Being a queer identifying woman in America today is beautiful and terrifying all at once. On one hand, there has never been a time in this country‘s history where queer people have been so vocal and so free. On the other, in this battleground of a sociopolitical environment, conversations pertaining to identity, queer symbolism, and institutionalized oppression are difficult to navigate. As much as I love to huddle within the safety of the LGBTQIA+ community and the wide reach of that umbrella term, queer identity is more complicated than a handful of letters, and our existence can never be confined to just one experience. In an examination of the fluidity and nuances of identity and orientation, I endeavored to visualize the nature and perceptions of femininity, and engage a dialogue on its connection to queerness.
In conversation with femme-identifying queer woman Haley Henderson, we examine what the color pink symbolizes to this femme identifying queer woman, and deconstruct the power dynamics and cultural implications behind a symbol used to define a group minorities for generations.
Erin Davis for Pink Things: What is your identity and what does it mean to you to claim it?
Haley Henderson: When I'm talking to other queer people, I say I identify as queer. When I'm talking to straight people, I call myself a lesbian, which sounds complicated because it is, really. I am attracted to anyone that was assigned female at birth, but that gets complicated because I definitely don't ever want to feel like I'm invalidating anybody's identity. I would definitely be with anyone irrespective of gender as long as they were assigned female at birth. So I'm queer; I'm a lesbian; I dunno, whatever you want to call me, I'm good with it.
PT: I think it's interesting that you have to adjust the definition of your identity depending on who you're talking to. What do you think of yourself as?
HH: I don't know that our language accommodates a label for me. So to myself, I'd call myself queer because that seems like a broad enough category that I can find identity with.
PT: That's interesting because it's almost as though we have all of these different labels under the queer spectrum of LGBTQIA+, but there's no real definition for sexuality.
HH: Yeah, for whatever reason, sexuality is based on gender and not sex, even though a lot of people base their preferences on sex and not gender, and that's a really good distinction. That makes it all come undone for me.
PT: What are some of the stereotypes you know of or experienced in relation to your identity and how you outwardly express it?
HH: I got the whole “You're too pretty to be gay,” thing a lot, which is some combination of the idea that the only use for a woman is that she'll fuck you, and that queer women are of lesser value than straight women. I think in a lot of ways a woman's general perceived level of attractiveness is her currency and her value in the world. So if “you're too pretty to be gay,” you have too much value to be queer. There's a lot to unpack there about the ideas that people have developed over the years. Also, no one ever knows I'm gay. I feel invisible a lot. It's one of those things that, on the one hand, there's part of you that's like, “My sexuality doesn't define me,” and, “You don’t get to tell me who I am,” but also, it's a huge part of the way that I live my life and perceive the world and I'm not going to pretend like it doesn't affect the way I walk through the world. So, to not be seen [as queer] until I say so is this weird because thing. On one hand, it's a privilege and I'm not going to pretend like it's not; I'm not going to sit here and ignore the fact that I don't have to face any of that judgment unless I allow myself to, and that is a privilege. There are gender nonconforming women that are visibly queer that do not have that privilege. But on the other hand, it's also a lot to hold, if that makes sense.
PT: What sort of power structures do you think contribute to the stereotypes that you or other queer, femme-presenting women have to deal with?
HH: All of them. Power structures overlap each other and people that think you can isolate one from the other are not aware of as much as they could be. Feminine queer women are affected a lot by the intersection of male power and straight power because we exist in this place where people expect us to be straight and to stand in that place of power because of how we present and how that presentation interacts with male power. But also, that is definitely not the full picture. In order to have the dynamic between men and women that enforces the idea that women throw away their value as a woman by being queer, they have to already exist in a power structure that grants them value to begin with. So, for example, an able-bodied feminine queer woman is going to have a totally different experience than a disabled feminine queer woman. The same thing goes for people of color and literally any power structure I could ever think of. You have to stand in a position of enough privilege to be seen as valuable to begin with for that to come back at you. So it's this balance. On the one hand, those things definitely cause me a lot of like fear in my day-to-day life. I've definitely had some frightening experiences with guys who felt like I owed them something because I had the nerve to exist. On the other hand, I know that I have to be cognizant of trying to fight back against both ideas: that my existence is asking for sex with guys and that people that look like me and act like me are the only people that are worthy of that attraction to begin with.
PT: It sometimes feels like it's less how we identify within, but really how people perceive us outwardly.
HH: Yeah, absolutely. The ways that I identify and the things that “matter” are two completely different things. I identify as multiracial and I identify as queer, but it doesn't matter because when I walk through the world I am perceived as a straight white woman. And I can't just pretend like that's not true. I can't just act like I don't have that power. That's disrespectful. Identity does matter, of course it matters, but your identity can't take priority over the power that you have.
PT: In the shoot we did, we used the color of pink as a way to visualize a femme identity and I really want to ask you about the significance of that.
HH: Pink is such an interesting concept. It's definitely been tied to femininity for a while. And it's interesting because a lot of that was by force, and you can't erase that. The options were to reject it or to encompass it and become proud of the thing that was forced on you. If we're talking about femininity and acknowledge the queer side to that, there's often a perception that we are less of a woman and that our value as a woman decreases because we are queer. I think it was a really interesting choice to do the shoot with something that is historically feminine, both by force and choice.
PT: I kind of wanted to play with the idea of something that can be symbolic of suppression but also something that was reclaimed by the community, and not only by the female community, but the queer community as well.
HH: That's something that I thought was really, really interesting because there’s this idea that if we're queer, then we're not real women. There are so many things that, if you're queer, people say aren’t real, right? Like the whole “Queer sex isn’t it real sex,” thing or like “Queer women aren't real women.”
PT: I wanted to visualize something that's at the intersection of both prejudice and reclamation. I thought that was an interesting balance to observe and explore because one could say that pink has both the potential to be a symbol of empowerment and as well as function as a symbolic stereotype. How do we reclaim something that's been forced on to us? And is this a subversion or is it perpetuation? What do you think?
HH: I’ve decided I have two options: I can either reject it, or reclaim it and be empowered by it. And if I reject it, that's just so much energy. I've come to a place where I'm not trying to give that much energy to anything that doesn't cause me active good. For a long time I was one of those girls that was, “Pink is ugly.” I hated everything that was pink. When I was really little, I had a phase where I loved it because that's the expectation, and I fell right into that expectation. And then right after that I was like, “No, screw this. I'm not like other girls.” And then at some point I had a conversation with myself and I went, “Why are you doing this? Who Wins? You don't win. And also, the people enforcing that don't lose; you lose. So, why are you continuing to devote this energy that isn't creating any forward progress?” I also decided not to be the biggest fan of the color pink. Not in a rebellious way — I just didn't like it. I don't think it emulates my personality very well. So my reaction to this whole “What do you do about the color pink?” thing is: I'm not going to force myself to embrace something I don't like and I'm not going to reject it for the sake of rejection. I'm going to pick what I do like. And that seems to me like the only real path forward because if I choose either of the first two options, I am still allowing that set of stereotypes to control me no matter what decision I make, allowing those things to have power over my decisions and my life.
*Read Part 2 Here*
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All photos by Erin Davis.
Erin Davis is a writer, artist, photographer and multimedia journalist based in Atlanta. She is a regular contributor for Pink Things.