Dear My Sweet Queer Family: Let’s Combat Femmephobia

"Many times, femme identity is a reaction to and transcendence from unspeakable trauma, including racism, misogyny, genderism, and classism."
09/22/2016 02:51 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2016
“Sharks are feared. Sharks are bloodthirsty. Sharks just cruise around the ocean with their mouths open, full of sharp, dangerous teeth sucking in krill and little fish. Sharks are feared as the killers of the ocean, but actually, they’re an endangered species.” –The Femme Shark Manifesto

Let me start by acknowledging my position as a fierce, femme-identified, queer, biracial dyke. I am a working-class writer who is writing from the privileged positionality of having come into femme identity in a relatively femme-centric queer community in Oakland, California. I recognize that my experiences do not constitute the absolute femme experience, and that “femme” is a deeply layered political identity with a wide variety of histories, representations, manifestations, and interpretations.

That said, over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time with fierce-ass femmes and femme-allies alike. And I’ve come to realize something: there is intense femmephobia within queer communities.

This realization came about in part because of a move from Oakland to Salt Lake City, where I encountered few femme-centric groups that had the primary objective of community building or betterment. Moreover, those femme or feminine-presenting queer folks (henceforth known as FPP, or Feminine Presenting Persons) I did meet were regularly iced out, disregarded, invalidated, or unwelcome in circles of largely masculine-of-center queers and trans folks. (Important aside: while femmes and feminine-presenting folks are often treated as the same thing, they are not always.)

To address this issue, I began a community video project, which started as a zine, by asking folks point-blank: “What does the word femme mean to you?” I generally got one of two highly disconcerting responses:

  1.  A femme is a queer woman who looks straight!
  2.  Femmes wear heels!

These answers do a significant disservice to the general badassery that is femme identity—and they certainly aren’t specific to Salt Lake City. In most radical queer communities, I’ve witnessed sexualization, fetishization, or sexual harassment projected onto femme or FPP bodies. I’ve seen people expect femmes and FPP to date, play with, be sweet on, or be partnered with other queers who identify as trans* masculine, butch, or any other identity or body that is more visibly masculine-of-center. I’ve witnessed violent and aggressive transphobia surrounding femme or feminine queer identities. And I’ve attended house parties themed in drag representations of femme or feminine identities in largely masculine-of-center queer circles, in which feminine identities or bodies were trivialized.

Fierce femme identity, to me, is a purposefully blurry entity unto itself, and I think there is something gorgeously radical in that ambiguity. I can tell you what femme does not mean with a bit more ease: femme identity is not especially rooted in physical appearance—to qualify as a glorious femme, you do not need to wear heels, glittery eye shadow, garters, or stockings, nor do you need to date butches or masculine-of-center folks, or any other such limiting nonsense. Though glitter, dresses, makeup, bowties, and thigh-high cheetah print boots are my current fierce femme M.O., one of the wonderful aspects of femme identity is that it is inclusive and embracing of femmes with all kinds of styles, abilities, desires, tastes, backgrounds, and preferences.

What’s up, pajama femmes! What’s up, masculine-of-center femmes! What’s up, high femmes, femmberjacks, low femmes, gender queer femmes, femme-on-femme femmes, femme sharks, dolphins, platypuses, etc.!

I believe that it is systematically problematic to create borders and limitations to the definition of identity—in the book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler discusses how the naming of a thing, its taxonomy, can be a beautiful and radical act, but dualistically can lead to the identity becoming a target for policing and violence. 

Femme identity is absolutely a political act—there is no way for it to be anything but extremely radical (and hot! Did I mention hot?).

In the Femme Shark Manifesto, written by Leah Lakshmi, there is a magnificent communiqué about how femme sharks understand that going out into the world as fierce femmes is an everyday act of revolution against systems of oppression that actively work, through violent acts of misogyny, to restrict individuals embodying any kind of radicalized gender identity.

