When I was first coming out, I didn’t see a lot of representation of queer feminine gender diversity. Especially amongst the lesbian-spectrum community that I was coming out into, masculinity was privileged. It would take years for me to come out (again) and accept and celebrate my own queer femme identity. In the LGBTQ+ communities that I came out into, which were otherwise extremely welcoming and progressive there just wasn’t a language for celebrating or exploring femininity, let alone an idea that femininity could be queer. There was even a negative association with “femme” to the point that it was an insult that folks would use to try to discredit how queer someone was (I know, super gross). The lack of femme representation I witnessed while coming out is I know part of what took me so long to find and claim, feel comfortable with and ultimately celebrate my identity as a femme.
The word “Femme” gets thrown around a lot online but what does it really mean in a queer context? “Femme” in French literally means “woman” so while when I have traveled to other parts of the world like Paris, I have been excited to see things like bathroom signs that say “femme.” In those moments I always have had to remind myself that they weren’t actually talking about queer femmes and the bathroom wasn’t going to be a gender expansive space filled with rainbows, unicorns and pink leopard print.
What is Queer Femme?
But what is a queer femme? One of the big misconceptions that comes up around the use of the word femme as an identity is that any lesbian who dresses or presents in a feminine way is femme, which simply isn’t the case. Words and identity have meaning and femme as an identity in a queer context generally signifies a intentionality to femininity, a claimed or reclaimed femininity that is being intentionally performed vs. compulsory or unexamined femininity. For example, is a lesbian who is rationally feminine a femme? Nope! Not unless they self-identify as one! Femme is an identity separate from feminine, separate from woman. Some femmes are often mistaken as straight because of how they dress or present their gender, and other femmes presentation of queered femininity is outlandish and means the femme is almost always read by people as being queer. Femme presentation takes many different forms, and femmes aren’t presenting in feminine ways because it’s “what girls are supposed to do” in fact, some of us might not identify as girls at all. For many, “Femme” is a gender identity in and of itself, and many Femmes see it as non-binary or genderqueer.
A Brief Femme History:
Femme is generally understood to have been commonly used within lesbian communities since the 1940s and 1950s. Femme as an identity at this time had roots in working class lesbian/dyke bar culture and was most commonly associated with Butch/Femme relationship dynamics. Books like Joan Nestle’s anthology “The Persistent Desire” is an amazing resource to read first person memories and representations of that time period.
In the 1970s and 1980s, some of the loudest voices in Feminism rejected and publicly denounced Femmes, Femme presentation and Butch/Femme relationship dynamics. During this time, androgyny was privileged amongst lesbian feminists as a gender presentation, and unexamined classism especially targeted and discriminated against working-class lesbian culture. Minnie Bruce Pratt’s poetry collection “S/he” beautifully grapples with Femme identity and self-understanding during this time.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Femme identity and Femme culture began to expand and gain recognition within the broader queer culture. This is a time when Femme began to gain association as a named gender identity outside of woman in conversation with non-binary, genderqueer and trans culture/community. For a time in the 2000s, there was even a National Femme Conference bringing together diverse femme voices from across the country!
Finding Femme Representation:
Do you identify as femme, or you looking for more connection or understanding about queer femme identities and experiences? There is an increasing amount of community building and representation across the internet and on social media pages like Instagram and in art and literature. My go-to favorite Queer Femme representations are books by Femme authors like Dorothy Allison and Michelle Tea because those were the femme representations that I was reading at the time that I was coming out as Femme. If you’re looking to cozy up with some fresh femme representation I would definitely recommend these books by Queer Femmes all of which were published in the past few years:
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha — DIRTY RIVER A QUEER FEMME OF COLOR DREAMING HER WAY HOME — “In 1996, poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, carrying only two backpacks, caught a Greyhound bus in America and ran away to Canada. She ended up in Toronto, where she was welcomed by a community of queer punks of colour offering promises of love and revolution” This memoir explores Queerness, Femme identity, survival, community and belonging in powerful ways.
Kai Cheng Thom — Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars — This is a coming of age novel about a “young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home in a rainy city called Gloom. Striking off on her own, she finds her true family in a group of larger-than-life trans femmes who live in a mysterious pleasure district known only as the Street of Miracles”
Amber Dawn — Where The World Ends And My Body Begins — If you are looking for Femme poetry and explorations of survival as it intersects with unapologetic Femme identity Amber Dawn’s “a gutsy lyrical sensibility in her debut poetry collection: a collection of glosa poems written as an homage to and an interaction with queer poets such as Gertrude Stein, Christina Rossetti, and Adrienne Rich. By doing so, Dawn delves deeper into the themes of trauma, memory, and unblushing sexuality that define her work.”
About the Author:
Sassafras Lowrey’s novels and nonfiction books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation and the Dog Writers Association of America. Sassafras’ work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Sassafras has taught queer writing courses and workshops at LitReactor, the NYC Center For Fiction and at colleges, conferences, and LGBTQ youth centers across the country. www.SassafrasLowrey.com