My Femme: A partial personal history, or a purpose statement in progress

Hi, folks! I’m Brigid, twenty-something queer femme femininist, environmental researcher, and aspiring badass. I live with my butch husbian, two rabbits, and an elderly cat in Washington, DC. I blog at O, Pioneers! about our misadventures in building a life that’s socially just, environmentally conscious, and personally fulfilling — from urban gardening and angry letter-writing to sociopolitical analysis and the occasional gratuitous pet photo shoot. I’m thrilled and honored to be guest blogging at Feministe these next couple of weeks.

In the winter of 2009, I was squeezed between my then-girlfriend (now husbian) and an old friend into the front seat of a pick-up truck, bouncing down a semi-paved road in my semi-rural hometown. I was simultaneously trying to catch up with the friend and introduce her to the girlfriend, semi-failing at both, when I referred in passing to being femme.

“Oh, but I don’t think, just because you’re a lesbian, you should have to be butch or femme,” said my friend.

Well, exactly.

Unfortunately, a nuanced understanding of butch and femme is absent from most discussions of gender, even feminist ones, and even in queer spaces. Luckily for you, to invert and paraphrase S. Bear Bergman, I know what femme is. I know, and I’m going to tell you, so listen up and take notes. First of all, femme is a noun. And an adjective. And a verb. It’s an identity, but it might also be a political stance. All I know is what I’ve lived, but I offer that now as introduction and explanation and self-discovery.

I’ve seen femme described as “intentional femininity.” Hexy wrote here not long ago that femme is “a queer gender oriented around performing femininity.” Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has said that “Femme is any way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt.” I often translate “femme” as “queer noncompulsory femininity,” a definition which grew in part from Sinclair Sexsmith’s explorations of butch and femme.

Queer: as in combating normativity, as in queering. Noncompulsory: in rejection of a femininity that is required for one half of the population and forbidden to the other. Femininity: as the embodiment of something that may be socially constructed and may be innate, but feels essential. Femme: because masculinity is not the only way to power.

Some fight compulsory femininity by rejecting it. Femme fights compulsory femininity by reclaiming and transforming it.

I came into my femme identity through this contrast. Growing up in a lazily but well-meaningly second-wave feminist household, I learned that I didn’t have to be girly. You don’t have to be weak. You should be better than those disgusting, sexual women on television. Good for you for not trying to look good for boys! I learned that femininity is weak. Femininity is silly. Acknowledging sexuality is pathetic and/or wrong. Male gaze is paramount.

There were also shades of any sex you could have would be rape and other fun, healthy messages for a young female person. A common theme, I’m coming to understand: you have no agency.

So I fought compulsory femininity by rejecting femininity altogether for a long time, just like I fought sexualization by rejecting sexuality. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t realize I was gay until I was eighteen, and instead a near miracle that I realized it at all. It feels like no coincidence that soon after I came out to myself, I started wearing dangly earrings and jeans in my own size.

For some, liberation is realizing that femininity is not the only option. For me, liberation was realizing that femininity was an option. And that I didn’t have to compromise myself to take it.

Of course, historically, femme was a much less queer, much more compulsory identity. Within female-assigned-at-birth (FAAB) queer communities today, I perceive a disproportionate emphasis on androgyny and, on the flip side, disdain for butch and femme identities, prejudices which have grown at least partly in response to lesbian history. I don’t know what it was actually like to be gay in the 1920s or 1950s, much less what it was like to be femme then. But the narrative, at least, is that you had to be either butch or femme, because those were the only options available in lesbian communities. They were as compulsory within the lesbian community then as mainstream masculinity and femininity are for MAAB and FAAB people today. And, the narrative continues, old-school butch and femme roles grew out of a form of heteronormative oppression that survives today in an incredibly rude question sometimes put to lesbian couples of any gender presentation combination: “Which one of you is the man in the relationship?”

