Femmes. We live in different places. We’re different ages. We have different gender identities. Some of us are people of color, some of us are white. In this representative sample, we are Autostraddle writers, or artists, or musicians, or educators, or all of these things. The only thing we have in common is that we’re queer and that, in our own deeply personal way, we breathe life into the word femme. But like so many other differences, we don’t agree on what the word femme means to us. This is the beauty of gender fluidity. We live in a world where it is totally possible to claim the same word as someone else and completely disagree on what the word means.
In organizing this roundtable, I did have some questions in mind, like: what does the word femme mean to you, personally? Do you think there is a generational difference in how people think the word should be used? Do you tie your experience of femme to emotional labor, or care work? What are your femme roots? And do you lean on a queer femme aesthetic to signal your queerness, and if so, do you think this aesthetic has been co-opted? The answers revealed the exciting ways the queer world is living the word femme, right now, in this moment. Spoiler alert: we’re more visible and resilient than ever before.
There was a time when I could have identified as femme, but I didn’t know any other femmes, and no one told me that it was okay to be femme. When I started being openly queer, I was really femme, but people kept saying: “nobody knows you’re queer.” Eventually, I thought that I couldn’t look femme and also be queer. I thought it was impossible to be both at the same time. But I started to feel entitled to reclaim femme after finding out about people like Leah Lakshmi. I saw her and thought, “Oh my god, this is a brown person, a disabled person, and a person who is into witchy things.” It was huge to find people who were interested in all of these different things that resonated with me.
None of the ways I describe femme are based on how someone looks. When I re-discovered femme, it was really linked to witchy things, and spirituality, and care work. Femme is connected to emotional labor and healing. It’s based on the energy you put into the world, the connection you make with people and the care you have for them. It’s allowing a particular kind of tenderness to be part of your identity. That might sound really woo-woo, but it’s true. It’s not just an aesthetic. Having something based on just aesthetics is really dangerous because it removes the politics from things.
There are people today who are angry, they think that only women should call themselves femme. They think that if you’re not a lesbian or bisexual woman and you’re calling yourself femme, you’re contributing to an erasure or appropriation of the history of lesbian and bisexual women. These people are talking in a really binary way. In my observation, it seems to be a generational thing. But the people who are most affected by these opinions are trans women or transfeminine people, and I feel like if trans women and transfeminine people are telling you that you’re doing something fucked up, cis women should listen to that. Also, all of these people who have identified as femme over the decades, who knows if they would have identified as women if they had the language then that we have now? Maybe some of those people would have been like, “yeah I’m femme, but I’m also non-binary.”
My metrics for gauging femme were imprinted on me in the San Francisco queer scene in the early 2000s and I’d never lived anyplace else. It’s hard to understand what that was like unless you lived it, but even on my tippy toes there were always femmes flying much higher than me! Those glorious creatures are why I’m still reticent to identify as high femme; It took living out of state for four years to fully understand that my San Francisco reality was rarely reflected anyplace else.
I’ve finally come to sort of queasily embrace myself as high femme, or at least high x hard femme, but I have a really hard time committing to any single aesthetic. I don’t get dressed to tick off boxes or be sorted into a category; I get dressed to capture a very specific hyper-feminine feeling that isn’t quite complete until the last lash is lacquered. If there’s an overarching theme beyond that, I genuinely can’t see it. The “hard” part comes, I suppose, from being a strident feminist with high standards for longer than I’ve been a queer. Though I’m significantly tougher and infinitely less fussy than I look, I’d rather die than change how I dress in order to effectively communicate those things. People tend to assume things about women who look like me — that includes fellow queers — and the last thing I need is to feel like I have to constantly prove myself to strangers. Thank god for Resting Bitch Face and tattoos, the latter of which can help somewhat in artfully signaling being both femme and feminist.
I associate being femme more with vigilance than with emotional labor or self-care. That’s the energy I put into the world and that I feel from other femmes. The emotional force in my life comes from the quality of relationships I seek, not from being femme.
On the idea that an older generation of people think only women should claim the word femme: I’m 36 years old and I find that kind of restriction on “femme” to be abhorrent and willfully cruel. No femme friends of mine — and I’m lucky that they are numerous — believe anything like that, and many of them are my age and older still. If they did, I’d dump them on the spot! The “erasure of lesbian history” narrative is weak and fearful, that’s all. If it takes you longer than a millisecond to know the answer to Do I want to be weak and fearful or do I want to be kind?, then I haven’t got time for you.
On a more positive note, I think of femme today becoming more inclusive as an acknowledgment of what already was rather than a new reclamation. It always feels new once you realize who you are and choose not to hide it! I’d love it if we all welcomed non-cis femmes into the light with open arms and a friendly “What took ya so long?” knowing full well the answer, and knowing how brave you have to be as a femme in this world.
My version of femme is Bruja Femme, but this summer I’m also moving toward Pop Witch Femme, as inspired by True Gay Icon Carly Rae Jepsen. It looks like dark red lipstick and winged eyeliner without caring about any other makeup. It looks like stars and outer space and Our Lady de Guadalupe. It feels like connecting with the long line of Mexican women and witches that I come from and want to be more like. I definitely think that for me, my femme-ness is tied a lot to my emotions. I use it to find myself and center my mind and my heart and, in a way, be my truest version of myself. If I’m not being a femme, I’m hiding more than just my fashion or my attitude or my personality, I’m hiding my essence.
My femme roots include a lot of other trans women of color. When I was first coming out on the internet, I made a lot of twoc friends and they really helped me figure out who I wanted to be and who I am and how I wanted to be that person. I’m absolutely going to cite Luna Merbruja as one of my main roots. And this is like, totally cliche, but Paris Is Burning really opened my eyes to a whole new world of femme possibilities. Also, and I know this is nerdy, but a lot of comic book characters like Batgirl, Catwoman, Zatanna and Storm, who really showed me that being femme can also be super powerful. Oh, and definitely Ronnie Spector and Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
As far as femme visibility goes, I definitely think about how the queer femme look is more visible in mainstream media. I feel like for me, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” video is the peak of this in a lot of ways. Everything in that video looks so fucking queer, but it’s hard to tell how many of the people in it actually are queer. I think part of that comes from the way younger people are identifying, with studies showing that the younger you go, higher and higher percentages of people ID as not straight and/or not cis. I think it’s cool, and hopefully that’s a good thing for the future of femmes.
Honestly, my femme experience is entirely tied to my appearance and not at all how I would identify my personality. I say Utility Femme, which to me means I CONTAIN MULTITUDES. Like I’ll be made up and then wear some sensible shoes, or I’ll make sure I have on like eight necklaces and then definitely be able to replace your car’s front bumper. So to me, it feels less like a brand and more like an aesthetic. But you know what? When I see other femmes and femmes with femmes it makes me want to get in a car and drive with the windows down while I blast an air horn out the driver’s side because of how pumped it gets me.
I don’t associate femme with emotional labor at all, and actually, I don’t really associate femme with tenderness! I equate Femme with being able to ruin someone’s life IN A GOOD WAY if you wanted to, this bubbling-just-beneath-the-surface strength. Not that strength and tenderness are mutually exclusive, but maybe it’s that their approach feels different.
On the idea that an older generation of people think only women should claim the word femme: I’m afraid I don’t even get that argument, possibly because I’m not super smart but also possibly because that argument is bananas? Cis men are described as “butch,” so does that invalidate an entire self-identified group within lesbian history? No? They get to keep that one? It’s almost like the femme identity… is invisible. Sorry. No, kidding, but I think femme has always been relevant. I don’t think we’re reinventing or reclaiming the word, I just think it’s not been seen. Like it’s been this thing confidently moving through a crowd looking for a familiar face and everyone’s finally like, “Where’ve you been we haven’t seen you all night!” and it’s like, “You’ve spilled your drink on me twice and told me to move?”
I also love that younger people are abandoning a traditional approach to gender and sexuality and that everyone is becoming so indecipherable that the inclination to label yourself or someone else is pointless. I think it adds a richness to the femme identity, really, that we’re more complex than a separatist identity.
My only femme roots are that I remember thinking Aaliyah was the best-dressed person I’d ever seen and then later realizing I was also in love with her. It’s still confusing when this happens.
I am attic femme. Boxes full of punk dreams, old VHS dance videos, altar candles, glitter raffia femme. I’m the type of femme that is Aries Armor and unafraid to tell you that I cried on the leather bag of the guy in front of me at the Benjamin Clementine concert, because I was tired of not being famous. I definitely think femme is tied to emotional labor. Femme labor looks like creating soft rooms of satin for your lovers, and laying underneath the carpeted ground as they roll around with their newly remembered, healed, and transformed selves. As you side-eye them (lovingly…) like, “you’re welcome.”
Femme labor is silently sewing your mouth shut, as you lift your lover’s ego high enough that you can both float away to the planet that you’ve been building together… all the while praying that your held breath and your heavy heart can stand to hold the both of you. Femme means that you’ve got some sensitivity that doubles as strength and you are down to aestheticize it, commune over it, or fucking fuck about it.
My femme roots are in my ancestors, who whisper the textures and sounds that create the most powerful vibrations; my musical mothers — Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, and some that are still living; and in my femme friends, who are honestly gifts to the planets that orbit them.
Yatta’s photo in the feature image was taken by Nancy Musinguzi.
The word femme, for myself specifically, is a departure from traditional femininity. I see femme as the rebellious teenage daughter of femininity. Femme is the process of taking the feminine words that were placed in my body, words like “soft, weak, quiet” and transforming them into: “wild, loud, confident.” Thinking about femme in this way is complicated. When I broke up with femininity and embraced femme, I felt strong and confident and powerful, but I was left with certain desires that I couldn’t find room for in myself. What was I supposed to do with my desire to nurture, to care, and to love something deeply?
This is why magic and other healing practices are so necessary to how I identify as femme. I use witchy things to care for myself and show other people that I care for them. Reading someone’s tarot is a way to remind them (and myself) that vulnerability is a measure of growth and strength. Lighting a candle and saying a spell for another femme is a strategy that reminds me how important it is to comfort and protect each other. When I didn’t have a personal understanding of the word femme and only understood my caring process through the traditional femininity I inherited, I felt fragile and lost. The differentiation between the two is, in many ways, totally arbitrary — but by taking the word femme on as a project, I was forced to actively investigate and take apart the ways that traditional femininity lived in my body. Claiming femme made me feel like an agent of my own experience, not a passenger.
It’s really exciting to see how a queer femme aesthetic has emerged in the past few years, and I know from experience that forming an aesthetic helped femmes signal queerness more visibly in public spaces. I think of the queer femme armor I wear, like purple lipstick and scrunchies and too much glitter and baby pink harnesses and chokers and five shades of rainbow hair and iridescent combat boots. I want to be optimistic and say that femmes had some very specific combination of adornment to signal our queerness for a brief, beautiful window of time. But, as the historic narrative of queer appropriation into mainstream culture goes, the queer femme aesthetic is now super trendy. So we have a new obstacle for femme visibility, but you know what? The greatest skill I have as a femme is not waiting for you to figure out if I’m queer. When I’m going out, gathering my hair in a perfect top knot is just as important as gathering the sparkle required to make eye contact, approach you directly, and be the first to say that I want to make out.
My femme is tomboy femme/hausboi femme/femme prince. It’s feminine and utilitarian. It’s full of hearts and stars and silks and velvets and glitter, and always includes a good shoe that still allows me to run full speed across a field of flowers and do a cartwheel. It’s baking cakes for people I love from scratch in a kitchen I cleaned myself. It’s adding a peter pan collar or a huge flower broach to an otherwise menswear-inspired look. Femme for me feels like I’m finally settling into the way my body wants to be seen. When I first came out as queer, I butched it up big time, because that’s what you do when you’re a 16-year-old baby gay. And then I realized, that I love the way my thighs look in a dress, that I feel like I can take over the world when I do my makeup, and that glitter will cure all ills. I want to be the one who gets to ride on the horse and “save” the princess, and I want to do it in a skirt that does the Thing when I spin around.
If my femme identity were tied to any kind of emotional labor it would be nurturing. All of my femme role models have been mothers, aunties, grandmothers, and other caregivers who had hardened calloused hands from working so hard, but could and would still stroke your back with all the gentleness in the world if you were hurting. When I think about being femme, it’s tied to taking care of my community. It’s tied to holding folks in the light and uplifting my community with love and care.
Femme invisibility is still very real, and extremely difficult to navigate. And I do think that a lot of it has to do less so with any sort of purposeful femme erasure in queer communities (although that is extremely prevalent), and much more to do with the fact that it’s an identity being co-opted by folks who aren’t queer. I think a lot of our discussions around femme invisibility in queer spaces center around masculinity, and those are valid and important discussions, but I’d love to see the conversation change and try to look at the ways our identities have been taken by straight (white) women who want cool points. And so, as I think happens often when the majority gets its hands onto something that minority groups have been doing for a while, we lose our ability to say, “Hey, this is ours!” Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us. It’s like, they steal our aesthetic, they steal our identities, and they steal our ideologies… but they water them down. I think femme-ness is directly tied to queerness, though; it’s a resistance to traditional femininity and it’s tied to the heteropatriarchy, even if it sometimes mimics it. That’s what makes it powerful. That’s what makes us resilient.
Wow, I love all of this so much. My favourite parts:
“It’s allowing a particular kind of tenderness to be part of your identity.”
