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 agree. Consistently 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.