No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)

Yes, I adore lipstick and never met a MAC lipglass I didn’t like, but please, don’t call me a lipstick lesbian! I’m a femme.

What’s the difference, my pretty? Is there one? Clearly, it depends who you ask.

Here are my definitions of these terms, which are based on my own experience and how I have observed others using them. Obviously, much more could be (and has been) written about these categories–their subtleties, changes over time, regional differences, etc. What I’ve written is not intended as the last word! Please share your own thoughts on what these terms mean to you and how you use them (or don’t use them). Feel free to add/suggest other words you think should be on this list.

A Very Short Glossary of Queer Femininities

Lipstick lesbian—Media term used to describe feminine lesbians during the heyday of “lesbian chic” in the 90s. Some lesbian/bi/queer women have adopted the term, making it a part of gay/lesbian culture. Usually refers to stylish, feminine lesbians who are attracted to others who look like them. Separate from butch/femme dynamics. Sometimes emphasizes more naturalized notions of gender (e.g. “I like women to be women.”)

Femme—Lesbian gender marked by feminine gender expression or identity. Not dependent on dress or other external signifiers (E.g. you can wear a tuxedo and still be a femme.) May or may not be a “bottom” or a “top” in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches. For some, a form of queer gender performance. Spans from “high femme” to more androgynous forms of gender expression, such as tomboy/sporty femmes.

High Femme*— Typically, a highly stylized form of femme identification (e.g. ultra femininity) performed in the context of butch/femme cultures and dynamics. May or may or may not wear dresses, heels, and/or makeup. No particular personality traits. May be passive and demure or confident, independent, strong, etc. Not necessarily a “pillow queen,” and not equivalent to lipstick lesbian.

*Note:  For my revision of this definition, see “Rethinking High Femme, Part 1.”  Still dying for more discussion of high femme?  Check out “Rethinking High Femme, Part 2” and “When Femme Fails (and Other Questions).” 

35 Responses

  1. Thank you! It drives me nuts when people get this wrong. It also drives me a little nuts when I hear “I like women who look like women; why don’t you just date a guy?”. However, I forbear. We all like who and what we like, and that’s ok… as long as it’s not highly illegal.

  2. I like just being a girl.

    I like girls who I like.

    It seems so simple to me :=)

    It *does* seem so simple, except for when it isn’t! E.g. being a femme-identified girl who likes girls who are boys/butches. Or–as Margaret Cho happily reveals in her new TV show–it can take an entire “glam squad” to construct one woman’s femininity. (But it’s worth it because she does look flawless!) Thanks for visiting, Catalina.

  3. oh, god, lipstick lesbian. what i thought i had to be as i fought my way out of the closet in the 1990s. because what other kind was there, really? but i always got the lipstick outside the lines.
    i like your distinction between femme and high femme, especially the point about being stylized. it seems to me that individuals can move between the two over time, depending on context etc. but i’m not sure about that. why do you see high femme as more rooted in butch/femme dynamics than [non-high] femme? (not challenging, just curious)

    What a great question, thanks for asking. Hmmm… I’m generalizing here but it seems to me that most of us who ID as high femme are very self-conscious about taking on this gender expression in the context of butch/femme. I think this is typically true of most femmes overall, but I wanted to recognize the development of some femme subcultures (NY and LA maybe?) that are more about an autonomous femme identity and less about butch/femme and its legacy. Sounds like I might need to do some rethinking on this, so I’d love to hear from you and others about this question! -SF

  4. i always thought “lipstick lesbian” was a really silly term (“lesbian chic” as you say). it didn’t seem like a way to describe real people until it jumped in my head unbidden to describe a friend. she likes to say she’s “butch on the inside,” – hardcore, chivalrous, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress, etc., but she’s smoking-hot, long-hair, makeup, tight jeans, all that. …maybe i could call her a lipstick butch =)

  5. Hello-o-o-o, Kate Perry. Great post!

  6. Me Utmost Respects, Me Sublime Femme – Th’ Cap’n will be puttin’ ye on Th’Mound quite Officially now. As for th’dashin’ statement, Me Humilty forbids Me Self from answerin’… 😉

  7. I was always told that a lipstick lesbian was a ‘fake, media type of lesbian’. But the way you put it, a lipstick lesbian doesn’t sound *that* bad! I don’t like that women might feel forced to be feminine because that’s how society dictates, but, personally, it is hard to be attracted to a man or to a woman who looks so much like a man. I hope this isn’t offensive?!

