Make two columns: one labeled masculine, the other feminine. What themes, ideas, colors and actions do you associate with each of the two columns? List them. Compare.
Now, imagine a lesbian. Where do they fit into this exercise? The stereotypes associated with lesbian identities tend to skew masculine, with little room for so-called feminine traits. It is these stereotypes that shape the misconceptions about LGBTQ lives, especially for those most marginalized — and even within the community. (Gay male sexism has certainly not helped this problem.)
But as a queer academic and activist, I live in the language of femininity beyond the binary. My romantic relationship, my queer community, my activism and my academic work are all aspects of my femme identity. Along the way I’ve pulled together different strands of these aspects of my life to form what I now know to be my lesbian femininity.
Understanding my femme-ness is largely an intellectual project, an exploration of femme identities and femininity beyond stunted narratives of female sexuality catering to the pleasure of Western, white, heterosexual men. The basic narrative outlines femme lesbians as the feminine counterpart to the masculine butch lesbian, performing a mimicry of heterosexual relation dynamics. To put it bluntly, it’s a simple construction to answer the question, “So, who is the guy in your relationship?”
“Understanding my femme-ness is largely an intellectual project, an exploration of femme identities and femininity beyond stunted narratives of female sexuality catering to the pleasure of Western, white, heterosexual men.”
In this traditional construction, the feminine is the caretaker, the homemaker, the mom, the one who makes less money, the one who wears the dress, the bottom. To go beyond this requires understanding a feminist framing that rejects patriarchal family norms, accepts lesbian sexuality as real, understands women as sexually aggressive, and argues that fashion accessories shouldn’t delegitimize one’s power regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. That can be a surprisingly difficult concept for people to grasp.
The basic narrative outlines femmes lesbians as the feminine counterpart to the masculine butch lesbian, performing a mimicry of a heterosexual relation dynamics. But it’s more complicated than that.
Femme is still often treated as an identity in the shadow of butch, which has long been the status quo. For the 1993 book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, the authors Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis spoke to 45 women in Buffalo, New York, about their lesbian community from the mid-’30s to early ‘60s. In a section about courtship and the search for love, Kennedy and Davis report:
“Butch-fem roles were the primary organizing principles for romance and courting. Butches were attracted to fems, and vice versa. Butches were not attracted to one another, nor were fems attracted to one another.”
This is the historical legacy that made its way into the few cultural representations of butch and femme relationships I saw and formed my understanding of sexual desire off of — and falling for myths like this was part of my journey to a more complete understanding of who a queer femme can be.
Unsurprisingly, the realities of sexuality and queer expression are almost always more complicated than these prescribed possibilities for pleasure reported to Kennedy and Davis; queer attractions do not insist on such rigid role play. Writer Miriam Zola Perez explores the varied attractions between butch and femme women in the essay “Coming Back Around To Butch,” published in the 2011 book Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme: “It was a fierce femme who bossy-bottomed me into the role of butch top,” she writes, continuing:
There are people who believe you can’t be butch without a femme, that you need the two ends of the spectrum to be in balance. For me, that was only half-true. I did need the strength of my lover’s femininity to bring me into my own identity. I did need the contrast with her to let me see myself. But now that I’m there, I haven’t forgotten the tomboys I had crushes on in the early days.
Even though I know my femme identity is partially about my superficial presentation, the hair and makeup, the power dynamics addressed by Perez here reveal the deeper complexities of femme identities.
After dating butch women, I began to realize the beautiful possibilities and complexities of creating femininity by women, for women. The most powerful instructors to my lesbian femininity are other women, shaping their masculinities and femininities for ourselves. One particularly instructive voice in my femme awakening was Amber Hollibaugh, who discusses her sex work, feminist activism, and radical hope in the collective of essays My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. She writes, “I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. There is no map for an invisible world, no path out of a closed system, no name for undefinable hope or longing.” Like Hollibaugh, I, too, wanted to better understand my hope and longing.
