Femme Privilege Does Exist A Little

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.


This essay was inspired by “Femme Privilege Does Not Exist” by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson. You should probably read that one first. 

It’s 11pm on New Year’s Eve. My girlfriend Terry and I emerge from the subway heading home because, well, we’ve had a long month and would rather be on the couch with our dog at midnight than out. The cold air hits me cruelly, immediately. We shiver into each other, dreading the fifteen minute walk home. It feels like an impossible task, so we catch the bus for the final leg of the commute.

Terry gets on first, puts her Metrocard through and hands it to me, because I’m kind of famous for never having enough money on mine. As I’m about to swipe it, I notice that Terry’s swipe has produced an error message. I smile apologetically at the bus driver, whose eyes shift from her to me.

“Let me see it,” he says, and takes the card, bending it, still looking at me. He hands it back, smiling sheepishly, and this time it works.

“Should I swipe it again?” I ask him, not wanting him to think we’re trying to scam the MTA. Without thinking about it, I push my hood down and shake my hair free.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says,with a friendly wink. I’m pleasantly surprised, and thank him as we move to the back.

“Thanks for flirting,” Terry says earnestly once we’re seated. “You got a free ride.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, shrugging. “I guess I did flirt.”

This is not a unique experience, so until she points it out, it hadn’t occurred to me to name it. I’ve learned that smiling in a certain way at certain people means they’ll be nice to me, and I know it’s because of my gender presentation and also about other privileges I have, like being white and cisgender.

My gender presentation hasn’t always been located on the femme spectrum, so I’m hyper-aware of how much nicer strangers are to me now that I’m mostly only read as queer by other queers. I don’t feel 100% good about this difference, but it’s the truth. During the short period of time I spent as a semi-MOC queer (as a baby gay! Life is confusing) I was the target of homophobia pretty much every time I left my apartment. People on the street would stare and often make fun of me, asking if I was a boy or a girl; one time a circle of men surrounded me, calling me a dyke and telling me that all I needed was a good fuck to set me straight. All this happened in NYC, where I’ve lived since 2007.

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues in her article about femme privilege that femme privilege doesn’t exist because femmes are harassed as frequently as butches, and on this point I agreeConsistently throughout my life, regardless of where I’ve been in my gender journey, I’ve been the target of sexual harassment. At the root of sexual harassment is a hatred of women, and I didn’t escape that hatred when I wasn’t feminine. This is the same treatment that I see Terry receive. The men who glare and make comments are angry at her for not looking how they think a woman is supposed to look or angry at themselves for being attracted to someone masculine. The men who catcall at me are also angry: angry at me for the very fact of my femininity, wanting to make me feel small and powerless so that they can feel more manly. Our bodies are far away from each other on the gender spectrum, but are sexualized equally. We both are impacted by sexism and misogyny, it just plays out in different ways.

But does the fact that femmes are more likely to be sexually harassed than butches actually constitute an argument against the idea that “femme privilege” exists? Or are we actually debating whether or not “masculine-of-center privilege” does exist? “Levels of street harassment” isn’t the only gauge upon which privilege is defined. Neither is “comfort/acceptance in traditional women’s spaces,” an area in which femmes fare far better. Can we even compare these concepts? As Johnson points out in her opening paragraph when she says “[femme privilege] relies on the idea that all femmes are cisgendered and cissexual, which is cissexist,” intersectionality has enormous bearing in how one’s femme or masculine-of-center status is interpreted.

Regardless, one of two things I believe are left out of the argument is that there are times when some femmes are able to use our femininity to our advantage, a luxury not afforded to most people with less normative presentations.  There are many people who are automatically nicer to women who they read as “pretty.” Yes, this is directly related to misogyny, to a system of patriarchy in which normative femininity is seen as non-threatening because it follows the rules. I don’t necessarily want to be viewed as “non-threatening,” because I am all too aware that this makes me unsafe, vulnerable to people who would take advantage of me based on that assumption. Honestly though, there are many times when my life is made easier in the cultural realm wherein “non-threats” cause people to react with kindness rather than violence. Cops who searched my bags at our subway stop one morning apologized politely for holding me up; several days later they searched Terry’s bags while glaring at her, one even shaking his head in disgust as he sized her up. Being read as a nonthreatening woman because of my femininity means I can sometimes avoid hostility from the cops, means I can get a free bus ride home late at night in the middle of winter, and I welcome things like this because they makes my life a little bit less stressful. Does that make me a bad feminist? Does it make me less queer?

I would like to politely assert that femme privilege is a thing, and caution against erasing the struggles of others in defense of our own. For non-feminine women who aren’t read as men, the world presents the same dangers that it presents to all women, if not more pronounced. As a femme, it’s definitely unpleasant to have to come out again and again to straight people who look at me and don’t notice my queerness, and it’s frustrating to know that when I put on a dress, other queers might not recognize me. However, all of our bodies are subject to patriarchal scrutiny. It’s true that MOC queers are more visible in queer spaces, maybe even more honored, but their identities are looked down upon in most other spaces. In a heterosexual world based on a system that is harmful to everyone, I think the MOC set deserve all the positive reinforcement within queer spaces that they can get — and I don’t think this means they have privilege over femmes.

If MOC women are able to walk home alone at night without being bothered, it’s not because of “masculine-of-center privilege” — it’s because of male privilege. Nobody is letting her pass because she’s masculine, they’re letting her pass because they think she’s a he, and it’s never a guarantee that she’ll be read that way or for how long. Being masculine of center doesn’t automatically grant male privilege. Many masculine-of-center women never pass as male, even from across the street.

We all need to remember that being masculine of center does not automatically or necessarily grant male privilege. This is the other element missing from the argument: for masculine women, basic things I’ve long stopped worrying about remain dangerous and scary, like shopping for clothes or using public restrooms. It’s a privilege to not have to give those activities a second thought. It’s a privilege to be given access to women’s spaces without anyone questioning whether or not you are the right kind of woman to belong there. It’s a privilege to have a gender that, from the outside, potentially looks like what it’s “supposed to.”

Of course, my experiences as a femme (and others’ experiences on other places on the spectrum) are very specific to me and the identities of mine that intersect with my femme-ness. For many trans* women or non-white women, it’s unlikely that they’d be able to expect better treatment from cops than a more masculine-appearing woman. Acknowledging that femme privilege exists doesn’t mean that it’s in operation for everyone. But when arguments about privilege are made in the abstract and claim absolutes, they preclude our ability to talk about how differently these things work for different people in the real world. If we can’t talk about the fact that some people may benefit from a system, it makes it harder to talk about how the same system hurts other people.

Johnson counteracts this point by asking, “Who gets the privilege to set the tone of the conversation of what it means to look queer or gay? Clearly not femmes or we would have at least included ourselves.” But by proving her point with such a theoretical question, she distances herself from a reality in which female femininity is seen as “normal” and “good,” while female masculinity stands out in stark contrast against the feminine standard. The conversation of what it means to look queer or gay is definitely one that needs updating, but while that’s in the works, we can’t forget the day to day realities of the people who don’t have the option of passing.

All that being said, I honestly don’t think it’s productive to analyze which identity involves less privilege. When are we going to stop weighing and measuring privileges within an already marginalized community? Everything I’ve said here could be completely off-base and totally wrong depending on the race, class and body type of the femme or masculine-presenting woman in question. For that reason, comparing alternately abstract or compound identities like “femme” and “masculine-of-center” is basically like comparing apples to cars.

What’s important is to continue to try to truly see each other’s experiences, to validate the many intersectionalities that function to make certain spaces safe for some and for others not at all.  As women, we all experience different kinds of oppression. I would never try to argue that my femininity as a white cis-woman is not a privilege, though, especially when the world is so often easier to navigate directly because of it.

Avatar of Gabrielle

Gabrielle writes facts and feelings from an old brick house in an outer borough of New York City. When she's not writing about lesbians, she's editing/writing/producing things at her day job in the beauty department of a well-known online style magazine. In her spare time, she helps organize the New York City Dyke March and makes up songs about her dog.

Gabrielle has written 96 articles for us.

202 Comments

  1. Thumb up 13

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    The second to last paragraph I feel so strongly about because race and class so make a difference, especially within the queer community. Kudos to writing your response and your ideas on such a widely talked about article; I definitely reblogged it on my tumblr.

    Being queer, femme, and black almost never feels like any type of privilege for me, so much so that last April I chopped my afro all the way down and changed my entire wardrobe to reflect what I thought read more masculine, which to me at that time equaled more queer, and I had hoped that I would fit in more (or maybe stand out?) in a certain queer scene I was a part of. But I wasn’t a stud or aggressive or …

    I was just me with different hair and different clothes that still sometimes got read as straight because I was black….awkward.

    Anyway,
    I liked reading both articles!

  2. Thumb up 27

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    As a Black femme, I am going to go ahead and confirm for you that you really are off-base in your criticism, and that it’s very important to note that the original essay was written by a femme of color, specifically a Black femme.

    The “femme privilege” you and others argue for is almost entirely about white femininity and how it is placed on a pedestal in a white supremacist society that has always held white women up as the pinnacle of femininity, against which WOC are always lacking. White femmes can leverage that in all kinds of ways that are not. Your anecdote about being able to smile a certain way and achieve a result–that is about white privilege, not femme privilege, trust me. The jokes WOC make about “white women’s tears” work exactly the same way. If a Black woman cries or is hurt, no one gives a shit. White femininity is considered “normal” and “good”. Black femininity (to the extent that we are even allowed access to femininity as Black women) is considered deviant, dangerous, etc.

    I’m not trying to bash you or anything, because you do make some good points, but the bottom line is that I feel really uncomfortable as a Black femme watching a white woman trying to make her experiences a universal femme thing.

      • Thumb up 16

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        Not the person who posted the original comment, but I would say that it’s different because, while this article chalks one woman’s experiences up to femme privilege rather than examining the role that race plays into it, the other article is examining the direct consequences of femme-ness. So, the other article mentions that it’s difficult for femme women to have to come out over and over again. That is a direct cause of their femme-ness. This article mentions that it’s easier for femmes to get their way by smiling or flirting. However, that is not a direct result of being femme. That is a result of being femme, while also being white (among other things).

        Or at least, that’s what I see as the difference.

      • Thumb up 4

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        That’s the point. We need to start centering other femme experiences. That’s why Cyree’s article is necessary and that’s why things like the Femme Shark Manifesto is necessary. When we try to say that we don’t need to talk about any one person’s experience, that somehow we can just talk about everyone equally and inclusively, invariably we just end up centering white experience and assuming it can speak for us all. Newsflash, it can’t. And it shouldn’t. Femme is too big and varied (and that’s it’s [non-normative] beauty) to be condensed into one conventionally attractive, white/light, thin, FAAB, able-bodied story. And even if a lot of those categories apply to me, the fact that they don’t apply to my other femmes, whom I cherish, is why I love building community with others who have a lot to teach me. But I can’t do that if I don’t listen, and that’s what this article signifies to me, a lack of listening.

      • Thumb up 10

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        I just read, “Whiteness is often socially constructed as a blank canvas onto which gender can be painted. Because (white) queer theory is often put forward as the only way to theorize queerness in its lived realities, I find it important to color queer theory so that the rainbow might not become so whitewashed.” (Quote by Mauro Osborne). This quote brought me back to this article.

        This will be my last rant, but I have so many feelings regarding this issue. If I sound upset, it’s not at the author (thank you for opening up the discussion), but because I am very tired of having to explain that femme oppression exists and that many of the “privileges” that “femmes” (generally speaking) have are really rooted in misogyny and not privileges at all (e.g., as I mentioned below, having to use your sexuality as a bargaining chip for things like power and resources really is not a privilege).

        I don’t know what motivated Johnson’s article, but I felt like finally someone stood up to say something about this constant discussion about/obsession with “femme privilege.” I hear those words thrown around so much in a manner that almost equates it with white privilege – it’s astonishing.

        I am just as exhausted trying to explain to people that this perceived privilege is almost like when white people try to argue with me that I experience black privilege (e.g., I get to say the “N” word and they cant; I benefit from Affirmative Action; I can go into certain neighborhoods that they can’t. etc.) Ok, so this may be some sort of “privilege,” but this privilege means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t carry any real power (e.g., you may be able to go into a public dressing or bathroom without turning any heads like an MoC, but only because the other patrons don’t know your “gay.” If they did, what would happen? Would they all be disgusted, keep their kids away from you, fear that you are secretly wanting to have sex with them? I know I’ve seen my “privilege” quickly disappear when my sexual orientation is discovered.)

