Femmephobia Ruined One of My Best Friendships

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I’ve always been femme, and will likely always be a sentient cloud of cotton candy perfume, platform heels and lipstick. Sometimes I tone it down, sometimes I look cute as hell in flannel and a baseball cap and a makeup-free face, but at my core, glitter is my default setting, and I am unapologetically, shamelessly, wholeheartedly sparkly. I like girly shit, and if you try to kiss me when I’ve just put on lipstick, you won’t be hearing from me again.

I’m not an academic. I’m a writer and a stand-up comedian. I wasn’t a women’s studies major and didn’t come out until after college, and because of that, there’s a tiny voice in my head that tells me I’m not qualified or smart enough to talk about things like femmephobia, or what it means to be femme. I understand that lipstick and heels do not a femme make, and are but one component of my personal *look* as an intersectional feminist, anti-capitalist, cute-as-hell slice. Femme isn’t always lipstick and heels, but it is always political. And sometimes nail polish is just really, really fun, and that’s my fucking truth.

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I’d guess that most people who didn’t know me would probably assume I’m straight because unfortunately, straightness is the default people assume. I’ve tried to look gayer, I’ve tried different shoes, different, hair, different outfits, but the generally understood Kristen Stewart andro vibe is not only severely unflattering on my body and flattens my butt, it also just never really works to attract women toward my general direction, probably because that just isn’t the kind of stuff I’d wear. When no one knows you’re gay, it makes it hard to date women, or even meet them for friendship, which was one of the reasons I took so long to come out. I knew for sure that I was gay, but how could I really be if I didn’t look like what I (at the time) understood to be the way a gay lady looks?

I freely admit this is a backward understanding of gayness that I now know to be deeply misguided, but that kind of assumption is learned (hi, internalized homophobia) and, unfortunately, still hangs out in some lesbian circles, and among lesbian, bi, and queer friends. As I came to build my own intimate network, I quickly learned that, for some, masculine presentation and tomboyishness were the preferred look. Friends told me I needed to “butch up” before going out to a club, otherwise girls would assume I was the straight friend tagging along to the lesbian bar, which they did, and still continue to do. While annoying, I accept it now because I understand that I’m cute as hell, but early on where being outwardly recognized in a gay public space as gay was HUGE, this kind of thing really hurt.

One of my closest friends, who I will always value for being there for me through my first seedlings of questioning, tried to show me the ropes and coach me in achieving the gay lady look. I know she meant well when she’d say things like “Bangs are for straight girls” or “Only straight girls wear clutch bags to the club.” I knew she was only trying to help me fit in and feel comfortable, and God knows clutch purses will never be cute and Jesus forgive me but I really should’ve known better than to get those tiny dumb ass bangs, not because they made me look straight, but because I just did not pull them off at all.

I tried to explain to her why standing next to me in front of the bathroom mirror and calling me a “drag queen” while I put my makeup on not only hurt my feelings, but perpetuated a whole bunch of biphobic stereotypes and misunderstood idea of femme-ness, not because I have a problem with drag queens, but because my femme-ness isn’t a parody or costume, and femmephobia isn’t just a femme issue: femmephobia hurts everyone. Femme is just who I am,  and there’s no right or wrong way to be a femme.

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I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve since fostered incredible, life-affirming friendship among other femmes and femme-comfortable queers. For me, femme isn’t just an aesthetic (except for the times when it is, because again, nail polish,) it’s an intentional identity. It’s a ritual that connects me with the women in my life, like my mom and the memory of my grandmother, and a tribute to their incredible strength in vulnerability. It’s a way of appreciation this vulnerability in the women and femmes in my life that so often comes under attack, and healing from my own internalized misogyny and the trauma that toxic masculinity triggers in my own life.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a butch woman/queer man/non-binary/masculine presenting individual, and I don’t pretend to, but I know there’s beauty and softness in masculinity as well, as I’ve learned from the gay men I’m lucky to have in my life. Femme-ness contains a multitude of identities and experiences that should all be embraced, valued, and celebrated.