel like I have to look a certain way.” Either way, it can be weird to stand out in a crowd, only to feel completely overlooked at the same time.