The Complexity of Femme Identity

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When a straight person imagines a lesbian in a platonic context, it’s usually a butch or androgynous stereotype. Seldom do femininity and lesbianism get associated with one another, except in male heterosexual fantasies propagated by porn. What does this sole social association of femininity accomplish, and what were the motives of the straight men that popularized it?  “Lesbian” pornography was created by and for men who profit from the dehumanization of women. As intersectional theory purports,  oppression does not exist in a vacuum. That reality means that oppression can be magnified when one is in multiple oppressed groups, such as lesbians and bi women, who suffer negative consequences for their sex as well as their sexuality.

Despite the lack of visibility in the mainstream, femininity has a long history in lesbian culture. And yet, this history of femme identity is clandestine and rarely addressed, even in gender studies courses or within our own circles. In order to address this cultural and societal disconnect,  let’s look at the legacy of femme identity.

According to Beth Firestein’s piece, published by Columbia University Press in 2007, the femme label was created in the 1950’s during the era of lesbian bar culture, though it was originally spelled “fem” and referred to the working class.  Later, femmes (and butch-femme culture) were rejected by liberation movements and activists. These critics maintained that butch and femme were stereotypical roles that upheld patriarchy and divided women. However, many feminists reject the idea that lesbians replicate the gender hierarchy, even in butch-femme relationships. In a perverse erasure of lesbian culture, femme, as an identity and as a signifier, has been recently adopted by queer trendsters. They use the term femme in two ways: to signify an affinity for stereotypically feminine behavior or dress sense (regardless of sexual orientation), and/or to obscure biological sex (ie “women and femmes”).

Femme lesbians can be expected to wear makeup,  shave their legs, or otherwise perform traditional femininity, hence the term “lipstick lesbians.” This expectation reinforces sexist norms relating to lesbians fulfilling some sort of male and heterosexual fantasy. In our own community, we can be ostracized because we “pass” in heterosexual society. The result of this performance, and the performance itself, cause us to receive more unwanted attention from men. We are told by ignorant homophobes to try sex with a man, after all, we don’t look lesbian.

The embodiment of femme lesbian identity is subversive because the individual removes themselves from heterosexuality and heterosexual culture, even while appearing, at a superficial glance, no different than heterosexual women.We are under suspicion that we may turn at any time. As a result, we don’t receive the same recognition from our community for being out and proud. Due to the ability to passing for straight, femmes are more expected by their relatives and peers to “end up” with men, framing lesbianism as a phase rather than an authentic identity and experience.

While passing may be perceived by some as an advantage, we never truly pass, or never for long, as we come out over and over again. Our existence has never been mentioned by popular culture as a possible reality, so we lack access to role models.  In our own communities, we’re sometimes not considered gay enough.

We can’t simultaneously live our truths and access the societal advantages of heterosexual life. If the goal is normalcy or fitting in to mainstream culture, we will always be in the periphery. Sometimes it feels like we occupy some sort of limbo where we’re not welcome among straight women or other lesbians, and in this way we have similar experiences to bisexual women. We’re also expected to be pillow princesses or bottoms, despite the fact that many femmes are tops or verse.

Femmes perform femininity with our initial surface appearances, while simultaneously reinventing the cultural stereotypes of femininity. Unlike the butch aesthetic, femmes do not immediately stand out in defiance of heterosexual norms. However, the image we project becomes subversive when a relationship with another woman is added to the mix, no matter where she falls on the spectrum of gender performance.

If we are partnered with a butch woman, she is expected to occupy the “male” role, while the femme occupies the “female” role. Femme for femme relationships are not taken as seriously. We’re seen as “gal pals,” we’re even asked if we are sisters. Many times, in femme/femme relationships, femmes are expected to recreate those pornified fantasies. Men demand we make out in front of them or worse.

Single lesbians face obstacles when they seek companionship.  Other lesbians might be too afraid to approach us because we “look straight”. Despite constant glances or even “accidentally” brushing up against them, they’re too afraid to be rejected by yet another straight girl. This obviously leads to more difficulty finding a lover, partner or even one night stand, thus fueling the loneliness and isolation that are often symptoms of being a single homosexual in this dating jungle.

To sum it up, struggles suffered by femme lesbians are specific and unique. All lesbians suffer under heteropatriarchy, but the experience of femmes is often erased or otherwise rendered invisible or irrelevant. We all need to be heard and some of us seldom are. All the more so because “femme” is being misappropriated by men that identify with what they perceive to be femininity, or by straight women who love cosmetics and high heels.

This evolution is dangerous for lesbian culture, and for all gender-nonconforming women, because it confuses femme identity with stereotypical femininity that is expected of all women. It allows anyone with a preference for feminine accessories to imagine they share a common experience or a common struggle with lesbians. Femmes fight back against that rhetoric by redefining our spaces and boundaries based on this rich history. When gender roles eventually become obsolete, so might these terms and identities, but the history of defiance from femme lesbians, redefining how women are expected to look and act, should be honored and preserved.