        What REAL power does your privilege have? We’re all “privileged” in some way. But, what real power do certain privileges carry? I’d argue that hiding your sexual orientation to use your sexuality to get a free bus ride doesn’t carry much power and much of the perceived privilege really isn’t privilege at all (In fact, it’s oppressive and demeaning). This is why the whole privilege dynamics change when you throw race in the mix. Because white privilege carries real power. You belong. A “passing” femme doesn’t really belong. A passing femme has to hide their true identity to get the goods – be it in the office or the dressing room. There’s no real power in that. And, these little “treats” certainly do not make up for living under misogyny, discrimination, oppression, and hatred.

        Lastly, I don’t think that debunking the myth behind the power of “femme privilege” takes away from MoC experiences at all.

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          This. All of it. What bothered me about this article is everything that you pointed out–femme “privilege” isn’t actually privilege at all, and it is always rooted in misogyny (and often white privilege.)

    • Thumb up 16

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      I think you’re right about Johnson’s experience as a black femme being way different than the experience of a white femme, but Johnson doesn’t actually address that in her essay, it seemed she was attempting to speak of “femme” in the abstract, universal sense. Had she defined her experience as specific to her race, it would’ve been ridiculous for gabrielle to even tackle the topic. but despite what we personally know about johnson’s race, johnson’s essay does appear to be speaking in universal terms.

      i think with the following statements, gabrielle acknowledges the difficulty of speaking on the femme identity in anything besides the abstract:

      I’ve learned that smiling in a certain way at certain people means they’ll be nice to me, and I know it’s because of my gender presentation and also about other privileges I have, like being white and cisgender.

      As Johnson points out in her opening paragraph when she says “[femme privilege] relies on the idea that all femmes are cisgendered and cissexual, which is cissexist,” intersectionality has enormous bearing in how one’s femme or masculine-of-center status is interpreted.

      Everything I’ve said here could be completely off-base and totally wrong depending on the race, class and body type of the femme or masculine-presenting woman in question. For that reason, comparing alternately abstract or compound identities like “femme” and “masculine-of-center” is basically like comparing apples to cars.

    • Thumb up 20

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      Yes, yes, yes to Kylenne’s points. The things that the writer identifies as femme privileges are in fact not contingent on femme-ness. They aren’t universal femme experiences. In these same situations, femmes who are perceived to be trans*, non-binary, men, and people of color do not benefit. If anything, they are often harassed further.

      The writer and I both are both privileged by being white and gender-conforming–that’s what she’s actually illuminating. Femme women of color do not get these “free passes” and nods of approval to same degree that white women do. And the privileges we get are still within the constraints placed on us by patriarchal constructions of what it means to be an “acceptable” woman. Making the most of shitty oppressive situations doesn’t automatically equal privilege. Have I flirted to get ahead in various ways? Certainly. Why does that work? Because I make people feel like I (as a woman) am in their service, and by extension, in their control. I run the risk of them following me, harassing me, hitting on me, and other unwelcome encounters. These are ways in which I interact with the world differently from masc-of-center women and other queer folks, but it is a mistake to label it femme privilege. It’s not about femme. It’s about me (like the writer) being read as gender-conforming white women, which the patriarchy codes as “attractive, non-threatening, easy to control.” This article is supposedly about identifying privilege and naming it for what it is, so let’s do just that.

      • Thumb up 27

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        This: “Have I flirted to get ahead in various ways? Certainly. Why does that work? Because I make people feel like I (as a woman) am in their service, and by extension, in their control.”
        YES.

        Flirting allows conventionally-pretty femmes to get our way sometimes, sure, but it also puts us at risk in big ways. Is it really privilege when using it always kind of feels like a game of sexual assault roulette?

        Also, as a mixed girl who doesn’t pass as white and still gets conventionally-pretty femme “privilege” via potentially-unsafe flirting on the regular, I’ll point out that it’s not JUST white privilege that makes this a thing. I think that the power structure in place in 2013 allows for a little more (not a ton, but a little more) skin pigmentation diversity in its definition of “pretty.”
        There’s a lot more racial stuff wrapped up in this than just white privilege / non-white discrimination. White privilege and conventionally-pretty privilege have a big overlap in that big messy venn diagram of privilege, but it’s not just cis white women who are allowed conventionally-pretty privilege.

        • Thumb up 13

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          “Is it really privilege when using it always kind of feels like a game of sexual assault roulette?”

          That is the most perfect description I’ve ever heard. I’d also say that the femme/pretty privilege thing functions on a scale of how submissive or fragile the person is assumed to be, feeding into that power play. I’m thinking primarily of any WoC who is described as “exotic.”

          I’ve lost all patience for the “But you get free things/favors” argument, because those are never really free.

        • Thumb up 3

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          Agreed.

          I never feel comfortable taking the “free ride” if I’m not with a couple of friends. If I’m alone it more often than not comes back to haunt me.

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          Italians, Jews, Irish, Polish. In the year 1900 they weren’t white people but today it is common sense that they are white.

          It is important to not confuse the contemporary extension of whiteness (the additional and slight variation in skin pigments) with some fundamental shift in white supremacist beauty standards.

          Just as when Irish were ‘becoming white’, at the time it might have seemed like a mix of ‘new’ forces were at play when really white supremacy was simply expanding and becoming more powerful by extending its bribe to inhumanity to an ever slightly broader spectrum of folks.

    • Thumb up 13

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      I feel as though the author continually noted how the intersectionality of white, femme, and traditional pretty (caucasoid features)created her personal privilege.

      Maybe it’s my extra-pale skin colour speaking here, but I thought she did a good job of making that distinction between personal and universal.

  3. Thumb up 16

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    Both of these articles have a solid arguments, but this one is more on point for me. Being a femme has ups and downs. I get catcalled and harassed on the street literally everyday, which is nowhere near a privilege. When I complain to someone, I get the standard, “oh, it must be so hard to be hot” answer. I avoid certain streets daily because the harassment is kind of a lot, even for me. On the other hand, I’ve had countless free drinks, free bus/taxi rides and other random perks, solely based on my appearance and people’s perception of me being straight. My girlfriend gets strange looks and gender confusion, but never has to explain over and over and over that yes, she REALLY is gay. Overall though, what I see as the worst parts of being a femme is what most women deal with daily, regardless of being queer or not.

    As women, we all have it hard at some point in our day. There really is no use comparing who has it the hardest, instead we should be focusing on changing and bettering things for all queer women. Reblogging this on tumblr for sure :)

    • Thumb up 4

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      Thank you for saying this.

      We all have our burdens and considering that both authors live in this country where they have access to things not available other women universally, I think caution needs to be taken about having a “privilege vs. disadvantage” pissing match. Acknowledge the reality AND use it as a leverage to make necessary changes to said reality, if not for our generation than for those who come after us.

  4. Thumb up 18

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    I really appreciate having a forum on Autostraddle to talk and think about how different kinds of privilege affect our lives. Going back to read the follow up on FemmeDreamboat’s tumblr lead me to a quote by Spectraspeaks that resonates with me the most:

    “I don’t believe in a linear hierarchy of oppression, but I do believe there does exist a sphere of oppression that shifts privilege and power based on where we are, from perspective. The point of these conversations shouldn’t be to decide who is more/less oppressed; just that we are in various ways.I own  my privilege; I’m aware of areas (and in varying circumstances) that I hold power. Denying this power reduces my capability to support others, to listen and understand someone else’s pain.”

    I can only live the privilege I experience- being a white, cisgendered, middle class, femme lesbian, I know I have a hell of a lot of privilege. But I can also listen to the experiences of others and do my best to also navigate my life in ways that supports others.

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    I’m going to have to agree with the other comments by WOC. As a femme of color, I think the experience that you’re talking about is specific to white cigendered women. I think that if you were a trans woman, or a black woman, then maybe you would write this article a bit differently. Being a black woman, feminine or not, is an entirely different experience, and though I cannot speak about what trans people might experience, I imagine they also have a very different experience than you do. In general, I cannot “flirt” or “smile” to get my way, because I am black and I am read as more “aggressive” or less “feminine” by default, regardless of how high my heels are or how red my lipstick is. I won’t deny that masculine of center black women deal with a different struggle than I do, and I won’t deny that their challenges often outweigh mine. I agree that being a femme queer woman and being able to pass as straight does give us femmes some degree of privilege, but that privilege is so often paired with the disadvantages of being a WOC, of being trans, of being disabled, etc etc. There are many different experiences and I think it is unproductive to play the “oppression olympics” (although I recognize that you are simply replying to another article, so I know you aren’t the one that started it).

  6. Thumb up 12

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    Gabrielle, I was so nervous to read this article because I thought I’d disagree with you, but I actually loved it and found myself convinced.. I thought it was really eloquently written, and even though it was about your personal experiences, it was very relatable.

    It’s funny, but this made me realize I often find myself trying to use my femme privilege as a super power (this makes me feel better about it?) in order to protect my moc girlfriend in certain situations, as in stare-shaming people (this is a satisfying feeling) or striking up conversations with people who may be averse to acknowledging my girlfriend’s existence.

  7. Thumb up 47

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    femme privilege does exist a little, especially when you’re white.

    that being said i appreciate most of everything written in this article and in the comments. at the same time, i don’t have high expectations when it comes to young white queers writing about race or including race in a conversation that isn’t explicitly about race like this one. having the best intentions is always nice. connecting femme privilege to your lived experience is always nice and appreciated. glossing over how deeply tied that lived experience is to being white is unfortunate and so is not diving deeper into how the ethnicity of Cyrée Jarelle Johnson may have sculpted her original piece. but one lone autostraddle writer cannot be all things to all the people. power fist to all the white allies but sometimes i feel like if anyone’s going to accurately break down how race tips the scales in all the directions, it’s most likely going to be a QPOC. it’s our job to breakdown and rebuild the world for ourselves. it’s not to teach white people how to be better at deconstructing race or to get them to be better at including racial discussions in stories and articles.

    fuck, i don’t even know how to do that or write that article most of the time. hence, why i just kinda float around and ogle beyonce. anyway…

    now, what gabrielle’s piece does well is crack open the block of negativity spawned by putting ourselves and our presentations in the oppression olympics and how fucked it is to try and play who has the least amount of privilege etc. that shit just makes me angry. it makes me not want to listen.
    what i think gabrielle’s piece also does well is remind us what the point of existing in a queer blogging community is for: to honestly and respectfully respond to each other. to say hey, i’m reading your words. thanks for sharing. this is how i feel. does anyone else feel this way? let’s talk about it? sorry if i said the wrong thing, how could i say it differently next time?
    we all need to add our bits to make the dialogue more diverse and more representative of us.
    that’s the only way we can continue to carry on a thriving relatively united queer community. that’s one of my favorite things about being part of the autostraddle community. we do share and we grow together.

    also, i’ve definitely used my smile to get what i want and i don’t present as femme or mainstream pretty/attractive. i’m just confident as fuck sometimes.

    • Thumb up 35

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      I think sometimes I stay out of controversial comment threads because I’m a wimp, but that’s probably not productive, because i do have so many questions and a real desire to engage in productive dialogue on issues like this, desperately.

      so, what I struggle with and wonder about and would like to hear perspectives on is that because Johnson didn’t bring race into her argument, or declare her experiences specifically non-”universal”… is it appropriate then for Gabrielle to analyze how race factors into Johnson’s experience if Johnson didn’t bring it up herself? Because Johnson’s argument isn’t absolute, it’s comparative — i took her argument to be “femme privilege doesn’t exist because femmes are harassed as much as MOCs are” — you can really only make that argument, or any argument about comparative privilege, by “controlling” all the other factors like a science experiment — comparing the experience of middle-class white femmes to middle-class white MOCs, the experience of middle-class black femmes to middle-class black MOCs, etc., etc. Just like if you’re talking about male privilege, you have to control all the other factors, too, you can only compare privilege between people for whom everything is the same besides their gender — because it’d be ridiculous and false to say black men have more privilege than white women, for example, or that a rich white woman has less privilege than a poor white man.

      I feel like that’s part of why arguing for the existence of privilege by comparing it to other privileges gets messy so fast, because, as gabrielle says, “Everything I’ve said here could be completely off-base and totally wrong depending on the race, class and body type of the femme or masculine-presenting woman in question.” and also because of, as you said, “the block of negativity spawned by putting ourselves and our presentations in the oppression olympics and how fucked it is to try and play who has the least amount of privilege etc.”

      i don’t know i don’t know anything!