Today’s butch and femme, or their rough equivalents in various communities, can also be more or less prescriptive and confining. Indeed, blogs like Fuck Yeah Butches Fucking Butches show that certain behaviors, like butches dating each other, are still marginalized within the queer American neo-butch/femme culture I know best.

Even where femme is not explicitly dictatorial, standards can be brutal. I’ve found lots of femme voices online that claim sexual agency and promote body positivity. But they also often represent — or hold up as ideal — white women who are richer and “classier” than me and apparently have endless hours and skills to apply towards beauty rituals. On average, I’d say femme discourse does include basic race and class awareness and resist gender (and gender performance) essentialism. But it also tends to uncritically assume that we all want to be Betty Draper.

Not that wanting to be Betty Draper (or, say, Dita Von Teese, a contemporary real-life neo-femme icon) is bad in and of itself, even if you don’t share her particular privileges and oppressions. But let me just say, I recently came to the stunning realization that I don’t want to be a vintage pin-up high femme. It was a hard realization to come to, because I had kind of subconsciously assumed that I must want to be that, if I was really femme. It was also a huge relief, because I had gotten kind of tired of thinking, every time I went out in public, “Ugh, I’m not femme enough! I don’t have that perfect dress! Garter belts are too expensive (and also impractical)!” Femme had started to feel indistinguishable from compulsory femininity and/or a Halloween costume party where everyone shows up in appropriative headdresses and Playboy bunny outfits. A charade, in other words, that didn’t live up to the liberating gender performance I came to femme to do.

So femme is not a Get Out of Oppression Free card.

Still, I believe femme is inherently open to fuller, more realistic ways of living femininity. You can define femme as a radical, queer gender, or you can let Dita dominate representations of femme. You can’t have it both ways. My femme — the new femme, a queer femme — is by definition required to live up to the promise of radically reinventing femininity. If femme is even partly about combating compulsory gender performance, then it must combat the race, class, ability, and body compliance that compulsory femininity entails.

I’m not saying we’re already doing it right, and I’m not saying I even get to say whether we are or not. (If femme is not a Get Out of Oppression Free card, it’s not an automatic social justice certification, either.)

What I’m saying is, claiming femme as the authentic expression of my gender means realizing (again) that my very existence is political. Identifying as femme, acknowledging that this radical queer gender is what fulfills me, means that I cannot fulfill myself without justice and inclusivity.

What I’m saying is, femme and liberation cannot exist without each other. That means responsibility, but it also means freedom. And next time someone assures me I don’t have to be femme, I’m going to say, “No, I don’t have to. But I am. And it’s awesome.”

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20 comments for “My Femme: A partial personal history, or a purpose statement in progress

  1. July 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Femme: because masculinity is not the only way to power.

    Love this! So succint.
    Great post, Brigid.

  2. doublylinkedlists
    July 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t understand the discourse of “authentic self”, or what expresses our “true” gender. What is authenticity? How do we separate it from something that is inauthentic, yet still seems to be a part of us?

  3. July 18, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I don’t understand the discourse of “authentic self”, or what expresses our “true” gender. What is authenticity? How do we separate it from something that is inauthentic, yet still seems to be a part of us?

    Hellz to the yeah

  4. July 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    This is, indeed, quite brilliant.

    I think I’m stuck in rejection-of-intentional-masculinity phrase to an extent. Growing up, I was taught to be so revolted by effeminacy wherever I perceived it. Yet, I find myself attracted to it in other men and on its own terms, but deathly afraid of it in myself. A heavily conflicted part of myself of course wishes I were more feminine. I go back and forth between extremes.

  5. July 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    I get some of your points, but I advocate for clear distinctions between femme and feminist.