“I have always thought of femme as intentionally living as a feminine person.”
“I equate Femme with being able to ruin someone’s life IN A GOOD WAY if you wanted to, this bubbling-just-beneath-the-surface strength.”
“I see femme as the rebellious teenage daughter of femininity.”
Yes to a femme post!! So proud to be a femme lesbian.
I love all this. As someone who came out late, butched it up for a lil while, and am now back to femmeness, I am trying to figure out what that means. I don’t like coming off as straight, but I also don’t really have any sort of artistic aesthetic. I guess I’m lazy femme/tomboy femme/shy femme/nerd femme/basic femme. What I want to convey is “I’m not afraid of my femininity but I’m not doing it to follow mainstream cis straight white privileged fashion, and I’m certainly not doing it for the male gaze”… it’s hard for me to pin down. One thing I found I love is wearing my glasses with makeup; it’s historically such a nono for dressing up, which makes it feel queer. But maybe people just think I’m from Brooklyn.
I’m definitely on the more butch end of the gender presentation spectrum, but “nerd femme” sounds like a dream date, frankly. I wouldn’t have even known how to articulate it (although now “geeky butch” sounds like a pretty apt description of my fashion sensibilities).
Nerd femme is the phrase I’ve been looking for. Not geeky femme, but nerdy like “never recovered from wearing a school uniform for thirteen years” + “learned beauty tips from library books” multiplied by “loves historical fiction.”
Yes to nerd femme. For me this looks like: chunky pink glasses and a lipstick that I put on only for video games, which I refer to as my “game face”.
So… I don’t suppose any of you live in the DC area? Asking for a friend!
Love this!!! I’ve lately been experiencing this weird angst about being “out-femmed” by the straight women in my social group who always seem to be more edgy, more artsy, more boundary-pushing than me, especially coming from my location within an arts community. How frustrating it is to feel like I’m not doing Queer Femme as well as these cis and straight-identified women.
Reading about all of these different iterations of femme was a much-needed reminder that I’m not doing it wrong by dressing practically or being sensitive and soft-spoken or having an aesthetic crisis (switching styles every day!) or “failing” at my art or being the conglomeration of many different, contradictory things at once. Love to all of the femmes who have struggled with claiming ownership of their femmeness. <3
“Aesthetic crisis femme” describes me as well.
But yes, I don’t feel like everyone has to be edgy/artsy to show their personal identity. If your brand of femme is expressive of your own tastes, that should be enough. I struggle with happening to fit into “straight” femininity in many ways, which makes me worry that my identity isn’t as valid, but in the end we can support our loud outspoken politically-femme femmes while being also our own brand of femme. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Plus if I look around at other queer older couples around my neighborhood, it’s often the case that they look just like any suburban women (skew butcher, perhaps). While in some communities people show off queerness/femininity in deliberate and artistic ways, for other people it’s no big matter and they are just as queer femme.
THIS IS MAGIC YOU ARE ALL MAGIC
I couldn’t read this whole thing yet because I am crying. Like, maybe my appearance has skewed more butch lately but there is still a tender, strong femme here, and in exploring the masculine parts of myself I needed this reminder to also explore and recognize the feminine parts.
This is all so so gorgeous.
My (nonbinary) femme is very wrapped up in the poetry slam community—like some of it is literally aesthetics borrowed from other femmes there BUT it is also the way I am alternatively (or simultaneously) hard and soft, don’t fuck with me & vulnerable as a poet.
My femme is not I AM A femme, it’s fluid and performanc-y, both in a “gender is a performance” and most present when I’m performing other things.
I’m so happy about this roundtable! It’s only a few months ago that I started proudly and firmly identifying as femme. And sometimes it feels like this label doesn’t really apply to me but was rather imposed on me against my will. I have never felt particularly feminine or masculine or presented in a certain way and I rarely wear make-up. But on the “gender presentation spectrum” I guess I am more on the feminine side of things. I love femininity and I enjoy wearing dresses and pin-up culture and make-up and painting my nails, I also have long hair, I just don’t care as much as I thought you had to care about these things to be “allowed” to identify as femme. I felt “femme”-d by others when I started coming out. By straight people telling me that I didn’t “look gay”, and later also by other lesbians who couldn’t believe I was gay. That felt horrible to me as I thought queer spaces would finally allow me to be more visible. I felt very insecure in my identity for a while, started experimenting with my gender presentation and tried to be more masculine, and I also liked playing with my presentation in this way, but it wasn’t really me. It was just when I discovered the terms “tomboy femme” and “lazy femme” on Autostraddle that I felt recognized and like I could claim the term “femme”, that I could be feminine and gay and cute, without being hyper-feminine. And I am so grateful for that!
Love, M (a proud tomboy/lazy femme)
PS: this is one of my first comments on this website but I’ve read AS for years :)
Yes to all of this! I hated when it was put on me by others but am loving what I can do with it now that I’ve seen it can be so much more
So glad this conversation is happening!
For me also, this separating femme from femininity has been ESSENTIAL in my growth as a femme – which has made my life infinetly better. I could not put it to words so concretely myself, so a big thank you to you!
Wow, thank you for this! Thank you for sharing your beautiful words and faces, and the wonderful variety of ways to embody femme. It is so helpful and comforting to see how a variety of genders can be femme, how much strength you find in femme-ness, and how it may be tied to aesthetics or emotional labor or not.
Trying to squish myself into traditional femininity often feels oppressive or performed (and is part of the reason why I cut off my waist-long hair – the other part is that I was driving myself and my roommate crazy by continually asking if I should), but I don’t think “dapper” or “butch” fits my personality…I still am trying to figure out myself and my aesthetic (along with many other things), so I think I’m going to come back and re-read this.
Anyhow, this is really beautiful and so are you.
love this post so much, thank you for the effort put in xxx
yall are dreamy
Thank you for this post! This is really useful from a perspective of having been out for a few years and still having no idea what to do with these terms. I always figured I was femme just because I knew I wasn’t butch, but femme has never felt like a fit for me either. Maybe whatever-femme, in with the long hair, out with the makeup and fancy shoes, and switching between pants and skirts. But I don’t think I have a style that has anything to do with being queer, or even much of a style at all, beyond “this garment is vaguely professional,” or “I don’t know, I just really like that shirt.” And, personally, the word doesn’t resonate with me beyond the worlds of personal style and presentation.
So, because this is all incredibly confusing for me, I found it especially wonderful to hear about how you handle your relationship to being femme!
Ahhh, this is all so refreshing to read. Gender presentation is a difficult road to walk and after going to a Pride event where I only received attention from men last weekend… I caught myself wondering am I going to have to cut off my hair and shelve my silk blouse and a-line shorts. It seems even tougher because I don’t usually dress up, which I think is the popular perception of what femme is? Like, I don’t wear a ton of makeup, or walk in heels with perfect grace. But I do want to embody MY femininity – even if it’s a jeans and t-shirt, lacy bra, red painted toenails type of femininity.
What Bryn Juniper said, “there is something about asserting myself as a femme in a world that is hostile and dismissive of me,” resonated so strongly.
My femme style is not edgy, and I am not loud, so my self-confidence and self-respect are off-putting to people who would put me in a box.
I wonder all the time, Why do you see my dresses and my flats and my baby face and assume you can dominate me? Why do you feel you can have that thought in your head?
When in reality I am so strong, maybe stronger than you.
My femme is a quiet power.
It centers emotions and talking about them.
Truthfully it demands a hefty price tag from me in terms of caretaking others, but which I would gladly pay every time.
My femme makes me a warrior sometimes.
A mother at other times.
I am proud to be femme and proud of all of you.
As a tomboy femme… this discussion makes me very happy. Thank you! Alaina, Rudy, you both particularly struck me, but everyone wrote beautifully. Awesome!
This is my new bible. I’m gonna print it out and collage your words to my walls- all of you resonated so much in such different ways. Thank you.
“Femme means that you’ve got some sensitivity that doubles as strength and you are down to aestheticize it, commune over it, or fucking fuck about it.”
YES. THIS. FEELINGS.
LOVE this quote!!!
Yes! I’m so glad this post exists. I really needed help thinking about the difference between femininity and femme, and also thinking more about emotional labor. Also, the struggle is real in LA with all the cool straight girls dressing semi-queer, I’m always confused about who to flirt with :/ As far as self-description goes, I usually find myself using the terms tomboy femme and chapstick lesbian. Thanks so much for this post, and to everyone for commenting, I’ve loved reading those, too.
Not to be that buzzkill, but romanticizing doing more than your share of the emotional labor, especially if you are the sort of person (like, for example, an afab person or a transfeminine person) who’s very likely to have been socialized to do more than their share of the emotional labor, is much more dangerous than aesthetic without politics. When I read, “silently sewing your mouth shut, as you lift your lover’s ego high enough that you can both float away to the planet that you’ve been building together”, it took me a moment to understand that this was supposed to be a positive thing, and then I just stared at the screen in horror for a moment. It’s one thing to value supportiveness and knowing when to shut the fuck up when someone else is having a personal crisis. It’s another thing to remove your ability to express your emotional needs for the sake of your partner’s ego. I’ve been there. I wanted to be dead. Anyone, of any gender expression, deserves to be able to express their needs.
Also, I don’t really care and it probably isn’t my place to have an opinion since I’m nonbinary myself, but it’s weird to me that no voices at all in support of femme as a specifically-lesbian or specifically-wlw term were included. There’s a difference between saying something’s cis-only and saying something’s specific to a certain context involving women (who would not necessarily have to be cis!), and I wish that hadn’t been presented so uncritically.
We can be buzzkills together, because I always feel really nervous when people start associating femmeness with things like emotional labor and softness. I appreciate this whole comment.
Yeah…I don’t get this.
Like the goal should be divorcing emotional labor from gender entirely, right? Because that’s the patriarchy’s doing?
I used to identify as femme because clothes and lipstick but reading this I related to 0% of it.
But the person who said that didn’t present it necessarily uncritically. The whole quote is: “Femme labor is silently sewing your mouth shut, as you lift your lover’s ego high enough that you can both float away to the planet that you’ve been building together… all the while praying that your held breath and your heavy heart can stand to hold the both of you.”
That sounds to me like the person has conflicted feelings about the emotional labor they undertake. A heavy heart isn’t exactly a joyous thing. They were identifying with this labor, but I don’t think they were glorifying it.
True, and I definitely understand identifying with emotional martyrdom as something you have a tendency towards, or as sort of the hole you have to keep yourself from falling into. I can understand identifying with having experienced the hurt of emotional martyrdom. I can even understand how some people might find it easier to think of emotional martyrdom as just another part of their identity rather than as something they have the power to stop doing. Before you hit rock bottom, it doesn’t feel like something you can change, or even something you should change, necessarily. How will anybody like you if you’re not doing everything you can to make them happy?
But the truth is, you… don’t have to do that? It’s not fair that some people are programmed to do that and some people aren’t, but in my experience it’s often more something you do to yourself than something your partner does to you – my ex sure seemed to have gotten used to me doing this, but they also didn’t seem to understand very much at all that I was overextending myself in a painful way (or that I’d have difficulty talking to them about it with a mouth metaphorically sewn shut – but again, they didn’t know I did that!) If I hadn’t made myself an emotional martyr, maybe things would’ve gone better, or gone wrong in a different way, or never gone much of anywhere at all. I can’t blame them for not being able to fix the things they didn’t pick up on, or not having a style of care more compatible with my needs, and it’s more complicated than me being one type of person and them being another type of person, because there were people in my ex-partner’s life that they’d sewn their mouth shut for, too. I also can’t blame me for behaving in the way I was programmed to, and not realizing how fucked up it was sooner. But moving forward, it’s very, very obvious to me that this tendency is something to fight against, not something to celebrate as a part of one’s identity.
And I believe that most people are capable of surrounding themselves with people they can trust enough to open up to, and of practicing airing their grievances in a constructive way instead of holding them in. (And no, I’m not a neurotypical person assuming that everyone can do things that come easily to me. I don’t want to disclose what I have, but unlearning emotional martyrdom is very likely much harder for me than for your average person). It’s hard to get over that pressure, and it’s likely going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s definitely not something to roll over and accept and hope you eventually meet someone who won’t let you suffer in silence. I’m pretty “eh, whatever” about a lot of self-destructive habits, but I just can’t be that way about this one.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
Yeah, we would have to check in with the person who identified in this way to find out their more full-fledged thoughts about it. It’s not a sentiment that I connect to personally – my relationships are not set up this way – and it’s impossible to know the full context of their statement in the short piece they wrote.
If this is something that caused you pain in your own life, and that you worked to overcome and were successful in moving on from, I can see how the writer’s words would feel triggering for you, or how you might like to note that when people are ready to move on from that model, they can.
But without knowing more about the situation or the person, I would definitely hesitate to tell them to “get over it” or classify it unilaterally as self-destructive. Whether the writer wants to move on from that paradigm, embrace it, or simply live in this moment with its various rewards and discomforts, that’s their call, ya know?
Please don’t assume people felt triggered (or that they felt any specific thing, really) when that isn’t how they said they felt. I do feel triggered sometimes, and I’m absolutely not one of those people who derive some sort of puerile joy from making fun of the concept. When I read that, I felt, “yeesh, this is a self-destructive attitude toward relationships that it’s completely irresponsible to encourage.” There’s nothing wrong with not being in a rational state at all times, and nobody’s really in a rational state at all times – god knows I’m not – but I was pretty calm when I made these comments, and it’s kind of insulting to imply I wasn’t.
