I never truly understood what femme privilege was till the time I walked down the street with a butch-seeming friend and felt the looks change, became conscious of being different.
But I hadn’t changed at all, I declared to myself, shocked. I could have walked this path two days ago and not merited a second glance. The visibility actually came as a shock, which says a lot about how much I’ve been in the straight world lately.
The fact is, in this society it’s not hard to pass (as straight), especially when you’re happily single, with no fetching woman on your arm, and dress in fairly feminine attire. I probably could get by the average straight person’s gaydar without a second glance.
What I hadn’t discovered was how much I was enjoying this state of affairs.
For some context, I didn’t always look this straight and narrow. Bookish, maybe, but not straight. In my rebelliously out days I had short hair, walked differently and looked pretty androgynous. A lady called me “boy” once in front of my parents, though why she did so would have been incomprehensible to the rest of us gaydar- and vision-endowed souls.
Nowadays, I’m in a phase where I try to look just like every other homegrown Singaporean, down to the slightly mismatched colour scheme. I am more prudent about how, why and to whom I come out to. So those days of second looks and brash bravery have slipped to the back of my mind. I happily identify as label-less, and feel pretty much free to wear what I want.
But I think “passing” brings its own complications, at least from my point of view. Years ago, I had quite some difficulty coming out to myself — believing in the ludicrous suggestion that I could be gay — and I still do to some extent. So it helped when I dressed gay, as if I was trying to prove something to myself, affirm myself so that I could convince the straight world too. I gradually settled into seeking something that better reflected myself, as the young and idealistic do at some point, and I guess along the way, I was lured by the comfort that the appearance of heteronormativity brings.
I am aware that this is not something I ought to feel guilty about, but maybe we “The Invisibles” need a gentle reminder sometimes that coming out is actually healthy for us.
Invisibility means there is a need to come out verbally, and repeatedly, to break the stereotypes people have in their heads that each of us has assimilated due to our cultural backgrounds. I do believe that the presence of happy, healthy queer people in our midst helps to convince straight people — and the closeted ones among them — that we come in all shapes and sizes and are normal too.
That said, there is nothing particularly good or bad to how “out” we choose to be or how queer we appear to others. For some of us, it doesn't feel like a choice. To me, it’s just another of those inexplicable things in life where I am treated differently just because I don’t wear my sexuality on my sleeve, because I (somewhat) conform to your stereotype of what a straight woman should be.
The world just isn’t fair, and I hope that lesbian or queer-friendly spaces can expand so that everyone can have the space to find or express who they really are. Beyond that, we have to choose how far we are willing to go to expand that space in our own lives. This is a reality I find myself living out every day, and it’s a journey, and a decision, that I think I’m going to make over and over again into the future.