    No, to each her own–last time I checked there was no “right” or “wrong” way to be a lesbian! Actually, I love how various sexuality/desire is, especially when it’s different from my own. So even though butches make my heart go pitter patter, I wouldn’t judge you for loving femmes (we are gorgeous, after all). -SF

  8. Great blog! I tend to think of the difference between “lipstick lesbian” and “femme” similarly to the way you’ve described them. I totally think of the former as feminine lesbians who are attracted to the same sort, but it really does seem like a media “eye candy” term that has been (perhaps curiously) embraced by many women who fit the femme-on-femme bill. But too, I think that has to do with wanting to reclaim femininity and lesbian as not being mutually exclusive identities, which is kind of what being femme is all about, too.

    This chapstick femme is endlessly fascinated by the ways in which we all identify and what kind of language we use to do it.

  9. I’d like to add “Earthy Femme” as a category. I’ve only encountered her in black lesbian circles but I’m sure she exists elsewhere. She does not chemically alter her hair texture, so she will sport an afro, braids, locs, or a closely cropped look. May or may not wear make-up. Usually adorns her body (with jewelry and/or tattoos) with symbols from Native American or African cultures. Her aesthetic also includes natural stones, handmade jewelry and bangles.

    Have you seen this woman in white lesbian culture, SF?

    Thanks for the great suggestion and for bringing race and ethnicity into the discussion. I’m interested in the significance of chemically altering hair as an index of “femme” for black lesbians, especially since I just “met” online a self-identified black femme who has an amazing afro! As for white queer women, I believe there are plenty of earthy/”crunchy” (for lack of better term) white femmes out there, although it seems to me that there’s an even larger number of such lesbians who don’t ID as femme. And by the way, happy birthday, Boxer Girl!! I know it’s going to be a great year for you 🙂

  10. I like the term “earthy femme”- haven’t really heard it before. It makes me think of a sort of earthy hippie type- a woman who is very connected to the earth and maybe somewhat spiritual and who displays her femininity in a more natural way…not sure if natural is the right word…what I mean is that’s it’s not about heels and makeup and brands, it’s simpler, but very feminine nonetheless.

  11. Hey there!
    Yup..femme or high femme works for me! NOT lipstick…although, like you, there is not a MAC lipglass, Dior Mascara or LORAC Compact that I don’t like 😉

    Thx for the visit to my blog…I’m totally LOVING yours!

  12. Hello! It’s Chaia from OurChart. And wait, did we meet at the Femme Conference?

    I have to say I always hesitate (and I will be honest, bristle) when I hear people say that the difference between “femme” and “high femme” is an interest in butches. Why would an individual’s self-expressed gender depend on anyone else’s? I am somewhere between femme and high femme; I attracted to butches (and others) and totally get the whole snap-crackle-and-pop that happens between feminine and masculine people…but I experience my own femmeness as self-referential – it isn’t grounded in anyone else’s business, butch or not. Ya know?

    Where have you been all my life?!! This is a great critique; thanks for making it. Leo zeroed in on this point as well, and I like where you took the conversation. And nicely put, I might add. Sadly, I was unable to go to the Femme Conference. I made a donation to the Collective, though, and plan to go next time. Thanks for weighing in!

  13. Saw you on Feministing– this is great! I like your distinction between the lipstick, femme and high-femme varieties– I hardly ever wear makeup, yet my femmeness (femmeyness? femme-inity?) seems to shine through, whether I’m doning cargo shorts and a tank top or a dress.

    Nice distinction from the cover of Same Sex in the City (a friend had given it to me), which just, to me, screams media portrayl of so-called lipstick lesbians (OMG!).

  14. No, where have YOU been? I really love your latest entry about the unattainable concept of femme – Dorothy Allison covered this in her keynote at the conference. (Word has it that the keynotes will be online at some point.) I want to add to what I said – while my gender expression doesn’t depend on anyone else’s identity, the rush of awesome that I feel when someone really sees what I’m doing is just…so…affirming. I recently had a special friend (ahem) watch me while I was doing my hair; he leaned in through the bathroom door, smiled, and told me me that he was “just admiring.” Hearts! I’m wondering if this is where a lot of folks are going with the “high femmes = butch lovers” thing.

  15. Hi,
    I really felt that you articulated femme vs. lipstick lesbian well. I get that question of “what’s the difference?” all the time. In my “Girly Girl” post I really really contemplating queer femininity done as a personal and social statement. I really like drag queens and see them as sisters in that we both are two groups (lesbians and men) who aren’t thought to exhibit femininity, especially to the point of almost excess (I really like “excess” whatever that really means…) B/c really at the same time in society, there is leeway given to gay men to be “swishy”, and of course women are “supposed” to be “feminine”….but doing it to the extent that high femmes and drag queens do? Brings serious ridicule, accusations of being apolitical, stupid, vain, a stereotype. I want to say SCREW THAT. I want to BREAK that bullshit about “moderation” being the best policy.

