Last week I was in Calgary, doing a weeklong residency at a small university. The first night there, I drove my rental car to the closest Safeway I could find to stock my little dorm fridge and countertop with food that could be microwaved or toasted, or made with boiling water from a kettle. I can’t digest gluten (like, at all) so campus food, for the most part, is not a good idea.

I stopped at the little Starbucks kiosk to grab a coffee before shopping. The young woman with the long brown hair and the smiling eyes behind the counter was chatty. Like, real chatty. As talkative to strangers as I am. And that is saying something.

Somehow the topic of California came up. She was American. I told her I had just returned from a week in San Francisco. Her eyes lit up.

“San Francisco is my all-time favourite city.” Her eyes met mine, solid and unflinching. Still smiling. Then she raised an eyebrow. “And we both know why.”

I looked right at her. A sister. I would not have suspected. But then again, I wasn’t looking. I was here for almond butter and rice crackers. Besides, she was half my age.

I smiled, and then told her about my free gig at the university on the Thursday night.

“No way?” She went to school there. Turned out she was reading my novel in her women’s studies class. Small world. She was going to be at the gig. I thanked her for making my coffee super hot the way I like it, and I left.

Sometimes I can spot a femme a mile away, even in trackpants. Hard to describe, but I know it when I feel it. A certain curl of lip, or an almost too-long look hello. But sometimes it is hard to tell, especially if I’m not looking.

Sometimes the radar is muted outside of gayland or a super queer literary thing, in places you don’t go looking for femmes, necessarily. But there they are. Everywhere. Just like the rest of us.

We talk about this a lot, my femme friends and my sweetheart and my brothers and I. My sweetheart gets fatigued, these days, with the “femmes are invisible” dialogue, prefers to think of herself as a stealth femme warrior, sneaking in unsuspected like, in a power suit and stiletto heels, striking stereotypes from the front and assassinating assumptions of bureaucrat men in boring blue suits, strategically coming out when she feels the need, and not when she doesn’t. More empowering, she says.

Still. How does a stealthier-type femme let someone know that she might swing in his or her or their general direction, should he or she or they play their cards just right if you know what I mean?

I heard from my friend Anne, a femme tattooist, that back in the day in the bars out east some of the femmes would get small blue tattoos on the insides of their left wrists, right where their ladies’ watchbands would hide them, as a signal to the butches. Back in the good but hard and scary old days. With the three pieces of women’s clothing and the police raids and the getting your name in the paper and losing your job and the whatnot.

I also heard tell of some crafty femmes recently in the Bay Area making flower fascinators and barrettes out of hankies, because you can’t put a hanky signal in the back pocket of your jeans if you are wearing something other than jeans. And what if you are just dressed casually? What if your outfit doesn’t call for a hairpiece of any sort, or what if you are into receiving oral sex (light blue, left) but are wearing teal that night and you part your hair on the left, and it simply doesn’t work with the rest of your ensemble?

My butch friend Sir suggested, rather unfortunately in retrospect, to a brunch table full of femmes one morning that they adopt a more unusual, and thus noticeable, sign for us butches, not to mention other femmes, or whoever might be looking for a firm sign of their femme status. Sir suggested a monocle, which I thought was a genius plan, but I am glad I kept this part quiet because Sir was immediately laughed down.

A ridiculous idea, we were both informed by unanimous decree. Who wears a monocle? With what exactly? A waistcoat? Use your heads, we were told. The thing is, we thought we were using our heads.

I humbly ask that you put yourself in our boots for a minute. Imagine that you are a butch dyke buying rice crackers in a supermarket in Alberta. You are new in town and lost in the suburbs. Even if you suspect she might be queer, what are you going to do about it, huh? How can you be sure? What if you are wrong? You get a feeling, maybe call it intuition, maybe she is wearing a Tegan and Sara T-shirt (to work at Starbucks?).

Okay, well then maybe it is the way she rocks that uniform, or her Fluevogs (how can you see her feet, you rocket scientist, she is standing behind the counter, plus what femme in her right mind would wear her good boots where they could be damaged by boiling hot milk?).

Okay, maybe it is because she is playing the Indigo Girls (she is a first-year women’s studies student, you can’t count on this, they all listen to the Indigo Girls now, queer or not).

You get the conundrum, right? No one wants to be the predatory queer making eyes at the innocent straight girl serving coffee at the Starbucks kiosk in the damn suburbs.

So. I have an idea. How about you just do something totally radical? How about you just do like my new friend Melissa in Calgary did? How about you just take a chance and tell me?

I am sorry the onus is on you. Believe me, if I could think of a safe way for me to ask if you are queer without insulting you if you are not, or risking my own skin in a Safeway in the Prairies somehow, I would. Because it gets real lonely out there, sometimes. It would be nice to know.
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