      • Thumb up 18

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        I don’t really have anything of substance to add except that I love the fact that I can read ALL FOUR of these pieces of writing (the original post, Gabrielle’s post, other gabrielle’s comment, and your comment) and find them all to be full of valid, enlightening, useful, and respectfully-expressed ideas. All debates should be like this!

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          Yes! As a white middle class femme I was reading this article thinking, ‘Yes, yes, yes’. And then I read the comments, particularly those relating to the experiences of WOC and now I feel conflicted. These comments are fantastic and they are certainly a huge step towards discussing the ways in which femme privilege fluctuates between social/racial/gender divides. But the problem with comments is that they are fragmentary… I want to hear more…

          Soooo… Riese, it would be super amazing if you could organise for a femme WOC and a femme transwoman to write companion pieces that also address the original article?

          Please, please, please?

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        I think you’re spot on about the “control” thing in terms of how one person’s experience relates to another, which is why it’s significant that (correct me if I’m wrong) Gabrielle’s girlfriend is also white and cisgendered, so to the bus driver, the only difference between them is femme/MoC. On that basis, it seems pretty reasonable to argue some femme privilege is happening (assuming you see a free bus ride as a good thing and not the bus driver exerting misogynistic control).

        I’m not sure what more Gabrielle could do in this piece w/r/t the race/intersectionality issue besides acknowledge it several times, as she has done. Maybe bill it as less of a universal thing and more personal? I don’t know if that would work.

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        I feel the same way regarding your first sentence. At first, I was like well I like this piece a lot but I have feelings maybe I should just keep them to myself so I don’t offend people I respect. But, that’s not productive and so here we are and it all feels good.

        it’s not so much someone’s job or place to analyze the racial/ethnic identity or individualized experience of someone else in regard to their thoughts or feelings on a topic like femme identity. but anyone writing a response article should feel empowered enough to mention background as a factor, on both sides. like if someone writes an article about how poor people are poor because they don’t try hard enough, we should be able to explore what economic background that writer is from without tearing at their personhood for it. johnson’s argument wasn’t fully fleshed out for me because she doesn’t bring race/ethnicity into it but at the same time i recognize how tiring that can be to always add “and cuz I’m puerto rican” to things. it wouldn’t be fair to ask gabrielle or anyone else to analyze something from a black woman’s POV because 1) such a thing doesn’t exist in and of itself and 2) we don’t have the right to do that to each other.

        it’s ok to acknowledge that a person of color wrote a thing and that you’re a white person responding to that and maybe somewhere in that space there will be miscommunication. otherwise, both sides unintentionally contribute to this strange acceptance of color-blindness and none of that is helpful to any of these arguments. am i making sense? like how do you feel about that? we should feel uncomfortable when we write about important things, right?

        also, i’m so glad you brought this up: you can only compare privilege between people for whom everything is the same.
        how often does that happen though? there’s so much privilege checking that happens in queer spaces. no one ever takes the time to reflect on this idea.

        two things i appreciate about both of these pieces if that while they discuss the relationship between presentation and privilege, they also remember to bring into the discussion that identifiers only hold meaning to those who claim them.

        jeezus, riese, my brain is going crazy. this is the best.

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    I feel like the word “privilege” is a thoroughly inappropriate one here- the privilege-oppression dynamic as a concept originates in discussions of race, and while I think it’s useful to “port” to other areas where widespread, societal and institutional power systems are involved, in matters like this the word “privilege” only serves to obscure things.

    Regardless I think it’s unhelpful to try and posit that some women have more privilege than others in our expression of “woman-ness”*- all women are loathed by the patriarchy, and while we might be able to do one thing or another to play into it and get a momentary benefit (eg. a free bus ride for being feminine and flirting, or an unbothered walk home because we read as a man), it’s certainly not about real privilege, it’s just about the system not always directly and personally working against us.

    *Obviously the intersections of various other privileges make some women “better off” than others, but my advantage over a femme trans woman is that I’m cisgender, not that I’m generally masculine of centre.

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      While I definitely feel that talking about personal experiences of oppression & feelings of privilege is important, I think comparing them in as much detail as has been done here can be more detrimental than helpful. In my understanding of, privilege & oppression are systemic problems – all women/queers/people of colour face oppression but just as no two people are the same, neither are any two experiences of oppression.

      A different example to the femme/masculine of centre oppression scale could be visible & invisible disability – my partner & I are both cripples, but I use sticks to walk & she doesn’t. Except in cases of extreme douchebags, people automatically offer me seats on buses whereas she has to ask & sometimes face hostility. On the other hand, she doesn’t get strangers asking about her disability & staring. Neither of us is more privileged, we just experience oppression differently. Given that we’re also a fat butch/femme couple where one of us is a transwoman who passes & the other is genderqueer if we tried to tally up our oppressions we’d never have time to shag!

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    When you frame your argument for an acknowledgment of femme privilege on the benefits of presenting as “femme” along with a certain gender, race, class, and sized context you fail to include the experiences of all femmes. Some of us never have the privilege of flirting because normative perceptions of our race, size, or class preclude our “femme” performance from conforming to white, upper-class, thin definitions of femininity. You conflate a “femme” identity with a performance of normative femininity, which not all femmes aspire to.

    Additionally, your statement that femmes experience privilege when shopping for clothing or when seeking out restrooms maps femme onto those who identity and are read by society as female, erasing the experiences of genderqueer femmes, male femmes, and trans-masculine or feminine femmes. Your article makes the (common) mistake of associating female with femme, a mistake which Johnson makes a point of identifying. She writes that the idea of femme privilege “ relies on the idea that all femmes are cisgendered and cissexual, which is cissexist. It anachronistically leaves out femme as a genderqueer identity.” In making this mistake in a response to her piece, your cisexist definitions of femme identity are revealed.

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    I agree with a lot of this. Like this writer, I’ve felt that there are two sides to femme privilege. I’m consistently frustrated at being read as straight. I’ve experienced comical misunderstandings about what I mean when I say “girlfriend” (I mean does anyone, under the age of 80, use the word girlfriend to mean female friend?). I’ve had boys exclaim loudly that “they don’t believe it at all” that I’m gay, and then act surprised when I don’t take that as the compliment they intended it to be. It’s frustrating when I’m doubted by other queer people as to whether I’m really queer or just curious (how many women do I need to date/fuck/love before I’m gay “enough?”). But there is undoubtedly so much privilege in being white, cisgender, and feminine presenting woman (and like many commenters and the writer herself, I know that race, body type, and being cis-gender does make a difference). In general, people smile at me. If I’m nice to them they are nice to me. I experience being catcalled and harassed, and have strangers make comments about my appearance and my body, but I also have people stop me to tell me that I look nice, and wish me a good day. (These comments are noticeably absent when I am with my girlfriend) Additionally, while I am out and proud in all aspects of my personal life and to my colleagues, I can cover when it is necessary. In fact, my gender presentation makes others overlook many hints that I am gay. I’m a social worker on a mobile team. This means I drive around my clients in my personal vehicle, which includes a nice rainbow sticker on the back. My clients have commented on it in the past, and one has even stated that “yeah, I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like gay people, you know, cause I’m homophobic” (as though this were an acceptable excuse). It never once crossed his mind, that the big ass rainbow sticker on the back of my car saying something about LGBT people for Obama, might mean that I was gay. My privilege often lies in the fact that I have the option of passing, even if I rarely choose to do so, I can and have when I’m in situations in which I am potentially in a dangerous situation and that is definitely a privilege.

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      “Yeah, I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like gay people, you know, cause I’m homophobic.”

      It amazes me that someone could say that the same way you might say, “I can’t deal with spiders, you know, ’cause I’m arachnophobic” or “I hate being in elevators, you know, ’cause I’m claustrophobic.” I mean, I thought it was pretty clear that homophobia isn’t really an anxiety disorder the way a traditional phobia is. Maybe we need a new word?

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        I know a lot of people (in my super gay professional field of Student Affairs) have started referring to them as “homonegative behaviors”. It sounds a lot more professional in a journal article than “jackass”.

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    I feel like I should preface this by acknowledging that I’m a white cis femme, and if I say something problematic tell me….

    I, too, very much agree with the other comments by women of color. As a white person, it bothers me when the whiteness of someone’s experience is not fully acknowledged and examined.

    And one more degree of nuance: I’m not so sure that smiling and flirting to get one’s way confers a whole lot of power. First of all, the kind of attention that white women get, the kind of attention we’re talking about, is rooted in misogyny. Yeah, it can maybe stretch your bus fare or whatever, but it’s still coming from your being objectified. I don’t think ~feminine wiles~ buy femmes fair treatment as human beings.

    It seemed to me that some of the argument in this article hinges on the notion that FAAB masculinity is inherently more dangerous to embody than femme identity. What about MAAB femmes? I was under the impression that there is loads of violence committed against MAAB and non-binary femmes, especially MAAB femmes of color, because of their femme gender expression. So discussion of femme privilege would seem to leave out these experiences of people who are oppressed specifically for being femme.

    Gabrielle-the-author mentions that her experiences of femme privilege are at least partly a result of her being white and cis. So I’m confused, then, as to what femme privilege is supposed to be– the small favors that white cis women gain from flirting? How is that related exclusively to being femme, and not to being white and cis?

    I thought the tone of the original article was more of a call-out on a phenomenon in the queer community, where femmes sometimes face hostility for perceived passing privilege. And I thought we were supposed to take away from it that all queer people face different experiences and, like L.K. said, we shouldn’t be playing Oppression Olympics. I know this article is about one person’s experience, but I would really like femme representation on this site to be deeper and more inclusive than what I see here.

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    “All that being said, I honestly don’t think it’s productive to analyze which identity involves less privilege. When are we going to stop weighing and measuring privileges within an already marginalized community?”

    THANK YOU. I too have been on both ends of the gender presenting spectrum and both ways I’ve received harassment – and both presentations have their advantages and disadvantages whether it be in queer spaces or the world at large. So, how about we all just have some solidarity in our queerness and stop trying to analyze who has it better or worse.

    Thank you Gabrielle!

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    Regardless of my sadness over the fact people get bullied for looking/acting/wearing however they are/like, I’m also annoyed at people putting sexuality and gender in the same equation. I’m not saying they don’t overlap at times, but it’s irritating that we must act as if every prejudice gay people suffer is the same. Many lesbians are too pc and inclusive to analyze certain things unless they come in a package.

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    I do believe femme privilege (for white women) does exist. It’s easier for me in the straight world. People think it’s “cool” I look so “straight”, I wear dresses, whatever.
    But I can tell you where femme privilege does not exist, in the queer community. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard “you’re making out for girls for fun, right? Are you here with a gay guy? You’re not gay”, mostly from gay guys.

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        word. and i feel like that’s probably an entirely different conversation (or related, but still something other than this one), but i would very much like to see this discussion.

        of course none of us exist in a queer world vacuum and so analyses of real world privilege/lack thereof are relevant and valid. but for a lot of us, our queer communities are also our families and our homes, and the privilege/lack thereof that we experience there? also relevant and valid.

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        I showed the original article by Johnson to my friend, who is also a queer femme and thinks a lot about her femmeness, etc. She agreed with my critiques but also noted the same thing: where is the femme privilege within the queer community? Because she’s getting real sick of the misogyny she’s been experiencing from our butch friends.

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          “she’s getting real sick of the misogyny she’s been experiencing from our butch friends.”

          I’ve never seen such a thing. From what I’ve seen butch women value and always compete over femmes. I’d like to add my experiences are limited to NYC.

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          I think you might only need to look as far as your comment here to begin to see the hints of misogyny–”butch women…always compete over femmes.” Compete over != value. Having people “compete over” me makes me, as a femme, feel like I’m a prize to be awarded to the highest bidder. That is a hallmark of the misogyny within the patriarchy. I am a subject, not an object. I choose, I’m not “won”.
          Speaking from personal experience–there is sometimes rampant misogyny amongst butches, especially certain ones, in NYC. You’re just not looking if you don’t see it.

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          When men compete over women, it is still the woman who chooses. In 98% of the cases it is the woman who is the “chooser” and I don’t know how you managed to come up with the “highest bidder” idea because women choose to be with people they’re attracted to the most. No matter how much you try to woo a woman if she is not attracted to you, you don’t have a chance. I’m closer to butch on the spectrum and personally if people tried to get my attention (male or female) I’d be flattered instead of seeing it as misogyny.
          I’m not saying misogyny doesn’t exist but I haven’t seen it so far. In my friend circle we never doubted a femme’s sexuality just because she was feminine and I haven’t seen others do it but again I haven’t seen all the lesbians in the city.

