When I realized I was gay, I did what I always do when confronted with something new and potentially scary—I researched.
I wanted to know what it meant to be a lesbian. Not the liking women part, I had that down. But what did it mean, culturally, to leave heterosexuality behind? How could I spot potential dates in the wild? It was 2013 and I was 24, so the ship had sailed on finding a campus group for support. I was on my own.
The answers I found on Tumblr, in pop culture and in Instagram memes were every stereotype you could imagine—short hair, plaid flannels, snapback hats, cuffed white T-shirts, a penchant for vests….Most frequently, though, I came up against the “rule” that you had to have short, bare nails.
I’d been rewatching The L Word as part of my research, which for all its shortcomings is still a go-to reference point for lesbian culture. In the series’ second episode, the gang is at a coffee shop, testing tennis player Dana’s gaydar. They pick a customer to analyse.
“Dana, look at her fingernails, are they long or short?” asks heartthrob Shane.
“Are they polished or natural? chimes in Alice.
“They’re long and polished,” Dana replies. “So she’s…?”
“Leaning to straight, but we still need more info,” Shane concludes, before they move on to assessing the queerness of the woman’s shoes.
And it’s not just on TV. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single article about spotting lesbians that doesn’t mention nail length.
It’s such a common stereotype that many lesbians have embraced it as part of our dating rituals IRL. (Date going well? Better sneak off and find the nail clippers.) In fact, a poll from queer women’s website Autostraddle found that 95% of lesbians keep their nails short—so it’s a stereotype very much grounded in reality. There’s even a so-called “lesbian manicure” that accommodates for long nails except for the index and middle fingers.
If you haven’t caught on—or just need it confirmed—yes, it’s a sex thing. Long nails and finger penetration don’t jive, for painfully obvious reasons.
To baby-lesbian me, this was a total bummer. I’ve always been a nail polish fan—those colorful little vials are the only thing I truly collect. I’m also a snob about it, seeking out high-end brands that go beyond what you find in the drugstore aisle. To me, no two colours are the same. (Yes, I do really need both the blueish green and the greenish blue, and there is a world of difference between a scattered glitter, a linear holographic glitter and a flakey sparkle, thanks.) I’d always experimented with at-home nail tips and found the satisfaction of painting a long, pointed nail is truly a pleasure.
All that to say, finding out that my love of fancy, femme nails and my new identity were at odds was a major blow.
It’s not like the lesbian police were knocking on my door and trying to take away my manicure tools. But, I was already deeply insecure about my sexuality and so I developed an equally deep anxiety about “looking” gay. How was I ever going to fit in with my new community if I didn’t look like I belonged?
Like many other queer people, I took coming out as a chance to experiment with my gender presentation. In the beginning that meant trying butchier clothing styles and not shaving my legs or pits. While I kept the body hair, I always gravitated back to more femme outfits. I did, and still do, feel most authentically myself with my hair curled, my makeup done and clothing that reads as feminine, preferably with a dash of glitter or sequins thrown in. Yet, I left all my nail art tools and rainbow of glitter polishes to collect dust in an old cookie tin.
My feminine proclivities really didn’t help with the whole “looking gay” thing. Femme women and non-binary folks who were assigned female at birth are by and large read as straight, even in our own community. “Femme invisibility,” as it’s called, is an confounding problem, given that femme queer women are overrepresented in the media. But in real life, I’ve been asked if I’m queer at gay bars. Once, on the patio of my favourite Gay Village spot, a drunk young man came up and told me his whole table had been taking bets on whether I was queer. That cut deep.
And so, I kept my nails short while longingly scrolling through nail art accounts on Instagram. Short nails were so ubiquitous a lesbian calling card, so deeply-engrained a signal of my new community, that I couldn’t let it go. Bouncy hair and swooping eyeliner felt fine, no one had memes about that, but the nail thing had wormed its way into my brain. I also found myself attracted to women with long, pointy nails, creating that classic queer girl conundrum of “do I want to be her, or be with her?” The answer was both.
Finally, last Halloween, I cut myself a break. I bought the longest, pointiest acrylic tips I could find and glued them on with such excitement that every single one was crooked. But I didn’t care. I was mesmerized as I lacquered them with shiny, black gel polish and spent most of my own Halloween party tapping the tips on various hard surfaces and running the points up and down my arm. I was so in love I started to wonder if having a nail fetish is a thing. (Fun fact: It is.)
It didn’t last long, because as soon as I tried to take out my contact lenses that night, having never had nails quite so long before, I poked my eyeball until it was watery and red. Frustrated, I clipped them all off. It was a short-lived but glorious time.
Lucky for me, though, I wasn’t the only person who liked the nails. I’ve been with my girlfriend for two and a half years now, which has really taken the pressure of the “looking gay” worries from my Tinder days. She also happens to love femmes, and liked looking at the new nails as much as I did.
After Halloween, I spent some more months fretting before finally seeking her blessing.
“Babe,” I asked. “If I got long nails. Like, really long nails. Pointy ones. Would that be okay?”
“Yeah?” she replied, apparently confused as to why I needed her permission.
“I mean, you wouldn’t miss, you know.” I made a motion with two fingers. She laughed. Yes, she assured me, we’d be just fine.
A few days later I went to a nail salon and got (far less crooked) matte black stiletto nails with as vicious a point as I could. She loved them.
It’s now been several months of full-time long nails and I’ve never felt more badass. I’ve had to relearn a few things, like taking out my contacts, typing and opening cans, but it’s entirely worth it. And, no, my sex life hasn’t suffered—and therein lies the problem with this whole short nail stereotype. Not every woman likes penetration (and remember, not all queer women have vaginas). There’s more than one way to provide it to those who do like it, and making assumptions about someone’s sex life based on their appearance is not cool, anyway. Plus the idea that queer women who do have long nails are simply bottoms or “pillow princesses” is just silly. And trust me, topping is about way more than providing penetration. Ever had someone drag sharp nails down your skin? I’m told it doesn’t suck.
After five years of being out, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that my nails have no bearing on my sexuality, as obvious as that seems now. If anything, long nails makes me feel queerer than ever—there’s an inherent subversiveness in being a queer femme that I love so much.
I’m not suggesting that nail length is a pressing issue for lesbian equality, but it does speak volumes about the assumptions we make about each other and how stereotypes aren’t always so harmless. As for me, I’m not going to pretend I’m totally comfortable. I still feel the need to blurt out “my girlfriend said it’s OK!” when fellow queers raise an eyebrow at my nails. But every delicious tap of my nail on a hard surface reminds me that I did this for me, and I can be a lesbian any way I want to.