  6. July 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    My brain definitely esploded upon reading this post. It reminded me so much my Queer and Gender Studies seminar! I’m really glad that someone else who identifies as femme is talking about what it can mean, how it can be performed, and especially not feeling “femme enough”.
    As a bi woman, I always wondered if I even could identify as femme, and I decided yes I can. And then I thought about how I portray that and realized it was a series of preferences displayed in the aesthetic I choose to emulate with my body depending on other variables (location, weather, event I’ma ttending, etc…). Just because I’m not always wearing make-up or pumps or choose to be more practical in some of my wardrobe choices doesn’t make me any less femme. Nor should my socioeconomic status or mixed heritage interfere with my viewing myself as femme either. Thank you for this. It helps me feel more secure to identify as femme knowing that someone else has had similar, albeit definitely better worded, thoughts.

  7. July 18, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    I’ve wrestled with these issues a lot: am I this way and do I want to be this way because I was programmed to do so? Also coming from a quasi-second wave feminist mother, I’ve always been quietly afraid that my predilections are a sign of weakness–that I am only this way because I fear the social repercussions of being any other way, or because I really just want to please men. Does the fact that femininity is a construct matter when, for whatever reason, it feels (as you say) essential? Here, I think you offer a healthy approach to these especially difficult questions. Well said, Brigid. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  8. Tawny
    July 19, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Thanks so much for this post.

    I had much the same experience, and am formulating a multi-part series on it on my own blog (

    I tend to still really abhor the word “feminine” though, and I can’t do the “normal” side of it at all (i.e., wear skirts at work, wear floral prints, most jewelry, etc.)

    Instead I tend to lean my femme outfits to be Sexy or Cute, which is what makes being femme for me, I think. I’m kind of masculine in appearance to straight people, and most assume I’m butch about half the time (they’ve never been clubbing with me to see the miniskirts or the makeup, but rather have encountered me hungover the next day, or at work where I prefer to avoid as much male attention as possible by dressing more masculine.) It’s only other queers that look twice and realize that this isn’t the case.

    Anyway, please keep posting! I am always hoping to read more and more perspectives on femme identities.

  9. Ulrika Dahl
    July 19, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Thanks so much for this wonderful and inspiring piece!
    Is it ok to cite you?
    Femme luv & solidarity,

  10. DouglasG
    July 19, 2011 at 8:14 am

    I like “husbian” quite a bit, and can’t think of any term so elegant for half of an MM couple. It’s nice that it seems to work about equally well either as a double term or with a counterpart.

  11. Kristin
    July 19, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Growing up in a lazily but well-meaningly second-wave feminist household, I learned that I didn’t have to be girly. You don’t have to be weak. You should be better than those disgusting, sexual women on television. Good for you for not trying to look good for boys! I learned that femininity is weak. Femininity is silly. Acknowledging sexuality is pathetic and/or wrong. Male gaze is paramount.

    Exactly. I grew up believing similar things, suppressing my desire to have more clothes and makeup and feeling like I was degrading myself by succumbing to those things. I hated seeing all the playboy mags around the house and felt ashamed that I would never look like that, while hating the fact that I couldn’t. The subtext of that message is that to be powerful, we must be as like men as possible. We must embrace masculinity in order to be equal, otherwise we are objectified, weak, ditzy, easy, etc.

    I loved wearing dresses as a little girl, and I’m happy to be back to owning more dresses than pants now that I am in my 30s. Not because I think that femininity is for all women, but because I think what truly makes a person strong is the ability to be authentically themselves no matter what. And I am a feminine hetero feminist who looks great in a dress and can hold my own in a conversation. Thanks for highlighting points that are important for all of us, not just in the queer community.

  12. Brigid
    July 19, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Ulrika – Please feel free to cite! (Just keep my name attached, and linkage is preferred if possible.)

  13. Muse142
    July 19, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    I just wanted to say that reading this was really thought-provoking. Thanks for this!

  14. July 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I found this really interesting. I’ve had trouble navigating the femme/butch thing because I feel kind of drawn to both most of the time, and because I came up having a queer identity that wasn’t consciously political (I mean, there’s something inherently political about being queer in this queer-unfriendly world, but I was pretty much oblivious to it and disconnected with queer communities and organizing until much later in life). This essay made sense to me, though – I like the idea that femme = femininity + queer (if you’ll permit that “queer” can include non-normative heterosexuality too).