After dating butch women, I began to realize the beautiful possibilities and complexities of creating femininity by women, for women.
In my twenties, a community of New York City queers began to draw this map of new possibilities for me, complicating the definition of femininity as defined by heterosexual relationships. I watched sexy mustached drag kings embrace female masculinity. My friends worked as dyke dommes before the dungeons were raided. I hung out with a trans friend while he nursed his baby at the Babies“R”Us in Union Square, giggling about the side-eyes we were getting. We watched The L Word at now-closed Brooklyn lesbian bar Cattyshack and witnessed as a cultural representation of the femme lesbian began to develop in the mainstream. But who were these rich lesbians, and when would we have a series about the dykes shopping at Trader Joe’s, living with four roommates, cutting their own hair over the bathroom sink? More our speed was Michelle Tea’s Valencia and Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For.
I was making a living as a freelance dog walker on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a giant ring of keys, something the Broadway production of Bechdel’s Fun Home importantly defines as a queer indicator in the song “Ring of Keys,” and one I deliberately signaled. None of us strictly identified as femme or butch. We were too busy doing gender to slow down enough to define it.
But labels, such as “femme,” can be a useful way of making an otherwise obscured community visible. Black feminist writer and activist Jewelle Gomez writes in the essay “Femme Butch Feminist,” published in the previously mentioned 2011 anthology:
“until we have better language to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ our conversations about identities will be fraught with misunderstandings and frustration and keep us from adequately exploring the difference in desire and gender.”
Claiming “femme” helped me begin to understand my lesbian femininity. By listening to the stories of more femme lesbian and queer women it became clear that for me being femme was about exploring a femininity detached from a cisgender heterosexual male desire or gender.
Because femmes lesbians carry the markers of what is most often associated with straight femininity, our queerness is often ignored. If I don’t intentionally come out as a lesbian to the grocery store clerk, a colleague, a waiter, the person riding on the bus next to me, or in any other interaction, the assumption is that I’m interested in attracting and sleeping with men. Incredibly, this invisibility happens with people I’ve worked with for years, though less so now that so many of the things I work on are related to my queerness.
Of course there are spaces where keeping queerness invisible is a luxury. But being vocal about being a lesbian today is a way of reading my lesbian femininity into view, and in turn helping to reshape assumptions about femininity and lesbian identity.
All the same, if I say I’m going to dinner with my girlfriend, it’s incredible to realize that, for many people, this still is understood as me hanging out with a girl who is a friend unless I explain otherwise.
That’s why I’ve related to the stories of femme invisibility since I came out in my mid-twenties. Sexist neglect and historical erasure of femme identities in LGBTQ communities made it difficult for me to find models and mentors for my sexuality and gender expression, but more are starting to appear, especially in this age of the internet and social media.
DapperQ, a queer fashion blog for masculine presenting women and trans-identified individuals, recently launched the partner project Hi Femme!, the first initiative by the website to celebrate femme identities. Editor-in-chief Anita Dolce Vita described the impetus for the project: “Since dapperQ started in 2009, I began to notice that queer fashion media, designs, and conversations that celebrated masculinity were proliferating at the expense of femme visibility.” Another response to this erasure is the hashtag #FemmesOfColorVisibility on Instagram, featuring self-defining femmes who want to be seen and resist the patriarchy that has written them out of history.
Masculinity continues to hold power, even in queer women’s spaces. But butch and femme have never been simple binary categories. Hollibaugh writes about how it is impossible to desire things one is unable to imagine. More femme visibility as imagined by new generations of femmes raise the possibility of breaking through lazy short-cuts about femininity and masculinity, making space for a fierce femme future.
As for me, this past summer, a decade after coming out, I got my first tattoo: the word “femme” delicately written in ink on my arm. I am now literally labeled femme. It’s important for me to proudly and visibly wear femme as a personal political act in a society that continues to devalue femininity, lesbian femininity even more so. Carrying the label femme with me into any room I enter is a way of attaching myself to a lesbian history while also queering femininity in the present and for the future.
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