The word “femme” is an evolving term, whose complex history I will attempt to clarify here, to the best of my abilities. I am not an expert on queer history(s), by any means. I am just a queer femme trying my best to contribute to the fall of white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy.
At the time of writing this, I am drumming up the support of my friends and community members for an anti-misogyny campaign that I am launching. I have been putting calls out on social media for all interested femmes, themmes, and nonbinary folks to get on my exclusive, femmes-only, email list for all the specifics of the campaign and details on how to participate (if you identify as femme/feminine, and you’re reading this before mid-September, 2021, jump on that email list here!). I’d been under the impression that, by calling “all femmes”, I was calling “anyone who identifies as feminine in a way that is significant to you”.
About two weeks after I’d started posting about this publicly, three different friends messaged me in one day to tell me that “femme” is a “queer-only” term. Their concern was that my public call may be too broad, because it presumably included people who are “not queer”.
I had an immediate, visceral, “I don’t like that!”, reaction to this news. I stepped back to examine said reaction, and found that four different things were happening at once: one, I’m a Virgo and I hate being told that I don’t know something, or that I’m doing something “wrong” (lol). Two, I suddenly felt afraid that I would potentially cause harm with the very campaign whose intention is to disrupt harm. Especially as a cis white woman, I certainly don’t want to misuse my public platform to give any type of license for straight people to be coopting queer identities. Three, it made me feel suddenly separated from some of my friends who consider themselves femmes, but don’t necessarily identify as queer. To complicate things further, many of these friends are a huge inspiration for the aforementioned campaign.
The other factor was waiting for me beneath the first three, and that one was a two-part question: What does “queer-only” even mean? What, and who, defines whether a person is queer?
I am and have always been queer.
I was queer before I knew what queer was; I was queer before I kissed a girl in first grade. I was queer before I ever kissed a boy. I was queer before I knew that gender is not binary. I was queer before I made out with my best friend, Ruby, in seventh grade. I was queer, a few days later, when I said to her aloud, for the first time in my life, that I was “bi”. Her response? “You’re bi?! You’re not bi!”
I was gay in eighth grade, when my boyfriend clocked it and said he thought I was bi. I was gay when I was 25, when my mom said to me, “Me and your dad knew you weren’t gay because when you were three you had such a crush on the boy across the street!”
I always knew, in my soul, that I was queer, and I wasn’t too ashamed of it (a bit, but that was kind of a backseat emotion). Looking back, I see the issue, clear as day: I rarely ever saw examples of queer femmes, in my life or in the media. On the rare occasion I did, it was always two femmes–usually white and always thin–together in a hypersexualized situation, fetishized for the male gaze (à la Denise Richards’ sex scene with Neve Campbell in the 1998 thriller, Wild Things).
The people in my daily life, including most boys, assumed I was straight. I was comfortable and had lots of cis male suitors to occupy my mind and emotions; I have never wanted for sexual attention from men. So I leaned into that, due to a combo of factors, not least of which being that it was easy.
In fact, it was so easy to get involved with boys, that, by the time I was in my early 20s, that’s all I knew how to do. It was the typical thing people expected me to do, anyway. My queerness began to haunt me. When I was a teenager, I had thought it wasn’t a big deal; I’d thought that bothersome tickle would eventually just…go away.
But what really happened is that I lost hope. Not hope in the idea that I could someday be “out”, but hope in my own belief that I’m gay. By the time I was in my early 20s, people had been assuming I was straight for so long, that I just assumed they were right and I was wrong. Because little girls are emotionally primed to doubt ourselves, I thought that I was incorrect in my own knowledge of myself. That’s insane. That’s nuts! And that’s patriarchy for ya.
The way that femininity is conditioned under patriarchy teaches us to allot an unbelievable amount of our time and energy performing for, and trying to get the attention of, cis boys and men. Cisgender girls, and children whose environments expect us to perform a cisheteronormative “girl” role, don’t always get an opportunity to explore the possibility that we might be queer. Of course, most kids are denied the opportunity to explore the possibility of queerness, but, right now, I’m focusing on the way it often shakes out for those assigned the gender “female” at birth, and, especially, those of us who identify as and/or outwardly present as feminine.
I am grateful to the friends and community members who challenged my use of “femme” on social media recently. I’ve been asked to research the history of the word, and, in doing so, I’ve learned important information about my own lineage as a queer femme.