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          As someone who presents as a femme, I’ve experienced countless times where I had to “prove” my “gayness” before those who presented more masculine would include me/talk to me (this is mainly about first time meetings with strangers at house parties or bars).

          I have long hair, I’m wearing a skirt and I feel I’m regarded with major suspicion or outright ignored.

          If I go with a friend who presents masculine, it’s assumed that I am “with her.” They speak with her first or barely listen to me when I chime in. Never fails.

          What’s wrong with me just going out alone?

          On the flip side of the coin, I am a magnet for young femmes because I seem “safe”

          As a result I feel more comfortable with dating other femmes. I get less judgement and I don’t have constantly prove who I am.

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          “I’m closer to butch on the spectrum and personally if people tried to get my attention (male or female) I’d be flattered instead of seeing it as misogyny.”

          this sounds a lot like my grandmother telling me to be flattered when guys catcall to me on the street, because she would ~love to be catcalled to~.

          i’mma need you to check yourself before you wreck yourself. that is not something to be flattered about, not sry2say

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          Maybe you’ve never seen misogyny coming from butch women because as a butch woman you’ve never experienced it? I’m not saying all butch women are misogynists, but this is a thing that happens and I’ve definitely experienced it.

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          are YOU in your social circle? because the attitudes you’ve exhibited here are pretty damn misogynist. not believing or listening to femmes when they tell you *their* lived expereinces of misogyny, saying that it’s not like that where *I* am, exhibits a very misogynistic attitude. It seems like your interest in genuine allyship is zilch/nada/zero. So if you don’t care about the femmes you’re sooooo interested in banging, why you here? Not to listen it seems.

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          I’ve seen A LOT of misogyny from butches within my community, both towards myself and my partners. Obviously this is hardly a sweeping commentary on butch culture and I know many lovely butches, but we definitely have a misogyny problem within the community and it centers on hetero gender norms. It’s incredibly frustrating.

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          As a butch lesbian I feel like I’m subjected to the really harmful norms of masculinity which circulate in the culture I live in. This affects both how I see myself (I find it really hard to be openly emotional/discuss my feelings, for example), but also how I act towards others. I have to be really careful that the way I interact with other women (particularly more stereotypically “feminine” women) is not determined by any of these misogynistic norms I’ve internalised. Paris, there is certainly misogyny from “butches” to “femmes” and it’s something we have to be very wary of – I’ve caught myself being a bit shit a couple of times, gender is a thing which works in very tricky and often not nice ways.

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          If some butches treated femmes bad or doubted their sexuality just because they’re femmes then some misogyny apparently exists. If I encountered such a thing I’d confront them about it. Unlike butches we can’t figure out whether a feminine woman is queer or not so the last thing I would want is a femme hiding her sexuality from me because she is scared.

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          If females were the majority, males were the minority and females were fighting over men would it still be misogyny? Or if my femme lesbian friends refuse to date butches because they’re attracted to femmes only is it misogyny? If I sometimes end up in the friend category just because I’m a butch is it misogyny?

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          It is a scarcity issue. If butches were in scarcity femmes would compete over butches. Demand vs supply. Femmes are in high demand and low supply. Everything is not misogyny. No I’m not checking myself.

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          That awkward moment when somebody says they’re never misogynist, while simultaneously referring to women’s bodies as commodities.

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    I dunno, I see your point, as a more feminine woman I have different- I wouldn’t say better or worse- struggles than my wife. I can’t say who is better or worse objectively. I also don’t see how deciding that would help anyone.

    There’s some things she deals with and some things I do, and it sucks. We’re all a bunch of queers, minorities who do NOT as a rule have any privilege, so what’s up with the debate over which of us might have a scrap more? It seems counter productive to be so divisive within our own community.

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    So disagree with this on SO many levels. I think most people covered the basics. But, as a femme person of color, I’d like to say that this perspective is rooted in white privilege. My entire life I’ve been told that straight hair, lighter skin, thinner frames, etc. So, congrats on your privilege.

    Here is one example of many: my partner, who is White and more masculine presenting, and I live in a very upper crust hood. When we go to the local stores, I am constantly asked if I “work” there, while my partner can shop without being bothered. I’m often mistaken for a nanny visiting from another hood, while my partner is looked at as insider, like she belongs.

    Also, unwelcomed flirting is NOT privilege! I remember taking the train to work after receiving some very horrible news. Instead of being left alone, I was harassed over and over by men on the train telling me to smile (one even came over and sat next to me and I had to move.) My partner rarely has to deal with this harassment and fear. And, my partner isn’t always mistaken for a male. That’s not always why she’s not bothered. It’s because men aren’t always attracted to her masculinity. On the other hand, my femininity opens me up for their desires and advances. And, that’s ok? It’s ok that when a man has some sorta sexual urge that my space is violated? I mean, you worked it for a Metrocard, but this was based on the fact that he wanted to give it to you baby. His masculinity conferred upon him the right to determine your fate. You BOTH got a raw deal. There is no privilege in your experience.

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      I think this perfectly captures why I don’t feel like what Gabrielle’s described as femme privilege is really a privilege at all. I would gladly trade all the free shit I get on account of my femininity for the ability to feel like I can exist ANYWHERE in public without incessantly being evaluated, sexualized, and objectified by men who think that they have a right to my attention and time because I’m a woman, and who *want* those things from me because I’m a feminine woman. They can keep their extra sundae toppings, their help with heavy bags, and their offers to skip them in queue at the store if I never again experience the nearly daily occurrence of feeling compelled to smile or feign flirting with some dude just because I think it’ll keep a situation from escalating into something that threatens my personal safety. Every time I have to do that, I feel somewhat gross–like in some small way, someone just made use of me and my body for something I wouldn’t have consented to if I felt like I really had a choice.
      This doesn’t minimize the unique harassment experienced by MOC women. It’s just to say that what femmes “get” that MOC women don’t isn’t privilege, but rather misogyny being a sneaky bastard and masquerading as something beneficial.

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        *THIS*

        Thank you Jane. This is what I was trying to articulate (albeit with tons of typos because my cat had something to say about this too).

        I can empathize with the moc experience. But, there is this constant conversation about femme privilege that is really damaging. This idea that we are privileged because SOME of us can use our looks to get what we want or “pass” is just misguided. I mean, this conversation happens in communities of color too. Obama has been accused of being able “pass” into a more privileged world because he is lighter skinned. Pass into what? A world that hates him for not being white enough or not being black enough? So, just great. Because I’m seen as being able to pass, I’ll never fit in anywhere? Even taking my race out of the equation, I’m a feminine queer who can pass into what? A world that says that if I am feminine, I better be prepared to be judged by my beauty first. That if I am to be feminine, my feminine beauty must fit within X, Y, Z predetermined parameters, and society is going to beat these parameters into your head until you realize that you’re not good enough, thin enough, pretty enough to amount to anything. (Um, shopping is not easy for all femmes, especially when clothes are designed for a size 0 world. Total misconception). That if I fit into these X, Y, Z parameters, I better be prepared for unwanted harassment, flirting, and violence (and, like you said, I better take the scraps or else I risk getting called a “b*itch” or worse if I don’t acknowledge your advances on the street). That if I don’t fall into X, Y, Z parameters, I can be prepared for a life of bullying, taunting, getting called fat, being passed up for jobs, not getting what some of my femme and masculine counterparts get, like free bus rides. So, I “pass” into a world that hates me. I got in (not really) and I’m still not safe. That is not a privilege.

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      I think its fine for her to feel like it is a privilege to get a “pass” sometimes and talk about that, I think that shows that she understands her position and that for some people they will get investigated or chucked out, or banned.. but she gets a smile, surely its up to her whether this is a privilege or not, noones saying its a universal truth for everyone, I think we should listen to each other not just belittle each others perspectives. Do you see all the oppressions butches face day to day?.. do butches see femmes? probably not, if butches feel oppression doesnt mean yours are any less existent too, its not a game, but then I have never heard anyone say anything about femme privilege.. maybe its a U.S thing (you guys also really need mention that its about the united states coz its really not the same everywhere and assume that people reading are all americans).. I have heard a lot about femmephobia and obviously misogyny, and I have heard old rad fem lesbians say stuff like assimilationists and traitors, to butches and femmes, and trans people, but luckily we dont see them as much around anymore. I do think some people can pass as straight and that is a massive privilege considering how many people are killed or beaten or sacked or tormented because they are perceived as gay or trans.. are we forgetting this? so if you are white its easier, yes, this is the undeniable truth, if you are a cis man its easier, definitely,
      but is it easier to be perceived as gay than straight now.. is that what we are saying?

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    I just read a lot of information very quickly so I’m sorry if this doesn’t add much or isn’t clear.

    I would say that I present pretty centrally on the gender spectrum. At the gender panel at the most recent A Camp I talked about how being in the center was frustrating for me because I had a hard time attracting MOC women because they sometimes (I said sometimes!!) prefer more feminine women. This also goes the other way when I am trying to attract femme girls. While that question was more about my sex life than ideas of privilege I do think my opinion is important because I’ve felt a lot of the things that people are expressing.

    I’ve been assaulted, robbed and cat called. Is this because I’m femme enough to suffer from misogyny? I’ve also had to routinely correct customers about my sexual identity because heteronormative assumptions dictate that of course the date I’m talking about must be with a man. But you get free drinks sometimes, and aren’t called a dyke on those days.

    On the other hand, I’ve been told I’m in the wrong bathroom, I haven’t been given free things (which I agree isn’t really a privilege but a messed up “power” which you embrace or not) and I’ve been assaulted verbally for my sexuality. The good things? I love when someone asks me if my date is a man or a woman or correctly assumes I date mostly women. People suddenly assume I can lift things or play sports. I feel more desired in queer spaces (sometimes)

    I don’t really have anything to offer except that I try to change assumptions as often as possible by correcting people or challenging their assumptions. I mainly just hope that we can be a safe space for each other while we wait for the world to catch up. Nothing bothers me more than in community hatred.

    I’d like to hear more about how race changes the conversation. Thanks!

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      I think I straddle the center/ don’t have a gender identity. I feel like not picking a side makes it harder to attract people because I don’t have that self conception. I think I possess enough otherness being a homosexual WOC to validate my lack of privilege in the privilege olympics.
      I have noticed that because I don’t strongly identify with either identity when I do play to one or the other through my dress or presentation I’m either read as aggressive (masculine) or hyper-sexual (feminine) and you know me and I’m neither so it feels as if I am acting and I just don’t do it.

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    I have a bunch of feelings about this article and how your perception of your experience as a femme differs from my own perception of my own.

    I feel like writing an article about femme privilege has to thread the conversation through the needle just right in the same way that MRAs and others have to do similar acrobatics to write what they write about “female privilege.” Like those attempts, one can isolate various points at which one can gain a specific advantage in specific situations in specific contexts from a particular social positioning, but that doesn’t make it less important to deconstruction privilege to talk about better than average outcomes in general.

    I feel like that some femmes might be able to pick up a free bus ride is something that can’t be pointed out without pointing out the reason some femmes are able to pick up a break sometimes is the same reason that when I walk into a room most people assume I’m there for decoration.

    I feel like discounting of people who express femininity happens not only in the world at large, but in queer and radical spaces. Spaces which, while seeking to create an environment away from outside pressure, so often merely provide new ways for existing dynamics to maintain the status quo. That our own spaces fall to this just re-enforces how much expressing femininity is viewed poorly and those who do it are generally discounted, even if sometimes people toss a benefit at us if they like the look of our bodies. (And remember, “femme privilege” seems so often to hinge on just that.)

    And in the context of queers and queer spaces, on a more personal level, having the femme styles I like that speak to me get so often discounted as going with the flow and homogenous while seeing other queers lauded for their “unique” and “individual” style gets old. I’m glad everyone’s so busy finding their own styles and I’m thrilled that so many of my friends wear things they like, but the assumption that my hair is long (or whatever) because I didn’t bother to think about the alternatives and make a conscious decision is something that bothers me enough that I seem to talk about it quite a bit.

