For Black Lesbians, Artificial Nails Can Be an Important Signifier

"My mainstream isn’t going to be the same as a white lesbian’s mainstream," says writer Kinsey Clarke

(Photo: Kinsey Clarke)
(Photo: Kinsey Clarke)

I got my first acrylic full set for my 25th birthday: lime-green coffin-shaped nails that were active length (i.e. slightly longer than my fingertips) and perfect for a beginner like me. Two weeks later, I traded them out for gold coffin nails. After a few weeks of those, I got more confident and went with a sparkling stiletto set as a perfect summer-wedding accessory. From there, stiletto nails became my brand—matte black talons for Halloween, a deep hunter green set for the rest of fall and then purple ombre fairy nails in the spring.

I used to keep my nails short out of habit after years of playing the cello. I’d been interested in getting them done professionally for some time, but I felt committed to the low-maintenance lifestyle I was living in my early 20s in Toronto and couldn’t justify the splurge. Getting my nails done for my 25th birthday was a decision influenced by the Black lesbians I interacted with daily on Twitter. Their nails were so bold, so feminine and so gay, with plenty of tarot and astrological designs that reminded me of divine femininity. (FYI, lesbians also love astrology.) Every time I saw a look on my timeline that really stood out, I’d save it to my camera roll. “Strap grabbers,” as the nails are sometimes known colloquially in the Black lesbian community, became my idea of peak lesbian femininity—and I wanted to be read as close to that identity as possible.

I hadn’t given this personal mission much thought until I read my friend Lauren Strapagiel’s FLARE essay. In the piece, she described how she has progressed through her nail journey as a femme lesbian, first struggling to reconcile her love of long, artificial nails with her desire to fit into a community where short nails are the norm. For Black lesbians, keeping your nails done shows that you’re put together top to bottom. It shows that you’re polished—pun intended. I didn’t understand why Lauren felt such anxiety about it, but that’s because my experience was shaped by the decades-long cultural practice of Black women being at the forefront of nail art. It runs so deep that we’ll keep our nails done even while winning Olympic gold medals.

When I responded to Lauren’s piece on Twitter, explaining how my experience had been so different from hers, my sentiments resonated with other Black lesbians. One Twitter user, aptly named “The Acrylic Fem,” wrote that she has been wearing acrylics since high school saying, “the more confident I became and more powerful I feel—the longer my nails get as I evolve.” My experience was similar: After my first set of active-length acrylics, I felt such a boost in confidence that short nails no longer did me justice. Long acrylics made me feel like a cat with its claws extended—a femme fatale. When I get my nails done, I’m not countering a culture that frowns upon long nails like in mainstream white lesbian culture. For Lauren it was a point of lesbian insecurity, whereas for me, getting acrylics feels like confirmation of Black lesbian femininity.

This distinction is about more than just nails. It’s about signifiers—that is, the way queer people present themselves as a way to let other queer people know that they are, in fact, queer—and how race and culture influence those traits.

As lesbians, we have cultural staples and signifiers that unite us across the board: Think flannels, septum piercings, The L Word hot takes, U-Hauling, debating the best time to adopt a cat with your girlfriend and tattoo sleeves. But one major difference is our Pride celebrations—it’s not often that we celebrate together. In our Twitter conversation, Lauren mentioned that she’d recently been in Miami during the annual Black lesbian pride festival Sweet Heat. “[I] didn’t even know it ’til someone at a gay bar mentioned it. In the white lesbian world I was used to, only Dinah existed,” she said, meaning The Dinah Shore Weekend, which is a lesbian festival held annually in Palm Springs. She added that the lesbian culture seen in the mainstream media is white. And she’s right—it’s extremely, overwhelmingly white, and that’s why the way we present ourselves is so different.

(Photo: Kinsey Clarke)
(Photo: Kinsey Clarke)

In Black lesbian communities, cultural aesthetic standards are the driving force behind our signifiers: locs, fades, high-quality wigs and natural hairstyles are some calling cards, as are nail styles and the language we use to identify ourselves. For example, “femme” is understood to be the mainstream label for feminine queer women regardless of sexuality, but the shortened “fem”—which is what I use to describe myself—is popular with Black lesbians in particular. Identifiers for Black masculine lesbians are “stud” and, to a lesser extent, “stem” (a portmanteau of stud + fem), while white masculine lesbians tend to identify as “butch” in its many forms. “Dyke” is heavily embraced by both groups.

I wanted an expert’s opinion on how our identifiers came to be different, particularly the use of “stud” and “butch,” so I sent an email to gay and lesbian linguistics professor emeritus William Leap at American University. He told me that he doesn’t see the divide as a “real binary split.” Instead, “Of real interest is why white women don’t use ‘stud,’” he said. “Is this because ‘butch’ is generically female masculinity and ‘stud’ is racially specific female masculinity? That’s an initial guess.”

A few of the pieces, including Lauren’s, that discuss the stigma against long nails in the white lesbian community cite a particular scene from The L Word where the characters are going through a checklist to try to figure out if a woman is gay. The checklist that I use isn’t like theirs because what I look for is specific to Black women. If I was writing that scene from my experience deciphering Black masculine lesbian signifiers, my checklist would go something like this:

Locs? Check.
Tattoos? Check.
Bottom grill? Check.

Short, bare, nicely manicured nails? Check, check, check! Time to slide into the DMs.

These are such common identifiers in the Black lesbian community that it’s the source of an inside joke.

The conversation on Twitter solidified what I already knew: My mainstream isn’t going to be the same as a white lesbian’s mainstream. My mainstream is what’s immediately in front of me and around me: Black women, and we’re not niche by any definition. Because whiteness has always been the default face of everything, even marginalized sexual identities, it goes without saying that the broad signifiers associated with lesbianism would code as white, even when some of its members sit at the intersection of race and sexuality. But here’s the thing: I’m not bothered by it. Those stereotypes don’t take me into consideration, and, honestly, I’m glad they don’t. We are different and do things differently, and that’s OK.

What exists as a signifier in one group may only be on the periphery (or might not even exist) in another. The differentiation is neither good nor bad: It’s just a thing. Practices differ from group to group, and it so happens that my group of Black lesbian fems centres Black womanhood and the feminine aesthetics that come with it. My signifiers as a bald, tattooed, pierced fem who will rock a full set of stiletto acrylics lets other women, especially romantic interests, know what I’m about before I open my mouth. They are who I signal to.


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