While we already knew Kehlani was into women — she sings about it, including the track “Honey” — she recently came out as a full-blown lesbian. “You wanna know what’s new about me?” she asked her fans on Instagram Live, “I finally know I’m a lesbian.”
She went on to say that she “carries a lot of privilege,” including “straight-presenting” privilege, as NME points out. I found this confusing. While Kehlani doesn’t present or identify as butch, or particularly gender non-conforming, I don’t think she’s “straight-presenting” at all. She sings, on ‘Honey’, “I like my girls just like I like my honey,” and is romantic with another woman — while wearing a flannel shirt — in the video clip… can you get any more “lesbian-presenting”?
What is “straight-presenting,” if not a woman being strictly into men? Heterosexuality is viewed as the default sexual orientation; there is no way to “present straight” through your appearance because it’s presumed you are heterosexual already. Lesbians don’t necessarily dress and behave as the antithesis of straight women. We all go through the same feminine conditioning. Lesbians are women, after all.
“Straight-presenting” or femininity?
Lesbians — including butch lesbians — are not immune to the pressure to conform to the gendered expectations enforced upon all women. It doesn’t make us less of a lesbian when we don’t actively resist or defy such pressures. Presenting and behaving in the way women are socialized to is not a privileged act. Why not? Because gender conformity AND nonconformity each come with their own unique set of punishments. Take for example something as simple as wearing makeup — if you choose not to wear it, you’ll be judged, passed up for jobs, censured in public. If you do, you’ll spend thousands of dollars over your lifetime putting toxic chemicals on your face. You might fit in better, you might avoid public censure, but your choice did not come without its drawbacks. Our socialization is misogynistic, and none of us are free to operate outside of this socialization without consequences.
If by “straight-presenting,” Kehlani means “feminine-presenting,” then her statement is even more confusing, because she isn’t particularly hyper-feminine. She does rebel against feminine expectations: she’s covered in tattoos, she sings about her desires — including her desire for women — and she presents herself as very strong-willed. Yes, lesbians have developed coded ways to state their sexual orientation — which Kehlani has engaged in — but we don’t have to wear clothing that says “LESBIAN” on it in order to “present lesbian.” Straight women don’t have to use codes to denote their straightness because heterosexuality isn’t ‘the other’. “Presenting straight” is to simply exist in a heteronormative world.
While butch lesbians are usually flagged as lesbian before the rest of us due to not conforming to femininity, they suffer at the hands of the same gendered, homophobic, patriarchal system all women do. Much of the ill treatment butch women face is due to rejecting femininity to a higher degree than most women, but lesbians who don’t present or identify as butch do not have societal privilege on the axis of sexual orientation.
Most of us aren’t viewed as “femme” or “butch.” We shouldn’t automatically be filed into these categories once we come out. Because we don’t intend on attracting men, many of us end up rejecting the uncomfortable feminine expectations anyway, especially as we age. While butch women are brave for combatting their feminine socialization with wearing and doing what makes them comfortable in their own skin, there is no one way to present your lesbianism. Lesbianism is just a sexual orientation.
While we don’t choose lesbianism, it’s already viewed by misogynistic society as the quintessential act of rejecting femininity — and is subsequently policed, punished and corrected — because being sexually and domestically overpowered by men is a naturalized, patriarchal rite of passage. Patriarchy grooms women into submission to men, and lesbians, by not relating with men, are acting out in rebellion against that social hierarchy. We’re in danger for being lesbian regardless of our presentation. There is no point deprecating ourselves and listing all the ways we are privileged while coming out, like Kehlani did, when homophobia still exists. She is still a target.
Kehlani shouldn’t have to give up space while coming out. She shouldn’t have to worry she doesn’t offend anyone for being a lesbian. She shouldn’t have to perform this bizarre kind of damage control to avoid harassment. She should just be able to come out as a lesbian without added pressure to appease absolutely everybody. Accommodating others while coming out is a way of signalling you’re politically aligned with those who will find a reason to attack you for being a lesbian. Being identified or coming out as a lesbian in 2021 leads to political suspicion and questioning. You’re being trialled for thought crimes. The way Kehlani came out is testament to this process.
Presenting as lesbian
While lesbians aren’t the antithesis to straight women — we share a lot in common besides sexual orientation — lesbians have developed a system to flag our sexual orientation. We have had to covertly find lovers and community in dangerous times and dress codes have played a role in how we make that happen.
Yes, there’s no way to be “straight-presenting” because most people are presumed straight unless stated otherwise, but you can use coded behaviour or dress to connote your homosexuality. In a way, it’s a positive ‘othering’ of yourself to lesbians who are looking for the signs. You’re differentiating yourself and aligning yourself — even secretly — with the culture and history of your sexual orientation. Kehlani has already engaged in lesbian dress codes. She’s written and performed songs about kissing and having sex with women. She literally came out as a lesbian. She’s not presenting as straight.
While secretly presenting as a lesbian is a thing, because we’ve had to signal our sexual orientation in ways straight people haven’t had to, you’re not less of a bein’ (thanks Marge Simpson) for quitting the codes and just… existing as a lesbian. If a lesbian is unaware of the codes and signals, doesn’t relate to them, or decides to reject them, then she’s still a lesbian. There is no one way to be a lesbian, other than being a solely same-sex attracted woman. There are just ways you can indicate you are one in a world that presumes heterosexuality as the default mode.
You’re not “presenting as straight” for dressing femininely. Women aren’t inherently feminine and lesbians aren’t inherently non-feminine either. The only thing lesbians objectively share is being women who are only same-sex attracted. Engaging in lesbian culture, history, dress codes or the stereotypical “lesbian behaviours” don’t make you more of a lesbian. Unless a lesbian is trying to appear like she sleeps with men, she isn’t presenting herself as straight. Lesbianism is an objective, material sexual orientation that exists outside of our personality and style. While the dress codes and signals are a cool manifestation of our history, lesbianism is not a “presentation.” It’s a reality.
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