In general, I feel like people understand their own situations better than outside parties who don’t really know them could, so even when someone’s decisions don’t look great from the outside, it’s difficult to really understand. In this specific situation, I know that I shouldn’t have been sewing my mouth shut, and it feels to me like the person who wrote that is sort of promoting that behavior by treating it as a perfectly natural part of what being femme is. Nobody has to do that, especially because their partner might not even want that, and doing that with some kind of expectation that their partner’s elevation will be shared is a little dishonest! Maybe it’s their call if they want to live like that, but it’s my call if I want to complain about it, too.
Sorry, meant to say “MIGHT feel triggering for you, or how you might like to note that…”, my comment meant to portray that i get that there are various reasons you might feel like that, and the opposite of telling you how you felt or making assumptions, but that sentence failed. Thanks for checking in on it :-)
Agree, I started interpreting it as femmeness only for cis-women when the original question was just about how femmeness is used. Does our generation use “femme” for straight women? If so we should def be critical of that. I don’t know anyone who says that AMAB/male-identifying people can’t be femmes; only that it means something different in the context of wlw.
What I’m trying to say is that trans women are women, and even if the term is only for wlw or more specifically lesbians, that doesn’t mean it’s only for cis people because some women, including some lesbians and other wlw, aren’t cis. An amab person can be a lesbian or other wlw if she’s a trans woman who is also a lesbian or other wlw.
I must sound a little bit repetitive and annoying, but that’s what I’m trying to get at. Conflating the statement “the word ‘femme’ is just for lesbians/other wlw” with the statement “the word ‘femme’ is just for cis people” (which I don’t think anybody is actually saying?) in order to argue against them both? Kiiiiiiinda comes off like one is assuming that lesbians/other wlw are all going to be cis women, when, uh… again, trans women are women and also exist.
(And no, I don’t think you’re doing that, but it’s absolutely something this conversation could stand to keep in mind a little more.)
Yeah. I’m a trans woman who DOES see butch and femme as specifically relating to lesbian and bi women. There are TONS of us, not that we’d ever be acknowledged here. This article is just toxic.
I especially had to bitterly laugh at this part:
“But the people who are most affected by these opinions are trans women or transfeminine people, and I feel like if trans women and transfeminine people are telling you that you’re doing something fucked up, cis women should listen to that.”
Uh huh, suuure.
But god forbid any trans woman dare to criticize them, then we see how fast this ‘uwu listen to trans women’s criticism!’ dies down. (Also note that only cis women are supposed to listen to us? Ahahahaha yeah that’s 100% spot on for the incredibly transmisogynist nb folks I’ve seen in every ‘femme’ scene like this.)
I’m so glad I got the fuck out of ‘femme’ scenes like this. Full of the most vitriolic policing I’ve ever faced over my makeup (or lack thereof) and clothes and general presentation – moreso than my goddamn mother and the therapists/doctors I had to face when first getting on HRT.
Sure, ‘good’ trans women who toe the party line and never criticize and wear acceptably feminine makeup and clothing can sometimes get by in these spaces, even join in the dogpiles on trans women who AREN’T presenting acceptably. And they looove to drag us in for Good Ally Points, albeit always to suit their own ends.
I have mixed feelings too. But unfortunately the reality is that “taking on more than your share of the emotional labor” is coded as a feminine trait. If we present femme and don’t caretake, we’re too often punished for it.
For myself I believe the blame for this does not lie with femmes but with masculine folk.
I think the blame rests more with socialization than anything else. I don’t think people without that mindset really realize how self-sacrificial caretaking can be, and wouldn’t necessarily consent to it if they did. It doesn’t change how shitty it is to be someone who’s internalized the message that they’re worthless if they don’t caretake, but if you’re going to apply blame, I think it’s more accurately applied to everyone adding to that message and not trying to counter it than to whoever the object of caretaking happens to be.
And I’m really uncomfortable with envisioning feminine folk and masculine folk as a binary. Not everybody’s really going for one specific gender presentation or another, or putting a lot of thought into how they dress. Sometimes money or disability affects how people can present. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable presenting in an eye-catching way if they don’t have a body that meets beauty standards. Some people like caretaking and also practical clothing. And people are still treated differently depending on their perceived race, wealth, gender, gender alignment, disability, orientation, etc etc etc… and all of those things are also going to affect which person in a relationship holds most of the burden of caretaking. For me, it had so much less to do with sometimes wearing skirts than it did with feeling like my mental illness made me a horrible person and I was obligated to do everything I could for everyone who heroically put up with me. Gender expression isn’t any more of a universal explanation for everything than gender itself is.
I agree with Alice. Femme is a lesbian term and anything else is appropriation. Forcing women to “be kind” is what the patriarchy has done to us for centuries. We are allowed to state our boundaries. If that makes lesbians unkind, so be it. Very disappointed in this article.
Thanks, but as I tried to say, I don’t… actually have an opinion about this either way? I just think it’s stupid that your views weren’t represented in the article, and that “only wlw/only lesbians” is framed as a trans-exclusionary position when it does include plenty of trans people.
Sorry, I don’t mean this as an insult anything, because I have zero issue with anything you’re saying. I just want to reiterate that I’m not personally taking a side at all, especially because I don’t feel it would be appropriate for me to.
*as an insult OR anything
In my defense, it’s very hot out.
Thank you so much for this. Immediately when I saw the emotional labor question I thought “Uh absolutely not.” That is just such an unhealthy mentality!
And I was confused too about the Femme word not belonging to the wlw culture… I thought that was exactly what it was for, no?
Really? I am a queer woman and I completely disagree. There are lots of male and non-binary femmes – what would you call a non-female person who enjoys make up, skirts/dresses, etc.? I also personally feel like straight women can be femme – to me, femme is essentially femininity divorced from patriarchy. To be femme is to embrace and rejoce in the power and strength (as well as the softness and vulnerability) of femininity. People of any gender and sexuality can do that.
Hi, I literally made an account right now just so I could reply to this. Femme isn’t an adjective, its a lesbian identity. And this article is complete bs. First of all, I’m really uncomfortable with queer being used as an umbrella term, and I know lots of others are too. I know it sounds inclusive, but queer is still a slur and it is still used in a derogatory way every day, and many LGBT people are not okay with being called that. It’s not that had to say LGBT or LGBTPN or with a + at the end or whatever you fancy, but can everyone please stop referring to us as the queer community? I don’t identify with that word and it makes me uncomfortable when it’s used to include all of us. Like, I’m not queer, I’m a lesbian, don’t take that away from me. Just call me a lesbian. I’ve noticed its the new (not really new) trend lately to hate lesbians. I hate the way this article insinuates lesbian/wlw = cis, like that really speaks more on the people who said that than it does wlw. There’s such a huge stigma around lesbians I feel like, anytime it gets political if we don’t say anything without being kind or sugar coating it then we’re just perpetuating the angry hairy man hating lesbian stereotype (which yall love to do anyways, minus the lesbian part, replace it with dyed hair and colored lipstick, and the word queer, but for some reason we’re the only ones who get shit for it). Like not to be a Big Mean Dyke with all my angry complaints, but lesbian =/= terf either. Terfs are disgusting and insidious and we try our best to keep them out of our spaces. Its really frustrating to see these assumptions, especially by feminist/lgbt activists such as above, because they’re supposed to be helping us, not yelling at us and taking stuff away. It feels like I’m not allowed to mourn the loss of lesbian identifiers and culture bing taken from us and made to be more “inclusive” so that everyone can do it, someone will just get another bad idea about lesbians. Yall!!! We are angry for a reason!!! Please listen to us!! Femme is a lesbian specific word. It is a literal whole identity that is inherently tied to and a part of lesbianism, you can’t erase that or sweep it under the rug. We created that identity, for us, by us. It’s not like a one size fits all kinda thing. You need to understand the history of that word with lesbians before you can make claims about it in general. I am a femme lesbian and reading this article only made me feel shitty and it made my heart hurt. “The “erasure of lesbian history” narrative is weak and fearful, that’s all. If it takes you longer than a millisecond to know the answer to ‘Do I want to be weak and fearful or do I want to be kind?’, then I haven’t got time for you.” That is so shitty. How is it weak and fearful? We are upset and hurting because people are taking our identity/way of life and completely changing it, and claiming it as their own, and they’re not even letting us have a say in it!. And “If it takes you longer than a millisecond to know the answer to ‘Do I want to be weak and fearful or do I want to be kind?’, then I haven’t got time for you.” is phrased so unfairly. I am a kind person, but I won’t stand for my own identity being taken away from me. And you also need to let people know it’s okay to be weak and fearful, not everyone has the same amount of confidence and strength, and that’s okay. And while femme does have some emotional aspects to it, it is about the appearance too. You wouldn’t say appearance isn’t important to butch girls, would you? Anyways, idk how this website works like since this article is old I’m not sure if people will even see my comment, but I’m gonna share it anyways. Oh and watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q7IzwUa_kI&feature=youtu.be one of my fave videos lol
“But even on my tippy toes there were always femmes flying much higher than me!” Christ I needed to read this, this whole thing, really. I was a butch 6 year old, and I’m a butch 26 year old now. I spent a too-long amount of time thinking there was some class or manual I missed on this, or that it was actual magic. This gave me some Very Wrong Ideas about Femmes for a while. Getting to know a Femme or two fixed me up right quick, but I find there’s always more to learn here.
All your posts are so beautiful and powerful and convey what’s at stake. I feel like in my femme-ness I’m looking for a partner who can handle my strength and the deep well of what I can pour into them, the parts of them I can hold in safety in me.
So this blew my mind, YAT/TA: “Femme labor looks like creating soft rooms of satin for your lovers, and laying underneath the carpeted ground as they roll around with their newly remembered, healed, and transformed selves. As you side-eye them (lovingly…) like, “you’re welcome.””…it’s so precise and saturated an image. Wonderful stuff.
YOU’RE ALL TOO WITCHES FOR WORDS
Also, I have greatly appreciated your continuing coverage of True Gay Icon Carly Rae Jepsen and her Boy Problems video.
this is the best! I love how you all disagree so much, and I love the diverging opinions re: emotional labor especially.
I love femmes so much <3
"Femme means that you’ve got some sensitivity that doubles as strength and you are down to aestheticize it, commune over it, or fucking fuck about it." !!!
I actually don’t get this at all. How do you aestheticize sensitivity or sensitivity as strength? It kind of feels like it means that sensitivity is better demonstrated in make-up and and dresses than suits.
If I don’t consider my best qualities to be ones that are traditionally “feminine,” am I a butch in a skirt?
I’m not totally sure I understand your questions, but I’m going to give it a shot :)
“How do you aestheticize sensitivity or sensitivity as strength?”
For me personally (if there’s anything one gets out of this roundtable it’s that femme means radically different things to different people), “aestheticizing sensitivity” is about the connections between how we choose to present ourselves and traits important to us. I so believe in being kind and staying open and loving in a world that punishes everyone for that and punishes women in a unique way for that. For me, feminine style feels right with those feelings and values that I have as I interpret them. The style is connected to the feeling for sure – but only about how it’s interpreted through me. Sensitive butches/bois/folks who hate all gender presentation labels all exist obviously! It’s about how I personally interpret those feelings through how I present myself not about some inherent trait that, like, feeling sad about puppies in the kill shelter means I should wear light pink.
“Sensitivity as strength” for me is all about how proud I am to still be sensitive and kind in a world that doesn’t want me to be those things. Staying kind both takes strength and is a strength I can draw on (and others can draw on/our community can draw on).
Re: “am I butch in a skirt?” Obviously not haha unless you want to be. These labels are things we put on ourselves when they speak to us – nothing about it is prescriptive or even has a coherent, official meaning. I think it’s pretty clear that many femmes don’t feel like sensitivity or traditionally feminine qualities have anything to do with their femme identity and for them it’s mostly about aesthetics. You’re probably one of them, and I’m not.
Thanks for letting me go more in depth into (a small fraction) of my many feelings about femme identity <3
I always considered femme my gender presentation rather than my gender role or personality. Its interesting to hear different perspectives, though at the same time, I feel like like it does enforce the notion of femmes being the straight girl equivalent and butches being the straight male equivalent. I don’t see why dresses and makeup should = traditionally feminine characteristics other than because of associations created by patriarchal stereotypes.
To be honest, even though these were meant as personal definitions, a lot of them made me feel pretty excluded. I don’t think the fact that I value a lot of “male” characteristics makes me less feminine. Because sensitivity etc. shouldn’t =female and independence etc. should = male.
This is how I’m feeling. Femme used to be a label I was comfortable with but the idea that being femme has anything to do with being sensitive or emotional labor or other characteristics that have been labeled traditionally feminine in a patriarchal society makes me feel incredibly gross. Not because there’s anything wrong with things that have been historically considered feminine–and those things are constantly undervalued–but shouldn’t the goal to end the systems that have designated certain traits feminine or masculine?
I like lipstick but I’m not ok with doing more than my share of emotional labor in a relationship because that would be fucked up. (Plus my ADHD kind of makes it hard anyway.)
