So it looks like there’s just been a fight on the fuckyeahfemmes community on Tumblr, that I walked in on late via somebody else’s tumblog, so I can guarantee you that what I have to say won’t take the whole discussion into account because I wasn’t there and still am not entirely certain whether or not to capitalize Tumblr let alone how to use it.

It seems that a quote referring to femmes as girls angered some of the trans men in the community, and led to a discussion of transphobia in the femme community, as well as — and this is where it involves me directly — a discussion of variously male-identified folks who identify as femme, and whether that is okay.

As I say, since I didn’t see the whole discussion, this isn’t meant as a recap of the specific incident in question, but more about the whole matter of people who aren’t women or female-identified, in my case men, identifying as femme, as that was called into question. So I guess it’s time for me to finally organize how I feel on the subject, an article that has been coming for some time.

Now, it’s been my experience that most femme women believe that femme is for people of all genders. For example, the Femme Collective, which puts on the biennial Femme Conference, states:

We are using this term [queer] to specifically and intentionally include lesbians and same-gender-loving women as well as genderqueers, transwomen, and folks of every sex and gender who identify as Femme and see themselves as part of LGBTQIA/SGL and genderphile communities.

Tumblr user jessiedress, a femme organizer in Austin, writes:

I want it to be possible to live in and organize in a space that welcomes femmes of all genders/gender presentations/races/classes/abilities. I want to do what I can to actualize that community, and I think that part of that is remembering that femme is big enough to hold all of us. Part of that, to me, means acknowledging my experiences, and yours, and knowing that neither of them need to diminish one another. […]

If you call yourself femme, you’re femme. Enough said. You wanna be in the club, you want to claim this shit? Then I want you at the party. […]

Can we all work harder? Yes. I want to commit to doing that, not just because I have (both cisgender and trans) friends who happen to be femme-identified boys/men, not just because I know transwomen who don’t feel at home in femme community, not just because most femme community is still so white that the experiences of femmes of color are totally underrepresented/misunderstood, but because its the fucking right thing to do.

I help organize femme community in Austin, Texas. When we say that we’re open to self identified femmes of all genders, we’re serious about it. That doesn’t mean that we never have to remind one another that not all femmes are ladies. But I’m so fucking thankful for the community of radical femmes that I live in.

And the very woman whose quotation was the basis of the ruckus, prominent femme thinker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, weighed in, saying:

So, to clarify: I don’t believe that “femme” is a gender identity that is or should be restricted to cisgendered queer women. I think of femme as a broad spectrum of gender identities that claim and are a spirit of ass-kicking femme strength, beauty and complexity that resists racist, sexist, classist, ableist ideas of what femininity is . I know and love and claim many, many kinds of femmes in my communitites as loved and needed ones- ciswomen, transwomen, Two Spirit folks, and genderqueer and trans folks (including femme boys and bois) who embody many kinds of gender in their bodies.

However, some women are equally sure that femme is an identity that is only for queer women, and that use of it by others is appropriative. Probably the most direct statement that men and male-spectrum people cannot be femme was this, from romanticroots:

Words don’t exist in a vacuum, they have histories, and more importantly, MEANINGS, which is why we use them. Fem/me is historically an adjective used by/to identify the experience of feminine identified/presenting people, particularly feminine lesbians who are often rendered invisible by the straight community and also the queer community. I don’t under understand why masculine identified/presenting people feel the need to appropriate “femme” when there are other words with similar meanings that don’t have the historical connotations which “femme” has.

And yes, the insistence of masculine presenting people on using “femme” DOES render me and other femmes invisible. Once again our identities are lost in the shuffle and furor of a masculine-presenting person’s desire to claim femme and their outrage at at being questioned.

A femme is both invisible as queer to most straight eyes, and visible as a femme—whether shy, bold, of colour, pale, &c—feminine is read while masculine presenting people, if they are performing/wearing a version of feminine, their queerness is the first thing visible. It’s qualitatively different than the lived experience of femme.