I’ll admit, I always just assumed that the term came from the drag ball scene of the 1980s, and originally meant “feminine-presenting gay man”. I made these assumptions about the origins of the word through the context of my experiences and relationships, not because I’d done any deliberate research on it. It is absolutely true that drag culture and gay culture have their own lineage of “femme” that can be traced to the ball scene (by the way, because drag culture was created by BIPOC trans women, gay men, and nonbinary people, the word “femme” is inherently pro-Black, which is always relevant and significant to how we all use it. When we use the word “femme” to self-describe, we must do so with the awareness that we are making a spiritual contract with the universe to affirm and defend the sanctity of Black life/Black queer life). I also learned, over these past couple weeks, that “femme” has another lineage tracing back to the lesbian bar scene of the 1940s and 50s.
According to Wikipedia, when American women joined the workforce after World War II, the opportunity for a highly visible butch aesthetic arose. At work, women had occasion to wear pants and other “masculine” clothing. As butch culture began to grow and become more visually identifiable, feminine-leaning lesbians came to be known as “femmes”, to distinguish them from their more masculine-leaning counterparts. This dynamic allowed lesbians to express themselves more fully, and to explore the ways they were attracted to each other, in the context of lesbian bars, clubs, and other social situations dedicated to the celebration of connection and sensuality.
And then white feminism came to ruin the party.
By the 1970s, second-wave feminism decided that femme lesbians were just brainwashed shills for the patriarchy, and, to be a “real” lesbian meant a total rejection of traditional gender roles. This is a big issue for those of us whose liberated expressions of femininity happen to overlap with the type of femininity deemed palatable by the patriarchy. The femme/butch dynamic, which is a very common and very real romantic dynamic, was put on trial for “imitating” heteronormativity. (This brief video by Black trans model and activist, Munroe Bergdorf, provides an overview of the histories discussed here.)
The rejection of traditionally feminine roles (wife, mother, caregiver) and aesthetics (makeup, dresses, etc.) certainly was not limited to lesbian culture. Lesbian culture was affected by it, but the real culprit is white women, who were spearheading the second-wave feminist movement.
I know this, because I was raised by one.
I was brought up by a cis hetero white woman who espoused second-wave “feminism” and votes Democrat (to clarify, in my book, “Democrat” just means “good cop” in a good-cop/bad-cop political dichotomy). I came of age in a culturally white household, where it was also normal for our guests to include artists, queer people, and Black and brown folks. Because of this, I could not see the insidiousness of “liberal” white supremacy, and, therefore, the ways “liberal” culture upholds the patriarchy, until I was a bit older. I was raised with the message that it “doesn’t matter” what color a person’s skin is; we are all the same. It “doesn’t matter” if someone is queer, trans, or gender nonconforming; we are all the same. It “doesn’t matter” if you’re a girl; you can do all the things that boys can do.
It does matter. The “it doesn’t matter” approach is only available to those who are not affected by the ways that those who are oppressed experience oppression. My parents, for all their good intentions, were of the ilk that femininity is something to be performed for men, and, therefore, should be rejected. My mother is on the androgynous side; throughout my whole life she has kept her hair short, no makeup, and I can only recall one occasion where I saw her in a dress. She’s lovely, and also she could not teach me anything about the type of femininity that sparkles out from my rhinestone-encrusted heart. That would have been totally fine, had she not also been subliminally rejecting the Dolly Parton/Pamela Anderson aesthetics I have always been obsessed with (unless, of course, these aesthetics are invoked ironically).
My mom did her level best when I was growing up, and I don’t fault her for the way she raised me. But it’s also true that being surrounded by second-wave feminists significantly inhibited my ability to understand that I am queer. She, like many women in my life, subliminally, and sometimes overtly, rejected my femme self-expression.
She wasn’t strict–at all. In fact, she always encouraged me to ask lots of questions (til I started questioning her, at least). She let me shop in the “boys” department when I wanted to, and let me wear makeup and dye my hair. But there were subtler ways that my confidence as a femme was undermined. When I told her I wanted to be a cheerleader, she said no, on the grounds that she wouldn’t let me “cheer for the boys”. I wanted to be a cheerleader because the uniforms were cute; I barely even registered that “boys’” sports teams were a fraction of the equation. (Another thing that strikes me as an adult: in my school days, I’d frequently complain that I didn’t understand math. My mom would always respond, enthusiastically, “Girls are just told that they can’t do math, so they don’t believe they can. You just need to be more confident!”
I now recognize that I have a math learning disability, and my mother’s femme-shaming blinded her to the possibility that she might have a daughter who is genuinely bad at math, and, thus, a daughter who embodies that stereotype.)