What I’m hearing from y’all, Abby and Maeve, (and I could be totally misinterpreting – correct me if I’m wrong) is that, in response to a wide variety of diverging opinions on what femme means to femmes, because some of those opinions are not how y’all personally feel, you feel alienated or excluded or uncomfortable calling yourself femme.
In some ways, I definitely get that as someone who very much does not do the typical queer high femme or hard femme aesthetic and sometimes feels alienated from femme stuff because of that, but, in other ways, I really don’t get it because the opinions presented were so wildly different and focusing more on the ones that make you feel alienated and less on the ones that make you feel at home seems… idk… unnecessary? Hurtful? Dangerous? Like sometimes I see “femme means perfect eyeliner and tattoos and sexual aggression” stuff which SO does not resonate with me, and I try to be happy for that person and feel secure in my own femme-ness even if it’s different from theirs. I do get insecure sometimes because my femme presentation is so conventional and because I’m not about femme4femme as much as I’d like to be, but I know it’s on me to do the work to feel secure and recognize that femme isn’t a competition and the diversity is beautiful.
I just feel like there’s two conversations happening here: 1) Does emotional labor or sensitivity have any relation to your personal femme identity? (answers will vary in interesting ways and y’all brought up some super great responses here which I’m still mulling over) And 2) Does the fact that some femmes feel like there’s a relationship mean that the femmes who don’t feel that way are less valid? (of course not!!)
Am I totally off the mark here? Or does this make sense?
In response to everything else y’all brought up – I’m really struggling to articulate why the definition of femme which involves sensitivity and emotional labor resonates with me so much (which is why I’m so grateful to those who’ve articulated this so beautifully.) It just feels like home. Maybe not the most healthy of homes! But like home. It feels comfortable and dangerous and hot and connected to lesbian history. When I read Stone Butch Blues I cried every few pages because I just felt so seen as a femme. I saw the dynamics of some of my relationships (some healthy and some very much not!) in it.
I love doing care work and performing emotional labor, and it’s on me to figure out a way to do that in a healthy way and be supported and appreciated for it.
I feel femme in the way I relate to other queers – like it’s such a community-based identity for me. (I’m femme on my own and queer on my own, sure, but what does that matter?) It’s how I feel in community with femmes, in relationships with more masculine queers, in nurturing/mentoring/protecting roles with baby gays. Part of it is definitely aesthetic for me but it’s a small part especially because I don’t do the more visible queer femme/hard femme aesthetic.
To me, femme is all about finding a way to survive under the violence of patriarchy by using the tools we’ve been given that we’re both punished for using and for not using (feminine appearance, sensitivity etc) in a way that gives us and our communities strength. I definitely didn’t coin this but someone said something about femme being a way to make womanhood not hurt, and that really resonates with me too.
@sketchyblondes “femme being a way to make womanhood not hurt” Right, yes, exactly this.
I don’t know how this assumption was made, but my femme identity is not constructed as an opposition to butchness. My femme identity is constructed in relation to my socialization as a woman. I think all people who have been socialized as women (or, as alaina so wonderfully put, “women-aligned”) have to go through a self-aware and conscious process of understanding who they are in relation to the gender they’ve been socialized to embody. I am not saying, I would never say, that people who identify as butch have no place to think about emotional care. My relationship to care, my process of working through how my assigned gender role lives in my body, and the process of transforming those things into healthy relationship practices with myself and others, is deeply personal. A lot of people in the comments are saying that having a self-awareness of “emotional care and emotional labor” is inherently unhealthy or destructive in some way to relationships. But like, when I wasn’t thinking about care, when I rejected every form of femininity I inherited and labeled all forms of care as destructive or unhealthy, I was (surprise!) a way worse partner. It is actually the healthiest project of my life to take on emotional care work, and to think about creating structures in my life that allow me to consciously care for others. It’s not self-sacrificial, it’s my personal healing process with femininity that allows me to create my own boundaries for what I choose to accept and reject in stereotypical femininity. And I think everyone, femme or not, can go through this process.
Thanks for articulating this so well @cecelia!
I’m so sorry if anything I said misinterpreted the formation of your identity – I was really trying to speak from “the I” and all that and only talk about myself but I’m sorry if I slipped up. I wasn’t trying to write in response to your piece in particular. (Or even if it was clear the whole time that I’m speaking only for myself, if I made it seem like my femme identity is mainly about my relationship to butchness, whoops! Def not true, def not my intention. lol at that idea.)
I was trying to go through your comment and find a quote to use in response to say “yes I feel this way too!” but then I realized I was just quoting every sentence of your paragraph. So I will refrain from doing that :)
@sketchyblondes Oh, no, I am very affirmative and supportive of everything you’ve said and was talking in response to other comments, sorry that was confusing!
This is a really hard thing for me to even talk about, it kind of makes me skin crawl honestly. People can identify how they want, people can perform however much emotional labor they want, but if people out there are taking on more than their fair share of emotional labor because of their gender presentation well…I hope they’re ok. And I hope we get to a place in society where emotional labor is completely unrelated to gender because it’s really fucked up that that happens.
@louvella (Maeve? Trying out this new tagging thing. Perhaps unsuccessfully.) Thanks for offering your perspective here. I’m going to offer a really long response to a very short comment :)
First, I wonder if we interpret “emotional labor” differently. It’s often used in a negative way (which is maybe why you see it in a negative way?) but I think it’s not automatically negative.
I think of it like running and working out. I love running, and I find it so invigorating and such a great way to use my body and celebrate my body and work to help my team. BUT if I ran all the time and never took a break I would literally die. Similarly, I love performing emotional labor. I love making people feel appreciated. I love supporting others’ growth. I love supporting other people through tough times. I finding it invigorating, and it’s a way to use my skill and strength both to celebrate those skills and strengths and to support my community and people I love. BUT if I did nothing but perform emotional labor and took zero breaks and never got anything in return from other people, I would spiritually and emotionally die. Running as much as I do isn’t for everyone nor is performing the amount of emotional labor I do. But it’s for me. (And doing both also feel very connected to being femme for me.)
Does that make sense?
“but if people out there are taking on more than their fair share of emotional labor ***because of their gender presentation*** well…I hope they’re ok.”
I think that’s the real difference in our perspectives! I don’t think it’s a “I like wearing pink and painting my nails so I should perform more emotional labor than I receive because women’s work and all that” thing. That’s not at all how this feels to me. I don’t think I enjoy, say, noticing a bit of extra work someone put into an event I was running and sending them a quick thank you for it *because* of my gender presentation. But it does feel very femme to me.
It’s less like the gender presentation drives the behavior, and more like it’s all part of me and all a way of expressing myself and is all a way to survive under the violence and trauma of patriarchy. Aesthetics are a small part of my femme identity and definitely not the driving force. The idea that what you wear makes you femme feels very gross to me haha.
And to highlight the other part of your comment – “taking on more than their ***fair share***” – that’s also super different from my perspective. It doesn’t feel like there’s a “fair share” of emotional labor – as if it all has to even out in the end down to the very last supportive hug. It’s whatever works for you and for your particular relationships. Like I said earlier, I do think I need to be careful about it and make sure I’m not veering into self-sacrificing territory and I need to be in touch with my needs. I definitely also don’t want to pretend that I’ve always been good about that, that the way I perform this labor has always been healthy or pretty, but it’s all part of the journey.
Here’s an anecdote that maybe help explains my perspective more:
In response to being very sad about a girl (who consistently treated me poorly) doing something very hurtful to me, I put together little mini care packages for all the first years in our community. I wanted to respond to being hurt by being kind. I wanted to respond to feeling so unsupported by supporting others. I had no idea where to put all my complicated feelings, and I responded by making other people feel better and building community.
In some ways, that’s maybe not so great. Maybe it would be emotionally healthier for me to be a person who responds to getting hurt by always reaching out for support from others.
But! But consistently doing things like that, making other people feel welcome in our community and supporting them, when I really had to leave her and really had to deal with how bad her behavior to me was, I had this huge web of support from nearly every member of our community that I had developed. It was lifesaving.
Everything about it feels so femme to me.
Being in an abusive relationship with a masculine of center queer (who I still care deeply about), using showing kindness to others to survive that relationship, building a community of support (from femmes and from other queers), and relying on my community in the end to support me and help me heal – it wasn’t pretty or simple or healthy or “fair” or right. But I survived on my own terms. That’s how I understand being femme.
When I came out in the 70s, femme was unwelcome, I felt like I couldn’t be me and be gay. It took me a long time – decades – to claim my femme identity. And truly I cannot be me without including that.
I appreciate this post, but I wanna take a sec to really uplift the folks in this post and outside of it that identify as femme and aren’t interested in the aesthetic of queering beauty standards traditionally associated with cis women. You can be a femme in a bowtie, you can be a femme in boot cut jeans, you can be a femme and have never held a tube of lipstick. Y’all are just as valid as we femmes that do all that stuff.
Thank you for this.
I have a legit question. Do people inherently see femme emotional care as different from butch emotional care? When my butch girlfriend holds me when I need care, is that different from when I (the more femme one) hold her? Or are they just seen as different because of how society perceives us because of how we present ourselves? Thoughts?
This is a good question. In my own life, and in friends’ lives to some extent, what I’ve seen is that anyone can give care, but there is a kind of finesse to femme caretaking– a butch can buy you a shirt for your birthday but a femme will get you the shirt you noticed in the mall one day. (Obligatory statement that some butches may be excellent gift givers.)
I also believe femmes are more likely to stand by their partners through hard times.
Femmes go to bat for people we love, even at great cost to ourselves. There is an element of selflessness and sacrifice in femme care.
Not saying this is good or bad. These are just observations.
I think there might just be different ways people express caring and it’s likely that we base this on the kind of care we want to receive.
Personally, as a MoC individual, I find caretaking from femme girls to be stifling a lot of the time, and therefore would not offer this kind of care up to my loved ones.
Hi! I don’t mean to be rude, but I saw this comment and it kind of rubbed me up the wrong way? I hope you don’t mind me replying to it.
I think the main issue I took with this comment is it sort of made butch/femme look like the same dichotomy and stereotypes you get in heterosexual relationships – “men can’t buy gifts, women are selfless and sacrificial”, and I think we as queer people owe each other better than that?
Especially after such a nuanced discussion in the original post about how people personally identify with being femme, to then have it suggested that my presentations means I’m less likely to stand with my partner through difficulty kind of stung. To say that it’s “not good or bad” doesn’t really work when that is very much a value judgement there? That femmes are more loyal (and by extension, butches disloyal?)
I hope you understand where I’m coming from, and that our comments meet each other in a good place.
Alex, you said this more politely than I ever could. I’ve been thinking of a way to reply to that comment since I came out of work six hours ago.
V, you might want to reconsider painting all butches with the same broad brush of no finesse, disloyalty and implications of not being capable of sacrificing themselves, and then peppering that statement with lines such as “Obligatory statement that some butches may be excellent gift givers” and “Not saying this is good or bad. These are just observations.” This left a really bad taste in my mouth. Insult us or don’t, but don’t try to play it off like you said something neutral and not-hurtful!!!!
As a butch lesbian, I’ve been told a thousand times that I’m bad at being a woman. Your comment implying that our gender presentation means we basically have the same traits associated with heterosexual men (as said nicely by Alex), does just that. It’s not original. I thought this site could have a space uplifting femmes without shitting on butches, but I guess that didn’t entirely work out.
Look, I’ve held up the world for my butch partners time and again. So have many, many femmes.
Some of the writers even discussed this. YAT/TA said it better than I could: “Femme labor looks like creating soft rooms for our lovers”/ “Femme labor is silently sewing your mouth shut, as you light your lover’s ego high.”
Our labor deserves to be recognized and acknowledged.
Telling me I’m imagining things, or exaggerating, or being mean to butches, or whatever, is putting the focus back on YOURSELVES when this is the one space I’ve seen in a long time that is just for us and is not about your needs and feelings.
The imbalance of emotional labor in butch/femme relationships is real and it exists. It is not a knock on butches to say so.
For some reason can’t reply to you, so I’ll just reply below you.
I guess I’ll have to take your word for it! I have never dated a femme, but this apparent complete imbalance and aim for self-sacrifice in service of your partner’s feelings you are describing doesn’t make me want to. I can’t think of any butch who would want a relationship this unhealthy, but if they all do I count myself lucky for knowing the exceptions. I hope you and all the femmes in your life will find some too.
Actually, that was phrased poorly. I didn’t mean to imply that you need to find good butch exceptions or anything, I just wish happier and healthier relationships for you.
It seems like some people here are equating the distribution of emotional labor in a queer butch-femme relationship with that of a stereotypical heterosexual relationship. If that is their experience, that the femme in the relationship has to be the primary caretaker as it were, I cannot refute that, but it has not been my experience. I am femme and thus far have pretty much only dated MOC ore transmasculine people, but I am also drawn to caretakers and people whose capacity for empathy is equal to or greater than my own. Most of my exes are definitely caretakers, as I am, and it’s really important to me to cultivate an equal partnership in emotional labor when I’m dating. I don’t think it’s impossible at all, and I’m surprised to see people in this thread assign caretaking to its stereotypically gendered roles.
@queergirl, it is nice to know that there are femmes out there with different experiences. This reassures me a lot.