And you’re abso-fucking-lutely right that femme identity is a gender identity! And I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I think that fierce, radical femme identity (such as the representation of femme identity presented by the Femme Shark Manifesto) is a queer identity, too. This is not to say that a body must identify as a queer to claim femme identity, but that femme identity is a queer, radicalized, politicized gender representation. Queer femininity and femme identity actively work against oppression and misogyny by representing a gender identity that refuses to be anything but fierce.

A common mistake that is made about femme identity in queer communities is confusing the three fabulous Fs: femme, feminine/feminine-presenting, and feminism. It is important, for me, to recognize the distinctions between these three solid forces, and to make space for the separate, if sometimes overlapping, histories.

A person who is a feminist and is feminine-presenting may not necessarily identify as a femme, and a person who is a femme may not be feminine-presenting nor identify as a feminist. And so on.

Femme identity is a beautiful smorgasboard of radical identity politics and the historical embodiment of learning from a legacy of really fierce femmes who have come before: femmes who helped bail their butches out of jail, clean them up, and sustain them after pre-Stonewall raids; femmes who have held rent parties for community members, who have helped to nurse sick lovers and chosen family; femmes who have stood in picket lines, been tear-gassed, been victims of sexual/domestic/urban/rural violence and all of the subsequent trauma; femmes who have written manifestos, created safe spaces, held conferences and community debriefings—all to help ensure the safe pathways of their fellow and future femmily, and to help build stronger queer communities and foundations.

Many times, femme identity is a reaction to and transcendence from unspeakable trauma, including racism, misogyny, genderism, and classism. It can be a method of survival, as well as a big fat fuck you to the patriarchal systems of oppression that govern everything, including many circles of queer communities.

Yes, I said it, sweet queer family—let’s watch ourselves! We are obviously and absolutely not exempt from gender bullshit, included, but not limited to, misogyny and femmephobia, despite being a part of a political identity that has, itself, been historically and systematically oppressed.

As my brilliant friend and fellow writer-activist TT Jax says, “Any of us who claim community are responsible for what we allow to happen in it. When we protect our abusers—including when we tacitly ignore them, but allow them to continue to perform and access queer spaces—we punish our survivors and maintain the cycle of violence.”

There are many ways to be an ally and to help break the systems of oppression within queer communities. Some dos and don’ts of how to be an ally to femmes and FPP include:

Do Not:

  1. Assume all femmes/FPP are cisgender or cis-sexed.
  2. Assume all femmes/FPP do or do not identify as lesbian, queer, female, bottom, or submissive.
  3. Assume all femmes/FPP are passive and/or weak.
  4. Tell a self-identified femme that they are not a femme.
  5.  Pressure those you see as femme to identify as femme.
  6.  Become threatened or violent when a femme/FPP steps outside your view of what it means to be femme or feminine-presenting.
  7.  Expect femmes/FPP to educate you on identity politics, misogyny, or misogynist-driven community violence.

Do:

  1. Hold femmes/FPP up for the individuals they are, without expecting them to conform to society’s views of normative femininity.
  2. If a femme/FPP has specific sexual preferences or boundaries, please know and accept:

      *It is not about you.

         *It doesn’t make them more or less queer.

         *It doesn’t make them more or less of a femme/FPP.

  1. Ask for help or engage in conversations with your community about how to deconstruct or learn about your own privilege in relation to the further marginalized people in your communities, including but not limited to femmes/FPP.
  2. Stand up for femmes/FPP when people speak disparagingly of us. Challenge misogynist thinking.
  3. Take accountability for your own actions. Think about your positionality within your community, and how you may or may not be contributing to oppressive structures of hierarchy.
  4. Empower yourself to expand your education about different identities within your own community. Read widely and voraciously from the multitudes of zines, articles, discussion forums, and anthologies available to you (like this and this). Like the talented and articulate Mia McKenzie, among many, many others. If you have any questions or concerns, ask your community for help.
  5. Allow yourself to be called out, and to call others out, responsibly and constructively.

To invalidate femmes and feminine-presenting folks, or to refuse them the respect they are due, is to inflict hurt on an entire queer community. Take a page from the Femme Sharks, who say: “Believe in communities that heal hurt, apologize, listen to each other, and make things right.”

This piece by July Westhale originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.

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