A friend of my partner and me invited us to a concert a couple of weeks ago. I'm not typically much for concerts. The crowds, lack of seating and overpriced drinks generally cause me to prefer other forums for live entertainment; however, this particular friend is in her 60s and came out as a lesbian-identified trans woman last year after 40-something years of upper-class male heteronormativity.
Needless to say, when this particular type of friend asks you to go to a Chris Pureka concert, you say yes. For those of you who aren't lesbians, Pureka is your quintessential lesbian, guitar-toting indie folk singer. To give you a bit more perspective, I last saw her perform about 10 years ago in someone's living room in Mount Airy.
At that time, just a decade ago, when you saw a boyish woman wearing men's clothes and sporting a short haircut not unlike Pureka, you called her butch or maybe you'd go with dyke (which may or may not have been used with the intention to be rude). Terms like 'genderqueer" or "gender-nonconforming" didn't exist yet and so any woman presenting with a traditionally male appearance was not only labeled by society, but she probably also labeled herself as a butch lesbian. So, 10 years later, standing among a crowd of women of all sorts, watching a totally androgynous performer, I started to think about the progression from masculine-presenting women simply being considered butch to sexual orientation and gender identity being conceptualized as separate entities.
Historically, many, if not most, lesbians presented with a distinctly masculine look. Why? One really good reason was visibility. In a society where gays and lesbians were flying under the radar and primarily meeting up in back-alley gay bars, wearing a uniform of sorts helped gay women to recognize one another — a sort of nontraditional way to meet dating partners and to find community. In our society at present, with LGBT issues and rights being at the forefront, there is immense variation to the appearance of lesbians. Lesbian and queer women now present in any number of ways, ranging from extremely feminine to completely androgynous or even masculine.
As for the women who do present with great levels of androgyny or a traditionally masculine appearance, it is a disservice to all of the progress we have made toward the advancement of LGBT rights and visibility to assume that she is a butch lesbian. Maybe she is or maybe she doesn't want a label at all. Or, maybe her presentation is not at all the result of her sexual orientation, but instead speaks to her gender identity, a different matter entirely. Gender identity is how you view yourself as it relates to your gender and is separate from your biology.
The world that we live in is most comfortable with boxes: Check the boxes that apply to you and then stay firmly inside of their lines. Gender identity (and sexual orientation, for that matter) is not that simple. As the pioneer, Alfred Kinsey, observed in the 1940s, gender identity and sexual orientation occur on a spectrum (he chose a seven-point scale) and they exist separate of each other.
What this very notion means is that, although we are roughly 60 years late to that party, we can no longer assess the sexual orientation of a person by assessing their appearance and expression of masculinity and/or femininity.
So, while I may not have loved standing in my high heels for three hours (yes, I am a lesbian who generally lives in heels!), as a feminine woman who once chopped off all but two inches of her hair in order to conform to my lesbian identity, it was such a gratifying experience to take note of the freedom of gender expression in the room that night. With that being said, I feel confident in saying that the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation is potentially the most liberating thing to ever happen to the lesbian community! So, as we've all been hearing since pre-K, let's stop judging a book by its cover. It's generally a pretty ineffective way to get a sense of what's going on inside.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and owner of emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellness.com).