As a femme of center with a masculine of center partner, I have not seen this to be true. People hurt each other in relationships, this is true, but it’s not necessarily about your identity or their identity; it’s about compatibility. My butch partner and I share in the vulnerability and the support that we provide for each other, hence why I was asking about femme “emotional labor” and how people perceive it relative to butch “emotional labor”.
This space should absolutely uplift femmes, while simultaneously no one should be putting down a butch or anyone with masculine identity or traits.
Abuse is abuse and those are unfortunate experiences for people, but it creates no right to put down all butches as abusers. As a femme, I will say a safe space for me does not include surrounding myself with people who want to denigrate my partner for no good, rational reason.
You were absolutely right to call that out, Cecil. You are welcome here and in this conversation.
“… a butch can buy you a shirt for your birthday but a femme will get you the shirt you noticed in the mall one day.”
Speaking as a butch (soft butch? Whatever…) who has routinely done this for people in her life, this entire comment, and the quoted part above in particular, seem really reductive and insulting. People can be proud of being femme without having to run down butches. And butches can be proud of who we are without running down femmes. My being butch does not mean that I’m some emotionally bereft shell of a human being who cuts and runs on people. Seriously, what the heck?
This kind of stuff is how you wind up with situations like what I recently experienced, wherein my (now ex) girlfriend dumped me, then acted all surprised when I was upset and hurt and, you know, cried as she told me she was breaking up with me. Because apparently the fact that I’m masculine of center means I don’t have emotions. That’s a really harmful stereotype to perpetuate.
Right, just because there are portions of the queer world (excluding femmes with femmes and butches with butches, for the purpose of this point) that mirror the straight dating world, doesn’t necessarily mean that we buy into the same stereotypes or even that we see ourselves that way. This always bothered me in past relationships with men, that I didn’t really see men and women as that different emotionally, and yet the burden of differing emotional expectations weighs on us all. It’s the same now that I date women.
Not to mention that if we assume that this idea of butches as emotionally distant people prone to infidelity, treating partners badly, breaking off relationships and generally incapable of caring for others and meeting their emotional needs, what happens in a relationship of two butch women? Do we assume that neither party’s emotional needs are met? That neither one is capable of taking on a caregiving role as necessary? It makes no sense. And really, I don’t think this idea that it’s somehow a femme’s purpose in live to take over all (or virtually all) of the emotional labor in a relationship is especially flattering to femmes, either, essentially forcing them into a box where they have to take on the traditionally feminine role in all things, assigning to them this sort of 1950s housewife persona that they may or may not want. Certainly, if that’s how two consenting adults want to divvy up their roles in a relationship, that’s great and fine, but presenting it as the default, somehow, is… well. I’m trying to come up with a kinder word than “absurd” or “ridiculous,” but I’m not finding much.
I’m too fluid or what to identify well and comfortably, it’s not in my nature to belong or be bound to stuff.
Or rather feel like I belong somewhere, to or with something.
I’ve labelled my femininity when I feel it as andro femme or sometimes hard femme( not with the sense of a make up maven but a hardness, an almost mean edge).
There’s no real softness to the femme in my presentation, a dominant mother goddess sort of softness in kink but not a dressed presentation in public.
There’s earth tones, black, grays, white and muted or dark reds. Long loose androgynous witchy-wizard silhouettes and sharp fitted silhouettes that don’t pad my “lack” or try to hide the ways my body is hard rather than soft or deny the ways in which it is soft and rounded.
It’s like robed earthy serious witch or vicious bitch witch with sneer for a smile who can do shit like planking on their knuckles as well as dance like sensuous serpent being.
Subverting hard masculine coded things with feminine code things and vice versa.
I think I’m a softer, kinder looking and acting person when I’m more on masculine side of androgyny, but when it involves worn out men’s jeans, hoodies, beanies, tac boots and stuff people treat me like I’m a bad ass or possibly a member of the criminal element.
My femininity I guess comes from harder won place that I had to fight a war on all sides to get access to what felt like mine and not an attempt to be a softer, sweeter, cuter person for someone, or an awkward disguise for masculinity I feared and realised wasn’t as acceptable no matter how comfy or non-confrontational I felt it was.
It, femininity, feels like confrontation to me in a way masculinity doesn’t. A dare or a challenge to a world built around Adam and not Eve or Lilith. Not just cause it’s something I had to fight to access it for ME and not for other people.
But on any side of the binary or scale of presentation make up feels like war paint to me, like wearing a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag on my face.
Violet from Bound is one of my femmespirations, along with Elvira but more Morticia in application, Laura Grace Jane, Daria & Jane, and to be honest Wednesday Addams but if she wore her braids up like Frida.
There’s also a slice of what I remember about Selena in there too.
Non-binary fluid sometimes femme AFAB person feels like femininity is an act of confrontation in a world built around/by men and has mostly gothy dark femmespirations, but like manages to andro-ize rather well feminine coded clothes like dresses and skirts.
Cecelia’s section brought all the feels for me. Yes to combining a fierceness of femme with the caring of femininity!
I tend to fall more toward the femme side of the spectrum, but took a while before the word felt like a fit. Coming into a blue-jean femme identity brought everything together with both my external appearance and internal identity. I realized I could have the comfortable feminine-leaning outfits and be fiercely nurturing as my expression.
I loved this column and hope to see more identity-related round tables in the future.
This has, for the first time ever, made me want to identify as femme. The magical, vulnerable, loving,caring threads that run through everyone’s definition totally describe me. For the longest time, I hated being described as femme, because to me, it was a very rigid definition of who I could be and present as in the queer community. Thank you all for showing me differently, you lovely glitter witches. <3
It’s great that so many people get to actively choose to be femme. For many people it’s not a choice, it’s forced on them by culture, ethnicity, class, age, legal systems etc. Maybe we could hear their voices too?
I find it a bit problematic that this article seems to hate on lesbian and bisexual women, especially since this is supposed to be a website aimed at them, and that there seems to be an lack of awareness of the history of femme. For those who are interested these resources are pretty useful:
I’m not getting how this article seems to hate on lesbian and bi women. Can you unpack that please?
I was also surprised by the unanimous agreement on the use of the word “femme”. I certainly agree that it shouldn’t be for *cis* women only, and I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it was hateful commentary, but it is a word very much rooted in the history of wlw, so I was surprised to see that nobody here made that distinction.
Huh, where are you seeing that? The article was mostly written by lesbian/bisexual/queer women for a mostly lesbian/bisexual/queer female audience. Some non-binary people also shared their experiances, which is great, but none of them were anti-wlw in any way (at least that I picked up on).
most of the people i know on this roundtable, at least, do identify as lesbian or bisexual (even if it’s not the only word they use to describe themselves), so i don’t know how this roundtable could erase those identities?
Yes, my dears, yes yes. I just found out that some folks think only lesbians can use “femme”, and my head exploded so I talked it out with a dear femme friend of mine who is also a trans man. Here is what I told him that femme means to me:
Fem(me) is a radical fucking promise. Fuck the male/female binary shit: just SPARKLES and/or MAKEUP and/or LACE and just generally WHATEVER MAKES YOU FEEL CARED FOR AND LOVELY AND LIKE THE WORLD HAS LOVELY THINGS IN IT.
Glory in the beauty and resilience that our culture has spent centuries denigrating! LET IT HEAL YOU IT IS MAGIC
My femme looks like holographic nail polish and sour cherry lipstick and occasional ridiculous eye makeup. It looks like a fresh fade and a hard part. It looks like handknit lace and stompy boots.
I feel like I am in this awkward space between nonbinary and woman and really let’s just go with “queer fem(me)” and call it a day. My entire gender identity right now is fem(me), so what now?
I feel a nebulous discomfort with some of this, and think I need to read the butch roundtable (that is definitely coming, right?) to fully formulate what’s going on for me as I read about associating certain qualities with this aesthetic/identity. Some of it is feminist twitchiness about gender socialization that has been touched on a bit above, and some of it is wanting everyone to feel entitled to the fullness of their human experience without worrying about whether they’re doing it wrong. I fully recognize that this roundtable is presenting a collection of individual reflections on what femme means to them, but I think I’m struggling with the sense–although I do not think that anyone is -trying- to do this–that this definitional stuff draws limits around particular kinds of emotional and relational expression. Hoping to be able to put two roundtables side-by-side and think more about this.
Personally, I think one of the glories of femme identity is that it doesn’t have to be put in contrast to masculinity/butchness. That is, in and of itself, a false dichotomy.
Femme-ness stands on its own, is what I’m saying. it’s not a reaction to or opposite of masculinity.
One of the challenges I saw contributors reflecting on above is the way that queer and feminist spaces often privilege masculinity or center masculine gender performance/expression and how that leads to femme invisibility and/or expectations of femme emotional labor.
I don’t know that I’d want to put a butch roundtable side-by-side with a femme roundtable. Though I’d love to read a butch roundtable on its own. I could never be with a MOC or butch person who expected my femme identity to be relational to their identity.
Thank you for this comment.
I am unsold on the idea of anything standing on its own, even though that sounds ideal. Context always matters. I do, though, agree that presenting femme and butch/masculine as a strict dichotomy is undesirable; in fact, that was one of the main things that was clear to me as I felt myself reacting to this piece. So I appreciate the idea of wanting to read a different roundtable on its own. What I imagined was that a companion piece would expose more commonalities. I suppose that’s my bias (part of it, anyway)–people read me as femme, but it’s not part of my identity, and to me it’s alienating rather than comforting to think that certain personal qualities should be categorized in this way.
I hear you saying something else important, which I also saw in a later comment up above–the idea that this feels like a unique space to bring a focus to femmes that people feel is lacking elsewhere. For that reason, for making people feel seen, I’m glad this is here and celebrate it on its own terms.
I would like to see a butch roundtable, but also maybe one for those people who reject the butch and femme labels. I feel like this would reduce the other two seeming like they are relational to one another in the way I think KaeLyn means while also showing the interactions between identities?
@snufkin that would be beautiful. That is a fantastic idea. I apparently want more of all of this!
Ah, yes, people often read others as butch or femme or some other label that isn’t really a word that feels right to them and that’s a problem.
I think that’s why I see choosing femme as an intentional identity, not just like…about what my hair or makeup choices are…and why I see it as something far beyond “feminine.”
“Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us. It’s like, they steal our aesthetic, they steal our identities, and they steal our ideologies… but they water them down.”
Alaina, thank you so much for this new perspective on femme-ness. I’ll be thinking on it for a long time to come!
I love this, especially because I think people equate femme and also femininity with being a look, and not other qualities. I definitely love having a femme aesthetic, but also I love my femme friends for teaching me about intentional community and practicing self-care and being resilient.
I also think being femme is taking up space for things that are traditionally coded as feminine. Like being able to think about gossip as a way women and femmes communicate that is considered nasty, but can also be life-saving (communicating about which partners and friends have been abusive, supporting each other emotionally, etc). In my college gender studies class we used to discuss how masculinity is considered neutral and femininity is considered sort of inauthentic, so I like to play with that in presenting femme, with dark lipsticks and big patterns and bright colors. Or picking a weirdly specific aesthetic and queering it like “queer waspy soccer mom on a boat” or “90s lilith fair floral lesbian” a less specific tomboy femme.
I think we gender care in such oddly specific ways, so I hesitate to define it based on how me and my friends are, but part of my journey as a femme has been using my natural vulnerability as a strength, and learning how to be emotional in a world that sees feelings as “unprofessional,” “irrational,” or unnecessary. Inside Out is a movie about me as a femme.
I loved reading these! They are all such beautiful statements. I have spent many years working to understand and balance the masculinity and femininity within myself as part of my Pagan path (which was heavily influenced by Carl Jung and Gardnerian Wicca at the beginning – although there has been a recent shift within Paganism away from focusing so much on gender Binaries thanks to the input of non-binary Pagans). I am new to the Queer community and I appreciate this new insight into Femme identity and presentation. I learned a lot from this roundtable. A year ago, I deeply explored the more ‘masculine’aspects of my self, but I am Femme in so many ways. It is wonderful to celebrate the strength and power being Femme and we need more of that in our world.
thank you so much for putting this together. my feelings about identity as politics change on the daily, and i love learning from other femmes.
i really related to “Femme labor looks like creating soft rooms of satin for your lovers, and laying underneath the carpeted ground as they roll around with their newly remembered, healed, and transformed selves. As you side-eye them (lovingly…) like, “you’re welcome.” ” — this is what femme labor has looked like for me, and it’s not a positive thing.
for me, it’s been a way my labor has been exploited. there’s a lot there that i feel is wrapped up in the liminal space of counseling and sexual labor, too. i’ve found strength and progress in demanding compassion from my non-femme relationship partners, and accepting compassion in relationships with other femmes.
one of my exes/best friends/life mentors told me that kindness cannot be a currency, but so long as it is, emotional labor is a fact of life. it has been so difficult to figure out when to demand compensation for my femme kindness, and when to offer it for free.
‘Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us’
ALAINA YES this is exactly what I’ve been feeling. Having one nail a different colour of nail varnish used to be femme flagging and when that became a mainstream trend last year…can we not have one thing? Queer femme spaces are so necessary, and I’m looking forward to more AS femme articles!
