Illustration by Arielle Zepeda
Illustration by Arielle Zepeda

Not femme, but feminine

By Leah Olds

In the fall of 2019, I lived with four roommates in a modest apartment on East Anaheim Street. My second year at Long Beach State had begun and with it, my coming out journey. I was so relieved to be out to my close friends and a select few relatives, but a relentless sense of impostor syndrome kept overhauling my joy.

I didn’t know where I fit within such a diverse queer community of gay women because my identity was in its infancy. And there was so much about myself that I needed to unpack after enduring 19 years of religious shame and internalized homophobia.

Figuring out that you’re queer in college is more or less perceived as cliché nowadays. But for many people, there still aren’t as many shortcuts on the road to an open closet. My childhood was shared with seven brothers between divorced households; Mom kept a strictly Christian home and Dad leaned more conservative the older I got. It wasn’t until I left my hometown in the Central Valley, where casual bigotry is more commonplace, that I felt safe enough to reflect on my identity as an individual.

“What kind of a woman do you think I am when you look at me?” I asked my roommate, Juls, as we were fixing dinner one night. With her mellow disposition and many years of being an out lesbian, she had a comforting presence in spite of my waywardness.

“You’re just… very cute, you know?” Juls calmly replied. “I think you’re like, soft butch, in a really sweet way.”

“Soft butch.” With my limited frame of reference, I likened it to the happy medium between undercut fades with Oxfords and a long updo with Chelsea boots. Not too masculine, not too feminine… just alright, I guess.

That assessment would not make things any easier. In the mirror, I still saw a broad, squarish jawline clashing with the chubby curves of my upper body. My hands felt small and disproportionate to my otherwise solid arms. And how was I supposed to dress? It seemed that my insecurities were a steep price to pay for the Goldilocks-ian level of gender equilibrium that I had so comfortably maintained.

The more I focused on aesthetic designations, the more apparent the root of my uncertainty became. I convinced myself that the answer to disorientation was placement within a reductive binary. It was the same ‘this or that’ rhetoric people expected me to provide for my sexuality, only now it was my womanhood that was in question. Such thinking would be no more.

Almost three years have passed since my initial coming out. Despite the isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the loving solidarity exhibited by my queer community of friends shines brightly. I am also extremely fortunate to have found a caring partner at a point in my life defined by thoughts of ineptitude. Every day, she regards my idiosyncrasies with gentle affection, even when I do not.

I am of the belief that many of the dysmorphic feelings I dealt with were symptoms of a larger problem within queer culture. Sometimes we can be so desperate to find community that we find ways to stereotype or compartmentalize ourselves in a rather superficial way.

Those binary designations have yet to be revealed to me in a tell-all crystal ball, but I keep learning new things about myself all of the time.

For instance, I get teary-eyed when I see distressed children in movies. I would go straight to bed in my jeans if they were suited for sleeping. I struggle to let go of friends who drift apart from me. I occasionally fantasize about getting into fights on the street. I’m a total flirt with earrings, so I really just need to wear them more.

And no, I’m not butch but I’m most definitely masculine. I’m not femme either, but a fully feminine woman nonetheless. Being queer, and just being a person, means that I can be all of these things and none of the these things on any given day. There is real complexity in simplicity, and I’m so grateful to experience it.