Here are some of the words I like to use for my gender, and why, and what they mean for me.
femme. I’ve recently gotten into some interesting discussions on this. After a radio show on femmes, a woman expressed surprise that I, as a cissexual male, identify in this way. At another time, a person called into question my use of the words “butch” and “femme.” What they were getting at was a belief that “butch” and “femme” are exclusively lesbian words. It’s true that they’ve been used in the queer women’s community for many decades, no doubt originated there, and denote well-developed systems of self-expression. However, queer men have been using the words “butch” and “femme” for ourselves and one another for decades, i.e. it’s not something I made up. I actually didn’t realize that my use of them could be surprising to others. (ETA: I go into more detail on this here.)
Anyway, I like the word “femme” in preference to “feminine” or “effeminate” for a couple of reasons (even though I sometimes use those words too). First, I think it’s more accurate. I don’t think that I’m behaving in a “feminine” way, since women who behave like me aren’t said to be “regular, feminine women;” they’re said to be acting “like a gay man,” if anything. So I use the word “femme” to ward that idea off. Granted, it does come from the French word for “woman” (discussing femmes in French, I’ve usually seen the alternative spelling fem and English pronunciation /fɛm/ used) but it seems more distinctive and less apt to lead to that kind of assumption. (More on the distinction between not behaving “like a man” and behaving “like a woman” later.)
Second, “femme” is explicitly queer in origin. Third, it suggests an identity I’m assuming for myself, rather than a way I’m being described by others. Finally, it’s shorter.
It can be a little disorienting when I think of it in connection with the femme dyke world — I’m not sure what the nature of my connection to that world is, or if I get to have one (although all the femme dykes I’ve discussed the subject with have been very welcoming, I’d hate to presume on that). I’m doing more reading about femme dyke identities and seeing how that lines up.
fag. I’ve never met a homophobic word, no matter how gross, that didn’t become awesome or hysterically funny when I applied it cheerfully to myself. But even beyond that, I like the word “fag” because it suggests a sort of cloud of attributes that go beyond my literal sexual orientation: to me it suggests a specific kind of non-masculinity thought of as peculiar to queer men. As I said previously, I always felt — unlike many — that my sexual orientation and how I live it is a big part of my gender identity and presentation. Using the word “fag” to refer to an aspect of my gender helps to express that.
It also describes my type of femme identity quite well. It’s a little different from the “girly” kind of femme identity that a lot of women (and some men) have, and I used to draw a bright line between them, but I’m learning that there’s a “faggy femme” presentation among female-assigned people too, and of course faggy femme guys borrow a lot of girly stuff for our presentations too from time to time, so there’s more meshing there than I thought. (More on this later.)
I love the word “faggot” because it describes my kind of guy! — Margaret Cho
boy. “Boy” is an awesome word because it’s a word for a male that isn’t “man.” I’ve been uncomfortable with applying the word “man” to myself ever since I was 16, although that has softened in recent years, especially in compounds such as “gay man” or “femme man.” It’s so nice to have a word for male that doesn’t have those aggressive connotations (“be a man,” “a real man”) that make that word such a blunt instrument. I would say that in most contexts in which my assigned gender is relevant I use the word “boy.” I expect I’ll find one of these days that I can no longer get away with it, but who cares?
genderqueer. I talked a little bit about this in my backstory. Like “femme,” this has sometimes caused confusion, owing to the idea that it is only used a) by people assigned female at birth; b) by people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned; c) by people who don’t identify with a binary gender. Which is too bad, because when I first encountered it, it seemed to fit immediately: just like “queer” can mean “not straight, not otherwise specified,” “genderqueer” can mean, for me, “not a standard-issue dude, not otherwise specified.”
queen. I save this word for special occasions, but I’ve always felt it was fascinating that we use as an insult for effeminate gay men a word that implies such power — in both its literal and figurative senses, it refers to a way of having power other than through “manliness.” In Queer Spirits, Will Roscoe uses this word as an alternative term for the archetype, found in western queer culture as well as lots of other cultures around the world and at different times, of the queer male-bodied person being someone of special power, authority, skill, or spiritual capacity in that they can do both men’s things and women’s things.
I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, I can even pat myself on the back when necessary, so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything. There’s nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. And anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life.
– Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy
Anglo gay boys are left much more to their own devices in coming-out matters, but we’ve all had moments when something deep within us revealed itself quite unexpectedly – if we knew how to look. Hidden somewhere in the depths of my own closet is a childhood scrapbook pasted with neatly colored drawings of the Empress Josephine and England’s Princess Margaret. Already, at age 8, I was meditating on crowns and robes and the meaning of the word queen.
-Her Imperial Highness, The Grand Duchess, Tatiana Nevahoydova
Video of the week:
Queeny icon Harvey Fierstein in one of the greatest moments of children’s programming: