So I’m hanging out in Vancouver this week, for the occasion of Canadian Mayhem, the new West Coast leatherdyke conference. And for some reason, rather than kink, the question that my mind is mulling over is that of queer femininity and femme identity.
I feel like I’m poorly placed to say much about it. Which is in itself part of what’s on my mind.
I was sitting in a sushi restaurant all of two hours after my arrival (how very Wet Coast) with my very kind, very gentlemanly and very butch/transmasculine/masculine-spectrum genderqueer welcoming committee of one. Said individual is very attuned to the complexities of gender identity, and when the word “lady” slipped out in reference to me, said individual made a point to immediately check in about it: “You’re not really a lady, are you? No, I didn’t think so. Something told me I should be careful on that one.” I definitely appreciated the consideration – I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been assumed to be, and labelled, femme.
This is not to say I have any particular criticism of femmes, or of any specific gender category. I think they’re all fuckin’ awesome. Femmes, specifically, are great. As I discovered today, femmes – some of them at least – are the absolute perfect people with whom to go shoe-shopping (mmmmmGravityPope) and to indulge in my first-ever professional manicure and pedicure. (On the topic of femininity, it was very odd to have someone female-bodied and feminine attending to my feet – the presence of make-up and cleavage below knee level is a highly unusual experience for me. And the lack of oral attention to the toes during pedicure proceedings was also. But hey, I got what I paid for – twenty cute and happy digits.)
In the past I’ve posted my feelings about the not-quite space that some people, including myself, occupy in the realm of gender identity. So I’m not going to go on a philosophical trip right now about what it is that I feel I am. I’m more interested in noting a few of the observations I’ve made in the past couple of days about other people, or more specifically, other people who do identify as femme. In a way this is part of an ongoing project to examine such things, but today it’s just some musings.
I’ve noticed that many of the people who identify as femme seem to invest pretty heavily in building, maintaining and demonstrating pride in that identity. It’s quite a beautiful thing to see, and it serves the odd function of making me feel simultaneously included (hey, I can talk dresses and lipstick and feminism too!) and like an impostor – because for all that I find femme corporeal and sartorial aesthetics to be extremely pleasing, and for all that I myself occupy those physical spaces on a fairly regular basis, I don’t have a strong investment in my femininity, and I don’t always present as feminine, and sometimes I’m downright uncomfortable with my own feminine shape and would rather crawl out of my skin than wear a dress. Perhaps I would be more comfortable claiming “femme” as my own if I inhabited it more reliably and more passionately, but as it stands, the word ends up feeling more like a too-tight halter dress than like an open space into which the whole of me (or even most of me) can elegantly step.
Others have written far more eloquently than I could hope to on the strength and beauty of femme identity. Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri’s anthology Brazen Femme, for starters, is a worthy read. I wish I remembered more about the particulars of how the contributors articulate their identities, because I am left, tonight, musing about questions such as, What does it mean to be femme? Because surely it’s about more than the clothes and the manicures. What are the defining factors, the common cues, the agreed-upon boundaries of where femme begins and where it ends? Where does the line fall between feminine and femme?Could one conceivably be femme without being queer, or does femme imply queerness in a way that makes the term distinct from the more general idea of femininity?
What flavours of femme are there, and how do they overlap with one another, or intersect, or contradict each other? What does it mean to identify as femme within the context of a butch/femme binary? Is that binary a productive one or a restrictive one? What does it mean that, for good long stretches at a time, I myself find deep relational and erotic satisfaction in exactly that binary, while still not feeling at home within “femme” and without expecting that my counterparts in that dance will necessarily identify as “butch,” and what does it mean to disrupt that binary by shifting one or more of its key elements en cours de route? Is it possible, for a frequently-feminine queer woman, to refuse the word “femme” without having others erroneously interpret that refusal as criticism or an implicit invalidation of their own identity? Is it possible to play, socialize and erotically engage outside the binary without unintentionally sending the message to those who are deeply engaged within it that somehow binary-transgressing is avant-garde and that only dinosaurs would still take part in shoring up or living by said binaries? Is it possible to criticize the prevalence of the binary while simultaneously upholding the need for the respect for each individual’s gender identity and choices – as in, can we criticize the butch-femme binary without implicitly criticizing butches and femmes themselves?
What does it mean to identify as femme when you are a person of colour? How does that identity get articulated, how does it make sense? Where is the room, in “femme,” for people who aren’t white, or aren’t able-bodied, don’t possess any number of the other features that are conjured up so regularly by the term? How does it work to be femme and poor, for example, when so much of the bonding I witness between femme women revolves around the maintenance of feminine characteristics that in some ways may require at least some monetary investment? I don’t doubt that butch maintenance, much like that of any other gender, requires money, but I rarely hear the masculine-spectrum folks discussing the particulars of that maintenance with the same gusto.
What cues do people who are not femme look for when dealing with feminine women to determine whether those women are femme or not, and what do such individuals do with that information? What assumptions to queers make about femme women – do femmes get instantly pegged as bottoms, as tops, as anything specific at all?
I gotta finish this up, as it’s three in the morning and I’ve gotta get out of bed and go join the conference craziness. We’ll do more questioning tomorrow.