Sure, you’ve seen “femme” embroidered in swirly letters on midriff-bearing crops. Maybe you’ve even rocked one yourself! But did you know “femme” implies “queer femme”? And that “femme” has a rich history in the LGBTQ+ community? I’ll fill you in.
What does femme mean, exactly?
In French, "femme" simply means "woman," but in English, it's an identity that applies to queer women who present femininely. (Though it's *not* the same as being feminine. More on that in a sec.)
Femme is also far more than an aesthetic: Femme gestures towards an inner-strength, as well as the wealth of feminine energy that has existed throughout history, says Symonne Kennedy, LMSW, a psychotherapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
But like many other identity terms (think: “queer” or “non-binary”), the exact meaning of femme likely varies femme to femme.
For instance, sexologist and Gabrielle Alexa Noel, bisexual advocate and founder of the shop Bi Girls Club says: “For me, being femme is all about subverting the idea that a woman always needs to dress in what men find attractive.”
While Kai Werder, trauma-informed certified sex educator and author of the zine Beyond Yes & No: The Intimacy of Consent, says: “For me, femme identity is about seeing more value in interpersonal and community care than productivity or consumption.”
Sooo...is being femme the same thing as being feminine?
Nope. “Femme and feminine are not synonymous,” says Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD, queer African American anthropologist. “Femme is a style of femininity, but it’s a specific kind of femininity.”
For queer high-femme legend and writer, Olivia Zayas Ryan, the difference is between how she dressed in college and how she dresses now. Previously, she was dressing femininely, but she was dressing for others (specifically, men). Now, she says, “I’m dressing femininely, but I’m doing it for myself. And I’m doing it despite how people expect me to dress as a woman who sometimes also dates women. And that’s femme.”
To really understand the word, you need to understand the history of the word.
“Much of femme history comes from blue-collar bisexual women, trans-femme sex workers, drag queens, and dyke culture in the 40s and 50s,” says Werder, who notes that the iconic text Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Fienberg (which you can download for free here) offers insight on this rich history.
For a long time, “femme” was a pejorative word, especially within the LGBTQ+ community. “There was this false idea that you were a true lesbian that you did not enjoy Vogue or other markers of femininity associated with femmeness,” says Maroon. As such, being a queer lesbian wasn’t just a look or way of dress. It was a political statement that said: I decide what my sexuality looks like. Nobody else. Femmes remained outliers in the queer community until the end of the twentieth century when lesbian feminists and activists “did work to combat the idea that a sexual orientation has a look,” she says.
These days femmes are much more accepted by the queer community. But Kennedy says identifying as “femme” is a way to reflect that LGBTQ+ history.
And to be clear, femme *is* an inherently queer identity. "Straight people cannot [be] femme,” Werder says. Though Maroon notes that “there are a lot of femme drag queens who don’t identify under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, as well as femme lesbians who do not identify as queer.”
But being femme can mean having to come out over and over...
“In our current world, many see a femme-presenting person and assume that person must be a straight woman,” says Kennedy. While nobody ever needs to come out, queer femmes who want to be out, often need to come out over and over and over again.
“Queer femmes are often put in the position of either having to assert or defend their queerness or resign themselves to being mistaken as straight,” says Kennedy. Sometimes this is as subtle as a co-worker asking, “Are you bringing a boyfriend to the holiday party?”
Other times, it’s as undermining as, “Are you sure you’re gay? You don’t loooook gay.” Noel and Ryan (who, fun fact, are dating) note that when they are on a date, people always assume that they are just biffles. And not, yanno, girlfriends #femme4femme.
For queer femmes, “This invisibility and need to repeatedly declare your identity or come out can create a lot of painful rejection,” says Kennedy. Not to mention, it’s exhausting AF.
If you’re a queer femme reading this, hopefully you’ll take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. But if you’re not and have found yourself assuming or disbelieving someone’s sexuality because of how they dress, do all the queer femmes in the world a favor and knock it off.
I want to learn more about femme identity. How can I do that?
Start by giving the femmes interviewed in this article a follow. While you’re hitting up the search bar, if your femme-identity takes joy in makeup, Ryan recommends giving some drag queens a follow.
Werder used to host a podcast called Femme, Collectively that is still available wherever you get your podcasts. They also recently conducted an interview about the word with certified sex educator Cameron Glover on IGTV that’s still available for viewing.
Some solid reading:
The Persistent Desire: A Femme Butch Reader edited by Joan Nestle
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman
Butch/Femme: Inside Lesbian Gender by Sally Munt and Cherry Smyth
Maroon adds: “No research on femme would be complete without a study of ballroom culture of the 1980s and couture culture.” For this, Paris Is Burning and the series Pose are best, both of which are currently available on Amazon Prime.
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