Embracing the “tough lesbian” stereotype

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Stereotypes get a bad rap. Dare I say stereotypes have negative stereotypes? It’s possible I went too far with the wordplay, but maybe you get my point. To generalize and say that stereotypes are harmful to marginalized communities is likely a safe observation to make. As a rule, these sorts of assumptions are inaccurate and problematic. However, I’m learning that, every now and then, these accepted ideas, when framed appropriately, can be used to empower.

Women who love women–as we do–are oftentimes believed to be tough, bad ass, hard. I understand that the more masculine we are, the more aggressive we are perceived to be. However, even the femmiest of the femmes, such as myself, are at the very least accepted as self-reliant and autonomous beings, which requires a certain level of grit. While we understand that our butches are probably somewhat responsible for the tough girl stereotype, I can’t help but analyze a bit further and seek out the deeper roots of these perceptions. For a stereotype to stand the test of time as this one clearly has, there must be something more solid than sports bras and combat boots to sustain it. 

While queer women vary in our lifestyle and identity, appearance and presentation, and even in the ways in which we create and execute relationships, we all share one thing: a love for other women. I suppose it’s also safe to assume the majority of us came of age, to a certain degree, in an environment rife with patriarchal values. Although some may have had the privilege of growing up in households with more progressive and woman-centric values, at the very least, the world at large–whether inside our homes, outside our homes, or both–advised that relying on men would be a crucial part to achieving success and happiness. And when we acknowledged our love for and attraction to women, we were effectively giving this idea and the patriarchy as a whole a big, fat middle finger. Our lesbianism, our bisexuality, our pansexuality, our queerness was and is a revolutionary act, which cannot be accomplished without some semblance of toughness. 

When we tell society that we can and will live out our lives partnered with other women and as we build families with other women, we are also declaring that men, for us, are not essential to achieving a full and happy existence. As we move throughout our lives paying no mind to the absence of men, are we perpetuating the aggressive, queer girl stereotype? I can see where our society might be utterly confused by how we’ve managed to achieve satisfaction in this life and to realize our dreams without the leadership and authority of men. And I’m okay with that. Be confused. While you’re scratching your heads, we’ll be busy taking over the world.

As a true to form femme in so many ways, I have often found myself envying my masculine sisters. I watch them wear their butchness with pride, overtaking a room with a quiet confidence and a sexy swagger. And while I will likely always have a sense of admiration for masculine women (combined with attraction, of course), I am learning that I too am a tough girl. The mere fact that I exercise my right to be out and to make a marital commitment to another woman, rather than abiding the heterosexual norm, grants me ownership of this stereotype as well. Maybe a life absent of men is the true root of the tough girl stereotype. 

Let me be clear and communicate my love and respect for the men in my life. I have a solid and extremely close relationship with my father. When I made the transition, as a clueless 23-year-old, from life in small towns to the larger city where I live today, I was loved and embraced by a group of gay men who will always hold a piece of my heart. 

Am I engaging the male-dominated culture in articulating this caveat? Possibly. But I can’t help but feel compelled to distance myself from the misandry with which feminists and queer women are too often associated. I am not a man-hater, but I am a good feminist and I will not deny the need for and lack of gender equality in our society. Declaring that women remain at a disadvantage based solely on our gender is the truth and acknowledging such does not a man-hater make. The way in which I view the world tells me that what I and my queer sisters have accomplished without the authority of men may very well set us apart. I’m realizing the tough girl stereotype may hold some truth. And maybe we should embrace it and wear it as a badge of honor. 

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