The Love/Hate Relationship with Lipstick Lesbians

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Editor’s Introduction: Liz Baxter made history a few weeks ago when she became the very first lesbian on the hit dating game show “Love Connection.”  I interviewed her before the show, and  last week Liz gave the world a video update. You can click HERE to find out if she found love. I’m honored to have her write this guest post for AfterEllen, and be sure to follow her blog Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbian

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I despise the term “lipstick lesbian.” The term feels dismissive of lesbians who like to brush their eyelashes with mascara and paint their lips. Yes, I care about my personal appearance: I wear makeup–even lipstick–and style my hair. Yes, I work out and have a fit body. I am an attractive, sexy lesbian.  Why does that make it seem as though my sexuality is open for debate?

The straight community uses the term “lipstick lesbian” to label so-called girly-girl lesbians who don’t fit their preconceived idea of a run-of-the-mill lesbo. If uttered by a lesbian, the phrase is usually smothered with Hidden Valley’s Disdain Dressing. I tend to use the designation “femme,” because I consider myself feminine and lesbian… a concept that shouldn’t be too complex to grasp. I have noticed also that this term has less stigma attached. The only problem is that I have experienced an assumption that femme lesbians are only attracted to masculine or butch lesbians. Conversely, lipstick lesbians are assumed to only be attracted to other lipsticks. But, it isn’t that simple. I am a femme lesbian who is sometimes attracted to other femmes and sometimes to butchier women. I shouldn’t be put into a box, where I can only find one type of woman physically attractive. So, stop trying to put Baby in the corner!

I am a femme lesbian who is sometimes attracted to other femmes and sometimes to butchier women. I shouldn’t be put into a box, where I can only find one type of woman physically attractive. 

Wikipedia states that lipstick and femme are interchangeable.  Also, they had some interesting history about the origin of the term “lipstick lesbian.” The first recorded usage was in 1982 when Priscilla Rhoades, a journalist, wrote a feature story called “Lesbians for Lipstick” in The Sentinel, a gay publication.  Later, in 1997, an episode of the sitcom Ellen made the term mainstream after she explained it and called herself a “chapstick lesbian.” Ellen is the gay Oprah, and we should all bow down as we dance with her.

But I digress. Every femme/lipstick knows the perks and downsides of being a pretty and “straight-looking” lesbian in the eyes of the general public.  Our sexuality is merely a turn on for many straight men and we are constantly having to come out to everyone. We have heard and read about these topics before.  But, what I want to address is the loathing that comes from within the lesbian community directed at lipsticks/femme/highly feminine ladies.  Make no mistake about it…lesbians have a beef with lipsticks!

Believe me when I say that I, and all femme lesbians, are actual lesbians…like for real.  We’re not closeted dick lovers waiting for the chance to slide back into the ease of the heterosexual norm the minute things get rough. There is an assumption that lipstick lesbians tolerate or need attention from men, affirming our desire to be attractive in the traditional, heterosexual sense. Just because we are assumed straight and get more attention from men, doesn’t mean that we welcome it!  In fact, we are more likely to be sexually harassed.

 Just because we are assumed straight and get more attention from men, doesn’t mean that we welcome it! In fact, we are more likely to be sexually harassed.

Also, if we say we are gay, that doesn’t mean bisexual, or that we will end up with a guy (particularly if we have ever dated men in the past). Bisexuality is an actual separate identity. There needs to be respect for that and the fact that attractive, feminine lesbians do not go hand-in-hand with bisexuality. When I say I am a lesbian, don’t respond with, “are you sure you aren’t bi?”, “but you are so girly!”, or “maybe you just haven’t met the right guy yet!”

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If we say we are gay, that doesn’t mean bisexual, or that we will end up with a guy. 

A few months ago, when I went back to my hometown in Indiana for a friend’s wedding, my friends and I found ourselves at a popular gay club after the reception. I was in a dress and heels and was thrown some major shade when I walked in the door. They thought I was straight and crashing their lesbo party. Like “do you know where you are?!”  or maybe she is just a “fag hag” – another offensive label that we place on others.  In fact, a young gay man approached me that night and asked me if I was bisexual.  I said “no.”  He said, “Aw too bad, my friend thinks you are cute” – pointing to a girl in jeans and a backwards hat.  I politely told him that while I am not bi, I am a lesbian and if his friend thinks I am cute, maybe she should come talk to me herself (ok, I can be bitchy).

It’s almost like other lesbians think that femmes/lipsticks aren’t lesbian enough. Like maybe we are dressing up to conceal our gayness, as if lipstick is camouflage. Or maybe it’s that they don’t think we are a reflection of the vast majority of lesbians. And when two femmes/lipsticks date each other, the contempt intensifies.  But why?  The feeling I get is that there is a perceived “holier than thou” complex and the thought that a lipstick won’t date anyone that isn’t as “girly” or “pretty”.

It’s almost like other lesbians think that femmes/lipsticks aren’t lesbian enough. Like maybe we are dressing up to conceal our gayness, as if lipstick is camouflage. 

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that some of the resentment may come from the fact that the general population finds it easier to tolerate lipstick lesbians…probably because they don’t look like lesbians. Unfortunately, I too fall into the trap of stereotyping. Butch, soft butch, stone butch, bull dyke, stem, stud, boi, chapstick lesbian, sporty femme, femme, lipstick, doily dyke.  An image formed from preconceived notions manifests in my head for each of these terms.

Lesbians aren’t immune to internalizing the gendered stigma and misogyny that runs rampant in our patriarchal world. Lipstick lesbians get hit on by women in the same fashion as they do by straight men.  The “love” side of love-hate sometimes looks like licking lips and raunchy and overly forward commentary. Why is it that these derogatory comments primarily target lipstick lesbians?  And why is that seemingly accepted?  

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Lesbians aren’t immune to internalizing the gendered stigma and misogyny that runs rampant in our patriarchal world.

Communities tend to latch onto traditional roles; a distinct separation between masculine and feminine. So, if you completely embrace the traditional femininity, you couldn’t possibly embrace the masculine.  A scene from season 5 of Orange is the New Black is case in point:

Piper’s Mom – “ I always thought you would be the girl in the relationship but I guess there was always a healthy dose of testosterone in you so I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Piper – “Two steps forward and one step back, but we are making progress.”

As a femme, I can only speak from my experience.  No one lesbian can represent or be a reflection all 50 shades of lesbianism, and I hope we start embracing that. We are all gay. I just want you to know that femme lezzies are card carrying lesbians too.

Maybe I have it all wrong…maybe I shouldn’t hate the term lipstick just because others diminish it?  Maybe this means that we should embrace it even more. Just as the word “queer” has been reclaimed in the past, and “bitch” has been reclaimed as empowering, maybe we take back ownership of “lipstick lesbian,” redefining its meaning. I am proud to be a lipstick lesbian, dammit.  We can be sexy, gay, and strong ass women…all at the same time.

XO Liz Baxter – Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbian

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