I read this last night & my heart swelled with pride for being a femme, & it made me want to express my femmeness more & take up more space with it. I’ve often shied away from my femmeness, especially as a queer woman because femmeness is so tied to hetero-ness for me, & I’ve sometimes thought that I’m not “queer enough” because of how I present. I’ve tried to change that abut myself; I’ve tried to suppress my femmeness. but seeing these rad femme babes take up space & hearing their philosophies & thoughts on femmeness (I especially resonated with Rudy’s & YAT/TA, deeply) has really inspired me to own it & be true to my feminine, soft, emotional, empathic self.
THANK YOU Cecilia for rounding up such amazing people & getting this discussion started. I think this is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen on Autostraddle.
“Femme labor is silently sewing your mouth shut, as you lift your lover’s ego high enough that you can both float away to the planet that you’ve been building together… all the while praying that your held breath and your heavy heart can stand to hold the both of you.” This hit me so hard and is such incredible poetry speaking to femme identity. Thank you for your beautiful words!
“The ‘erasure of lesbian history’ narrative is weak and fearful, that’s all.”
Not going to lie, this made me really, really angry and sad. Lesbians were literally not mentioned at all in this article except to make fun of us and call us old and backwards and exclusionary. Erasure seems to be everyone’s favorite topic these days and it’s always brave and important for talk about, except when it’s Lesbians talking about Lesbian erasure, in which case we’re the devil. I’m not on board with that.
Lesbian history IS important. The history of femme as a term with a specific meaning and context within Lesbian communities IS important. It’s not weak and fearful to be proud of that history and wish for others to respect it.
But do you realize that “lesbian history” is intrinsically tied to queer/trans/non-binary/women’s history as well?
Like when trans erasure happens because trans people aren’t recognized. How many people in “lesbian history” would have adopted a different identity if they lived today?
Queer history is OUR history. This is not an “us vs. them” thing. You are not threatened. No one is erasing you. You don’t need to panic or get up in arms. You just need to learn how to share and appreciate with others who are a little different than you.
There were three mentions of the word “lesbian” in this series, all of them negative. There was no historical context given except to dismiss it in passing. It is not evil for lesbians to want our own words to describe our life experiences. The desire to maintain the definitions of our community terms is not gatekeeping. Since when did lesbians become a privileged group?? I’m tired of seeing the word “lesbian” painted in a negative light. That word has become a pejorative in queer communities. That hurts us. You claimed that this piece had a “representative sample” of perspectives, but I find it incredibly suspicious that there was not a single woman who defended the term as lesbian-specific, or even woman-specific.
“Femme” is not some sort of exclusive club. It describes a specific social position. This position was named in a deep and well-documented lesbian historical context. I believe that should be honored, not dismissed or erased. There are women and girls coming of age now who don’t even know that it was created as a lesbian-specific term. It was painful to see the way that this piece spun the definition of “femme” as lesbian-specific into a generational divide. We are not more enlightened than our foremothers and it is incredibly disrespectful to claim otherwise. “Femme” as a lesbian term is still relevant to those of us who occupy that social position now–or at least it should be. People seem to be hellbent on changing that.
The ever expanding definition of “femme” renders it meaningless. It removes the language that lesbians have to talk about our lives. Claiming a word that wasn’t meant for you is boundary-breaking, but not in a good way. It’s appropriation.
do you think that non-lesbians shouldn’t identify as femme? why/why not? how can there be room for other queer women/women-aligned (transparency: i’m still figuring out that language because like…while i no longer id as a woman, i’m read that way, i was socialized to be one, i had a girlhood, i was a lesbian…etc etc, so my apologies for its clunkiness) to embrace femmeness? or should we just not? are you saying we just need to find other ways to talk about ourselves even if we find that these words fit? because i think that my femme/queer ancestors were definitely all lesbians and that i like to believe in my heart that they were doing the things they were doing, and defining themselves in radical ways as femme so that i could do the same thing. but like, maybe you disagree. i’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re up for discussion.
Hi Alaina! Thanks for your response. :)
To answer your question, yes, my personal definition is that femme is a lesbian-specific term, but that’s not a stance that I expect everyone to adopt. I certainly can’t force anyone to and that’s not my real intention. My main concern was that the history of this term was not really addressed in this piece and that the only mention of lesbians at all was negative (try ctrl + f “lesbian”).
Personally, I define lesbian as a social position more than as an identity, AKA people may be treated as lesbians and have the experiences of lesbians regardless of whether they self-identify as lesbians or not. I respect the fact that people use the terms that make sense to them. Does someone have to self-ID as a lesbian to call themselves femme? I guess not. But anyone using that term who is romantically/sexually involved with men..? that doesn’t make sense to me. Again, I don’t have the power to “police” anyone on this. I’m just voicing my concern for how this trend affects lesbians.
So a bi woman can use the term when she’s with a woman, but not when she’s with a man? If you could clarify, Olivia.
Well, I’m a queer woman. I think it’s a little bizarre to accuse other queer women of appropriating a term for queer women. Frankly, I think it’s bizarre to have a problem with any queer or non-binary person using it. But, I think there’s going to be a large generational divide there.
Older lesbians are certainly allowed to have your opinions about the meaning and significance of words, but younger queer people are allowed to develop our queerness as we see fit, without being policed by older queer people who like their established rule of order.
You are surely allowed to define the word for yourself, Olivia. To answer your rhetorical question, cis white lesbians do have more privilege than others in the LGBT+ community. It’s important to recognize that.
The history of the word may certainly be honored, but to argue that the expansion and evolution of the word renders it meaningless… ? I’m sorry if the younger narrative doesn’t fit what you grew up with, but that does not negate, demean, vilify, or prove our experiences wrong just because we’re different than you.
This wasn’t “spun” into a generational divide. That’s largely what it is. That same history of the word femme? Did it include a community that had an understanding, language, and support of transgender people? Genderqueer or non-binary people? Demisexual? Pansexual? Pardon my own rhetoric, but the answer is NO. The LGBT+ community and our richness has evolved. We have so many more people, orientations, identities, and everything else than we realized or could even comprehend that we did when “femme” and “butch” were the only two labels.
Our language will evolve. Our understanding and comprehension will evolve. You can either embrace and celebrate in our new diversity or you can make yourself an enemy of it… by trying to enforce old norms that erased the existence of many types of queer people able to be ourselves today.
Wow. The sheer level of disrespect in this comment for the older generation of women that fought so hard for our rights is astounding.
“The history of the word may certainly be honored, but to argue that the expansion and evolution of the word renders it meaningless… ?” Ok, let’s suppose we leave aside the issue of whether or not femme should remain lesbian-specific, a topic on which I doubt we’ll be able to come to an agreement. Even so — lesbians were ONLY mentioned in this article in order to vilify and belittle us. That certainly doesn’t fit any definition of “honoring” that I’m familiar with.
Also, good job assuming Olivia’s age. I happen to know her and she’s a LOT younger than you think she is. As am I, by the way. So no, this isn’t just a generational divide. There are young people who hold this view too — not that that changes its validity.
I suspect my level of “disrespect” will continue to astound you as though I owe something to my gay mafia godmothers.
As Bryn said, “In my experience, many cis women of all ages feel that my identity as a non-binary femme somehow invalidates theirs.”
That’s the real kicker isn’t it? You’re adopting a victim complex. You and your privilege are threatened. That trumps everything and everyone else. You have to claim an article “vilified” and “belittled” you when it did no such thing.
You’re trying to tell other queer people that a queer term doesn’t apply to them… because their identities didn’t get recognized in the past so those terms are only applicable to people who fit into the old expectations and understandings. Queer people who are different are not allowed.
A cis lesbian saying femme is being “appropriated” by a genderqueer feminine person is like a cis lesbian saying a trans lesbian isn’t a real lesbian.
You’re right, I assumed age, because it’s still largely a generational thing and your being younger does NOT add to the validity of your persecution.
Again, our language will evolve. So will our comprehension. So will our identities. So will our conversation. Trying to enforce archaic, arbitrary standards and promoting erasure is not empowering you or other queer people. Your experience and your identity are not threatened by people who are different than you. You would think, of all people, queer women would understand this.
I’d love if we could apply material analysis to this issue. It’s sorely lacking. I have yet to see examples of lesbian privilege within this thread–just a push for lesbians to be “kind”, i.e. compliant. With Olivia 100% and so grateful to see her comments here.
If you’re a non-lesbian using the word ‘femme’ to describe yourself, that is appropriation.
Thank GOD, we have cis lesbians to explain how we’re all doing it wrong! We need to hold fast to a platform of traditional values that exclude subgroups of people that have never contributed to queer civilization!
I get that “straight” isn’t a big sell these days, but this doesn’t make it acceptable to appropriate lesbian terminology.
Yep. How dare I appropriate queer language as a queer woman? You preach! Where would we be without you to tell off uppity queers like me? Praise be and hallelujah that you can enforce these traditional values!
Oh! I’m late for my appointment for white Orthodox men to tell me I’m not Jewish enough. Can we carry this on later… ?
Sure, any privilege label can be tacked onto “lesbian,” but lesbians are not privileged by virtue of being lesbians. This is 101 level stuff. Divorcing the word “femme” from lesbian history and culture (and actively disparaging lesbians) in the process *is* erasure. Expanding the definition of term does dilute its efficacy. We are losing the language to talk about our material experiences. Now we’re being deemed villains and oppressors for having the nerve to speak up about it.
I caution against speculating about how this affects lesbians, if you yourself are not one. We are telling you how we feel about the issue and you are dismissing that. There are so many red herrings, reversals, and manipulations of language in this I have no idea how to respond without being deemed a villain with a victim complex. We have differing opinions on what the word “femme” means, I’m not policing you. I do not have the structural power to do that.
Actually, yes, you have inherent privilege over other LBT+ people by virtue of being a lesbian. Your claim of ownership over “lesbian history and culture” is proof of that. You claim the rights. You are the gatekeeper. You dictate who is and is not a member, who does and does not belong. You actively seek to erase the bi, queer, non-binary, trans, etc… part of that SHARED and QUEER history.
You’re declaring you have privilege then getting upset when someone points it out. You claim you’re being deemed a villain. You cry that you’re called oppressive (though none of you have yet to substantiate those claims about this article or the comments).
You absolutely have the power to say what femme means to you. What it feels to you. How you identify with it. You do not have the power, as you say, to take that away from other people. That includes you not having the right to take away our shared history and deem it exclusively yours because I don’t fit neatly into your historical box.
You are not being disparaged. You are not being erased. “Your” culture and history are not being threatened.
This whole thing should be a non-issue and a positive experience. This roundtable was written by queer women, many of whom identify as lesbian (yet you all see fit to erase their identity… ?), and all of whom share in OUR mutual history and have every right to use OUR language.
“I caution against speculating about how this affects lesbians, if you yourself are not one. We are telling you how we feel about the issue and you are dismissing that.”
Yep. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Nope, I only identified as a lesbian for most of my queer life. Pretty sure by these standards that’s going to exclude me. :P
I jist have to chime in here:
Women do not hold any power over women for being exclusively attracted to women. I would not gain any structural power if I were also attracted to men or other genders, nor do I benefit from the oppression of non-lesbian people in any material way. Biphobia and transphpbia absolutely exist and can be perpetuated by lesbians, but that is an example of horizontal aggression. Lesbophobia is another example. Claiming our language oppresses no one, and lesbian women certainly do not have the social power required to “gatekeep”. People are going to call themselves what they want, whether they are aware of its appropriatI’ve nature or not.
Well darn. I guess I’ll just have to keep getting told I’m appropriating language that’s mine and told my history isn’t mine and then get accused of “lesbophobia” while you get to be the victim and dish out all the damage. Sounds amazing to be you.
Someone disagreeing with you about her own history isn’t oppression. It’s not a resource. It will not affect or enforce a structural material reality. Lesbians are not privileged on the same axis on which they’re oppressed. You are being deliberately obtuse.
If you think cis white lesbians don’t have privilege in the queer community… you’re living in a bubble, under a rock. If you think cis white lesbians don’t oppress, bully, and dictate to other queer women… ? You’re living in a bubble, under a rock.
I’m again wondering why every time lesbians are mentioned as a class, it becomes “cis white lesbians.”
Could it be… cis white lesbians have the more privilege in the queer community… ? Hmm…
Thank you. I agree with everything. But remind yourself: this is Autostraddle where lesbians are an afterthought now.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
— A lesbian who loves AS with her whole heart.
Alaina for president. Thats all I can even say.
:D can i be first lady instead? i just wanna pick out china patterns, not be in charge of nuclear codes ;)
Femme has a specific history that should not be ignored. When people argue that words can “evolve” and change, do they mean that the minority communities who use them to identify each other and name their experiences should be alienated from them? Femme is a word used by lesbians to explain a specific social position and way of living. It should not be separated from women, let alone lesbians.
Most people who use femme discover it completely out of context and proceed to build an identity around it. We’re not born knowing about appropriation or LGBT history, but to have knowledge of this word’s history, acknowledge that lesbian women are mourning the loss of an identity label, and say that lesbians trying to reclaim their language are not being “kind” (implying minority groups should be kind when pointing out appropriation in order to be listened to), that’s absolutely unacceptable. I am disappointed to see so many voices here be so dismissive of lesbian feelings.
Non-lesbian people have always been included in femme identity, though…? What about bisexual women?
When I used to read a bunch of different Tumblr blogs and tags with regularity, I saw some very heated arguments on that (Disclaimer: I haven’t read Tumblr with any regularity for a while now). My own personal position is “You do you” etc, and I try to refrain from telling folks how they should or shouldn’t identify.