Looking back, I notice the subtle erosion of the validity of my desires and needs that intersected with traditionally feminine roles: to be a cheerleader, to be a hairdresser, to be excused from math classes. I was taught that to indulge these things would make me silly; these things were for women who can’t think or fend for themselves. Much later, when I became a stripper, my mother would have a six-year-long meltdown over what she perceived to be my capitulation to the patriarchy. My mom is convinced that sex workers are, like cheerleaders, victims, often of low self-esteem and our own limited thinking. Her inability to see her own misogyny in this makes me want to bang my head off a wall.
Because I am feminine, especially in appearance, I have been dealing my entire life with an infuriating infantilization. Those of us who present as feminine are frequently treated by others (and especially by white women) like we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, and that we’re just hapless victims of the broader patriarchy. Bitch, the infantilization of femmes is the patriarchy!
Over time, my self-understanding as a queer femme was eroded by the stereotype that feminists must reject any form of femininity that overlaps with traditional gender roles. I now understand that that line of thinking is misogyny against femmes, plain and simple. It delegitimizes us and erases us from queer culture, just as femininity is so often delegitimized and erased from the wider culture, because white supremacist patriarchy prioritizes masculinity over femininity.
Back when I’d only ever had sex with cis men, my queerness was frequently challenged, by straight people and queer people alike. Because I’d never slept with a queer person, I didn’t feel like my queerness was “legitimate”, so I mostly just shut up about it. Largely due to the environment both inside and outside of my home, which upheld assumptions about both femininity and lesbian identities, I was unable to recognize myself as queer for a long time. I really believed that to be queer, I’d have to give up being feminine, and I knew that I couldn’t.
Queerness is not, contrary to popular belief, about who you sleep with. As one online friend recently put it to me, “femme is an energy”. Femme is an embodiment, and, often, an aesthetic expression. No one needs to know who you have sex with, nor does it matter, in order for you to be queer, and if you’re queer, you can be femme. The versions of myself that believed I was straight were still queer versions of myself. I was lacking in language and liberation, not in queerness. I wish I’d known the word “femme” back when I was a kid, because it would have given me an opportunity to dream into realities that were not present in my experience. If I’d have been able to conceive of myself as femme back then, maybe that would have led me earlier to the self-affirmation of my queerness.
I very narrowly missed a life of heteronormativity. I didn’t step consciously into my queerness until I was 28, six months after I backed out of my engagement to a cis man. But even if I’d never gotten the chance to explore my queer identity or integrate it fully into my consciousness, I’d still be queer, and I’d still be femme. While I affirm that “femme” is a queer term, to say that “only those who self-identify as queer are ‘allowed’ to use it” is to ignore the very real issue of queer femme erasure.
Like myself, lots of other femmes wake up to their queerness later in life. Within our culture, both femininity and queerness are hypersexualized. Think about it: we even talk about “sexual orientation” as what defines a person as queer, straight, gay, etc. To conceive of queerness as defined, primarily. by who a person has sex with, is a cognitive inaccuracy. And the consequences are oppressive.
Here’s a litmus test: Mae is a cis woman who identifies as feminine. She’s only ever had sex with cis men. Mae gets married to someone she believes is a cis man, but, ten years later, her partner comes out as trans. Now Mae has a wife. Does this mean Mae just “became” queer? Did she suddenly just “become” femme?
Both femininity and queerness are legitimized by the individual who embodies them, but we live in a culture that wants to rob us of our power to self-actualize. If Mae’s queer now, she’s always been queer. If Mae’s femme now, she’s always had the right to self-identify that way, because she’s always been queer.
If we withhold this term specifically from cis women (and people who are told that they are cis women) who’ve only had sex with cis men, that enforces the patriarchal idea that sexuality and gender are immutable. To deny anyone the right to self-identify as femme is to deny them the opportunity to discover their queerness, and that upholds the patriarchy. Instead, we must encourage everyone to feel safe in the possibility that they are always allowed to explore the idea that they could be queer.
I do recognize that “femme” is inherently a queer identity, but I reject the idea that there can exist a “queer-only” anything; to say “queer-only” is, from where I stand, anti-queer. It is policing who is and who is not queer. We cannot deny anyone the opportunity to self-identify as queer, even if the full extent of that identity is that they identify as femme.
To say “I am femme” is to acknowledge that gender is not a precisely focused laser, but instead an ever-transforming kaleidoscopic light show.
To say “I am femme” is to renounce heteronormativity. That, in itself, is queer.