Dear Patrick, I am a lesbian and a high femme. Nothing makes me feel happier than dressing up, putting on my makeup and high heels, and going out with a hot butch who knows how to treat a lady. (In other words, there is a point at which she no longer wishes to be viewed as an untouchable “lady.”)
This is my problem. I am sick of being harassed everywhere I go. Whether I am on public transit, at the library, doing my laundry, or just walking down the street, I get sexually harassed. Some of these guys don't want to take “no” for an answer. My last date got disrupted by a guy who would not believe I had no interest in him. Shouldn't the fact that another woman was kissing me have been his first big clue?
I don't know what to do about this. I no longer feel safe looking or acting femme in public. I can't feel sexy if it will draw attention to a potential girlfriend and put us in danger. I love a traditional date where we go out to dinner, see a movie, then go dancing. After a long night of flirting, the sex is very hot. But if I can't relax and enjoy myself, what is the point?
Dear Wary: Looking extra-fine is empowering for femmes of all genders and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, the world is full of horny men who have poor social skills. In their penis-centric minds, a woman who is wearing lipstick and fuck-me pumps is literally saying, “Come fuck me.” From his perspective, he is simply responding to your signals and trying to give you what you want. He's wrong, in your case, but it's hard for all of us to admit that we are wrong. Given how often straight men fantasize about lesbian sex, you'd think they would know more about real, live lesbians (like the fact that they don't have sex with men). This will be hard to believe for you, because you know from personal experience how satisfying sex with another woman can be—but I'm telling you, the men who are pestering you have no idea. It is a non-thing, as unbelievable as the idea that vegetables or pianos have genders or love lives. We are once more back in the simplistic world of sex = a penis (and the only people who have penises are, of course, men who were born male).
Dealing with this just plain sucks. As you point out, there is no up side to living with a regime of constant harassment. Like many queer people and a lot of straight women, you never feel safe unless you are in your own home. Of course you don't want to do anything that makes you vulnerable! It's really awful to know that dressing up and feeling babelicious could be dangerous.
Do you have a straight girlfriend? Do some bonding with her and talk this over. She may have more insight into the male psyche. How does she manage sexual harassment? Women often do things like avoid eye contact, stay close to an exit, or travel in groups to feel greater safety. Single women who don't want to get propositioned might even wear a wedding ring. Maybe she can point out some body language that would communicate your desire to be left alone. Share some secrets and get some support. Talking to other femmes could also be helpful. A few extra-determined creeps might slip through the cracks. But you can avoid blaming yourself and develop the street smarts to avoid most confrontations.
Any butch worth her salt knows that men are often attracted to the same girls that she ogles. They misread femme signals. Butches have their own tactics for protecting their dates from predation. But lesbian couples are often divided by homophobia. It is stressful to endure name-calling, dirty looks, and the threat of violence (or its reality). It's easy to get sidetracked into blaming each other for causing a volatile situation or not handling it properly. But the truth is, this problem is not your fault. Neither of you did anything wrong. You were just being yourselves. The fault lies in the perpetrator. It's very, very important to be allies rather than being divided and conquered. A butch can blame herself as easily as a femme. She probably gets harassed for not looking like a traditional woman. But she has chosen self-expression over conformity and safety. You are doing the same thing. Most straight people have no idea how much guts it takes for queer people to simply lead ordinary lives. Going down to the corner store can be like running a gauntlet of hostility and contempt. It's no wonder so many of us struggle with anxiety and depression.
This is why we have gay bars and even gay neighborhoods. Maybe you can increase your safety by sticking with queer parts of town. You might choose to tone it down in public but claim your freedom in safer zones. If you are feeling really threatened, it's okay to “go andro” for a while. Look as neutral as possible unless you are home and acting out a fantasy for your butch. This doesn't have to be permanent; you may just need a little break from being so visible. Over time, most queers develop a pretty thick skin. We refuse to let an insult or a thrown object ruin our evening. We allow such things to dissipate as rapidly as an ill-timed fart.
I recommend that every sexual minority member and gender outlaw take a self-defense class. If you can do so legally and have the courage and dexterity to use it, carry Mace or pepper spray. If you are upwardly mobile, hire a body guard for the evening and let this large but warm-hearted thug deflect any threats to your person. (As if any of us can afford that luxury.) But an advice columnist can dream, can't he? Since all of this crap is rooted in misogyny and homophobia, any activism you can do to promote equality for women and freedom for queer people is like a really good weed killer that won't destroy the micro-ecology of your yard.