I mean. I’m not surprised that there are people who are wrong on Tumblr.
At least lesbian identity HAS a history while the rest of us look at history and only wonder, “Were they… ?” The word is evolving to embrace all the new identities and expressions that were never able to exist in that same history. So, it’s admittedly a little difficult for me to listen to the privileged tears.
Queer people are not “appropriating” queer language. We’re defining it.
I genuinely don’t understand how opening up the identity of femme to other queers is bad. Yes I agree, straight cis women should probably leave well alone, but if non-binary people, bi women, trans women, and other assorted queers want to use the word to express their gender identity, why wouldn’t that be great?
It’s wonderful that people who may have spent years struggling with their gender in this society can finally find an identity that expresses their personhood in an empowering way. Lesbian history is not going to be diluted by this anymore than male history is diluted by hearing the stories of women of women from the past.
History is interesting and while queer history is often invisible, lesbian femme and butch history is probably the strongest lesbian history narrative in the west. It is not ‘in danger’, the record still stands.
general comment about the roundtable: i love love love love this. thanks to so many contributors for being brave and sharing their thoughts, even though we didn’t all agree and there was the possibility of people on the internet thinking we were wrong!
general comment about the comments thus far: no part of anyone’s piece identified them as a lesbian or not, so there’s a LOT of assumption going on here, but also some interesting discussions. i’m uncomfortable, but i think in a good, learning growing way, and while i don’t have intentions of dropping an identity i feel strongly towards, i’m excited for the possibility of rethinking my definitions and growing etc etc
To me, the term femme is definitely tied to me being gay. To me, “femme” gives meaning to all these experiences of not being seen, not being taken seriously as a gay woman just bc of the way I present. These are the experiences that make me identify with the term femme, these are experiences of oppression in the heteropatriarchy. If other (non-lesbian) people take the term femme bc they see something in it that reflects their experiences, it is not my place to tell them that they shouldn’t. It is their right. But it IS an important term in lesbian history and it should always resonate as a specific lesbian term, I think.
An experience that I think many, if not all, femmes share with each other is that we have to fight much harder to signal our queerness. As we are often, if not always, seen as straight, we are also more often victims to expectations how a “real” woman should behave, and people normally think that we live to please men. A therapist (that I now obviously left) once said to me, bc I was carrying my purse: “Oh, yeah EVERY WOMAN needs a purse”. And I thought, NO, I don’t NEED this purse, and I don’t need it bc I’m a woman. I just want to carry my stuff and I honestly don’t care about this purse in any other context than “to carry stuff”. Also, I think femmes get far more of these “do you have a boyfriend?” questions and these “oh and when you’ll be married your husband will be proud of you”…
So, general comment regarding “femme” and historical context: From my understanding of history, “femme” has been changeable in its meaning to some extent, and has been actively being delinked from “butch” since the 1980s at least. When are we supposed to look to for the “real” definition of femme? I am worried that freezing femme as a term will eventually kill it, as the semiotic world of queerness changes so, so quickly.
The other question I have is much, much more personal. I both am and am not a lesbian, in that I do not identify with the term but am described by it. If you asked any of my coworkers, they would say I’m a lesbian. Heck, if my straight co-workers asked ME, I would say I’m a lesbian, because they don’t have the groundwork for the nuance of “I’m not exactly a woman, and it’s queer femininity that I’m attracted to, not womanhood”. I am an afab, female-presenting person married to an afab, female-presenting person. The only issue is that the term “lesbian”, like the term “woman”, has never felt comfortable to me. It feels like a garment that fits fine, but is something I would never chose to wear because of the colour, shape, etc. How am I not heir to the history of my lesbian ancestors? How is it that a word that described my identity before I came out about my slight (very slight!) genderblurriness can now be am appropriation?
@aislin omg this: “Heck, if my straight co-workers asked ME, I would say I’m a lesbian, because they don’t have the groundwork for the nuance of “I’m not exactly a woman, and it’s queer femininity that I’m attracted to, not womanhood”” is KEY! this is SO KEY!
Yes! I’m looking for a word for something similar to this!
Yay! Go team “basically lesbian but not really because Gender is Weird”!
“I think a lot of our discussions around femme invisibility in queer spaces center around masculinity, and those are valid and important discussions, but I’d love to see the conversation change and try to look at the ways our identities have been taken by straight (white) women who want cool points. And so, as I think happens often when the majority gets its hands onto something that minority groups have been doing for a while, we lose our ability to say, “Hey, this is ours!” Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us. It’s like, they steal our aesthetic, they steal our identities, and they steal our ideologies… but they water them down. I think femme-ness is directly tied to queerness, though; it’s a resistance to traditional femininity and it’s tied to the heteropatriarchy, even if it sometimes mimics it. That’s what makes it powerful. That’s what makes us resilient.”
This comment struck me. On the surface I would be considered a white, straight, cis-woman at first glance. If it were only that simple!
I also identify as Femme. My sexual orientation is much more fluid than straight, but I’m partnered with a hetero-identified cis-man (although there’s more to that story as well). My gender seems to lean cis-woman, although I love to blur the line. Historically I’ve identified as a tom-boy and experimented with my Femme aesthetics over the years. Lately, I’ve seem to be going with “How Long Can I Grow My Hair Femme” vibes. I hold monthly moon circles, work as a holistic healer/professor, do all sort of witchy things whenever possible, and am on a mission to help break down the Patriarchy in whatever small ways I can – especially for and with my white cis-woman community.
Is this justification enough? Can I be Femme/cool too? (I’m being somewhat cheeky here).
But seriously. I see the purpose and need to form groups and identities away from the dominant culture as a means to gain power, take space, find a voice, gain recognition, be seen ect… And I see the challenge in finding ways to maintain this power as these cultural markers begin to get cycled back into the mainstream and “watered down.”
However, the Patriarchy can’t be dismantled from the outside only. If white, straight, cis-woman (or even white, straight, cis-men for that matter) aren’t given the opportunity to question what Femme means to them…we’re only going to get so far.
Of course the main stream is going to absorb the work that is being done on the edges of the bell curve. That is how big shifts happen. There is an inherent loss of potency, of course. And more work and boundary pushing is always needed so that the historically marginalized and oppressed groups of people don’t vanish into obscurity. And I imagine this process to be frustrating and annoying at time, to say the least. But perhaps this is the nature of the challenge. Perhaps it is a sign that things are indeed progressing.
I see Femme (and the Divine Feminine) as less of an aesthetic choice (although I do see the value, and fun, in this piece of the definition) and more of a break down of the exclusionary divisions and power dynamics set up by the Patriarchy. I see Femme as inclusive, communal, equitable, infinitely creative, and wild (not tame).
To me it is a value set and a worldview. I believe you can be Femme regardless or your gender, sexual orientation, biology, and any other marker society slaps on us or we willing adopt. (Although a little history context is always a plus, if only for our own deeper understanding of the term.)
To me, Femme is word that speaks to (paradoxically so) the break down of labeling. And I love that it is getting confusing. I see this as a sign we are making progress!
My two cents.
I really appreciate this conversation and opportunity to learn. Open to comments and reflections!
no offense, but are you asking me, a non binary queer black person, to make more room for cis white straight people? because like, compared to me they’ve got ALLLL the space. and i dont wanna and will not give them more, sorry.
All the love, Alaina. Hot damn I needed to hear someone say that. Thank you!
+1 to @alarae.
I get that you were probably being somewhat tounge-in-cheek and imprecise when you wrote this (as we all tend to be) but I am really bothered by the implication that you see femme as being a cool thing to be or a trend or whatever. Femme is an amazing thing to be, but also a difficult thing to be. It is a thing that rises out of our bones and bursts out of our skin and makes life beautiful and complex and profoundly limnal. This is what I have experienced it as, and all of the many comments on this thread and the voices in the roundtable, for their differences, seem to resonate with that experience. This is the opposite of a trend.
Also also, I am really not here to listen to what straight folks — especially cis men! — think of queer feminine gender identities. I flat-out reject the notion that we can’t get where we need to be without them.
I think this will probably read as really harsh and I think I need to be to make my points, but it is not about you personally! It sounds like you are a queer-identified person who is currently dealing with hard and toxic invisibility, which really sucks. Making space for you and folks like you to be seen, though, isn’t the same as making space for cishet folks to influence how we queers think about our queer identities. It’s your rhetoric around cis straightness that I object to, not you.
Why r straight people trying so hard to seem otherwise????
As someone who is a femme lesbian and whose femme identity feels so connected to lesbian history, I generally hate when the conversation turns to “is “femme” lesbian only (or women only) or not?” (as is happening in this comment section) because I want to discuss how lesbian history is so important and informative of our situation now and how much we should honor the queers who came before us BUT I am also more than a little put off by those who tend to articulate anything close to those positions.
Working class butch/femme lesbian bar culture of the 50s and 60s is super important to our history, but it’s not the only part. Lol at the idea that all those involved in that particular culture were cis women or that none were bisexual. (And, in my understanding, “femme” was also used in ballroom cultures and those super different queer scenes.) I think saying “femme” is for lesbians only (and defining “lesbian” as people who 100% identify as women who are exclusively into other people who 100% identify as women) is as ahistoric as acting like “femme” has no roots in working class butch/femme bar culture.
I wish we were better as queers and as feminist at honoring the movements and people who came before us both without deifying and fossilizing them AND without labeling them as “problematic” and Bad and dismissing them entirely. I’m so glad we as a community have evolved past that snapshot in time of our history (super strict roles, a community totally centered around bars = not great!), but I do want to honor all that they survived and created and passed on, and I try to do that in my femme identity.
Zing! THANK YOU! Exactly what I’ve been expressing too. Beautifully said, sketch!
This is exactly how I feel and you articulate it so much better than I could, thank you! I think it’s totally possible and necessary to both honor the historical significance of a word/identity and to allow space for that word/identity to expand along with our understanding of gender and sexuality.
So glad this resonated so much! <3 queer history + femme identity=my favorite things
For me personally, a more productive way of thinking about how the roots of “femme” matter is not to be like “only lesbians like me can use this!” but it’s to think about how it was very much a working class subculture/identity and how many femmes were sex workers.
Instead of being like “this word isn’t for you!” to all non-lesbians, I find it more valuable/interesting/honest/challenging to think about how as a class privileged person/rich kid I can honor the working class roots of this identity. I don’t think that’s to say that I can’t use this label that feels like home because I have privileges that my femme ancestors did not BUT I really need to challenge myself on my privilege and recognize femme identity built on classism is contradictory, nonsensical, and gross.
Similarly, I need to ask myself: Does my femme identity support sex workers? In what ways? What does that mean? What could that look like?
Similarly: What does it mean to honor this community that faced tremendous amounts of police harassment and brutality? Does identifying as femme and carrying this rich history with me mean that I need to take a stand against police brutality today even if I’m not at all target of that type of violence? (Yes, it very much does.)
Turning a conversation about our history into “Who gets to use this word?” ends what could be the start of a really rich and challenging and community-building conversation.
1. This is magic 2. I love you femme queens 3. shoutout to all these amazing images!
yes i agree with sketchyblonde so hard “I wish we were better as queers and as feminist at honoring the movements and people who came before us both without deifying and fossilizing them AND without labeling them as “problematic” and Bad and dismissing them entirely.”
it’s really not cool to bash the older generation of lesbians who fought for our rights. that’s real. for me, as a cis white feminine-of-center lesbian/queer-identified human being who is lucky enough to have an accepting family and to live in a liberal area, a huge part of respecting my elders and their work means being responsible with the privilege i have because of that work. it means i have the emotional and literal energy and time to fight for and make space for groups who didn’t always get a voice or support back then. (it’s also not cool to declare lesbians an inherently privileged class, because intersectionality!)
y’all this roundtable contains four lesbian-identified people and two bisexuals, I have no idea how it could erase lesbians. The majority of our senior editors are lesbians. I swear one day we’re being bashed for lesbian erasure, the next for bi erasure. one day we’re erasing femmes, the next day we’re erasing masculine-of-center folks. one day we’re centering femmes, the next day we’re centering butches. we use the word “lesbian” too much and then we use the word “queer” too much. I SWEAR YOU GUYS
If lesbian identified people want to erase other queer women from our mutual history and think it’s all about them instead of including the rest of us… that strikes me as trying to assert privilege. Cis lesbians also have privileges that other queer people do not. Intersectionality does not erase privilege. I am a marginalized person. I also have privileges other marginalized people do not. It’s not a competition, but it IS important to recognize that when cis white lesbian women are claiming the rest of us don’t have the “right” to use certain language… that’s not cool. People can’t try to create an exclusionary level of access and then claim they aren’t privileged and that they’re the oppresses ones.
I am more than happy to discuss that in a reasonable way where people are not saying “lesbophobia” or denying the identities of others (as in the case of ignoring editors’ identities).
We all existed in history even if we couldn’t express ourselves, didn’t know how to, didn’t understand ourselves, or were generally ignored by those around us. Femme is not an exclusive word. No one has the right to say to belongs only to a specific class of queer women who use other specific labels. No one has the right to exclude people in such a way and then cry foul that they’re being victimized as the aggressor.
It is also possible to respect those that came before us without deifying them AND while calling them problematic. Susan B. Anthony was awesome! She was also problematic! She had issues with racism. I appreciate great people and great leaders despite their flaws. In fact, I think it is important to continue to respect great leaders AND to use their flaws to educate and improve our lives and perspectives today! “Problematic” is not an insult. It’s a reality.