    And I’m not going to deny that there’s benefits. I can probably get a free drink now and again, but that’s really the least important thing. What’s more important, in my mind, is the ability I have to move within a broader range of groups and engage with a broader set of people without them necessarily tagging me as a dyke, or as trans, or as any of the other bits of identities that could be applied to me. Femme invisibility works both ways and I’m aware that I can use it as a cloak to move more freely just as much as I’m aware that that cloak comes at a cost and that in general, my talents, intelligence, sexuality and capabilities are thought of less because of it.

    IMO, just because people deal with *different* shit based on different gender presentations does not mean there are different privileges involved. Fighting for femininity has its cost and I think femmes bear that cost often. Obviously there are other costs with other presentations and approaches, so people might as well pick the one that speaks most to them.

    Oh. And some of us prefer our flowers with thorns. Just sayin’.

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    I feel like this is conflating sexist structures within a patriarchal, racist and heteronormative society with privilege. I respect where the OP’s coming from and it’s good she added her voice to the discussion, but I reiterate: femme privilege does not exist. There are privileges attached to being white and there are “privileges” (would not refer to them as such) that come from the rampant sexism within society, but femmes suffer greatly within the queer community and though their struggles are not the same as MOC queers, they still remain struggles. If I had a dime for the number of partners I’ve had who have been written off completely by the queer community for their femme presentations, I’d be less concerned about college loans.

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      hey e, i’m kinda confused about what you mean by “I feel like this is conflating sexist structures within a patriarchal, racist and heteronormative society with privilege.” privilege necessarily arises out of power structures in societies, so how i this conflating?

  20. Thumb up 34

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    I really appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into this article, and how there is an ongoing discussion of femme identity and experiences going on.

    I think it’s important to emphasize some of the original points of “Femme Privilege Does Not Exist” that other people are bringing up in the comments: a white cisgender femme has a difference experience with her femme identity than a femme of color. That goes for all the other intersections of identity outside of white cisgender femmes.

    The original author brought up how “femme privilege” reinforces the notion that all femmes are cisgender women, which erases all the other femme identities out there. This goes for trans-masculine folks who identity as both male AND femme, the beautiful queer cis boys who rock the best eyeliner and lipstick at the club, and for every femme trans woman who’s faced rejection when she’s disclosed that she was designated male at birth.

    “Femme privilege” is the result of societal gender norms that make-up = heterosexual, cisgender and sexually available. The experiences of being treated nicely by strangers (note, flirtations from heterosexual cisgender men) that the author shares are experiences I’ve also had. There have been times where I’ve been offered benefits or have received preferential treatment because of the assumption that make-up means heterosexual, cisgender and sexually available, and were revoked and retracted as soon as I emphasized two of those did not apply.

    If “femme privilege” only exists for cisgender, white, able-bodied, slender women, who are read as sexually available, does femme privilege really exist? Or, is resulting infighting over whether or not femmes are privileged reflect the patriarchal and racist bullshit that dominates our society?

    If you are being treated well because a heterosexual cisgender man wants to fuck your vagina, that is not privilege. It’s patriarchy. It’s gender policing, and we all suffer from it.

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        Thanks! I really appreciate Gabrielle’s piece, even if I do disagree with her argument. I have hella love and respect for Autostraddle.

        Also, I meant to tie in how I thought Vanessa’s piece about queering the NYT “debate” on make-up was spot-on about femme identity and presentation, and was really affirming.

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      Awesome response.
      And as an Aussie I find the references to being harrassed on the street and on public transport (regardless of presentation) to be disturbing. Not saying it doesn’t happen here, but in my experience, unless you are in a bar or nightclub, it’s pretty rare. Is it really that endemic in the US?

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          Different experiences are interesting.
          Even when I was younger, thinner and pretty by conventional standards, I almost never experienced any harrassment. Maybe because I either lived in boring middle class suburbia, or in inner city areas where I was just one of many different types wandering around. And I get 6 buses a day, and can’t ever recall seeing any harrassment (maybe we are all too tired).

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        I’m an Aussie & while I don’t get harassed directly these days (I’m a very large, masculine presenting [but in no way passing] person with a shaved head who carries around two long, solid metal sticks at all times – I’m apparently kind of intimidating) it used to appen to me a lot all over the place when I was smaller & more feminine.

        For a while I used to have to walk a workmate home (quite a bit out of my way)because we worked lates & she was terrified by street harassment she got occasionally & I was once involved in a car accident because two guys in different cars were too busing yelling & staring at me to watch where they were driving. Sadly, Australia is not at all immune to the street harassment epidemic!

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    I think in some cases (white cisgender conventionally attractive) femme women can have a small advantage over MOC women by “passing” in the straight world. On the other hand, looking on as an outsider, it seems to me that MOC women get treated* as equals by straight men; they get to be seen as actual people by the patriarchy instead of just fuckable objects.

    So both femmes and MOC women can have different privileges in the straight world, and different circumstances in which they are at a particular disadvantage in our patriarchal world. However, I definitely feel that MOC women are accorded more respect and legitimacy within our community, probably due to subconscious patriarchal programming that we all grow up with. It’s going to take a very very long time to stamp out masculine privilege in the world in general, but it is deeply disappointing to me that the queer community seems to value masculinity over femininity too, and I think this is something that the queer community needs to address sooner rather than later.

    *I am not talking about street harassment here, but in conversations at work, in bars, in stores, etc.

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      not wanting to fuck me and wondering how exactly it is that i’m a woman isn’t treating me as an equal. those are the general sentiments i receive when dealing with non-feminist, closed-minded straight cisdudes. i don’t get brought into the brotherhood. if ever i’m treated like an equal it’s to denigrate women cuz obvs i’m a dyke and i wanna smash hoes and let me tell you how much fun that conversation is…

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        I agree with the lack of fuckability not seeming like a perk or pass to equality, but I do know that in straight spaces with my straight girl friends their boyfriends unsure of how to relate to their “girlfriend’s lesbian friend” try to include me as a bro. I am expected to know about sports and drink harder liquor, but I have been told by these men that I am their favorite of all the friends who are girls because I’m not girly/drama/etc.

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    i just re-read cyree’s piece, and this one, and all the comments here, and i have to say i still stick with cyree on this one. i don’t think her article is negating the experience of harassment that MOC’s deal with, or claiming that MOC queers don’t experience their share of bullshit. i think she’s just drawing attention to the fact that the idea of femme privilege is bogus. the fact that we spotlight femmeness and call it privilege is precisely *because of* misogyny, racism, ableism, classism and cissexism (and i would add a number of other things, too). i’m also with the (mostly WOC) commenters here pointing out that sooo much of what is perceived as femme privilege is actually an intersection of the privileges of being white and cisgender.

    i also want to point out to the white femmes here that are like, “i don’t get it, femme privilege is a thing!” that when there are a whole bunch of femmes of colour and women of colour taking the time to tell you that how you see/live it is not how everyone lives it, something is definitely up.

    sarah freeman – you mentioned you want to learn more about how race impacts the conversation. there’s a ton of excellent writing out there by femmes of colour on exactly this. cyree’s tumblr, femme dreamboat, is a good place to start. so too is kim crosby’s: http://queergiftedblack.tumblr.com/ i would also highly recommend looking into the work of the late, beautiful, talented mark aguhar, and leah lakshmi piepzna-samarasinha also has some excellent writing about the intersections of her identities as a brown disabled femme artist poet etc.

    lastly i want to acknowledge that like 90% of the reason i can talk about femmeness at all is because badass femmes of colour like cyree and kim and leah who school me every day and i owe them a million thank yous.

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    **Note: I’m not trying to invalidate other arguments, just add something else to the mix that hasn’t been discussed much.**

    I love this discussion! I agree with a lot of points made by a lot of people (sometimes even when those statements are seemingly contradictory) but I feel like it boils down to the fact that everyone is a little privileged and everyone has trouble. And even from there you have to discuss the fact that what might be a trial for me as a cis white femme may not be a trial for another cis white femme because even outside of our identifiers our lives are different.

    It’s crucial and necessary to discuss privilege so we can be respectful, responsible aware human beings. Sometimes, though, I feel like being so focused on differences of privilege and putting ourselves into even smaller groups can start alienating people from this wonderful, enormous queer community we should all be supporting each other in.

    Maybe I don’t know much about this topic and I’m totally missing the mark. Maybe the fact that I can miss the mark proves how privileged I am. I want to learn everything I can about people so I can be respectful and help make good change, but at the end of the day when someone is hurting I just want to put my arms around them (only consensually, of course) and say “I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry you’re hurting.” I want to help even if I feel like I’ve had a harder life or live with more oppression or whatever because they’re not me. What I can go through easily could be really hard for them and vice versa.

    We all have good and bad in our lives. We should use these discussions of privilege to make the bad things disappear, not see who has it worse because “worse” is subjective unless we’re talking simply about the right to move through the world without being assaulted.

    I feel like (and again, I could be totally wrong) privilege can also boil down to what your end goal is. If your end goal is to pass, then cis female femmes could be seen as privileged. If your end goal is not to attract male attention and to be accepted in the queer community at large, than cis female femmes are not. Like my friends who apologize to me for feeling privileged because they were able to go to college and didn’t have the same monetary hardships I did growing up. It always makes me laugh because yeah, it would be terribly hard if my end goal had been to be a doctor. But my goal was to be a writer/designer. I know how to live hard, how to find ways to pay bills when the money suddenly stops. I know how to deal with life in ways they can’t. It forced me to get out and get jobs and internships and network in ways they didn’t have to. And now I’m doing work I love, set up to be a writer and designer full time in the next year, with years of experience in publishing, networked contacts all over the country and no college debt while they’re just entering the world/workforce. I feel pretty darn privileged.

    Everyone is different and, more than that, everyone sees the world differently. There’s no master scale or control about what is the ideal. Again, I’m not talking about the right to move safely in the world or any of the basic necessities to life. Those should be available to everyone. But if we’re talking about any privileges past basic safety and the ability to live, everyone will see things differently and want different things. By talking about privilege like whether or not femmes are privileged, what we’re trying to do is say “this is the ideal way to live, this is what is privilege” and that immediately excludes people.

    TL:DR: Everyone is different, everyone is privileged and has trouble. Let’s just learn more about each other, fight to make the world better, and come together as a big, amazing queer community. And when someone’s hurting, don’t talk about why they shouldn’t be hurting… just do whatever you can to make them feel better.

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      totally agree. ‘privilege’ all depends on frame of reference, everyone should learn from einstein.

      also agree that everyone should be banding together to work for true, real, 100% equality across all spectrums of life. however i will say i understand where everyone is coming from in picking apart different intersections and labels because in order to get to that point of true equality specific areas have to be defined so that this work can be targeted and effective.

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    What are we talking about really? Women being looked down on for not being feminine enough? Not white enough? Not welloff enough? And who are we to talk about mainstream dominant heteronormative rules when we fall into the same category, only replacing boy-girl for butch-femme? As a woman with no gender issues attracted to other women with similar leaning, at times, I also feel excluded in queer-centered spaces. Expectations and judgments go both ways.

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    “If MOC women are able to walk home alone at night without being bothered, it’s not because of “masculine-of-center privilege” — it’s because of male privilege. Nobody is letting her pass because she’s masculine, they’re letting her pass because they think she’s a he, and it’s never a guarantee that she’ll be read that way or for how long.”

    Exactly.

    Sometimes I think we go so far down the rabbit hole that we forget that privilege is an unearned advantage that is reliable enough that you don’t have to be conscious of it to receive it.

    Stigma is the other side of the same coin. It’s a disadvantage that so reliably happens that it gets into your subconscious and you just expect it without realizing it.

    Both are about expectations.

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    Oh, and I also think “femme privilege” is a misnomer. Often, people are talking about “gender conforming privilege” or something else. Society, down to it’s infrastructure, is set up to accommodate gender conformity like the way it is set up to accommodate right handedness.

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    Uh. This really strikes me the wrong way. I don’t see being viewed as non-threatening because of my femininity as a privilege — in fact, it’s very frustrating and sometimes frightening that because of my (often outlandish) femininity, I am taken less seriously than some more androgynous women I know. Patriarchy sets out to confine women to femininity, so when a femme takes charge of her own femininity, she’s misunderstood as a nonthreatening figure. A man doing you a favor because he perceived your actions as flirtatious =/= privilege. Honestly, it’s a lot like the argument male rights activists make when they say that getting free drinks is “female privilege.” There is no female privilege, and from my point of view there is no feminine privilege, there is no femme privilege. Butch and androgynous women/CAFAB people being shamed or harassed for their presentation, feminine presenting CAMAB people being shamed or harassed for their presentation, feminine presenting people receiving unwanted attention (and by extension, being assaulted and told that they were “asking for it” because they were wearing a skirt) — these are all functions of male privilege.

