April 03, 2007

Further complicating "femme"

Because, y'know, that's what I do. I complicate what looks like it ought to be fairly simple.

So, if you've read ... oh ... pretty much anything Quenchy I've written, you've probably picked up on the fact that I ID as a femme. Specifically, a queer (XX-)femme SOFFA, with a lot of other not-immediately-relevant identity labels tossed in there, too. (I don't think it's my place to reveal intimate details about sexual practices that don't just involve me - but since there's a lot of conflation of femme with sexual roles, I'll mention that the top/bottom distinction is not something that plays into my identity at all. Just FYI. *smile*)

This past weekend, I met a ton of fabulous femmes at a conference I was helping out with. Many of them were also queer femmes (or femme dykes) who, if asked to check off a standard "male/female" box, would check "female" without worrying too much about it. These were pretty much your standard Bettie-Page-meets-Gwen-Stefani femmes: lots of leopard-print, lots of lipstick, and high high heels.

But by and large, the femmes I met that I ended up really clicking with weren't in any way girls, chicks, ladies, or checkers-of-the-f-box. (Ok, so maybe some of them liked to check other people's f-boxes ...) Some of them were femme FTMs, of various sexual orientations, and at least one was a blazingly fabulous genderqueer XY femme. (Let me know if I screwed up the sequence of those, will you, dear? I know you're reading this.) I also have a good friend here in University City who describes himself as a boyfemme glitterfag, and I believe there are some non-girl-type Quenchfolk who are also femme-identified.

I'll point out that I'm not simply on good terms with these folks because they're non-girl-type femmes, although I appreciate not having to hear them talk about how dating an FTM doesn't negate their lesbian identities because it's almost like dating a woman. (Obviously, if you have no lesbian identity to start with, shoring it up is not going to be an issue for you.) But they all happen to be closer to the RuPaul-in-boy-drag school of femininity, and that's something I know very little about. So I was surprised to realize that they'd sort of reached critical mass as a subsegment of my friends.

I wanted to ask one of the conferencefolk this weekend how he describes his femmeness: when I talk about it, I say I'm being "girly;" I add gratuitous feminine suffixes to my labels (turning "coordinator" into "coordinatrix," for example). I refer to myself in ways that seem counterintuitive to imagine coming from the mouths of femmes who are not girls. I wanted to ask him how he talks about being a femme without talking about being a woman, too.

Unfortunately, he happened to be running the conference, so he was super-busy and not really available for deep discussions about identity.

So I'm asking you.

For those of you who identify yourselves as femmes, how does that interact with other elements of your gender identity? Those of you who aren't femmes, but who have other possibly-surprising identity overlaps (queer butch guys, female-identified daddies, girlfags, etc.) - same question.


emily2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
emily2 said...

reposting (used "i.e." instead of "e.g." - stupid me - now corrected):

honestly, after that dizzyingly complicated post, i only wish to reiterate that i'm not a fan of labels. after one compartmentalizes (e.g. applying the label "queer") others into increasingly smaller compartments (e.g. applying sublabel "bisexual female"), upon which one keeps distinguishing and distinguishing and distinguishing (e.g. applying subsubsubsubsublabel "4.2435423 on the kinsey scale, 67% soft butch, 32% futch, 1% girlfag"), what's left is a sea of individuals. which is where we ought to be. :)

icarus said...

yeah, i'm a little confused too (and i study this stuff!)...guess labels really do have a limited usefulness at some point.

- femme-ish chick.

entendante said...

I mean, my basic point is: there are femmes who aren't also women. Whatever the heck we call ourselves, the fact remains that some people do identify with femininity in a pretty consciously-presented manner, and some of those people do not identify with woman-ness. The question then is, given the fact that femininity and woman-ness tend to be pretty consistently conflated - what resources do people have to talk about themselves without caving in to that overlap?

That said, limited though they may be, I do think labels are useful when they are chosen by the person they're labeling. Unless I'm able to download the entire contents of my mind and heart, in all their complexity, straight into your brain, I do in fact have to convey them some other way. Words, I think, are about as good a way as any.

