(Note: I had a virus that turned into bronchitis/ pneumonia for most of February and got behind on this column. #chronicillnesslife. I also have been having some aphaisia and am hoping the words worked out with this post. Thanks for being patient and understanding with the pause this column took because of all this. If you sent in a question and have been waiting for an answer, keep watch -it should be coming out over the next weeks.)
Dear Shark Mom,
Cis white lesbians keep telling me (a black cis queer femme)that femme is reserved only for lesbians and not to identify as a femme (and especially a femme 4 femme) if I don’t identify as a lesbian, meaning trans/non-binary agender people who do not claim lesbian identities cannot be femmes. Which obviously doesn’t make sense to me considering the multitude of expressions of femme with numerous genders, but because this person is in my social media networks, I feel like I’m being policed in my own space (especially bc there is no femme community where I live) which makes me feel even more alone. She also said that queer was “vague” and I honestly felt like this was another iteration of “you’re not radical enough or gay enough” but I didn’t know what else to say beyond “I’m cutting off the convo.”
I guess I’m just asking where this idea about femme being lesbian exclusive comes from, and what to say when someone tries to interrogate me about my “authenticity.” Every time this happens to me I feel myself regressing into loneliness and depression.
Confused, upset, and bitter femme
Dear genius and awesome femme,
I don’t understand what the hell it is with people who stare right at someone and go “no, you’re not!” about crucial pieces of their identity. It’s not just offensive and rude, it’s like – well, for example, “femme is only for cis lesbians” is just demonstratably untrue. It is really hard for me to understand how someone could just remain blatantly oblivious to the vast number of femmes who are not white, cis lesbians out there, especially because every one of us is changing and saving the world. But I guess she has some superpower of shitty, because she’s managing it. Unfortunately, she is not the only one.
I think there are three questions in your question: 1. What should you say to her, if anything, besides, “I’m ending this conversation now? 2. Where does this weird-ass idea that femme = cis lesbians only come from? and 3. Something you didn’t ask, but I am thinking about- how do you take care of yourself if folks like these are prevalent in your immediate, local community?
For 1., I think “I’m cutting off this convo” is a fine response. She’s hurting you, and she doesn’t deserve you trying to explain to her why this is in the moment, if you don’t want to. It’s fine for you to just move away from the convo to stop the harm and collect yourself.
The next step is on you. You can continue to not engage. I think often our adrenal system and our amygdyla tells us, must do something!!!! Must react to survive! But just not talking to her is something. It makes all the sense that if she is interrogating you in this fucked up way that it would make you feel like shit, and it’s totally ok for you to be like, “My identity is not up for debate or subject to your approval! Bye!” I’m also a giant fan of restricted filters, close friends only filters and custom filters where you post to everyone but her on Facebook- especially if, as it sounds it’s true for you, she sucks but there is a little tiny femme community where you are and you feel like you can’t just cut her off all the way. If you have filters she’s not on, you can keep being you and not worry about her shitty response, and you can avoid investing spoons into a convo that probs will just exhaust you. This is not lying or being passive aggressive, it’s being protective of yourself.
You don’t have to communicate with a jerk who is denying your existence if you don’t want to/ it’s too painful. But, if, after some thought, you decide that you want to say, “Hey, there are many, many femmes who are not cis lesbians, that is a cissexist argument that destroys movements and people and is just wrong, here are some pretty key articles and writers and folks whose work you might want to consider that can break down why that is,” you can do that. A helpful primer you could point her at is here: http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/02/queer-femme-assumptions/., it talks about all the ways there are to be femme. You could point her to the writing of Cyree Jarelle Johnson, who identifies as Black, nonbinary, disabled and femme and whose writings on femme are always gorgeous and incisive and advocate a vision of femmeness that is very definitely revolutionary and *not* centered around white cis lesbians- their essays Femme Privilege Does Not Exist and Femmeinism might be particularly illuminating. You might point her at Julia Serrano‘s latest book, Excluded, which is about, well, exactly what folks like the person you’re talking to are doing when they create a feminism and queerness that excludes bisexuals, femmes into femmes, AMAB folks and transgender women.
You can also just tell her, God didn’t die and give her the rights to define what femme is, and there is a whole gorgeous genius multiverse out here that will lead to liberation. Maybe ask her why she thinks she can deny your and other people’s existence and that that will somehow free her, and does it feel good when someone does that to her? Maybe tell her that there is so much she stands to gain by learning about and supporting the multiverse of queer femmeness, but that it’s her choice, and you’re going with or without her. People can be in a learning process, but you don’t have to do it from a place of leaving yourself vulnerable to hurt.
The thing is, though, that just giving someone The Truth is, unfortunately, not enough to make them change their mind. When Shark Mom was first in college, they had a brilliant 18 year old idea that they wanted to study all the ways change occurred – in plants, animals and the environment, in social movements and in people – as an independent design-your-own-major type of thing. The college administrators didn’t ok it, but I feel like I’ve been studying it ever since. The thing is, people a) have agency b) do what they think makes the most sense for their survival at any given time, even if it’s shitty and fucks over other people. You might give her all kinds of links and articles and talk about your life and your vision for movement and community and femme and talk about how what she said impacted you in a really fucked up way, and she might be like, damn, let me think about that, or, I’m sorry. Or she might continue to be ALL CAPS NOPE about it…. forever. You can’t control her and whether she decides to change her mind. You can just control you.