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    “For a trans* woman, it’s extraordinarily unlikely she’d be able to rely on her appearance to garner positive treatment”

    Nuhhhh! I wasn’t expecting a dig at my appearance in here D: Kinda harsh, jeez

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    I love this article and all the resulting discussion.The only thing that I think is missing is a discussion of what ‘femme’ actually means and here is where some of the issues arise.

    I am a white, ciswoman. I wear dresses, mini skirts and rock some red lipstick from time to time. I don’t get free drinks or free bus rides. Strangers are rarely kind. My body is the wrong shape, the wrong size, I wear glasses. People have assumed things about my sexuality because of the size of my body more often than they have made assumptions based on my gender presentation. So what does femme mean? This article seems to suggest that it means being ‘desirably’ feminine, a term that has within it assumptions of gender, sex, race, class, ability and perhaps at its heart – a docile, passive heterosexuality.

    Also – privilege, I think, is more about a systematic preference for one type of body over another, so if we are going to discuss femme-ness and privilege, we should be talking about access to jobs, education, housing. Ways in which social institutions recognise our bodies as acceptable or transgressive. And gender presentation can be a factor in these situations, but it is nuanced and very much intersectional.

    I don’t know, it also seems a bit odd to me to suggest that not all femmes are privileged but that all femmes are disadvantaged or ignored within queer circles. That queer cis boy rocking the eyeliner? Bet he’s not suffering from femme invisibility, ya know?

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    I love this article. It’s beautifully written and eloquently argued. However, one thing it fails to address is that EVERYONE has some form of privilege.

    Admitting that you’re privileged in ANY way–because you’re a member of the racial majority, or well off, or feminine, or able-bodied, or considered beautiful (no matter what your gender presentation), or smart, even–is uncomfortable. Everyone some form of “privilege”, it’s just recognized positively in different spaces. That nerd that was made from of in high school might be revered at MIT. A racial minority may be ostracized in certain places or spaces and considered beautiful or special in others. As mentioned in the article, MOC queers may be more recognized and accepted in queer spaces, while they may be subject to harassment in everyday life. Similarly, femmes may benefit from their gender presentation in everyday life, but may be seen as “invisible” or suffer from discrimination in queer spaces.

    Rather than simply arguing about who has more privilege and in what ways, we need recognize that most of us have privilege in DIFFERENT ways, and work to create a more inclusive, accepting environment for everyone.

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    You know, I think that the whole debate about whether femme privilege exists and butch privilege exists is completely ridiculous. I can think of many situations where either is at an advantage and draw from my own personal experience to talk about this, just like I can talk about when I was more androgynous-looking and people assumed I was a gay guy and treated me like crap. However, I think it’s highly divisive. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a space for all the voices in our community to talk about their experiences, but ultimately most of it is rooted in the same sources. Heterosexism, cisexism and (probably especially so in the case of people whose bodies are considered “female” by the kind of people who make that sort of assumptions about strangers and treat them like crap over it) misogyny.

    I also think most of what I would consider a privilege stems from those things too. As a femme, people will be more considerate of me and guys I’ve never met will offer to help me when I’m trouble – but that stems from the fact that, because I’m “feminine”, that also means that I’m not-threatening and in fact fragile enough to need lots of help and tolerance. When I was on the butch end of the spectrum, people rarely talked me down or patronized me, especially when it came to things like machines or sports — but again, that stems from the notion that women are only supposed to talk about manicures and sandwiches so being one of the guys gave me a pass. When you get down to it, many of these so-called privileges feel hollow and deeply unsatisfactory, like temporary fixes in what is a much bigger problem.

    I’m sorry if this is a huge message. But basically, I do think that we should all be pointing out the basic things that lead most if not all of us to have crappy experiences, and voicing that from all of our very different and rich perspectives, but trying to turn this into some kind of debate to see who’s more privileged is counterproductive. It just feels like a debate between two stoned/drunk friends trying to play “what would you rather?” when both options are about level.

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      I just want to say for the record that this member and me aren’t the same person, I don’t endorse their comment, yada yada. We just have the same taste in usernames.

      I genuinely feel like I don’t have much or anything to add to the conversation because folks are covering it here awesomely and I’m learning a lot, I just thought I would pipe up and clarify that we’re different people.

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    while i don’t personally relate to some aspects described in this essay, seeing ‘first person’ disclaimer at the top put me in a frame of mind to see it as a personal essay and so i wasn’t offended by it as if it were a generalising speaking-for-everyone deal.

    so my real question is was this disclaimer present from the beginning or only added later?

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    i think the arguments made by women of color in this thread are excellent. I don’t think it’s the same argument Johnson was making, or that gabrielle is writing in response to: that femmes are not more privileged than masculine-of-center women.

    a commenter mentioned upthread about “controls” when a point is a comparison point. if we are to discuss whether or not femme or masculine women have more/less privilege, we must control other factors. gabrielle isn’t saying a femme woman of color has more privilege than a butch white woman, that’s an entirely different conversation. White people have privilege over non-white people, period. that’s always true, racism trumps any other privilege we could ever talk about. but does male privilege not exist because black men have less privilege than white women? as a white femme cisgender woman, gabrielle perceives herself to have more privilege than a white masculine-of-center cisgender woman. intersectionality makes the whole argument impossible to have at all, imho.

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      Yeah this defies the point. It’s obvious to me at least that if we add some other kind of imbalance to the equation it’s going to change everything, and the argument at hand is whether by default butches or femmes have more or less privilege than each other, so it’s more useful to use a hypothetical scenario where they have all the same privileged except in that one thing. Unless we want to branch out because that’s also a very necessary discussion but probably not in the context of the two original essays.

      Some things are definitely absent from this article, it seems to focus mostly on cis lesbian women… I’d hesitate to say that this applies to gay man or trans people the same way.

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      By the way – does racism always trump everything? I hesitate to say that a rich able-bodied black man has less privilege than say a poor disabled white woman. This probably depends on where you live but I feel like other modifiers can end up trumping a single type of -ism where you’re at a disadvantage.

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        This is an interesting question to me as well. It seems to me that, depending on other factors, being in a typically privileged class can actually put you at a significant disadvantage. For example, if a MAAB person (whatever their gender identity), is perceived as both male and overtly feminine, they are often met with derision or even violence. Effeminate white cis men in major cities escape this to a certain degree, but the amount of prejudice faced by femme guys or trans women who are read as male is still staggering. Can you really say that they possess male privilege, when being male (or perceived as male) is one of the factors behind their being treated poorly?

        Being male, black, and poor is another example. Black men are targeted by the criminal justice system in far higher numbers than other demographic groups, including black women. How much male privilege does a black man from a low income community have if his maleness, in combination with his race and social class, make him a target for police harassment and other forms of discrimination? I realize this comment is a little bit off topic, but this is an element of the discussion about privilege that I’d like to see discussed more often.

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    I think I agree more with Johnson’s article actually. I saw Johnson’s article as an essay addressing the ways in which femmes are disadvantaged. I thought it was particularly poignant because femmes are usually invisible even within their own community. I think Johnson’s article was angry (and rightfully so) at these disadvantages. Of course I don’t agree that femme privilege does not exist at all. It does but only in the smallest imaginable sense. As in when a conventionally pretty, cisgendered, white, femme female does something feminine it will occasionally attract a positive response. I am yet to understand any other form of femme privilege. And I’m pretty sure that one thing that some femmes have is probably countered by other privileges that androgynous and masculine women have. I don’t think any queer woman is any more or less oppressed because of masculinity vs femininity, I just think that Johnson was trying to voice some of the problems that femmes have and that are usually kept pretty quiet (because the main problem is that we’re invisible).

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    I’m going to preclude this by apologising because I haven’t got the time or the mental energy to read all of the comments above right now, so I don’t know if what I’m about to say has been said or talked out already. If it has, I’m really sorry, just ignore me.

    This article does a good job in highlighting the different ways, and different degrees to which people can access certain privileges, depending on social context and the intersection of their other oppressions, but I still feel like all this talk of “masculine privilege” and “femme privilege” is framing this in the wrong way. By creating a whole new set of “privileges” and their counterbalancing “oppressions”, we end up arguing over whether these so called privileges actually exist and who’s /really/ the most oppressed, instead of acknowledging real problems within existing and understood frameworks.

    The term “femme privilege” implies a form of privilege that anyone femme presenting should be able to access, although I doubt that’s what anyone means. Femme men, and femme women who are not read as cis, gain little privilege from their presentation, and in many cases are more likely to suffer oppression for it if people assume they’re not conforming to the gender, or assigned gender, they read as.

    What femme women are accessing, when they’re read as non-threatening is a form of benevolent sexism combined with cis/cis-passing privilege because they’re conforming to societies expected gender roles. And when femme women are able to avoid homophobia as a result of being read as straight, again this isn’t a specific “femme privilege” but rather access to a form of straight privilege, or straight-passing privilege if you prefer.

    The article itself even notes this when it says:

    “If MOC women are able to walk home alone at night without being bothered, it’s not because of “masculine-of-center privilege” — it’s because of male privilege. Nobody is letting her pass because she’s masculine, they’re letting her pass because they think she’s a he, and it’s never a guarantee that she’ll be read that way or for how long.”

    So I’m not sure why the overall argument of the article is that “femme privilege exists”? Unless I read the conclusion wrong?

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    I’ve noticed the discussion of femme privilege is sometimes framed around the privileges given (or often withheld, if you’re not also cisgender and white) by cisgender men – eg. favors in response to flirting.

    OP however also mentioned privileges granted by cisgender women, like unquestioned access to public restrooms. Its not just cis men who drive the buses, so to speak. Femme privilege may not always be a backhanded advantage due to patriarchy – cisgender straight women can confer privilege to cisgender femmes as a direct result of the systems in place, but without first having to view a person as inferior or sexually available. I guess privileges given by women could be based more on A/ being read as conforming to appropriate norms for your gender, B/ not being read as male and therefore likely to be a threat or badly-behaved.

    I’m mainly of social advantages given by straight cis women at workplaces, on the street, family even. Yes the prejudices of others can still act on other aspects of our identity. But privilege can be granted to those who aren’t white and thin or conventionally attractive – the main prerequisite is femme. And cisgender- the experience of a trans* person could obviously be very different as privileges are revoked in pretty much any circumstance if you aren’t read as cisgender.

    Even these privileges could be experienced slightly differently depending on categories of identification other than cis and femme, leading me to the same conclusion as others – that the discussion is extremely complex and eye-opening and worthwhile, but the Oppression Olympics is counter-productive.

    I however can’t agree with blanket statements such as ‘femme privilege does not exist’. People have stated that in their lives, it does. It might often (and as i suggested, not always?) depend on also being white, cisgender, attractive – but it definitly depends on them also being femme. If everything stayed the same but their femininity, the treatment would be different, meaning femininity is a significant predictor of THEIR experience.

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      “I’ve noticed the discussion of femme privilege is sometimes framed around the privileges given (or often withheld, if you’re not also cisgender and white) by cisgender men – eg. favors in response to flirting.”

      You’ve nailed it.

  37. Thumb up 9

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    I have read every comment above.

    Here are the facts.

    Gabrielle wrote a First Person essay.

    A personal article conveys one perspective.

    Gabrielle acknowledges that there are various experiences.

    The truth of one’s story does not make anyone else’s story lesser. Let’s stick together, everybody.

    Much love.

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    “There are many people who are automatically nicer to women who they read as “pretty.””

    This got hinted at in the other comments, but from my POV, femme != pretty. There’s the concept of “horrible prettiness”, which was originally applied to burlesque performers, but kinda fits what I tend to envision femme to be sometimes – over-the-top, overbearing, confrontational. Then there’s all the non-normative femmes who will never be “pretty” no matter what they do.

    And THEN you have this idea that “femme” = Western rockabilly dresses and red lipstick. If I wore my salwhar khameez to queer nights, the same outfit my fellow Bangladeshi women wear all the time, I won’t be read as queer. I may not even be read as female unless I was in Bangladesh. I’d be read as “ethnic” or “foreign”, and with that potentially comes a lot of trouble.

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    In the end, it is the beautiful people who get all the perks, and we all know what mainstream finds appealing. Of course, our opinions on looks are suggestive and influenced by the status quo. Fortunately for me, the stablishment and I tend to agree on this particular matter. Actually, I don’t I should be posting in this topic as I have zero interest in gender issues, but as we all could see, this discussion has spread way beyond that.

