While in Ottawa on other business, I recently had the distinct pleasure of hanging out with my friend Ariel and the ladies of Femme Family Ottawa, a wonderful example of the communities that femmes build for ourselves. These femmes (all genders of femme are welcome, though all the other attendees at this particular meeting were women) meet every month for an informal chat at a cute café in Chinatown. I was a bit of a novelty, both as a boy and as a Montrealer, and I enjoyed the cross-pollination that went on.
One of the women brought up femme invisibility, a concept that comes up repeatedly in femme queer women’s thought. If I am characterizing it accurately, it is basically that femme queer women often feel that they are not being read as queer, owing to stereotypes of what queer women look like and do. They may feel not embraced, whether in queer women’s spaces or in the world in general, if they are read as ‘traditionally feminine’ and therefore as straight women. It’s a frustrating place to be, and not just because it makes it difficult to get laid.
My amazing friend Elizabeth Marston says in her paper “Rogue Femininity” (in the forthcoming collection Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme):
Both feminine cis dykes and transsexual women have often been accused of trying to disappear. But often, the femme has no interest in disappearing. All that’s happened is that straights and lazy-minded queers have mistaken her femmeness for conventional femininity. She becomes invisible not because she’s trying to be wallpaper, but because no one’s looking for her difference.
As they discussed this problem in their lives and how they work around and through it, I was musing. I have often applied the word “invisibility” to patterns in my life as a gay femme boy. It’s an interesting coincidence, because the phenomena themselves are so different.
Of course femme men are far from invisible in our individual presentations. (Provided we are read as men by others – a femme trans man who is misgendered by others may find himself in a particularly harsh version of the femme women’s trap above, and have to deal with balancing a presentation that is read as male and that expresses his femmeness, as enoch described in an earlier comment.) One of the reasons I like being a femme boy is the converse of the problem faced by the femme dykes described above: I can never really be in the closet — most anyone who sees me when I’m femming it up immediately reads me as at least some variety of queer. But stereotypes aside, my presentation, being so different from what is considered normal and expected in men, is visible, remarked upon, and the recipient of the occasional thrown beer bottle.
The invisibility arises, like theirs, in my own community. A femme queer woman may well find herself misread as straight by other queer women. But butch and femme are a cultural ‘item’ in the queer women’s community, and while some women deprecate it, or deprecate femmes at the expense of other women, others celebrate them; they are expected and discussed and generally much more in the community’s eye as an identity, at least in my observation.
Gay boys, on the other hand, seem to do their level best to suppress any discussion of effeminacy among them. Sometimes this is pretty literal: I recall hearing about (and may have already mentioned) a gay and lesbian dating site that offered the women the choice between “butch” and “femme” and offered the men “butch” and “very butch.” To the extent that there is any mainstream discussion of non-masculine men at all, it’s to assert that “we’re” not all like that and it’s an unfair stereotype.
(This assertion is occasionally, followed by “but of course some of us are, and that’s good,” but only rarely. On the contrary, I once found myself in an especially gross argument with someone who seemed to believe that the stereotype that gay men are femme was no less offensive than the stereotype that gay men prey on young boys.)
Femme, like butch, is a pole to which queer women can gravitate; in the place of those poles, gay men seem to have a ladder, climbing towards butch and out of… nothingness. Being un-butch doesn’t “get” you anything. You’re just not butch, and the situation is not spoken of except in insults.
As I’ve pointed out, someone must be having sex with us, considering how much of it we have; but nobody asks for us by name. We are not discussed; we barely even discuss ourselves, at least in the time and place where I find myself. (In other times and places, we have. More on the Radical Faeries later, I hope.) Femme queer women’s invisibility stems from others’ misreading, misinterpreting, missing; ours stems from others’ (and for many of us, our own) embarrassment and deprecation.
And yet. And yet, when I facilitated an informal little workshop with few notes and fewer conclusions at an alternative queer festival in town earlier this year, it was one of the best-attended workshops of the entire week. We obviously have a thirst to hear about and see ourselves and one another.
Anyway, the women in Ottawa were interested to share these experiences of invisibility, different in character and site but still related. It’s another way paying attention to femme women has been teaching me about myself as well, and it’s another thing for us to discuss and share about.