I’m standing under yellowing fluorescent lights in a
I’m standing under yellowing fluorescent lights in a bathroom with a sloping ceiling, my bare face staring back at me in the mirror. I slide the cap off of a silvery tube of lipstick with creamy pigment that’s been worn down into a triangular lump. I apply the coral color in a clockwise motion to my lips. I’m 11 and have pilfered the lipstick from my mother’s collection. I turn and look at my face from over my shoulder. Then adjust from angle to angle. The bright pout floods me with euphoria. The made-up face I see staring back — not for anyone else’s gaze but my own — is deeply satisfying. It may seem like an unremarkable rite of passage: a girl, taught all her life that she ought to wear lipstick to attract a man, gets into mommy’s makeup. But for me, it was never about that. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but that lipstick was an expression of my femme identity. Wearing it in solitude was the only place I knew where I could escape the expectation that I was wearing it to appeal to boys. When I saw my reflection in lipstick it made me feel seen, even if only by myself.***Growing up, I always had an inkling that I wasn’t straight. Yet, as a feminine lipstick-obsessed girl, I seldom saw queer women like me. On television, there was Ellen DeGeneres, then lightly made up with short hair on her sitcom Ellen. In magazines, there was k.d. lang, the epitome of the cool butch as Cindy Crawford pretended to shave her face. They were both groundbreaking in their own right. But, when it came to being a queer woman, I ate up the stereotypes that it meant being butch and being a lesbian when I was neither. I was attracted to girls and boys, everyone outside and in between.I’ve heard that femmes blend in and that we are not queer enough; that we are undesirable on dating apps and care about the superficial. In public spaces, this so-called invisibility affords me the protection of being perceived as straight; however, it also means that the legitimacy of my identity is constantly challenged. This is where my bisexuality and femme identity overlap. As a bisexual person, I’m part of the “invisible majority.” Though bi+ folks comprise the majority of LGBTQ+ people, we remain closeted in part because we are judged based on the gender of our partners. As a femme, I’m presumed straight by the people who I want to know me the most. As my ritual of meditating over lipstick continued into my teens and then my early twenties, I came to understand it as a marker that wasn’t there to serve a heterosexual fantasy. Applying the pigment became a reminder that my femme-ness wasn’t defined as the absence of signs and signals that I was queer. Rather my loud lipstick proclaimed it.We live in a culture that polices and victimizes femininity at every turn. Women who wear some makeup at work are perceived as more competent than those who do not, but women who wear too much makeup can be thought of as untrustworthy. We are encouraged from infancy to make ourselves appealing to men, then blamed for “asking it for it” when we are sexually harassed or assaulted because our clothing is tight and makeup is bright. This is amplified for trans, gender nonconforming and nonbinary femmes, who are disproportionately targeted by violence. In the news media and movies, trans women who are subject to violence are often blamed for “tricking” their male partners with their femininity and therefore their deaths are made justifiable. BREAKBecause of my place in the world in relation to being a femme, I have been afforded the latitude to find affirmation through lipstick. My cisness has made my access to makeup practically a given, and not something I feared getting found out about. My whiteness means that my femininity is not perceived as threatening, but rather sympathetic. My athletic and able body aligns with dominant ideas of what is attractive. Through no skill, talent or virtue of my own making, these traits allow me to step outside of my front door every morning in whatever lipstick I want and assume I will return home unscathed.With this in mind, I derive power from lipstick when I wear it as an adornment that does not serve straight desires. A kind of power that exists beyond amplifying femininity for the sake of being seen as worthy of attention from straight cis men. It’s a power to own my own presentation, and to appeal to myself beyond whatever expectations other people have of me. In a culture that ties a woman’s worth to her ability to attract the opposite sex, it is a power in claiming a tool that epitomizes this drive and instead saying: this is not for you. This is for me. This is for my queerness.It’s been nearly two decades since I swiped my mom’s red lipstick, and I wear it as armor in the face of these realities. Whether it’s Mac’s Ruby Woo or Lorac Dominatrix or Urban Decay’s Catfight, my fire engine red or plum purple or hot pink pout is an adornment that is just for me. There’s a tan shade for when I’m a business femme, a deep burgundy for when I’m I-did-not-come-to-play femme, there’s a glossy orange to say I’m un-fuck-with-able-femme, and a blue for when I’m feeling like an intergalactic-party-femme.Whatever the shade, it’s a reclaiming of femininity from a culture that tells me I should only wear lipstick in pursuit of a straight relationship. It is my war paint for coming out constantly: to strangers who immediately gender my partner as male, to men to harass me on the street, and to other queer people who have the narrow view I once held of same-gender-loving women. It is a way of saying that femininity isn’t here to uphold heterosexuality or the patriarchy or the binary. It’s a way to mark myself as a femme who wants to be seen as queer, and as one who can see the other femmes around her.