Which leads me to question #2: Where did this idea that femme is only reserved for cisgender lesbians come from? First of all, I don’t know this person and I can’t tell you 1000% what she is thinking. However, I can speak to where I believe this kind of thinking comes from in general, in terms of what I’ve observed in queer communities. And what I think is that it comes from a) cissexism and transmisogyny b) some ways some AFAB femmes tried to defend femme from allegations that it was a tool of the patriarchy during the feminist sex wars b2) but also how in doing so, they may have done the thing where people facing a certain oppression, who also hold certain privileges, will decide that their best strategy for survival is in saying, “I want to be free! But I’m going to stay in this little corner! And, I just want freedom for folks who are in this little corner with me – not those other people! They are too much! That is asking for too much!”
In the 1970s and 1980s in second wave feminism in North America, many cis queer women believed in a feminism that saw trans women in particular, trans people in general, bisexuals, femmes and butches and sex workers as interlopers and oppressors. They also saw elements of life that were gendered- makeup, strap ons, penetrative sex, femme, butch, BDSM practices, sex work, porn- as both part of the patriarchy and things that were helping sexist oppression and violence continue. Folks in this part of the movement were explicitly transphobic and whorephobic and you can see much of what today we refer to as SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminism) and TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminism) feminism evident in their writings and politics. You can see this video of Sylvia Rivera being booed and having white cis lesbian Jean O’Leary try to push her off the stage at a 1973 Lesbian Feminist Liberation rally, as Sylvia is talking about trans women of color being raped in prison, for a prime example of this.
However, Black and Brown/ trans / poor/ sex working/ femme and gender non conforming feminists and people continued to live, exist, write, speak and organize. In the middle of this time, in what was known as the Feminist Sex Wars, femme and butch folks started writing and advocating about their lives and genders, talking back to those narratives, making zines and anthologies and essays saying that butch and femme were queer genders with radical pasts and futures.
So, there’s a lot of writing by cis femme women in the 70s and 80s and 90s, where a lot of femmes tried to explain how their genders were indeed revolutionary, against all the forces that were telling them that their gender was backwards and sexist and they were a tool of the patriarchy. A lot of this is some of the most accessible writing about femme that’s out there: if you look up “femme” in the library it’s a lot of what pops up. Many femmes wrote with a ton of dignity and brilliance about how complex and powerful femme genders are as a force for liberation against the WSCCCAP. As important as so much of that writing was, the writings I’m thinking were populated mainly by AFAB folks and cis women, and often, it assumed that that was who femmes were. So from jump, there was cissexism embedded in there – in the ideas of what femme is, what femme community is, and who is there. And you can see those very same ideas in many majority AFAB queer/ femme community spaces today, where there is still be an overall assumption that femme = queer cis woman. Transmisogyny and cissexism made it so there were really huge gaps between the kinds of organizing trans women of color were doing and what you see in a lot of ‘classic’ second wave feminist books. Like, you don’t see stuff about STAR House or the trans of color community on the NYC piers in academic pro-sex feminist books like Powers of Desire.
And in some of those writings also, you see this idea – that the writers think if they draw a little boundary, where femme is a liberated gender, but just for cis lesbians- it will make being femme ok. You see writers being like, “I’m a queer femme, but its ok because I’d never touch a cis man! I only sleep with butches, and it’s sacred! I’m not like those other dumb girls!” And in doing so, they set up a fucked up dynamic that really screwed over tons of bisexual people, trans women, agender or nonbinary folks, and sex workers who are femme, who may indeed touch cis men, or AMAB folks, or folks other than cis women, for our own really good reasons that are 100% our own.
I don’t agree with it, but I get that place where you feel like you’re under attack, and maybe if you make things real small and abandon other people, the people attacking you will back off and concede. But the thing is, it doesn’t work. And in the process, it erases and causes violence to all folks who don’t fit in that little corner. I wonder- how would movements be different if more cis women femmes of that era had made different choices? (It’s kinda like the question of what would it have been like if the disability rights movement hadn’t been so white and single issue and the prison justice movement had gotten it about ableism in more places in the 80s and they both had united to smash all walls. Shark Mom can dream. )
So this is the past. But I think it continues today. There’s more femme communities where femme is understood as belonging to a lot of different bodies and genders. But there are still a ton of queer identified spaces where femme is thought of as meaning cis lesbians only. It’s not uncommon at all for femme spaces to be dominated by cis women or AFAB folks, where there are a lot of assumptions about what femme issues are that can play out in everything from folks addressing the group as “Ladies” to assuming that everyone is dealing with issues of parenting and childbirth from the same perspective. (When was the last time you saw a queer pregnancy workshop that didn’t assume everyone was AFAB?) One thing I can offer- can you find the other folks who don’t fit in to the white cis lesbian’s idea of who femme is and band together to support each other? Can you take care of yourself but also see that this moment is part of a bigger struggle to challenge transmisogyny and cissexism?
