FEMME: A Story of Empowerment and Erasure
1999. I am going to a job interview at a lesbian bar. The manager, a butch, opens the door:
‘What are you doing here? Are you in the right place?’
‘I am here for the interview’
She looks at me up and down with suspicion. ‘You don’t look gay!’
‘I am here, for the same reason you are’ I say.
‘You sound determined, come on in’.
I got the job.
At the time of this incident, I was not aware femme was a viable identity, let alone one that represented how I felt about myself. But what this interaction made me aware of is ‘it’s not enough to be queer, one is expected to carry visible markers of queerness. Further to look queer, is to look a certain, non-feminine way.’ Femme identities aren’t always immediately legible. In patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality dictates you are assumed to produce a certain set of behaviours. If you are feminine you are expected to be fucking cis men, to be softly spoken, to look immaculate.
Compulsory heterosexuality is producing social control where queers are punished, ostracised, jailed and femmes are made invisible. Femmes are imagined voiceless. Femmes are seen and not heard, assumed to be ‘not queer enough’. Without agency. Femmes are accused of self-objectification. Perpetrating stereotypes of normative femininity. Following social trends and not leading. Society deciding on their behalf.
My mother was a hardcore feminist. I was not allowed to be hyper feminine or wear pink. Playing with a barbie doll was out of question. Once for a fancy dress party at school I asked her: ‘mum, can I be a princess?’
‘No’ she said ‘you can be a clown, a circus girl or Zoro’.
‘Zoro it is then’. I said.
‘Ok’ she said. ‘We will start with the moustache. Then the mask.’
Cutting my hair short and dressing in a boyish way felt like the only acceptable option. I hid my feminine self behind tomboyish clothes. Lipstick I was allowed and wore it everywhere. Always a dark shade. From school to the gym, in sickness and health. A lipstick wearing boyish girl. I wasn’t wearing jeans, I needed to be different but at the same time I craved to belong, to a community. Covered in piercings, dark punky make up, DMs, wearing black head to toe, new wave all the way. Loud, combative, aggressive, kick ass.
In love, with my best friend. At 16.
‘I have someone special’ I said to a friend. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Her name’ I said ‘her name is Despina, she is a girl’
‘But…you don’t look gay…?’ She said
Me and my girlfriend started going out to gay bars. One baby femme-in-the-making and a tomboy. I would always get the ‘you don’t belong here’ look while waiting for her. The moment she was by my side, we were paired, lesbians. Alone I was straight. It made angry, really pissed off. I remember talking to my mum about this: ‘Don’t be afraid to be different,’ she said. ‘Be proud to be a misfit. It’s what makes you unique’
I only started fully exploring my femininity once I moved away from home. Dressing in a feminine way for me was an act of rebellion. An act that disrupted the gay norm of what one is expected to look like and what to reject. It was a ‘fuck you’ to all those who refused to ‘see’ me. Arriving to and embracing a femme identity was not just about my dress-code. My style meant that I started seeking and recognising other femmes in queer and kinky spaces, starting to approach them and explore what else we have in common aside they way we present.
To clarify not all feminine presenting people identify as femme. Not all femmes present in a feminine way. But femme is an inclusive identity.
I discovered it was stories regarding the embodiment of femme identity, experiencing erasure, sexual harassment, violence and discrimination but also finding support, solidarity, empowerment and a community that brought me close to other femme sisters. I saw myself reflected and mirrored. This is how I arrived to my femme voice and queer politics. Sharing narratives, listening, learning through our similar and different experiences. Being called in, rather than called out. Forming a femme family.
Once I found my femme identity and community, for a long time I resisted the masculine aspects of my personality and the desire to dress in an androgynous way. I felt that empowerment doesn’t equal presenting in a masculine way, although that’s the dominant narrative in patriarchy. However I realised that there were sides of me not expressed and explored. My femmeboi eventually came out through kink. ‘This is a flogger’ she said. ‘I will show you how to use it. I want you to hit me with it. I can feel this powerful fag boi in you, hungry for it. Are you up for it? I know you can do this’ I was.
By being a femmeboi I identify and express as my authentic self. My style is about having the freedom to express myself, regardless of other people’s expectations of me. I am Femmeboi and my dress-code and behaviour isn’t binary. It is mixing and matching codes and tropes. There are masculinities not masculinity and mine is expressed through femme. A dominant Femmeboi.
My style, my writing, my activism, my photography, my dominance, my boi aspects and vulnerability, my hard and soft, my body expression through dance and sport all comprise my Femmeboi voice. These coexist in symbiosis, together. I rock climb and do ballet, I do pull ups in painted nails. I kick ass in heels, army boots, pointe shoes and DMs. I do DIY and put furniture together flicking my mascara clad eyelashes. I show my nipples and walk around bare-chested, in black leather trousers.
I speak out for injustice in support for other less privileged femmes. I am an ally. I demonstrate. I reach out. I listen. I manage a team of cis men. They respect me regardless of my appearance because I get the work done. My style and identity is self determined and won’t be defined by what other people expect me to wear to look queer, or how others want me to act as a feminist and a dyke.
Femme is to produce a person by transforming a behaviour, into an identity. By wearing what I wear and act the way I do, I don’t just challenge cismen and their perceptions. I challenge queers too by creating my own brand of queerness. Arriving to a femmeboi identity feels like being at peace. Being both feminine, a feminist, powerful, boi and queer. To chose to identify as a femme is to choose a position of less privilege in queer spaces, it’s a self empowered choice that is both radical and subversive. Being a femme takes everything that patriarchy says is useless and flips it to its head. It makes embracing femininity a powerful political act. Being a femme in capitalism is a political identity.
Femme exists independently of a masculine counterpart and the male gaze. Femme identity doesn’t need to be paired with MOC identities to be validated. It’s autonomous and disruptive. Femming up is for myself and other femmes because it makes me feel powerful, confident and comfortable. It’s not for your consumption. To not take femmes seriously and see us as lesser because of how we look is a view founded in misogyny and sexism, both deep rooted in patriarchy.
If you don’t ‘see’ a femme as queer enough this is not because the femme is invisible. It’s because you actively choose not to see us. It’s active erasure. It’s Femmephobia and it does exist in queer communities. Let’s not let this happen to the communities we are part of. Femme is my superpower, Femme-family my armour!
This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Femmeboi originally wrote this piece as a talk for the Wotever World event ‘Queer Experiments: Queer Femme’ in February 2016. Images via lil’_wiz, philippe leroyer and Mariana Athayde‘s Flickr photostreams.