  16. I also liked that someone brought up femmes with afros! Femme with afro right here!! I usually get really lost in discussions about femmes hair being “long” and butch hair being “short”…and I think….these people aren’t Black are they? (Teasing!) It’s much more complicated. The politics of processed hair vs. natural (afro) can go on for days……………
    So I’ll just speak my truth. I love my hair, though it can be trying. It’s cottony, soft and isn’t going to hang around my face; it’s more of a halo that frames my makeup, haha. I used to covet long hair, eurocentric beauty standards really cut me. It’s interesting when I see others write about femmes must/should have long hair…it’s not just a “gender” stereotype or what-have-you, but a eurocentric point of view as well. People never really seem to get past the “gender” analysis though…

    THANK YOU! I really appreciate this point because I’m working on new post about beauty & femininity. Have you been reading Sugarbutch Chronicles on femmes and hair? (It sounds like it.) I think it would be *fantastic* if you made this point about eurocentric beauty standards there, too. And I love your other comment, because I’m really a drag queen trapped in the body of a lesbian. As William Blake put it, “the road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom!” -SF

  17. I really liked (agreed with) your concise glossary….
    & I have a few things I’d like to say/add…

    Lipstick Lesbian: The last line of your definition is what is often what bothers me about the ideology associated with the term, the emphasis on “more naturalized notions of gender (e.g. “I like women to be women.”)” This is very problematically essentialist to me and in my opinion, it stunts the growth and potential of the category of “women” (although “woman” is a socially constructed category/term). But nevertheless, essentialism like this creates and reinforces gender and sexual hierarchies. (Boo!)

    Moving on to Femme:
    I love your definition of “femme” and how it is not dependent on dress or other external signifiers. (I totally agree with this, on a personal level!)

    And I would also add “queer femme” to this glossary as it is how I like to identify. Queer femme (for me) emphasizes that wonderful space of anti-assimilationist sexual and gender expression that is ultimately connected to my femme-ness.

    And as a final note, it’s interesting that being femme (in any definition) is often an ineffable thing; because its not determined by dress, attitude, sexual partner, etc…
    it’s a quality (or qualities) inside a person that surfaces…

    and ironically, much like those problematic and socially-constructed (and reinforced)binary sex categories (woman/man) femme (and other gendered identities) are also open to anyone: if you say you’re femme, you are femme .
    Similarly, if you identify as a woman, you are a woman.
    If you identify as man, you are a man.

    Flipping the script on essentialism is pretty cool, huh?


    To laurynx: thank you for speaking on eurocentric beauty standards, femininity (and femmes)…it adds yet another (thought-provoking) layer to the subject at hand.

    & to sublimefemme (herself): I’m glad you added me as a friend on Ourchart, otherwise I never would have came across your great blog (or the equally fab Sugarbutch Chronicles!) I’ve posted there too about (femmes and hair)…

    (sigh) there’s so much to say, it all makes me want to get a blog of my own! hehe! 🙂

  18. […] or intensity (you are “more” or “less” femme). One of my early posts “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)” represented an early effort to differentiate between the terms lipstick lesbian, femme, and high […]

  19. Butch fem dynamics can happen whether you ‘look’ the part or not. To me the ‘Butch’ and ”Fem’ labels are just that..lables and more than likely put into place by men. Two ‘Lipstick lesbians’ or ‘2 fems’ can have Butch – Femm dynamics and often do. To some of us, that is more in enticing.

  20. I love that you’ve made a distinction in each description between appearance and behaviour. Do you think that femme is more a style, an impulse/instinct, or a role? Or is a gender encompassing of all those things?

    All of those things, really, but I personally consider femme to be a lesbian/queer gender. I’m not crazy about the vocabulary of “roles,” which I’ve written about in other posts. xo SF

  21. I’m so with boxer girl on the Earthy Femme category! I feel like she describes exactly what I’m attracted to and exactly what I identify as considering I’m a black lesbian. I describe myself as being more of a natural beauty for the most part. Natural hair, makeup..sometimes light mineral makeup, sometimes none. My clothes..well they scream hippie sometimes but sometimes I’m in jeans and pretty flats. I prefer recycled items versus new, natural products, and vegan food. It’s harder to identify as femme or butch when you’re more earthy, I believe. I’ve usually just said I’m more flexible…not necessarily femme but not butch…more so organic 😉 I consider black lesbians who relax their hair and go to the salons every two weeks to be very femme. I always wonder where the Earthy Femme’s are because I feel as though I would connect more with that group.