And frankly, we're not a sea of individuals. In some arenas, I do actually have more in common with some people than with others. Like bat_dor and raine, I am sexually attracted to people of more than one gender. Also like them, and like emily2 and icarus, I bleed from the uterus ~ monthly. Also like all of them, and like emily0, I prefer people call me "she" and express their attraction for me as attraction to a woman. And like icarus, as well as wtto, I pile on the glitter whenever I get the chance, and swish around with every step I take.

Now, instead of all of that, isn't it a damn sight simpler to say I'm a bi/queer XX-girl femme?

Anonymous said...

Oy, I have a headache from reading that post.

You want to know what drives me nuts? People describing "femme" as a matter of appearance (or at least emphasizing it). I tend to identify as "femme", but I haven't worn glitter since 7th grade. (Ditto for high heels and leopard print.) Which of course begs the question- What defines "femme"?

So call me a queer, lesbian-identified, tomboi-ish, XX femme.

Or call me Dee. I have no problem being an individual.

Richard M. Juang said...

You're utterly on-target with your description of the conference, sweet one.

It was very refreshing for me to meet the femme transmen there, also. What became clear through the conference was the wide wide range of gender expressions and identities held by people who also identified as male and as men. And folks were variously straight, gay, bi, pansexual, etc-- none of which could be predicted based on gender expression.

It was also legitimizing to many, myself included, to be in a space where the cringe-making idea that dating a transman is, as you say, "almost like dating a women" was generally kept to the edges.

Anonymous said...

The more masculinely I identify myself, the stronger I identify as a femme. I'm not sure if that makes any sense.

Perhaps that explains why I get along so well with Richard? ;-)

Labels are complicated. I usually emphasize my femme identity in situations where people assume I identify as female - which is kind of a lot due to being female-assigned and not particularly butch in my presentation. But when I refer to myself as a femme it's also a way of clarifying that I'm not closeted in my maleness, I'm just not presenting it the way people assume.


wannatakethisoutside said...


I'm wondering what your answers to similar questions might be.

How does being femme relate to other aspects of your gender identity?

Are there aspects of your femme identity that you think surprise people?

entendante said...

What? I have to answer the hard questions too? Ok, that's fair. ;)

That said, I have to go to class; I'm just leaving this as a placeholder saying I'll respond.

entendante said...

So, yes, actual response to WTTO's question.

First of all - and this is more of a response to Dee, I guess - my femmehood was almost presented to me as a fait accompli. My ex used to say, all the time, "You're such a femme!" After maybe once or twice, it sort of clicked - she was, in fact, absolutely right, though it might not have occurred to me had she not brought it up. And what made her say this, and what made it obvious to me that she was on the right track, was the fact that I like makeup, and clothes, and high heels, and all the very visible high-femme signifiers. They're clearly not required for femmeness, and they're not the only things that make me - or anyone - femme. But they're strong and incredibly salient symbols of femmehood, especially femmehood the way I do it.

That said, to WTTO - when I do things like describe my gender in contexts where I'm not asked to describe my gender expression separately, I say straight-up that my gender is "femme." Sometimes I even joke that I only use female pronouns because there aren't femme ones. ;) (Obviously, this only happens when people ask what my gender is rather than assuming they know - i.e., never in straight environments, and not always in queerspace either.) So in some sense, "femme" doesn't interact with my gender identity, it is my gender identity.

But then we get into gender expression as distinct from gender - which, if I'm not totally mistaken, is where a lot of femme guys in particular locate their femmeness. (As for genderqueer femmes, it would seem that "femme" is a modifier of "genderqueer" and is housed under "gender," with "gender expression" acting as the locus of additional information. This is strictly based on the way I would draw a syntax tree, though, rather than on any experience with genderqueer femmes spelling out their identities for me. So, you know, grain of salt.)

When I talk gender expression, I'm still torn between reverting to "gender=woman/girl/chick" and "expression=femme" or sticking with "gender=femme" and specifying other information in expression: high-femme? retro-femme? something there's no good name for but which is made visible through rhinestone cat's-eye glasses and high-heeled boots?