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    Is it safe to say that masculine-of-center women face hardships because they dont fit in to the mainstream ideal of a “woman”? Therefore, discrimination against moc women is just an extension of misogyny?

    “femme” to me is a term that applies to people of all genders so… do femme men have privilege? most certainly NOT. The power structure in question here is less about “straight passing” and more about whether or not your gender presentation aligns with gender you were assigned at birth.

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    Patriarchy is total bullshit. I try never to “use” my “privilege” by accepting free drinks, rides, etc. But I’ve decided the one time I will consciously use my femme-white-cisgendered privilege is the next time some a-hole dude keeps bothering myself or my girlfriend I’m going to taser the fuck out of him and get away with it because, lets face it, no jury will convict me.

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    I’ve skimmed through some of these comments, but not all. So I apologize if I’m beating a dead horse.

    And unfortunately, I don’t really have the spoons to articulate myself much further, so this sentiment may be butchered (har har har, no pun intended).

    Johnson articulated a lot things that I was nodding along to and agreeing with (the idea of femmeness being equal to cisgender women, and thereby excluding trans women, genderqueer women, femme men, etc.) But there were a lot of points in the article I was disappointed by; namely, the idea that femme privilege doesn’t exist.

    Basically I want to summarize my ideas as this: femme privilege exists. Unfortunately, in the fucked up world we live in, femme privilege = passing privilege.

    Yes, a femme and a butch are going to get harassed when walking down the street (because of patriarchy) for different reasons, like Gabrielle pointed out in her response. The harassment I receive (as a femme) is going to be a lot different than the harassment my butch friends receive.

    But for femme women, overall, femme privilege exists.

    I think using the workplace is a pretty universal experience in order to examine privileges. As a teacher, I don’t have to worry about losing my job because I’m gay and interacting with youth, because I can stay closeted because of my femmeness/passing privileges, because I “look” straight because of my femmeness. Is that fucked up? Yeah, it is. But that’s the society in which we live. Going into interviews? I don’t have to worry if I’m not going to get the job because of homophobia. Because I “look straight.” My butch friends don’t have that luxury.

    At the end of the day, looking at a scenario through solely a femme lens and removing the other lenses (which I totally recognize as suuuuper problematic/damn near impossible because of intersecting identities), femme privilege exists. Using the workplace/an interview as an example I think is a universal experience that all femme women can agree that femme privilege exists.*

    And that was the problem I had with Johnson’s argument.

    *disclaimer: I recognize that diluting the femme identity and not looking at race, class, etc. is super problematic but I am trying to simplify it as much as possible in order to get my point across.

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      Being able to pass as straight and gender-conforming indeed can be advantageous. But “femme” is not synonymous with passing for straight and gender-conforming.

      Not every femme looks straight/cis or is read as straight/cis. Some trans feminine femmes (esp. those who are not read as cis) and most male femmes are, if anything, MORE visibly queer with a femme presentation. So I don’t think that your example of the workplace successfully proves a privilege universally shared by femmes.

      This and every single other example of “femme privilege” that I’ve seen has really been an example of cis/white privilege, or advantage gained by (dangerous, risky, contingent) “passing” as something most femmes are not (straight, gender-conforming).

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        And idk how an interview is an example of white privilege being synonymous with passing privilege when I consider two of my lesbian of color friends who are butch and femme respectively, and the same treatment would have been executed/has been executed upon both of them. In the overarching theme of femme privilege, yes race plays a crucial role in determining whether femme privilege is really A Thing, but in my very diluted example, if both of them were to go into an interview for a teaching job or a job in general, my friend who is a femme of color would probably get the job.

        And yes I would agree with you that my example is an example of cis privilege. But I have separate feelings regarding femmeness and trans identity.

        Femme identity/privilege could really be a whole thesis lbr.

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    This article made me think of an interesting video relevant to the topic. It addresses the similarities between transmisogyny and femmephobia from the perspective as a butch trans woman.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQu_2hOannU&list=UUO7_gwEjNM6eSDMUuTVGWbg&index=14

    One of the points she makes is that there are really two separate privileges in play, masculine privilege, and gender conformity privilege. And how it can be hard for some butch cis women to recognize that they have masculine privilege because they always experience it at the same time as they experience a lack of gender conformity privilege.

    Riese pointed out earlier that when talking about comparative privilege it’s important to control for other factors. Unfortunately it’s kind of impossible to do that in this case. If we compare masculine vs femme gender presentations and control for gender conformity, then we can’t compare Butch women with femme women, we have to compare butch cis women with femme cis men, or masculine men with feminine women, but then we can’t control for male privilege. Evens so, in both cases the masculine people typically have more privilege than the femme people. Just think about the difference between how society treats “tomboys” and “sissies”.

    Consider how most of the worst insults imply femininity, or how trans men are often seen as upgrading whereas trans women are seen as downgrading.

    Considering all this I find it difficult to believe that femmes have much if any privilege over masculine people. Of course that’s just my limited perspective as a white MOC trans woman who has never been very femme (except that one time).

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      Love this.

      The stew of hierarchies is extremely complex. Masculinity is privileged over femininity. Men over women. Gender-conformation over non-gender conformation. Heterosexuality over queerness. Cis over trans. Monosexuality over multisexuality. Thin over fat. And etc. I think “femme privilege” is an unfortunate result of eliding some of these dynamics and misattributing their effects to femmeness rather than more appropriate causes like gender-conformation.

      The Oppression Olympics is so useless when you start to compare groups who are dis-privileged in different ways. The morbid and petty competition between MOC cis women and femme cis women is a particular low point in these games. That’s why I liked the original “Femme Privilege Does Not Exist” essay so much– it wasn’t an argument that all femmes are less privileged than butch women. It was an argument that femmes, as a whole, are not privileged over MOCs because they’re femmes.

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        “It was an argument that femmes, as a whole, are not privileged over MOCs because they’re femmes.”

        THIS. The point is not comparing or quantifying privilege because that’s only divisive. The original article was just meant to say hey, we are all experiencing the same effects of misogyny (to some degree and in different ways in different contexts). I love that we can have this discussion on AS, and talk about all the different ways femme privilege does and doesnt work based on our own experiences because its means WE ARENT ESSENTIALZING GUYS. And I love that.

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    Some things I didn’t see anyone mention:

    1. This is not specific to femmes. You don’t have to identify as femme to be perceived as feminine (whether it’s some of the time or all the time).

    2. There are conventionally unattractive white cis femmes. I doubt they can get things just from smiling at people.

    3. Flirting isn’t a skill that everyone has. As an autistic person, I cannot flirt. I don’t even know where to begin with that. I also can’t just smile at people whenever I want to because it ends up not even looking like a smile. So not only does the author have white privilege and cis privilege, she also has abled privilege.

    4. I am a genderqueer, and I almost never get harassed when I walk alone at night, which is something I do a lot. This is the case even when I have a feminine presentation—and when my presentation is androgynous or masculine, I still am not read as male 98% of the time. I don’t have male privilege. So what explains that? I don’t think we should generalize about who gets harassed at night and who doesn’t and why that is the case. Also, it’s important to note here that in my experience of living in a small town (where my presentation was more feminine), I was never street harassed, regardless of the time of day. Let’s make it clear that this is a city-specific experience. It’s not something every non-dude deals with.

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    Femme privilege doesn’t only exist in the heterosexual society, it exists in queer circles also and the latter I’ve observed the most often. From what I’ve seen white femme lesbians will always be at top of the social value hierarchy. More people will message them on dating sites, when you take a femme to a bar people will circle around her like starving vultures. They will get more attention and they will be found more attractive by other lesbians while the andro and butch ones will be tossed aside. I know this will be a political correctness destroyer but according to my observations this is the social value hierarchy:
    - white femme women
    - femme women of other races
    - white butch/andro/masculine women
    - black butch/andro/masculine women
    No need to send hate messages, I’m just talking about what I observed so far.

    I’d also like to mention that you’re right on spot with “being pretty” and being accepted by the society. Personally I’ve been told to “smile” by random guys on the street and I’m not the only one, there are many posts about it on the internet. A smiling woman is more attractive in the eyes of hetero men and the society thinks a woman HAS TO smile, be pleasing and accommodating at all times. Maybe the reason I wasn’t chosen after countless job interviews was because of that. I don’t fit into traditional female look at all.

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      What you’re stating isn’t universal, or even common – I’ve seen femmes/conventionally-feminine queers being passed over and having their sexuality questioned because they didn’t look Alternative Lifestyle enough. The markers for attractiveness are so often this very narrow idea of “butch” and “femme” that anything else is “er, are you sure you are queer?”.

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        Yes there are just too many women who choose the Alternative Lifestyle to get accepted by the community or to be more visible and that is just wrong on so many levels but I admit I sometimes make assumptions too. When I see a highly feminine woman I assume she is a bisexual and in most cases they turn out to be bisexual but there are many beautiful feminine lesbians exist and I’m looking for one that complements me. If you’re a femme and from another culture though it makes things trickier because you need to prove that you will eventually be out to your family/friends and not end up marrying some dude to please your parents.

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          “…it makes things trickier because you need to prove that you will eventually be out…”

          Ruh-roh! That sounds a little racist/colonialist to me. Please don’t assume that queer people from other cultures are always closeted and/or married to dudes to hide their queerness (which is itself a biphobic concept because queer feminine-identified people can marry men and still be queer). The experiences of queer people from other cultures are just as complex and dynamic as those of queer people in the U.S.

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          I’m saying this as a Turkish lesbian who dated women from the East and ended up getting burned. I’d never date a woman who was so closeted so save your “racist/colonialist” rant to others. It ain’t gonna fly here.

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          I’m sorry I ended up making assumptions when trying to point out what I saw as you making assumptions. I’ll remember this when making future statements. What I said was my knee-jerk reaction to parts of your comment that I hear coming from the mouths of some people all the time, so I think my comment still stands, just maybe not directed at you.

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          As one of those “women of the East” who has contemplated that very decision about marrying a man for safety – seriously, fuck you and fuck off. Don’t project your biases and neuroses – which are VERY ROOTED in racism and colonialism – on to the rest of us who have to navigate a zillion competing expectations, risks, and often very little reward at once.

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          Hit a nerve didn’t I? Go tell this to your East Indian friends who dump us to marry dudes to please their parents and “live a normal life” (her words).

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          just because you prefer femmes doesn’t mean you support us. clearly. and your response to Creatrix Tiara shows exactly where your biphobia is. all over the damn place.

          “Hit a nerve didn’t I? Go tell this to your East Indian friends who dump us to marry dudes to please their parents and “live a normal life” (her words).”

          1)rude 2)hostile and not any damn way to talk to other queer fam, if I’d count you as fam at all 3) no one owes you jack, if someone ends up with a man, that’s their damn business and no one else’s, you are basically doing what straight men do when they complain about getting “friend-zoned”. no one owes you a relationship. period. the life choices that people make for themselves are theirs alone to make. sorry/not sorry. 4) the hostility in your message is exactly what misogyny is- hatred of women. 5) oops. your baggage is showing.

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          “fuck you and fuck off” is hostile and not any damn way to talk to another queer; remind this to Tiara pls.

          Let me educate you on what bi-phobia is: bi-phobia is an irrational fear or bisexuals. I don’t fear bisexual women, if I did I wouldn’t date them. Tiara snapped at me for saying people from some cultures are closeted and choose a traditional hetero life just to please their families and this is fact. Not all of them do this but since their families are conservative they don’t want to take the risk. This is a fact, no need to get offended. I also didn’t say anybody owed me a relationship but “I want to live a normal life” is offensive to me because it implies I and you live an abnormal life by engaging in same-sex relationships.
          Of course I like and support femme women, I wish there was more of them and I wish they were the majority and I’m saying this as a slightly masculine lesbian. It looks like you are just bored out of your mind and just looking for excuses to be offended.

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          “Let me educate you on what bi-phobia is: bi-phobia is an irrational fear or bisexuals. I don’t fear bisexual women, if I did I wouldn’t date them.”

          this is the exact same point that my professor used when he explained that strindberg “couldn’t possibly have been a misogynist because he loved and married so many women”.
          A lot of misogynists date women. A lot of biphobic people date bisexuals. How does you dating bisexuals prove or not prove anything? It is your phrasing and the way you talk about bisexual women that makes us think that you’re biphobic.

