Let me start this off by saying that lesbians are not somehow immune to the messages that are fed to all people by the societies that we happen to find ourselves in. We, like most others, internalize harmful messages about how “real relationships” are supposed be.

We’ve all heard some version of “a marriage is made up of one man and one woman,” or “the man is the provider, and the woman is the caretaker” at least a few hundred times, so it should come as no surprise that some of us, regardless of where we fall on the butch-femme scale (for lack of a better term) bring certain stereotypes that we’ve picked up along the way into relationships that we have with other women.

That being said, butch lesbians or lesbians who do not perform femininity seem to be the subjects of undue scrutiny from heterosexuals and members of the LGBT community alike. Many people don’t know what to make of us. They notice the absence of performative femininity, and mentally remove us from the category of “woman.” I mean, how could we possibly be women if we have short hair and never wear makeup?

Terry, 56, describes the treatment she has received from male coworkers who have read her as butch in the following way:

I’ve mostly worked in male dominated environments. This has resulted in what I considered kind of peculiar behavior by my male coworkers. Since I don’t fit into their notion of a woman, they managed their bafflement and discomfort by treating me as “one of the boys.” This was convenient because I had the perception (perhaps misperception) that I was then exempted from being the direct recipient of some of their degrading behavior towards women. But it also meant that I got a front row seat to the godawful behavior they share between themselves. Boy-bonding is ugly. Really ugly. It seemed to involve lots of bodily fluids, literal and figurative chest pounding, and disgusting sexual critique of women like they were comparing slabs of beef. Worse yet, they seemed to think that I saw women the same way and would somehow participate in their revolting activities.

I can attest to the fact that straight men you barely know will start volunteering tidbits of their sexual encounters with women to you the second they clock you as a butch lesbian. A male coworker who I’d had about three interactions with once came up and asked me to tell him the first thing I notice about a woman (as if I’m not one) when I see her. He quickly followed this question with “tits or ass?” Leaving me completely shocked and unable to form a response.

Sometimes gender conforming women will treat their butch partners as if they are “the man in the relationship.” In other words, they will expect their butch partner to pay for dates, do all the heavy lifting, fix things around the house, and so on.

Jaime, 28, recounts one of her early dating experiences:

When I was 15, I went on one of my first real dates with the girl who would be my high school sweetheart. I wore a blue and green plaid short sleeved button up and tucked my hair back in a baseball hat. My date was was a good six inches taller than me and only ever wore black or pink. We went to the movies with a het couple that was slightly older than us, at least old enough to drive us all to the theater. When we got to the ticket booth, my friend paid for his date’s ticket and when I was next in line, the cashier looked me straight in the eyes and said “two for you, sir?” It was one of the first times I remember being called sir and I didn’t really respond, just kind of nodded my head and handed over my money while my friends stared awkwardly at their feet. After the movie, I was following my girlfriend to the bathroom and got stopped on my way in by a staff member who pointed me towards the mens’. She must not have noticed, and rather than create a scene, I decided to hold it and went to stand by the arcade to wait. I quickly picked up that my girlfriend was excited by the fact that we were sometimes assumed to be a straight couple, and it had no small effect on my self image growing up.

There is no shortage of people who will claim that butch or gender non-conforming lesbians are essentially just heterosexual men. After all, we wear “men’s clothes” and are attracted to women. This is the same tired argument that homophobes have been making for decades, but the fact remains that we are women. We should be free to present ourselves how we see fit, and we should be able to navigate our lives without having other people’s expectations forced on us.