  15. konkonsn
    July 20, 2011 at 3:06 am

    Wow, thanks for posting this. I’m queer but…I’m not sure where I fall. Mostly because I don’t think about style, and I’ve always felt like butch and femme have focused on certain types of style. I often even feel that being butch requires a real knowledge of style; the shoes with their specific colors and brands are not the $20 sneakers I pick up at Payless; the hats are still really well coordinated with the shirts; hair styles still have gel in them and look like they were done up.

    I wear skirts and fitted shirts on days when I feel a little bounce in my step or for special occasions. But when I want to be comfortable, a t-shirt and badly fitted shorts it is. I don’t wear make-up, and I keep my hair short, but both more for practical reasons than anything else. I’d like to dress in a tux (and, like, one of those that aren’t black and have a vest and a flared jacket…really stylish stuff) just as much as I liked putting on my prom dress; to me, they both are exciting because it’s dressing up, something I don’t really do.

  16. Claire K.
    July 20, 2011 at 4:20 am

    I think the way femme identities function varies a lot from place to place. Where I live lesbians are still pretty strictly divided into butch and femme, and though there are exceptions for the most part it’s assumed women of one identity don’t date women of the other identity. There’s a lot of self-policing that goes on within the groups –for instance, some butches will comment about other butches, “she can’t be butch because she doesn’t bind her chest” and things like that. Sometimes the butch/femme system we have here is fun and fulfilling. I enjoy getting dressed up, being flattered by charming butches and trying to flatter them back in my own more feminine way. But on the other hand, I can’t say I freely chose to be femme, or that I’ve had the chance to construct my own identity, I just liked the predetermined femme identity better than the butch one. The butch-femme system is also unhealthy in some ways: butches get into fights –I mean physical fights in which people sometimes get badly injured– over femmes, and on some occasions femmes are even raped or beaten (though I understand that sort of thing also happens outside of the butch/femme system). And on a smaller level, that there are so many rules about the way femmes should look and act means my girlfriend feels justified –like she has the backing of the lesbian community– when she does things like criticizing my clothes and my eating habits, or outright ordering me to shave my underarms. I know this isn’t the sort of femme identity you were talking about at all, but I wanted to share another side of the femme experience so that people reading this thread could see that not all femmes are satisfied with our “femme-ininity” and we don’t all agree that being femme is a form of resistance to gender roles.

    The examples I gave above probably seem pretty anti-butch, but I also think that the celebration of femme identity as subversive sometimes doesn’t give enough credit to butches. After all, while it might challenge people’s assumptions when I come out to friends or classmates, most people who see me just see another feminine, compliant girl, and the secret satisfaction or irritation I feel knowing that’s not the case doesn’t do anything to make people re-think their ideas about gender and sexuality. Compared to that, what my girlfriend does in enduring the stares and discrimination she gets for her short hair and men’s clothes day in and day out is much harder and much more meaningful.

  17. Claire K.
    July 20, 2011 at 4:22 am

    ^Oops, I meant “don’t date women of the same identity.”

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  19. July 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    So great to see you guest blogging here, Brigid!

  20. Doc G
    July 26, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I’ve often said that the solution to many of our modern problems is “just be cool”. We do a lot of worrying about how we’re programmed, when what we really need to be concerned with is whether we’re happy. Don’t let the genetic sex you happen to be assigned dictate the gender you feel you want to express. And don’t feel that how feminine or masculine you were yesterday should determine how you feel or behave today.

    Full disclosure: as a hetero man in a hetero relationship struggling to be a feminist advocate in a world that defaults to providing me with undue power and privilege just cause I have a dong, I may seem unqualified to comment on just about any gender issue. But I do think it’s important to remember, especially when things get complicated, and people start thinking about how they “should” behave, that a lot of our issues when it comes to gender and sexuality come from the Puritan belief that you can’t trust your own instincts, ESPECIALLY when it comes to those things that it probably makes the MOST sense to rely on instinct for.

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