Dandy, nelly, sissy, effeminate, tender, epicine, feminine are a few words for masculine presenting people. Not good enough? Make a new one. But the nuance of femme is brushed aside by the attempts to stretch femme to fit a wide swath of experiences which would be covered just as well by some of the words listed above, which have been used considerately by many effeminate gay and transmen who don’t feel the desire to appropriate “femme”. […]

Femme is a specific descriptor, for a range of feminine identified and PRESENTING experience. Identifying as a man negates that. Calling yourself something does not MAKE you that something unless you already are. You have to WORK to become most things, you have to EARN them—and sometimes, some identities are actually only born. The idea that one can simply declare something and expect to have it be taken at face value when femmes live this femme experience (with all of its pleasures and burdens) every day is really offensive to me.

And lions-share said here:

Femme is an identity, and like other identifications, it is used to identify- that is, to differentiate people from one another.

Femme or fem has a genealogy- it is an identity of resistance that emerged from the unique space of North American lesbian bar culture. Historically, femmes/fems dated lesbians who were also butches, studs, and transgender. […]

I offer this brief history here because femme has never been an easy identity. Claiming femme as a woman-identified lesbian, bisexual, or queer identity has always been challenged, under attack, and critiqued ESPECIALLY by those within the community.

Femme does not mean “feminine”; interpreting someone as effeminate, femmy, or feminine is not the equivalent of taking on, living with, and sustaining a queer/lesbian femme identity. […]

There is not a single space for femme in our culture or in our communities where femme can exist without critique; fine. let us deal with that. But misogyny is real, and when masculine folks try to claim my identity and call me transphobic for resisting its extension to male/masculine identified people, then I ask them to reconsider what aspects of male privilege they are reproducing in the queer community.

In my opinion, femme IS restricted to female identified, feminine presenting, lesbian/bisexual/transgender/queer women.

Appreciate, don’t appropriate.

This isn’t the first time it’s been put to me that only queer women should use the word “femme,” although they are the first sets of detailed reasons I’ve read. And, to be honest, they have several good points, even though I disagree with the conclusion. I do believe in not using privilege to barge in where I’m not wanted. I do believe in not appropriating, not making women centre me and my experiences. And romanticroots is right that we don’t experience femme invisibility in the same way that femme women do.

However, I think they err in suggesting that queer men, specifically, who call themselves femme must be appropriating the identity from the specific, modern primarily queer female femme culture. Queer men have been calling each other butch or femme for ages. I was called “femme” by others ever since I came out, often in tones of high insult. One of the first books I read as I was coming out, and probably the first place I came across the word, was The Unofficial Gay Manual by Kevin DiLallo, a rather terrible guide to normative gayness, that uses the words “butch” (as a compliment) and “femme” (as an insult). It was published in 1994.

I’ve since discovered that gay men have been using the words butch and femme much earlier than that. “Femme” is an entry in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Man’s Lexicon by Bruce Rodgers, published in 1972, referring to both lesbians and to gay men. The latter definition is marked “dated,” suggesting that it had existed still earlier. “Butch” is also an entry, with the meaning “masculine heterosexual man” dated to the 1940s. As femme men’s star fell in the 1970s, “fem” became also one of the many epithets flung at effeminate men in Craig Alfred Hanson’s virulent screed “The Fairy Princess Exposed,” in Karla Jay and Allen Young, Out of the Closets: Voices of gay liberation, also published in 1972.

I’m not able to determine from these resources whether the word “femme” originated in the queer women’s or queer men’s community. (Couldn’t it have been both at the same time? I don’t think they were always as separate as they can be now.) But the point is that there is a history of gay men using “femme” (and “butch”) for decades, well before the rise of the modern femme community. Accordingly, I think I have a good reason to think of the word “femme” as part of my cultural heritage as a queer man; that’s certainly how I received it in the first place.

Now, I understand that a lot of queer women aren’t aware that men have also been using the words butch and femme for a long time. That’s hardly surprising; after all, the butch and femme identity communities, especially the latter, are so much more salient and rich as a cultural item among queer women — I would argue, because oppositional sexism and effemimania have so vigorously shut down queer men’s feminine expression (more on this later). But, since romanticroots is right to say that words have histories, I think I’ve shown that the word “femme” has a history for queer men and that I, for lack of a better phrase, come by it honestly.

That doesn’t mean that romanticroots and lions-share have no point. I would never claim that my experience is the same as that of a femme woman, that the challenges I face are the same. There’s a difference between the word “femme” and the identity of femme as it has grown in the queer women’s community. Nor do I expect my experience to be centred in the femme community.

