"Too Pretty to Be a Lesbian"

How "femmephobia" contributes to discrimination in LGBTQ+ communities.

Posted Dec 22, 2019

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely aware that there has been a growing social discourse around the construct of masculinity.

Traditional or stereotypical masculinity, which posits that men must be strong, dominant, powerful, and sexually assertive, is being questioned and challenged as a one-size-fits-all for men.

But whereas the social discourse on masculinity is relatively new, the study of femininity is anything but.

Traditional femininity, which is positioned in opposition to masculinity and is typically devalued in society, includes the assertion that women should be gentle, submissive, and sexually responsive to men’s advances.

For decades, scholars have documented the devaluation of femininity (e.g., noting that women are often taken less seriously in the workplace, are not seen as having the characteristics to lead effectively, etc.) and the ways femininity is socially policed (i.e., women who act outside of traditionally feminine characteristics are often chastised and punished).

The discourse on femininity has, however, focused mostly on heterosexual cis-gender women without an adequate exploration of how devaluation of femininity intersects with the experiences of those who identify as LGBTQ+.

The New Research

In a new study just published in Sex Roles, Dr. Rhea Ashley Hoskin at Queen's University sought to explore how the devaluation of femininity (a concept she terms “femmephobia”) occurs within the LGBTQ+ community.

Dr. Hoskin interviewed 38 LGBTQ+ identifying participants about their experiences of discrimination around their femininity. Sixty-three percent of the participants identified as women (including 17 cis-gender women, six transgender women, and one intersex woman), 24% identified as men (6 cis-gendered men, 2 transgender, and 1 crossdresser), and 13% identified as non-binary or genderqueer. Most participants identified as queer (50%), 18.4% as lesbian, 10.5% as gay, 13% bisexual 5% asexual and 1 participant identifying as straight.

Dr. Hoskin then created several themes to capture the ways that participants reported experiencing discrimination they perceived to be related to feminine traits and/or feminine presentation.

Below are some key findings from Dr. Hoskin research.

Feminine Presentation Assumes One Seeks Male Attention

Femininity is traditionally considered to be a performance for men and as a means to attract the male gaze.

As such, participants in this study described that there was an assumption that regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, those who presented themselves in more traditionally feminine ways were perceived to be seeking male attention and/or looking for male sexual partners.

Specifically, participants shared that when women presented as traditionally feminine, they were perceived as being straight, whereas when women presented themselves as androgynous or "butch," they were perceived to be lesbians, regardless of their true sexual orientation.

Dr. Hoskin indicates this is not unique to only those who identify as women. Men who are more feminine in their body shape and/or appearance are often thought to be gay and looking for male attention compared to their masculine-presenting peers, whether or not they identify as such.

“Passing” as Straight

Related to the previous finding, fitting into LGBTQ+ spaces was described as difficult for femme presenting women in particular. That is, women with femme identities described feeling that because of their feminine presentation, they were perceived as straight and therefore not necessarily welcomed or included in spaces that were created for LGBTQ+ folks.

While arguably "passing for straight" may come with some privileges, including being less likely to be targeted for one's sexual orientation, these participants described feeling that part of their sexuality and their identity was ignored. They indicated they continuously had to “come out” or prove their sexual identities and demonstrate that they did, in fact, belong in the spaces they occupied.

Regulating Feminine Sexualities

Participants in this study described having to navigate the paradox of feminine sexualities. That is, not only is traditional femininity meant to be sexually receptive to male sexual advances, not being interested enough may lead to being labeled a prude, while appearing "too available" risks being labeled a "slut."

This was complicated by LGBTQ+ identities in the sense that lesbian women described being “barked” at or called "bitches" when they are walking down the streets with their partner. Through the lens of femmephobia, this suggests that there is backlash to women acting sexually independent of men and to those who do not accept men’s sexual advances.

A bisexual woman described being called a "slut" by a previous male partner due to the stereotype that bisexual women are seen as hyper-sexual. The reason, according to femmephobia, is that this bisexual woman is not only “appropriately” accepting sexual advances from her male partner; in addition, she may already have, or may one day, accept or even pursue other women – something that could be considered “too much” sexuality according to traditional femininity.

Trivialization and Femininity

Participants in this study described that femininity was often seen as the brunt of a joke, both within and outside of LGBTQ+ spaces.

For example, one participant described that within the lesbian community there is joke that “butch lesbians” appear masculine and sexually forward in public, but at home, they sometimes desire to be a “bottom” (more submissive). Dr. Hoskin notes that by making jokes such as “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets,” it insinuates that femininity is something embarrassing and should be hidden from the public eye.

Other participants described how they felt femininity in the LGBTQ+ community (as well as the dominant culture) uses feminine presentations as a performance piece and sometimes even for comedic purposes. For example, one participant noted that a man wearing a dress or heavy makeup often gets a laugh outside of drag culture.

Takeaway

The cultural devaluation of femininity has been explored and questioned for decades. This study introduces not only the concept of "femmephobia," but examines the unique ways that the negative perceptions of femininity intersect with LGBTQ+ identities.

References

Hoskin, R. A. (2019). Femmephobia: The role of anti-femininity and gender policing in LGBTQ+ people's experience of discrimination. Sex Roles, 81, 686-703. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01021-3