“Oh, I thought lesbians like you only existed on television,” is the kind of reaction and male chauvinism towards “lipstick lesbians” that has women such as Jincey Lumpkin, a writer for the Gay Voices blog on HuffingtonPost.com, infuriated. Her response to these men: “I’m a lesbian, I’m married and I deserve respect. Period.”

“Lipstick lesbians” is a slang term used to describe lesbian women who do not display stereotypically lesbian characteristics – simply put, it’s difficult for people to determine their sexual orientation because of their “straight-acting” behaviour and appearance. What further distinguishes lipstick lesbians from other lesbians is that they are almost exclusively attracted to feminine lesbians.

Megan Evans, another blogger for Gay Voices, describes a phenomenon closely linked to lipstick lesbians known as “femme invisibility”: “Some lesbians can be spotted right away, and there are those who are a mix between masculine and feminine and are slightly easier to spot. But what about femmes?” she asks.

According to Evans, femme invisibility is causing feminine lesbians (“femmes”) to be overlooked by people of all sexual orientations. “People look for the telltale signs to figure out whether a woman is a lesbian or not: short hair, no make-up, wearing baggy jeans and a T-shirt.” Because of their assumed heterosexual orientation, that is, because they don’t fit the stereotype, these women have difficulty meeting potential partners when going out to clubs or other social events.

As a result, lipstick lesbians often attract the wrong kind of attention. “When men are making sexual advances or flirting with me, telling them that I am a lesbian doesn’t seem to deter them,” says Lumpkin. “Divulging that fact often leads to a series of much more intimate and, frankly, inappropriate questions.”

So, this begs the question on everyone’s mind: why are men so interested in lesbians? AskMen.com maintains that there is a psychological explanation behind this fascination with lesbians. “As much as two women can pleasure each other, it never feels the same as having a penis. Men understand that, which is why they believe that two women who just had sex with each other are usually not completely satisfied.” It is this belief men have that women can only be entirely satisfied through heterosexual penetration that spurs on the attraction.

Gurl.com believes that this lesbian attraction can be attributed to the fact that, of the two sexes, men are the “visual” sex. “If a woman’s form is what turns men on, the sight of a pair of women will naturally provide double the stimulation for such visually sensitive beings,” says the site. However, Gurl.com also maintains that some men prefer pornographic movies with lesbians which include at least one man, as this helps them picture themselves in the sex act. For this reason, it cannot be assumed that all men are turned on purely by the sight of lesbians.

As can be expected, this has been met with criticism from the lesbian community. In her article titled “What straight men don’t understand about lesbians”, Julie Bindel of The Guardian says that she has noticed how men are “genuinely shocked that women can have fun together when [women], as one [man] said to [her], ‘have no genitals’”.

The media often reinforces these stereotypes associated with lipstick lesbians. The “lesbian kiss episode” has become a popular sub-genre of lesbian portrayal in television. This popular culture trend includes at least one episode in a television series in which a recurring female character on the show, who is believed to be heterosexual, kisses a non-recurring female character who is perhaps lesbian or bisexual. There is, however, no hope for a romantic relationship between the two characters and the lesbian disappears from the storyline.

The New York Times revealed that this sub-genre in television is merely used to increase viewership ratings. Popular television shows such as Sex and the City, Friends, Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives have all embraced the lesbian kiss episode as a television phenomenon.

Evans argues that the discrimination against lesbians extends even further. Television shows regularly keep gay male characters for longer, while lesbians are hardly ever permanent characters. She also argues that gay male characters are never “turned” straight, whereas lesbians are often “shown returning to a male either for sex or to form a relationship”. Evans further expands on her argument: “It perpetuates the idea that lesbians can be ‘turned’ while gay men cannot,” which creates the sense that because of their femme nature, the possibility for men to conquer lesbians is open.

Melissa Fabello, a blogger for AdiosBarbie. com, is also upset about the representation of femme lesbians. On her blog, she mentions that an article by Style.com described a fashion trend as “lesbian chic”. “This editorial faux pas just proves the point that if you don’t fit the stereotype, then you might as well be straight,” says Fabello.

Despite this, girls who kiss girls have actually been praised for their antics. Especially if both of them are straight. Last year October, France24.com reported that a lesbian kiss was used in an attempt to detract attention away from an anti-gay parenting protest in Marseille, France. The kiss was photographed by an Agence France-Press photographer and after being posted online, it went viral on Twitter. According to the two girls, the kiss was done as “a gesture of solidarity, pure and simple” as a way to show their support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

One might question whether the media further encourages this stereotype or whether gender roles imposed upon us are to blame for the misrepresentation of lesbians. Only one thing is certain: everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Ignorance about issues such as these only worsens the problem and denies individuals their right to be accepted as equals.

Photo: Hendro van der Merwe