This may be controversial, but also, I don’t actually believe the popular idea that queer femmes are TOTALLY DIFFERENT than straight femmes. I think there’s overlap, and our movements and communities grow when we acknowledge that. My grandmother may or may not have been queer, but her sexualized, struggling for independences and autonomy, shut-shamed mixed Sri Lankan femme life is in the bones of my own queer, nonbinary, femme gender. I know a lot of ‘straight’ femmes who are Black or Brown or working class or poor or sex workers and/ or disabled, who actually have a lot in common with my and others’ queer femme genders, in their fierceness and vulnerability, their tough pawn shop diamonds. Also, some trans women I know have shared that their sexual desires are fluid, but they have found than some cis men are more open to dating them than AFAB queers- so they date them because they’d like to have a dating experience not rife with transmisogyny, but that doesn’t neceasarily mean they are ‘straight.’
I also think that straight is a funny word. Part of being neurodivergent where part of me is pre/non verbal is that I can see how people’s relationship with words and language is complicated. Words aren’t fixed and don’t mean the same thing to everyone. They arrangements of lines and ink that become names that hold the shape of folks’ feelings and desires, that change with context and space and time. There are folks out there who might call themselves ‘straight’ today, who are actually still figuring out a word house that can hold what their gender and sexuality is. There’s so much in there- folks who feel like they’re not queer enough, that their sexuality doesn’t fit into folks ideas of what queer is, folks ability to claim the word queer safely or not- that affects what word a person might choose.
Edited to add: My friend Chanelle Gallant has this smart thing to say about the word “straight”: “Of potential interest re: defining what is queer & straight, originally the term straight was used in mixed queer & sex work spaces and communities to mean someone who wasn’t outside one of us–a sexual/gender outsider. It did not mean heterosexual. It more meant “square” becaUe sex working women who slept with or had personal romantic relationships with men were way outside of heterosexually. They were never straight. You can still hear it in sex worker culture today–how non sex work jobs are called “straight jobs” and some still use “straight” to mean “non sex worker”. Queers have *no* claim to defining what is straight actually. They just took over the meaning.”
I don’t think queer femmes are unilaterally better than those poor oppressed straight cis women. As much as we’d like to believe that the queer world is some utopic island where we can all frolic free of sexism- femmephobia, the venerations of masculinity, relationship violence and sexism live in queer communities too, like do they ever. Just like when bell hooks said “feminism is for everybody,” I think femme is a liberatory gender universe that everyone can learn from.
That person you were talking to said queer was ‘vague’? More like uncontainable, complicated, nuanced, evolving, messy. Femme is uncontrollable, and it smashes the boundaries placed on us by those who try and make our genders neat and comprehendable. Femme can not be contained. FEMMES ARE SLUTS AND SPINSTERS AND PEOPLE WHO FUCK WHO WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO, WHO WE WANT, OR NO ONE AT ALL, AND DEFINE OUR GENDERS FOR OURSELVES. FEMME IS A GENDER UNIVERSE THAT DESTROYS BOUNDARIES, THAT DOES WHAT IT WANTS (ACCOUNTABLY) WITH ITS HUNGER. WE ARE FOR OURSELVES, AND WE ARE UNCONTROLLABLE. THAT IS THE POINT.
Third: You didn’t ask this question. But I gotta say, I’m less concerned about her and more concerned about you. I am wondering how you can get the reminders, in your place of isolation, that your gender is genius and real and fuck all those people! I remember hearing queer Black femme Kim Katrin Millan saying one time that every day she wakes up she thinks “how hard can I love myself today?”because the WSSCCAP is constantly telling her negative bullshit about herself as a Black femme. So, maybe you need to try and figure out how to travel to queer Black non cis woman only femme or femme positive gatherings, or paste up a million images of Black queer femmes and their writings and art around your bed, or put quotes on your phone that remind you of the validity of who you are, or make a Black femme for femme amulet, or look at Black multiply gendered femme Instagram feeds, like, a lot?
Also, I know what it’s like to live in a place where it just feels like the community that exists is busted or nonexistent. But I also know that many communities have been made by one person feeling isolated and shitty and inviting the two people they knew who they shared some identities or beliefs with to have dinner. Folks I know now say, wow, Seattle is such a disabled queer mecca! but a) it’s still ableist as fuck here b) I remember when friends started a thing called “crip your hangout” that was just a bunch of disabled folks hanging out once a month in a cross-acccessible space to eat and talk, because folks felt like there was no disabled community, that a lot of different queer disabled spaces and community then grew out of. Can you make a low key femme brunch or tea gathering in your community that creates the kind of femme community you want to see?.
Sorry you had to deal with this crap. I hope this helps and you get to hang with her less and other femmes who believe in an expansive femme vision more.
With love and respect,