It is also possible and reasonable for people to feel like they don’t owe “elders” anything, particularly BECAUSE of intersectionality. Again, with Susan B. Anthony, if a woman of color doesn’t feel particularly obligated to feel reverential to her, who the fuck am I to complain about it? Good for her!
Yes, we’re a community of very passionate, strong-willed people. We all want a piece of AS and we pull the editors in every single direction known to humanity. Generally, AS does a really, really good job. I think this article is another example of a good job!
There might be people offended, but this article is not erasing lesbian history. I think it started a discussion about queer history and inclusion that many of us clearly disagree on and some have taken personal offense from others (myself included). I can be a very articulate unifier and I can be a terribly passionate fighter who loses herself to those passions. Fortunately, I find that when the dust settles I can often make new friends with people who are willing to carry on the conversation once things are calm. That’s what I’d like to see here.
“Femme” should not be divisive. This article should be celebratory. We should be able to celebrate in lesbian femmes, bi femmes, pan femmes (which is making me hungry for some reason and sounds Dutch), genderqueer femmes, non-binary femmes, trans femmes, and all without it being at the expense of people who do NOT identify as femme, be they masculine, butch, or just otherwise not connecting to labels. Femme is not exclusive to lesbian identified people. It belongs to queer people. It has a special, even sacred meaning in some lesbian histories, but it should be remembered that those histories and those women were probably not all lesbians. Some were bi, some might’ve been trans men, and the trans women were all relegated to the men’s bars no matter if they were attracted to women or not! History and heritage can be beautiful, but it should not be a bad thing to point out when it is problematic or exclusionary and no one should be upset if things are framed in a more open, inclusive manner.
There’s a lot for two cents, but we’ll just say I wrote it in Canada and I ate it with the exchange rates.
P.S. I love this community. Sometimes especially when I don’t agree with someone.
I think the only issue some of us had was that the few mentions of ‘lesbian’ within the article were generally negative. Unless I’m missing something.
Yesterday 1) I got a job offer to do anti-sexual violence education/prevention work at a college which I’m SO excited to do (!!)
2) I spent most of the day thinking about femme identity and commenting on autostraddle because my replacements at my current job have arrived and I can put off most tasks to them and thinking about femme identity is one of my top 10 fave activities
3) Riese said she agreed with me “so hard.”
So basically yesterday was fantastic.
I am glad this roundtable exists, and I am glad the discussion in the comments section exists too.
All terms evolve. I think (or hope) that many LGBTQ+ people are aware of the history of Femme, and respect and draw power from that history. But the fact that the word was historically restricted to cis lesbians does not mean it needs to be today. I am queer, I mostly sleep with women, but I do not identify as a lesbian. I am femme. No person can tell me that I am not femme, just as no person can tell me I am not queer. That is up to me. That has to be up to me.
We can move forward, even as we look back. We can make up the future to be what nourishes and empowers us, even as we cherish and respect the LGBTQ+ people who came before us. If someone other than a cis lesbian wants to identify as femme, good lord, who are we helping by trying to stop them? It’s a losing battle, and I think time spent fighting that battle is wasted. There is so much to be done, why focus on keeping a particular term frozen in the past?
I agree with almost everything you say here, except this: “…the fact that the word was historically restricted to cis lesbians…” I am not prepared to concede this as a fact. I don’t think we can look back to the badass femmes of the 1950s and call them cis because “cis” is not a convept that existed then. It is as anachronistic as calling someone who died in the 1500s queer. (Or straight, for that matter.)
The truth is that we don’t know how those ancestors would categorize themselves in today’s linguistic and semiotic space, and behaving as if we CAN know that is self-serving and, in my eyes, profoundly disrespectful. We need to try to understand our ancestors in their own terms, or we stand no chance of understanding them — or the adaptability and strength of solidarity that or community has always had — at all.
(Tbh my comment was aimed more at the thread itself than you in particular — that line in your post was just a tantalizing launching off point. I realize now that it may’ve read as a criticism of you, and am really sorry if that’s how it landed for you. I have a whole heck of a lot of respect for you and the truth you’ve been telling here, and would gladly subscribe to your newsletter etc. <3)
Aw, thanks Aislin!
All good. I think this whole convo is fascinating and I’m learning so much from everyone!
This discussion has stretched my brain so much in such a short period of time. I keep coming back to refresh the comments section because I love the range of opinions, and that there is room for all of them, and that most of the disagreement, even when passionate, is articulated respectfully. It is so rare and refreshing to have a space where it’s possible to talk about ideas without things devolving into personal attacks, and I’m so grateful to this site and community for that. We have something special here.
this is such an amazing read—both the round table and the comments! i am 99% of the time an a.s. lurker, but this made me want to share. (i hope i’m not out of line, re: the lesbian appropriation conversation, as i am not a lesbian)
discovering the concept of a queer femme identity has made me feel so much more at home in my body and my style.
i grew up from a poor girl at a rich school into a fat lady in an office full of lovely women—it felt like i never had a chance of reaching the standards of beauty and femininity of the people around me! and i felt that because i was unable do it all up “right,” i shouldn’t ever do anything girly. (this resulted in many years of tshirts+jeans.) the realization that i could embrace the parts that i loved—crank them to eleven, even!–and forget the rest was life-changing! i love to rock my cupcake-twee floral dresses, crazy clashing patterns, witchy goth lace, sparkles and pastels in any combination, almost always with my bare face and flat shoes.
dressing femme gives me a way to acknowledge my fat body kindly by putting it in clothes that i love, rather than trying to hide it by being “flattering” at the expense of my tastes. and trusting that i can do that makes me feel better no matter what i’m wearing.
i love that femme as an ideology respects the value in making things pretty and ornamental for their own reasons. there’s nothing trivial or silly or embarrassing about wanting things to be beautiful—i think it’s be noble to expend your own energy to make the world more lovely for the people around you!
i personally do associate putting my femme identity into practice with emotional labor and care, too. i think my greatest strength is my utter commitment to vulnerability and compassion and the delicate calculus of interpersonal relationships. that sense of giving and taking-on makes me feel strong and powerful, like i can carry a heavy weight or choreograph an intricate ballet. and it all comes from that same sensitivity that makes me crave pretty things and want to share them.
thank you for allowing me to muse!
Thank you for sharing your perspective! I think femme being for women who are excluded from doing femininity “the right way” is such a real thing – whether that’s because of body type or gender assigned at birth or class or race. Thanks for bringing that up in particular.
(In a totally non-pressuring way) You should comment more often! :)
i should! it gets a little less intimidating each time i do it, haha. thanks for being welcoming. <3
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Wow. This is why I waited to read this thread until it was several weeks old; I would get too emotional otherwise.
I strongly identify as Femme, and as a woman, and as a lesbian. Femme for me personally does have a lot of roots in lesbian culture because I came out while studying butch-femme texts in my university library that were written in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. I discovered femme before I knew what queer meant, before I’d heard of non-binary identities, before I even came out to anyone besides myself.
I think that its role in a lesbian-specific context needs to be acknowledged; the place it takes up in history should not be erased even though the terms have shifted and changed and taken on new, broader meanings. We can celebrate new definitions, new applications, new identities, and new meanings for the word femme without making it seem like the old definitions and contexts are invalid, wrong, or never existed.
I applaud everyone pointing out that ‘lesbian’ does not equal ‘cis’, and never has. I applaud everyone pointing out that ‘femme’ is not antithetical to non-monosexual or non-binary identities. But lesbian is not in and of itself an outdated or retroactive or exclusionary identity just by virtue of its history or existence. Queer/bisexual/non-binary femmehood does not replace or supercede lesbian femmehood or vice-versa; both can coexist peacefully.
There are (or can be) a binary nature to femme, or some kind of category that it describes/might fall into. That does not make it less radical or more exclusionary. Anyone can identify as butch or femme but butch and femme do not have to be labels that describe everybody. We do not have to open up those definitions to include every single person in existence; people can identify outside of butch and femme and are just as valid and important to queer communities. Femme does not mean ‘not butch’ or vice-versa because there are options outside of butch and femme.
As far as emotional labor goes, I expect more out of my butch partners. Being femme, being gender conforming, being a woman, etc., do not make me more responsible for the emotional healing and comfort of my partner who is not femme and not gender conforming. I am not responsible for my partner’s ability to open up, for their struggles with dysphoria or identity. I expect them to pull an equal amount of emotional weight. I have anxiety and depression. I have body image issues and identity crises. My butch has anxiety and depression, body image issues, identity crises. Because she is butch and gender non-conforming, hers are more visible and take up more space in queer dialogue, and I say fuck that. I will always be there to hold, comfort, nurture, and heal her but I expect the same in return regardless of our gender presentations because that is part of my definition of an equitable relationship.
For me, femme queers femininity and reshapes it but does not reject femininity, because femininity can be powerful and it can be assertive and aggressive and it can be strong. I am femme in part because I divorce my femininity from the male gaze, from patriarchal definitions, and from a hierarchy where it is always considered less-than next to masculinity.
tl; dr–anyone can be femme, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but my femmehood is bound up in my identity as a woman and as a lesbian. Both of these perspectives are possible and do not negate one another.
Leah’s last name is not Lakshmi, her name is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Lakshmi is her middle name. Can you edit the article to be accurate please? Thank you. Femme of color names are meaningful.
I’m a legal honours student who actually helped out with a LGBT history preservation project in my community a while back and tbh even though I’m a lesbian who’s a bit of a girly girl after listening to the lesbian elders and doing all the legal research to back up their stories I’m not sure about me personally identifying as femme anymore.
I’d get together for some potluck dinners with these 60, 70, 80yo lesbians (most were in traditional femme/butch relationships themselves (and they’re adorbs btw)) anyways the femme/butch thing would get brought up a lot. They said it was kind of like a survival tactic to support the communities they lived in, because back then they all lived in women-only communities. They had no male friends, probably didn’t speak to their male relatives, it was just a heap of lesbians chillin. They said the butches were for doing things men would usually do, like fixing cars or taking out the trash (they were laughing a bit about that, I dunno, old ppl) but because butches obvs wouldn’t be hired by a straight employer femmes brought in the money. There was other stuff about bar culture and the drag scene, (also butches ran the mafia for a while wuuuuuuut) But yeah it was a bit subversive of gender roles really because femmes were the bread winners and butches the stay at home husbands? Anyway, I digress.
So me and some other law people took that away and did our law stuff to try and piece together what started the femme/butch thing, where did lesbian culture come from, what is the meaning of life. We found some really interesting (heart-wrenching) stuff. So back in the 19th Century if you were a woman in a Western country you basically had no rights. Like you couldn’t open a bank account, own property, carry money without a note from the man that owned you, etc. So no chance of living a happy lesbian life right? Like if you were a gay dude you could buy a house in the hills with your honey and live happily ever after. That’s why gay guys are always criminalised and lesbians aren’t, because women are too oppressed to be gay (and it literally says exactly that in Hansard readings of pretty much every countries’ sodomy laws). As a lesbian you couldn’t breath in or out without a man knowing about it, so it’s no wonder lesbians were pretty involved in first wave feminism, and then once that was all hunky dory it was no wonder that after living under a system of forced marriage, slavery and rape at the hands of men that lesbians would probably want nothing to do with men for a very long time. Hence the women-only femme/butch communities.
So I dunno, after researching all of that, I felt sad that so much of lesbian history had been forgotten, and then I also began questioning my own use of the term femme. These old women that used the term, who had fought tooth and nail for my rights, weren’t using it to describe their pretty dresses. They were using it to describe a community reaction to a brutal homomisogynistic regime that exclusively targeted lesbians. They were using it to describe an absolute rejection of men, platonically, romantically, sexually, whatevs. My half-assed ‘oh I wear glittery lipstick and tell my gay bfs off when they’re sexist’ was incredibly weak next to these femmes.
But like, I think I’m actually ok with that. I don’t feel like I need to be included in every LGBT label there is, much less feel the need to force myself into female spaces that might not be about me. I mean I guess that probably means the term will drop from modern usage, but I think that’s ok too. I think it’s a good thing that we don’t need to use something like that anymore because the horror of what lesbians had to face before feminist action isn’t so visceral. I feel like it would be more respectful to let the term go with its original meaning and honour the women who had to wear it, rather than watering down what they meant. Like just because we don’t have world wars these days doesn’t mean you get a Victory Cross for getting your neighbour’s cat out of the tree, because that would be disrespectful.
TL;DR NO ONE GETS THE LABEL HAHA TRICKED YOU (also soz this is long, i have feelings)
So the essential point of all this is that the word “femme” is now so idiosyncratic as to be totally meaningless? Or is it just another way of talking about traditional gender roles but trying to make them sound edgy and hip?
I love this post, beautifully written. We need more writing about this, seriously. There are so many assumptions that go into play around the femme identity, and invisibility is a real issue, simply because people still assume that feminine looking women are straight… even us gay girls tend to do that sometimes. Homophobia is so entrenched in our society. Each femme is unique and we rock our style the way we do in our own way. I personally am really ready to see more femme lesbians in pop culture. I sometimes feel like I need to wear a sign, it can be really frustrating, because I am queer as queer can be but it’s not obvious on the outside.
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