The advantage of this model is that it gives us a principled way of accounting for and describing people who identify as femme but perform or manifest that identity differently. Dee, for example, could be described as a queer/lesbian (sexual orientation) XX (sex) tomboi (expression) femme (gender). Since there is a potential for variation along all four axes, it makes sense to exploit all four axes to arrive at the most precise possible description. In other words, if the system requires specification of both gender and expression for some people, then it's a potentially available feature for describing any person. In some cases, where someone's gender is "woman" and their expression is "generic feminine," you can probably get away with underspecifying some features, but it's useful to have them around to do descriptive work for you.

[I'm realizing that, not for the first time, I'm describing gender in terms of feature-based phonology. If all of the above makes no sense, for heaven's sake tell me!]

So, yes. Under this paradigm, which seems to account for my existence better than any others I've found, my gender and my gender expression are neither contradictory nor redundant. The downside of this is that it's a) ridiculously time-consuming to explain to someone that my gender is not actually "woman" when I'm not always visually distinguishable from one, and it won't make a difference in how I'm treated; b) I tend to lapse into phonological theory when I describe this stuff, which may not be helpful to the lay listener.

WTTO, your other question - "Are there aspects of your femme identity that you think surprise people?" - is one I find really interesting. One thing I've noticed, and which I think I alluded to in my original post, is the presumption a lot of people have that by knowing I'm femme they also know something about the way I have sex, especially with a butch-type partner. As it happens, the idea of being a "femme top," or a "romance-over-sex girly femme," or a "femme pillow queen bottom," or a "genitalia-squicks-me-out stone-femme," or a "femme sub" doesn't really enter into my conception of myself. I'm willing to try almost any mode of power-relating in a sexual situation with someone I trust not to abuse that set-up, with the result that my sexual behavior and role are very private things determined largely by my partner's preferences. Nevertheless, a lot of people expect me to very strongly inhabit one of the pre-defined femme sexual roles, and are super-surprised when I don't.

People who are unclear on the concept that femmes can have brains and voices and attitudes are also somewhat surprised when I reveal myself to be something of a steel magnolia. But usually these are people who have never actually met a femme before, or not known it if they did, so their opinions tend to matter a whole lot less to me. Then again, when lesbian feminists are surprised that my wearing pink sparkly eyeliner is not a pro-patriarchal statement, I do get more than a little miffed. I guess it depends on whether I think people ought to know better. ;)

entendante said...

Also, Richard? There were plenty of lesbians there who dated FTMs and didn't find that situation any more complicated identity-label-wise than dating a woman. They were just in a different all-day Friday-thing than we were. Luckily.

emily2 said...

That said, limited though they may be, I do think labels are useful when they are chosen by the person they're labeling. Unless I'm able to download the entire contents of my mind and heart, in all their complexity, straight into your brain, I do in fact have to convey them some other way. Words, I think, are about as good a way as any.

yes, i suppose that the limitations inherent in communicating one's thoughts and ideas to another do require labels.

And frankly, we're not a sea of individuals. In some arenas, I do actually have more in common with some people than with others.

no and yes. we are all unique and grouping us together based on common traits or common interests doesn't make us less of an individual. (i, for one, can't tell who i'm going to gravitate towards and for what reason. then again, people tell me that i'm especially random and unpredictable.)

anyway, sometimes i feel that the grouping is a bit artificial and arbitrary, but i suppose it helps define traits and customs to others.

Also like them, and like emily2 and icarus, I bleed from the uterus ~ monthly.

sadly, i will be bleeding soon. *grumble*

wannatakethisoutside said...

Things that I've learned from this thread:

1. The word "retro-femme." awesome.

2. I'm much better at articulating what I believe should happen, or like on policy terms than articulating my own identity.

I just don't always feel a need to figure out some of these distinctions. Like, on a theory-head level I find the questions about gender vs gender expression that you raised really interesting and I found it really interesting to read about. But then on a personal level, I'm too lazy to think it out. I think in a perfect world I would just want to do whatever I feel like doing and be done with it.

But on an activist level, I know labels help. I know it's important that we advocate for ends to discrimination both based on gender identity and based on gender expression and can articulate the reasons. I can compare plans and figure out which one I would advocate for over another, and when I meet with legislators, or administrators, or community members, I find ways to answer questions and to explain myself but I'm not always consistent. I feel like it's really context-dependent.

