As a young person beginning to come out, I loved the sense of community and identity that labels provided. It was safety in numbers and, more importantly, the knowledge that I wasn't alone or abnormal.
I spent a couple of years experimenting to see where I fitted in. First, I tried cutting my hair short, wearing baggy jeans and tight vest tops, dog tags and big boots. But my boobs were always too big to really go in for the masculine approach, and it didn't really feel like me. I was a girl, why shouldn't I look like one?
I then went to the other extreme, wearing floaty skirts, lots of jewellery and make up, growing my hair back out. But somehow, that didn't feel true to myself either.
My first two years at university, I went out clubbing and was part of the scene, but didn't fit comfortably into any of the tribes. I was too feminine to be classed as "butch", but too masculine to be classed as "femme". And I certainly didn't come under the "androgynous" banner. Other women didn't know what to make of me,and I didn't know what to make of myself.
Events of my third year shattered any sense of identity that I had, and I am (perhaps surprisingly) grateful for that change.
In the years following my year abroad, I've found community identity fascinating but not essential. I no longer see myself as a member of the LGBT "community" and, generally, will describe my sexual orientation as "someone who likes women" rather than "lesbian" (lesbian is generally used when I need shorthand or when I'm trying to convey a message to certain people who might not understand or accept other phrasings).
Similarly, in the sci-fi and fantasy community, where a whole range of subcultures and hierarchies exist (Twilight at the bottom, Doctor Who being dominant but not necessarily "top"), I constantly surprise people by not adhering to a certain stereotype or staying within a certain group, but by enjoying different areas of fandom, such as steampunk, comics and Misfits.
The thing is, I'm not a label. I'm not a stereotype, I'm not that simple. I'm me.
The main difference between my sci-fi community and the LGBT one is that I do view my love of science-fiction and involvement in their events as part of me and my identity, whereas my sexual orientation is no more than who I am attracted to. It has formed part of me, because I have allowed it to (as you can see from reading this), but I don't think whether I am romantically involved with men or women defines me as a person.
So when on a date and told, "I don't usually date femmes", I bristled. A lot. Because I don't identify as a "femme" at all; the term carries weight and assumption.
In the current, widespread definition of "femme", I suppose I am one. I can be mistaken as a heterosexual woman. But this definition is the antithesis of everything I believe in; that sexual orientation itself doesn't create identity or vice versa, that it is a separate part that doesn't affect one's personality or lifestyle (don't get me started on "LGBT lifestyle").
But the most important part of my indignation was not the assumption that I identified with this subculture, but the insistence that I did. I had already said to this woman that I don't identify as "femme", that I am probably found in activity trousers and hoodies far more often than dresses, and that my hair is long so that it can be tied back out of the way - easier than styling! And yet she continued to address me as "femme".
She made it seem like a dirty word, like a thinly veiled insult. And in the same breath, she called me beautiful, intriguing and fascinating. She said I wasn't like "other femmes". Perhaps because I'm not one?
Some people cannot get past the idea that you have to adhere to one of these "tribes". Even my mother feels uncomfortable that I don't fit into either of her ideas of a lesbian. And yet, until we can get past this fixation that orientation makes a person, how do we expect equality and to be treated "like anyone else".
How many people go round saying, "Hi, I'm Katie and I'm a heterosexual woman"? And yet, you'll often find women who say, "Hi, I'm Katie and I'm a lesbian". You may be chortling and thinking it doesn't happen, but it does. And scarily often.
Because heterosexuality doesn't define someone's identity. Who can describe what a heterosexual woman looks like? And yet people assume that homosexuality does, and they think they can describe the key features of homosexual individuals just by that one person.
This fixation on LGBT community and identity frustrates me as well as intrigues me. I can see where it's come from, how it developed, how important a sense of belonging felt - and still feels to many. But by segregating themselves from the rest of society, by having their own bars and restaurants, by insisting on this adherence to stereotypes, there is a very real danger that they will alienate themselves from the very same society by which they strive to be accepted.
Fundamentally, however, these communities are an important part of self-discovery and acceptance in a society where minority sexual orientation and identity is still deemed abnormal and, by some, abhorrent. What they need to do, and what individuals need to do, is to accept that their parameters aren't finite, and that identity is personal and undefinable, and support each other in their chosen paths rather than undermine those that do not "fit".