Tumblr user and femme boy mewmewfoucault posted something very intelligent and apposite about the whole thing (I’m quoting only the parts that are directly relevant to this post, but do read his entire post because it brings equally valuable nuance to the entire discussion):

  • there a lot of different histories around femme[…]
  • the word ‘femme’ itself is, well, a really really common french word that has undoubtedly been appropriated / utilized by a wide variety of queer and non-queer english speakers in a variety of ways at a variety of times
  • this means that there are lot of different femmes and femme communities and ways of thinking about femme[…]
  • i am a femme boy and i actually am ok with women not centering my needs or identity all the time ever, you know?
  • they really shouldn’t have to center me me me all the time
  • expecting them to is surely sexist and seems pretty dude-privileged to me
  • […]at any rate, i like the word femme because it’s a way of talking about some parts of my gender that lets me forge a connection with other queerly feminine people who don’t share other parts of my gender and sexual identities / experiences[…]
  • just because i share a queer feminine gendered sense of self with femmes who are women doesn’t mean all or even most of our issues are the same, nor does it mean that it’s bad for femme women to want to center discussions about their own experiences of oppression around femininity and queerness and womanhood
  • sometimes i feel very included and excited and validated as a femme gay boy in femme-centric spaces
  • sometimes i feel excluded or ignored or bored in femme space because they’re focused on the experiences or needs of femme people who are women and i am not a woman
  • i think both of the last two bullet points are ok things
  • And from jessiedress, above:

    As an organizer, and as an ally for transfolk, I feel like its my job to remind other cisgender lady femmes that not everyone femme is the same “brand” of femme we are. (I mean, I’m not the same femme as a lot of cislady femmes I know anyway. We are all our own femmes …) […]

    And amaevis said:

    A further note on exclusion: Yes, claiming of identity exists to build community. But inclusion of some does not necessarily imply exclusion or border policing. What does widening the tent harm? Does it somehow take away from your identity? I assert that it takes away just about as much as non-het, non-dual-person marriage takes away from het, dual-person marriage, i.e. not at all. As long as the person is respectful and isn’t harming anyone in the community (twigging someone out doesn’t count as harm), then why not?

    In amaevis and jessiedress’s view, then, the tent is large, non-women’s identities as femme shouldn’t necessarily be seen as appropriative because femme is an identity for a diverse community whose members come to femmeness from lots of places and experience it in a lot of ways (a position reinforced by what I’ve shown about the history of the word “femme” in queer men’s space), and the boundaries (like the boundaries of most kinds of identity) are not fixed or clear and should not be policed.

    So, in sum:

  • The word “femme” is an element of queer men’s culture as well as queer women’s culture. Queer men have been using it for decades, not by taking over women’s space but just because it’s a word that people around and before them in their community used; also, I have had it thrown at me enough times that I think I’m in my rights to pin it to my vest.
  • The word “femme,” having a femme identity, and being in the femme community that arose from queer women’s reclaiming of the butch/femme bar culture dynamic, are not identical with one another.
  • That’s okay.
  • If you have a femme identity and you look for community, you are inevitably going to come across the femme community referred to above. Most of these folks will be happy to have you around. They’ve been happy to have me around, which makes me very happy indeed. I’ve enjoyed myself, and I’ve learned from them.
  • Most of these folks will be women, and they have specific concerns relating to themselves as women, and they may expect femme space to centre the concerns of femme queer women for the majority of the time, because the concerns of femme queer women aren’t centred anywhere else.
  • That’s also okay. I support them in this. (However, I sympathize with the original poster, a trans man, on whom having words like “girl” or “ladies” being directed at him has a far different impact than on me. I think that this would be important for femme communities where non-women, especially trans men and coercively-assigned-female genderqueer people who don’t identify as women, are present.)
  • Fortunately for me and boys like me, most women in the femme community are happy to have femme dudes among them. And that’s really valuable for us.
  • In my association with the femme community, I’ve learned a lot from femme queer women, both about my commonalities with them and the ways in which we’re different and unique. And even some of the specificities of our experiences are sometimes similar — see my post on femme invisibility.
  • I like talking about femme guys. Whence the blog. And I look forward to times and places where I’ll get to. Because:
  • Femmes are really freaking awesome.