Whether I would tell someone I identify as one thing or another when trying to explain myself would probably depend on how they defined that word or how I guessed they would define it. I mean, I would assert disagreement if I had a political disagreement like if they assumed that trans meant having/had surgery but it's just generally not what I like to communicate about.

Last year, I knew a certain set of pronouns helped me a lot to get a task done, and this year I'm using a different set and it's working for some different things. I don't really know which one is "right" and I spent a long time trying to figure it out until I realized that I didn't really care.

I think I would switch pronouns again if I found it politically convenient, so I guess I don't really care strongly either way about some things on a personal level. Although I would probably feel weird about switching too often because I would be worried about the political consequence of potential allies thinking trans people are flaky. Although then I would find it problematic that I was even considering that issue. And I would continue to suck at making decisions or articulating my own identity and once again be debating politics with myself.

I'm just not very good with words in that way. Maybe icarus can figure out my identity labels for me. She usually has good ideas.

icarus said...


spork said...

OMG icarus I've been waiting for someone to broach that point for this whole thread. However, I need to respectfully disagree with you on one little point: I firmly believe that identities should be chosen by the people who have them.

I don't want to start a flamewar here or anything, but I had to speak up.

icarus said...

wtf, Spork. obviously you don't know anything about gender and sexuality. because people need to be allowed to choose identities that THEY want to choose.

please reflect on this point. thank you.

wannatakethisoutside said...

I wasn't going to bring it up but now that you brought it up, I have to respectfully disagree.

A person's identity should be chosen by the person (his/her/hir)self.

entendante said...

For those of you playing along at home ... "people should be allowed to choose their own identities" is something of an in-joke here in Quenchville, stemming from the premise that it is possible to have an entire argument wherein all participants reiterate different versions of the statement "people should be allowed to choose their own identities" and don't realize that they are actually in violent agreement.

For some reason, most of the times that this has happened, when I have been involved, it has been in discussions of my own identity, wherein at first people start off saying things like "femmes (of your sort) are stupid and traitorous" and end up saying "but of course your identity is your choice, and you can choose to have this stupid and traitorous identity if you want to." Odd that it never makes me feel a lot better to know I have the option. *shrug*

Also, I wanted to clarify an earlier comment I made, in response to Richard. I think it's good when people who are dating FTMs start having to question their lesbian identities. In fact, I think the process of examining one's identity and admitting that it might be messy and complicated is a generally good process for anyone. But when I said that R and I luckily weren't in the same workshop as the vehemently and uncomplicatedly lesbian femmes with FTM partners, I meant that I'm not really sympathetic to women of that particular ilk. If you're dating an FTM, you are attracted to at least one man, and the "Delphic oracle of his underwear" (to quote Hanne Blank) shouldn't be the defining factor as to whether you still feel entitled to call yourself a lesbian.

Dammit, did I just say someone wasn't entitled to choose their own identity? *hangs head and gives self a time-out*

Richard M. Juang said...

A person's identity should be chosen by a small cat eating a piece of French toast.

What are the rules of that game again?? :)

icarus said...

OK, here's the thing about "lesbian" and who can and can't call themself one. For example, some women i know call themselves "lesbians" even if they date/hook up with/are attracted to people of other genders. there's a lot of reasons for that, some personal and others political.
(ie, see Tina's use of "lesbian as a political identity" in the label-argument during a lesbian basketball game in the L Word this season. god, i'm addicted to that show. TASHA. anyway....)

i personally think it can sometimes be problematic when someone is dating a man/non-female identified person and prefers the label "lesbian", but i still do think that, if they acknowledge and respect the gender identity of the person they are dating, someone still has a right to choose/use a label for themself if, for example, it is independent of the gender identity of who they happen to be dating at a particular time.

i know this sounds long and confusing, but basically, people should be allowed to choose their own identities. duh.

Anonymous said...

So is the point of this post just to say "not all femmes are women?"

Everyone seems to be getting something deeper out of it but clearly I am missing something important.


LisaLesbian said...

it is a damn sight simpler to say I'm a bi/queer XX-girl femme. I joined some discussions about sexuality and spirituality on LDate.com.
All our lesbians think that the key to solve sexuality tendency problem should be education. We need to teach children that all people should be valued and loved.