What We Mean When We Say “Femme”: A Roundtable

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.


Rudy 

rudyface

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.”


Aja 

ajaface

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.


Mey

meyface

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.


Bryn 

brynface

When I use the word femme to describe myself, I’m trying to reclaim a way of living that isn’t defined by my assigned gender, but by my experience of femininity. I have always thought of femme as intentionally living as a feminine person. Taking ownership of my existence as a femme is more than the way it looks, it’s a revolutionary act in itself. As a non-binary femme, I am received as threatening, harsh and edgy in spaces that claim to be inclusive of femme people from any background. Claiming femme puts me in an unsafe position, and it makes people like me have to choose to change nothing or everything about ourselves in this world. Being femme is a process of unlearning the reasons to hold my tongue while being faced with the risk of speaking up.

Being a feminine person requires maintaining a constant internal dialogue about how to keep yourself safe. We’ve all been taught to slight ourselves for the sake of bending to the gender binary’s shape and power dynamic. Learning to value myself as a feminine person is an everyday task for me. But it also feels powerful, because there is something about asserting myself as a femme in a world that is hostile and dismissive of me. It allows me to understand the value that is inherent in my own experience of femme and femininity.

In my experience, many cis women of all ages feel that my identity as a non-binary femme somehow invalidates theirs. Lots of people like to consider themselves radical without actually being able to make any space for people coming from a different place. My experience of femininity is linked to empathy and understanding that to be feminine is to be less safe in this world, so I understand the need to have spaces that are exclusionary out of respect for our right to protect and value ourselves. But there is a large community of feminists who are misleading in terms of how inclusive they’re actually willing to be.

My femme roots include Erykah Badu, Anohni, Syd tha Kyd, Agnes Martin, Diana Ross, Wendy Carlos, Chaka Kahn, Bjork, Sophie Campbell, Tujiko Noriko, and Kate Bornstein.


Erin

erinface

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.


YAT/TA

yattaface

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.


Cecelia

ceceliaface

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.


Alaina

alainaface

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.


Are you following us on Facebook?

Cecelia is a playwright and student living in Houston. She is most passionate about writing and watching the honest queer experience in film, television or theatre. She also finds herself to be very moved emotionally by zines, squirrels and emojis. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @zo0mbini.

Cecelia has written 24 articles for us.