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          Same thing as I’ve had to point out to hetero men I’ve lost count how many times now. Dating women doesn’t make you not misogynistic, taking it further, *being* a woman doesn’t automatically make it impossible for you to be misogynistic.

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    On another note, I am a white cisgender female who has lived off and on in Guatemala for 2 years and on this visit I have been presenting more MOC than any other time and I just have to say I receive considerably less street harassment. I feel safe(er) here than ever before. One day last year I wore a dress and walked through a crowded city and couldn’t make it 10 feet without having someone harass me. Men on buses would try to “help” me just so they could touch me. But not this time, something about presenting MOC here says, “I GOT THIS!” Which says a lot about femininity here and not necessarily being femme considering homosexuality in this context is 100% invisible.

  47. Thumb up 2

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    The most important privilege anyone in this community can have is the self-esteem enough to be ablt to accept themselves as whatever they are; gay, queer, trans*, cis, femme, white, andro, a person of colour etc.

    If you can’t do that then no societal privileges really matter at the end of the day.

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      it also stands for Men of Color, but that’s not how it’s being used here, and it’s unfortunate that the author didn’t seem to feel the need to clarify that or just not abbreviate it as MoC. There are many ways that this author has erased and marginalized PoC identities

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        people on this site regularly use MOC to mean masculine of center. That’s pretty common when discussing queer issues as far as I can tell. maybe authors should always state what the abbreviations they’re using stand for, but I don’t think this was an instance of erasing POC identities.

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          “intention” being the operative word here. impact is something much different, and to be a real ally that’s the one that matters. privileged folx can have good intentions from here to eternity, it doesn’t really matter, if the impact is oppressive. MoC is Men of Color.

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          masculine of center/MOC is a term that originated in a queer community of color. whether or not white queers should use it is another question, but the creation of the term was not an erasure of POC identities.

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    Dear Gabrielle,
    Thanks for writing this really interesting essay. For having an intelligent opinion and taking the time to actually write a structured and really well written piece. I wish I had a small measure of the conviction and bravery that people like you do in allowing the world to read your work and then challenge you on it.

    Keep writing beautiful and thought provoking stuff, please!

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    Hi there Gabrielle, I want to say that I recognize that you’ve tried to complicate the issue of femme privilege by bringing your own voice and experience. I also want to reach out to say that I respectfully disagree with you and hope this will be a learning experience for you on how experiences of white privilege shape and determine your experience of what you call “femme privilege” and that the two (race and gender) can never be separate.

    I am a white femme and feel horrified to have my experiences (and the experiences of so many less privileged femmes) of being consistently targeted, harassed, assaulted and insulted described as a kind of privilege. I’ve gotten away with the “free ride on the subway for smiling” trick a couple of times and when I have, it’s been because of my whiteness. I have seen the exact same strategy consistently NOT work for my black femme friends. There is a reason for this. What you are describing is not femme privilege, it is white privilege. You will hear this from many many women of color in these comments and I hope you can take some time to sit with and learn from the critiques they have generously offered you then have discussions with other white femmes about ways we can work to de-center our experiences and support/respect those of femmes of color and Indigenous femmes.

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    One must note that “femme” privilege also extends to conventionally attractive heterosexual women. The real victims are women not considered attractive by our current standard (which changes slowly over time) whether they be straight or gay.

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    I know I’m reiterating what’s already been said, but I appreciate the inclusion of this line: “All that being said, I honestly don’t think it’s productive to analyze which identity involves less privilege.”

    As with any minority group, the h8ers try to tear us apart– they prey on our lack of unity. There’s a reason we call each other “family,” and these conversations are productive only when we use them to identify challenges and how to overcome them as a community. NOT when we use them to play “The Privilege Games.”

    Are there those in our community who suffer more as a result of their background? Yes. Gender presentation? Yes. Race? Yes. Weight? Yes. Family lives? Yes. ALL THE OTHER THINGS that I can’t include because I would be here all day? YES!

    But let’s recognize the struggles of our fellow queers, and let our knowledge aid our group cohesion, not build a chasm.

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      This exactly.

      I’ve been following the comments here with great interest, but I see a lot of “I have it worse” “no, I do” “no, I do”, even if not quite in such childish terms.

      The patriarchy and ruling class in general succeed using the time-proven “divide and conquer” method… by splitting into camps like this of our own volition, we’re doing their work for them, and spitting on our own feet…

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    On the not passing aspect, this is crucial. People wonder why I’m not offended when I pass as male or why I’m not exactly flattered when people say I’m too cute to do so or be ‘butch’ as they put it. Its because I know that at 5’0 and 92 pounds, I am a very fragile looking, very obviously lesbian person. That is terrifying. I don’t talk about it much, but being in public scares the life out of me.

    Once you pass as one gender or the other, you are not at too much risk of hate violence. Once they don’t know what you are, once you confuse them, then you’re in trouble. People do not like being confused and a gender non-conforming person risks very serious repercussions for violating their perceptions of gender.

    This is why criticisms of ‘oppression olympics’ are problematic. Yes we should exist as a unified community but there are issues faced by some of us that aren’t faced by everyone else. There is a huge failure to recognize the issues faced by those of us who don’t pass and will never pass, a lot of us being butch lesbians with no intention of transitioning. Just as gay marriage is the middle class, assimilationist goal of gay rights; the focus of the trans movement on access to hormones/legal changes forgets the real threat faced by those of us perceived as gender non-conforming by the outside world. We are in massive physical danger all the time and nobody seems to want to even recognize its an issue thats not being addressed.

    /rant.

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      Your experiences sound a lot like the experiences of my friend Alex who has a physical makeup just like you, and she’s expressed the same fears to me as a non-gender conforming queer. I just wanted to extend some hugs to you, if they are wanted. *hugs*

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    There is privilege associated with being gender-conforming, but this is not the same as “femme privilege”—for reasons that others have already pointed out. We live in a misogynistic society that oppresses women and devalues those things associated with femininity (including what we think of as “femme” expression). It is masculine presentation that is privileged generally, both in the straight AND queer communities.

    This whole debate seems like an argument over, “Which is worse: sexism (against (white) femmes) or homo/transphobia (against (white) gender non-conforming folks)?” Which is a pointless question to me, because it ignores the ways in which various other factors intersect.

    In my experience, as a white trans guy (usually perceived as a butch woman) who used to present as femme prior to coming out, I’ve experienced a lot less harassment and a lot more respect as my presentation became more masculine. I don’t get talked down to nearly as much, and I no longer get yelled at on the street or have to fend off strangers who are trying to touch me inappropriately. I’ve talked to quite a few butch women and FAAB trans folks who have literally never experienced these things, and don’t seem to understand just how toxic and soul-crushing it is. While I’m not denying that masculine FAAB people experience harassment (although I’ve been lucky in this regard), the assumption that femmes somehow “have it easier” is pretty toxic, and not something I can get behind.

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    also the few posts where certain people are basically congratulating themselves for having “dialogue” while continuing to erase and marginalize certain femme experiences, is pretty sickening. the other thing I’m noticing is the assumption of pronouns alllllll over the place.

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    Autostraddle is the only website on the entire internet where I can see an article has over 150 comments, and be excited to read every single one (as opposed to avoiding comments like the plague bc they usually don’t include anything but evil & hatred).

    I really place enormous value on this community and our ability to (usually) respectfully engage with one another and learn from each other’s experiences.

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    I appreciate the original AS essay. The author (Gabrielle) didn’t negate other’s experiences of oppression by acknowledging her own privilege. She very clearly qualified her opinions by saying they could be totally invalid for others depending on race, class, etc.

    Passionate discussion is good, but chill ouuuut.

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    Interesting article. As a mixed race cisgender bi femme dating a white cisgender gay femme, my personal experience is a poster child of the many variations of grey that is life. I also know from hearing about others experience that no matter who you are and what shade of the pallet of grey your life is painted in, there will be discrimination and/or privilege as you move through it. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is folks.

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    anyone else noticing with the author and a lot of the commenters that saying things like “this is just what i see” “i could be completely wrong” “this is totally different for other people” as a way of side-stepping criticism, instead of actually engaging?

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    Hi everyone! First of all I want to thank everyone for their passionate comments on this article. There are some excellent points being made here, and I’m learning a lot, especially from comments by women of color about their experiences with their gender identities and partners. You’ve opened my mind in a major way to how much more there is out there for me to educate myself about.

    It’s accurate that what I perceive to be my femme privilege is inextricably tied to my race and my cis-gender status and I appreciate all of you who identified that. My initial impetus to write this piece actually stemmed more from a desire to acknowledge and not downplay the unique struggles of masculine-of-center women moreso than to highlight my own advantages.

    Since I haven’t always been femme, my experience of navigating the world has changed as my gender presentation has evolved. In retrospect, I wish I had discussed this more; that as an androgynous white cis-woman, I found myself much less welcome in women’s spaces (like bathrooms or the gynecologist), subject to much more suspicion and hostility in public, than now that I’m a femme white cis-woman. And as a white cis-woman dating another white cis-woman, I feel like I can point to gender as the major reason people treat my girlfriend and I differently, as it is our main visible difference. I think if I could go back and do this essay again, I would focus less on certain “freebies” and more on things like experiences in job interviews, familial acceptance, etc. I also realize now that what feels like a freebie to me can feel very loaded and patriarchal to others.

    I just wanna emphasize that this was a personal essay and I wasn’t trying to speak for anyone else, it wasn’t a manifesto. In my attempt to acknowledge my own privilege (which involves all of my identities inexorably), I unintentionally made some of you feel like I was defining yours, and for that I’m really sorry.

    The point of sharing things like this on such a public forum is to spark discussion and to learn from each other, so thank you for helping to facilitate that. I think within this discussion, you all have entered territory that wasn’t addressed in my article nor in the article I was responding to, which is fantastic!

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      I’ve not always been femme, either. I became interested in more girly clothing after I started collecting hats and the further I went in my career, the more I saw women being disrespected and the more I fought against the pull to be a “special” kind of woman. I don’t want to be the exception. I want to be a girl who is also a scientist and who is also respectable. The more loudly feminine my presentation, the more I’m pushed aside or ignored and the more motivation I have to fight. I am white and cis-gendered (though I grew up poor) and I do not find that the femme experience is inherently better than the butch or andro one. I’ve had this conversation with both my fiance and a butch friend of ours and they’ve both talked about how nice it is to have men treat you like a person and not like a toy or something annoying and in the way. This is anecdotal and not everyone’s experience, but the point is you can’t say that just because you know both sides that you know the overall differences. You don’t have everyone’s experience and I find it repulsive that you would belittle me or my femme friends’ negative experiences because you didn’t have them or didn’t notice. My point is not that butch is better, it’s that it does come with a list of benefits that femmes do not get to share. We are equally (if differently) oppressed.

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    not buying into this..
    I can’t even believe there is an article that is holding a woman up to an invisible standard for being shamed… I’m sorry this is bullshit… You get mad at the femme but don’t get mad at the system? I hope I never run into a woman who is taking these type of attitudes.. as a proud black militant femme, I can’t even imagine how I would react if I encountered a woman telling me her story and oppression matters more because she dresses like a man… just because you feel marginalized and insecure for various reasons doesn’t give you the ability to put those same feelings off on other lesbian women.

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    You talk about the ability to use your femininity to get things (like a free bus ride) or to fit in better in women-centric areas. But my fiance, as a butch, has demonstrated her ability, on multiple occasions, to be respected and listened to by men much more easily than most women. Especially, unfortunately, even in my career circle. We joke that she helps me network because she can be a girl when a girl needs a friend and hold her own with the guys without being talked over, stared at, or interrupted. She gets the benefits of being one of the guys and still gets to be a girl when it counts and that is most definitely a privilege. Now, I’m not saying that she is more privileged, but I certainly would not say that I am either. Where she is noticed and maybe given strange looks, I’m completely invisible or seen as weak or a victim. It’s a trade off and neither is better or worse than the other. Also, the whole idea of femme getting free bus rides or having things done for us because of how we look is sickening and I fight against it every chance I get. When guys at work insist on doing something that I’m perfectly capable of doing, I remind them that if I want to win the right to equal respect and pay and promotions, then I need to pull my weight. When guy friends try to tell me they’re not going to let me walk home alone because it’s too dangerous, I quickly remind them that I’m an adult and I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions. Those “privileges” that you get as a femme are products of a sexist culture and should not be considered benefits. There is no denying that butches don’t have it easy, but their version of oppression is not worse than ours. Fighting over shit like that is gross and will only segregate us further.

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