  22. […] admit, I  was shocked when you left the following comment in response to my post “No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)”: i am so glad there is a web site for femmenine lesbians i am a lesbian and i like femmenine […]

  23. I’m simply who I am. Femme. I date who I date. Butch/Stone Butch/FtM partners.

    End of discussion 🙂

  24. i’m a femme (i think) and i like femmes (i think) i’m new at this as i have not yet started dating women, but i am very sure i am bi . . . the terminology is confusing, and i’m doing my homework so as not to offend anyone.
    i am “girly” and i like “girly” girls . . . i wear lipstick, but in all my past relationships, i am accused of “trying to be the guy” . . . so now here i am trying to be comfortable with myself as i was built not socialized, and i am a little more confused than when i started. do i like lipstick lesbians? should i stick to bi women? how do i know if a femme is even into women, much less another femme?? lot’s of questions in this seeking mind

  25. I usually see the term ‘lipstick lesbian’ as pejorative much like ‘gay til graduation.’ But femme is powerful and empowering and just as gay as butches and andros. I personally feel somewhere in the middle. Thanks for clearing this up.

  26. I hate categories. Is this because I am low femme/dandy/andro blah blah blah whatever….and don’t really fit into a category? I think we’re all too multi-faceted for categories. Even the femmes I know seem to have to work really hard at it, and deny or ignore certain impulses to really fit into a certain category.

  27. I reached an age where I decided to give up my SNL “Pat” day look; rocker girl at night look for something more femme. It seems the more femme a look, the more femme I was treated, the more femme I presented… Talk about your social reenforcement, LOL. OK, I work an IT and them men started treating me different right away, but now even some of the women no longer expect me to crawl on the floor, because “it is messy.” When the men started doing this I thought it was funny, but now I don’t know what to think. Also, and its a bit difficult to admit on this web site, but I am so MUCH more interested in men than before. I’m not freaking out, but I am slightly confused.

  28. Enough of labels and stereotyping people…lesbians, we talk too much…be yourself and get out and fuck…as Satre said..
    In love, one and one are one.

  29. Wow – I love your post and definitions. I am a femme. However if someone described me as a lipstick lesbian I wouldn’t be offended, I too have a love affair with all things Mac Matte shaped…

  30. Im a butch, and I love your post too.

  31. I’m femme and I completely agree with your defs

  32. Personally, I find it really important to include lipstick lesbians as femme allies. They all suffer from femme invisibility. I find the concept of the term “femme visibility” a little troubling because many feminine identified lesbians and queers are invisible. Many femmes feel that using femme outside of butch/femme is appropriating lesbian/queer history and culture.

  33. I like this post VERY MUCH and I think it’s very useful.

    I’m queer and I totally identify as a femme (now that I actually know the term and its meaning)
    Also, some times I’m more “high” and some times I’m more “tomboy” ..I think these should not be labels, because IMO it mostly depends on the context.

    Another important thing is that the femme concept should be unlinked from the butch/femme dynamic. Because of course it was born in that ground and of course it can still apply.. but it’s not necessary. For example I like butches just as much I like femmes, and as I like tomboys, lipstick lez, androgynous ones, etc etc.

  34. Interesting post.It certainly gives room for thought. I am trying to figure out if my style is somehow sending an unknown message. To start with I am a straight female, except for a very few occasions, which don’t matter to this post.
    Recently I got my hair cut in a very short pixie. This seems to be confusing some ladies. I don’t wear make up. I used to wear rather a lot, then simply decided to make a change, and I only like either a rather extreme bright red matte lip look with black cat eye liner, or nothing at all. My skin needs no help. I wear heels, I wear skirts, but of course not always. Often I wear one of my high waisted skinny jeans and ankle boots with like a fashion tucked blouse. So my wardrobe is never butch, not even when its boots and jeans. But the hair and lack of make up, especially when i wear my leather moto jacket sends out some sort of vibe I SWEAR ! Is there something I am accidentally doing…like you know wearing an earring in the left ear during the 80’s?

  35. A friend of mine describes herself as macho femme. I live in rural Northern California, in Humboldt country, which is a mix of liberals and rednecks, and where we have a very strong, long lived, lesbian community. Most of the older woman fit into a butch-dyke dynamic, tho we are seeing more young women femmes, brought by the college from other areas. Macho femme women have a very feminine, but very tough sort of look, like, leather jackets with skinny jeans, or body con dresses with combat boots. Also, i see some femmey looking butch women, i don’t know how else to describe them – they may have mohawks, and moto boots, but they wear eyeshadow and have a feminine aura about them you don’t see in butches.

    As a trans woman, i am drawn to the femme continuum, and trying to figure out where i fit between lipstick lesbian and femme. I LOVE makeup, and doing my makeup right, too, down to filling in my eyebrows, combing them, and polishing them with clear mascara. I love having my outfit perfect, if i put a run in my stockings while putting them on, i take them off and find another pair. But it’s very hard to be accepted as femme when you are a pre-op transsexual, and it is a very thin tightrope between being femme and being a drag queen when you’re trans. And the funny thing is, people expect a certain amount of machismo from drag queens, and i have none whatsoever, which many people have a hard time accepting. I had no machismo pre-transition, but i was good at pretending, now i’m so glad to drop the artifice, but it feels like people still expect it. I love your blog, it’s helping me so much 🙂

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