Queries on Queer Femininity

There are many ways to be femme, but where do we draw the boundaries? In recent years there has been an increased prevalence of DFAB (designated female at birth) genderqueer and trans* people who identify as femme. Whether they had been femme women pre-transition, or later came to understand themselves as such alongside their realisation of gender queerness, many find comfort and empowerment in the label.

               It isn’t only trans* male people themselves who are advocating this more inclusive definition of femme. As queer spaces and identities are becoming increasingly understanding of gender variance, many question whether ‘femme’ should be any different. One femme-identified woman explains, “Femme is a term used by many feminine-identified queer people—including lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, genderqueer, and other queer folks of any gender”, another that Femme =/= Female” and warns against misgendering within a femme space. This year’s Femme Conference even included a number of sessions addressing the issue, such as Pretty Bois & Femme Guys: Non-Female Identities and Feminine Expressions, which asked, “In a world where being feminine is associated with a specific identity of “female,” what happens to feminine people who identify as something else?”My High Heels Don’t Mean My Vulva Is Female: A Workshop for Non-Binary and Trans Male Femmes and even Failing at Femme: Insecurity, Competition and the Language of Femme Exclusion, which focused on the exclusion from femme identity experienced by some, including non-female identified femmes, and posited that, “Femme as a radical gender identity must hold space for masculine femmes, for genderqueer femmes, for femmes who do not identify as women”. Some even go as far to argue that this very inclusivity, stretching as far as the non-female identified, is part of what makes femme a radical, queer identity, making the point that in a society where femininity is policed so that only a privileged few are considered as such, ‘femme’ empowers by allowing people to access femininity for themselves, even if they ‘fail’ at normative femininity. Indeed, many consider the term to be a very important part of their sense of identity, and find the suggestion that they should not use it personally hurtful. As one genderqueer person explains:

“[M]y whole life [was] spent stuck between what I wasn’t and what I couldn’t be. It was lonely, frustrating, and painful. When I found FEMME I stopped feeling so “wrong” and I started feeling something I had never felt; included. Femme supports me so I am no longer ashamed of being feminine despite other expectations. It empowers me to not feel obligated to be something I’m not while also validating me in being who I am. When you tell me I am not allowed to be femme, you are telling me I am not allowed to be myself.”

         As a feminine genderqueer person, I can certainly empathise with this view. My own gender variance and femininity are and always have been intrinsically linked; all my formative experiences of queer gender identity – frequently being told I was like an effeminate boy rather than girly, the seemingly misdirected homophobia of being called a mincer and a twink, my fascination with Boy George’s autobiography Take it Like a Man in my early teens – involved an identification with, and others sensing in me, a level of maleness and femininity.  I socially transitioned to a more male identity not to be more masculine, but to allow myself to be as feminine as I wanted to be, in the way I wanted to be. Many believe that trans* and genderqueer DFAB people are simply butches that go a step further; they assume our femininity is a hangover from a female past, that we don’t know how to be masculine or are just deeply confused. As such claiming a feminine identity for oneself, often alongside a genderqueer or trans* male identity, indicates that our gender variance and our femininity are compatible, intentional and do not negate each other. Just as with femme-identified women, ‘feminine’ alone is inadequate, as this is ultimately subjective, leaving one constantly liable to fall short. Feminine trans* and genderqueer people equally desire an identity that can be positively claimed – a noun, not merely an adjective.

        However, despite sharing this deep longing to have the language to express and quantify my femininity, I do not believe that ‘femme’ can be the answer. A number of queer femme women have drawn attention to some serious problems with this wider use of the term. As one femme writer explains“the insistence of masculine presenting people on using “femme” DOES render femmes invisible.” Whilst trans* male identified queer people may perform our own versions of femininity, generally we are visibly queer nevertheless, thus our lived experiences are substantially different from those of femme women (or those who are otherwise read as women).  That is not to say that we do not have many shared experiences of oppression; in an androcentric culture where masculinity is more valued and femininity is seen as degrading, most of us can relate to being considered weak, our intelligence questioned and identities ridiculed due to our femininity. It is also not to say that we do not have our specific experiences of prejudice; for example, cissexism, misgendering and other difficulties around gender non-conformity are an inherent feature of ours. Yet we cannot deny that female-presenting femmes also have their own specific problems, in particular lack of queer visibility. To say this particular facet of the experiences of queer people who present as both female and feminine is fundamental to femme identity is not to suggest it is objectively more serious than the forms we experience – indeed, queer visibility can certainly be a double-edged sword – but simply that in order to be addressed, it does require there to be a term, a recognised queer identity, that solely designates this group. Whilst we must of course be vigilant against transphobia and exclusion, it is also important that we consider the needs of other marginalised identities as well. As a femme writes:

 “misogyny is real, and when masculine folks try to claim my identity and call me transphobic for resisting its extension to male/masculine identified people, then I ask them to reconsider what aspects of male privilege they are reproducing in the queer community.”

Whilst the sense that our identities are often dismissed and disparaged is all too real, as is the genuine sense of exclusion we can sometimes feel due to the relative lack of language and community in which we can express and embrace all facets of our identities, it is not the desire of some femme lesbian and bisexual women to likewise express theirs that is to blame. 

               Fortunately, the needs of feminine queer people, both female and non-female identified, to achieve a sense of community and empowerment needn’t come at the expense of one another. The most obvious solution is to find a different word to designate femininity in a genderqueer context. I am personally drawn to ‘Sissy’, inspired by Elisha Lim’s 2012 calendar which celebrates queer feminine expressions in all their forms, as this connotes not simply femininity, but the particular transgression of femininity on someone who is expected to be otherwise. This is of course the responsibility non-female, feminine queers ourselves to find and use. Yet in return, feminine identities of this kind should be afforded equal respect and legitimacy, both with regards to our femininity and our gender identities, otherwise ‘Sissy’, or whichever word we wish to use, will not have the capacity to identify and empower. If we are to agree to reserve ‘femme’ for the female-identified, we cannot then use ‘femme’ and ‘queer femininity’ as synonyms, as this renders it impossible to claim queer femininity without also claiming femme. Also, we must resist comparing these forms of femininity in terms of extent but rather nature, else we create a hierarchy of femininity whereby that performed by trans* and genderqueer people is inherently lesser.

          By lumping our identities together, we risk detracting from and derailing discussions around the struggles particular to femme women, as well doing ourselves a disservice by denying ourselves space to address the experiences unique to us. Ultimately we are best served in our shared battles against femmephobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, not by forcing ourselves into an artificial unity which erases our different experiences and identities, but  by working together as a coalition of queer femininity, joining forces where we have common ground, and being good allies to one another where we do not. 

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde, Our Dead Behind Us: Poems

One Response to “Queries on Queer Femininity”
  1. fliponymous says:

    Good stuff. Looking forward to reading more from you and expanding my perspectives.

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