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Shaving my head and discovering ‘queerness’ helped me find my identity
By Amy Wootten

07.06.21

After an adolescence of rigid terminology and stereotypes, Amy found a label that fit in ‘queer’.

I knew I was a lesbian before I became queer, or, at least, I knew I was a woman who liked women. But for some years of my life I hadn’t quite acknowledged the link between this fact and its corresponding label, perhaps because the label always felt limiting and forced in the context of my own experience and sense of myself. 

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Queer is something that came later into my life, and with that label I felt for the first time like I belonged.

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In the most recent National LGBT survey in 2018,  one percent of those surveyed identified as queer, with 61 percent identifying as gay or lesbian, 26 percent as bisexual, four percent as pansexual, and two percent as asexual. In the four years between 2015 and 2019, according to a YouGov study, the number of quarterlifers identifying as gay or lesbian has halved from ten to five percent, while those identifying as bisexual has multiplied eight times from two percent to 16 percent. These statistics suggest young people like me are embracing broader definitions and less limiting labels.

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Whilst some of the LGBTQI+ community might dislike the term ‘queer’ or find it pejorative, to some like me it is a soothing blanket term which scoops up those of us who slipped through the cracks of more rigid sexuality labels, binding and bonding together all who do not identify as heterosexual.

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My experience has been a journey to discovering queerness. ‘Lesbian’ was a limited concept ten years ago. As a younger teen, the only options presented to me on the sexuality spectrum were ‘straight’ and ‘lesbian’. Opting for the lesbian choice then led implicitly onto definitions by two further qualifiers or ‘types’ of lesbian. There was the ‘obvious’ or ‘butch’ lesbian, or the femme, straight-looking type who seemed odd and out of place in queer spaces. Whether this was really the way things were, the latter was how I felt throughout adolescence.

The discomfort I felt from being labelled a femme by others comes in two parts. First, it was difficult not being seen as gay in LGBTQI+ spaces. Second, I often found people who didn’t know me presumed I was straight and I received a lot of unwanted attention from cis-het males. Many people who don’t go through this themselves assume if you don’t identify as straight you only have to come out once. I came out every day of my life; to hairdressers, to people at work, to new acquaintances. The tone of surprise I was met with time after time when people discovered I was gay knocked my confidence and had me questioning my identity

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It became apparent people didn’t see me the way I wanted to be seen. I fully acknowledge the privilege that comes with “passing” as heterosexual, especially in a heteronormative world, but I found myself wanting to scream that I was gay; wanting to be recognised fully for who I was. 

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I became self-conscious and would get particularly anxious in queer spaces, feeling out of place and judged. This came from a place of not fully recognising my sexuality; of not feeling represented by the narrow cultural interpretations of non-heterosexuality. I knew I had feelings for women from adolescence, but it never seemed like something that was real. It was common for girls to kiss other girls and for that to be played off as a drunken thing or something that didn’t matter, so I felt my own feelings invalidated time and time again. It wasn’t until I was at university I finally felt ready to explore my sexuality and recognise that my feelings for women were more than just drunken kisses - that I actually wanted to be in a homosexual relationship.
 
But it wasn’t plain sailing despite my newfound freedom. The discord I felt between my past “straight” self and my new-found gay self made me feel like I had a split identity. I felt more and more uncomfortable with the thought of myself ever having been with guys in the past. This is why I came to associate being a femme, and being feminine, with unwanted attention from cis-het males. Perhaps this was even attention I had previously sought out, and this made me feel even more uncomfortable with myself. I wanted to pull away from that; not be held under the male gaze. Not only does unwanted attention and being hit on by men make me uncomfortable but it also devalues my sexuality and how I want to be perceived by others. 

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I felt like there was the version of myself I had in my head and the other one people saw every time they looked at me.

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I began to feel I’d never get away from being seen as the straight girl I no longer wanted to be. I was never that straight girl of course, but it was a path that I followed for a long time, and this led to additional uncertainty when I was coming out. I had a previously conceived idea of what a being a femme was, and that was inherently tied to femininity. Now, thanks to terms I find more inclusive like ‘queer’, I can separate the two and see femme as an intersectional term that, whilst carrying certain traits, can also encompass others.
 
“Looking queer” was something that had always seemed unattainable to me. I thought I was stuck in a space where I’d never be recognised for who I was. It took shaving my head for me to have the confidence to feel I did, finally, visibly, look queer. I know in my rational mind there is no one way to look queer, gay, or anything else, but shaving my head was symbolic in a few ways. It allowed me to say, yes, I am here and I am queer and visible – but it also held a sense of liberation from femininity and its expectations I had felt so trapped by previously. It’s not that I am saying that you can’t have long hair and be queer. What I’m saying is that, for me, it was the first time I felt confidently queer and that was so important to me. My hair was a symbol of the femme-ness and femininity I really wanted myself to have the space to step away from. Shaving it off gave me what I needed. It took me out of the “femme” space and placed me somewhere more neutral. 

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It’s not like I suddenly became ultra-masc, because that’s not something that comes naturally to me and I no longer want to force that change on myself, but I at least felt a separation from the femininity I had carried.

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(Word of advice to anyone inspired by my experience to get out the razor – don’t shave your head in an English November. England is cold and I spent about two months wearing a beanie)
 
Reading All Ways Butch and Femme (a collection of essays by butches and femmes of all kinds) has helped me reach a more nuanced understanding of the word femme; one that, when applied, doesn’t make me flinch so much. Elizabeth Marston in Rogue Femininty defines femme as “...sisterhood and brotherhood stretching well beyond the borders of dykespace, as a community that can include men, women, and intersex, cis, trans, and genderqueer, gay, straight, and bi.”

 

It was the binary of femme-ness I felt caged by before, but this further-reaching definition makes femme something I perhaps do want to try on for size. I used to feel like I was a lesser person as a femme – less dominant, weaker. Essentially, less gay. And when you really boil it down, this was a lack of confidence in my own queer identity that led me to expect the same judgement from others. 

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Now I realise I don’t have to be one thing. I can be everything and nothing. I can be queer, femme, and a lesbian all at once.

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I don’t remember the first time I tried on the term queer, but once I put it on I never took it off. It fit me like my favourite leather jacket, bought in Soho and worn ever since. My queer identity is embedded within my mid-20s, which has been a time of queer evolution for me. It is the first time in my life I have felt confident about who I am, which has also been validated by other people’s perception of me. No one needs others to validate them, and nor do I, but as a naturally self-conscious person, the validation of others was a catalyst in my decision to validate myself.

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I spent far too long caring what other people thought of me and my sexuality, and whether the way that I presented myself fitted into their expectations.

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I allowed others to label me a femme, even though I flinched every time. But culture is a huge, all-encompassing thing which is too heavy for any one individual to bear alone. Luckily, it has evolved, I’ve begun my own journey, and here I am telling my own story of self-discovery as a result. If I could choose any words of comfort for anyone feeling a similar sense of alienation or not fitting, they would be: everything in life is a journey. When it comes to finding the right labels or shaking the wrong ones off, just like clothes in a dressing room, eventually you will find the words you feel good in. And, who says you can’t have more than one? Define yourself however you want to, or don’t at all. At the end of the day, whose business is it anyway?

Image by unknown Pinterest artist.

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