It’s 2003 and I’m in a tattoo parlor in Toronto’s Homosexual Village getting a pink star inked on the within of my proper wrist. A discursive indie rock anthem blares as I clarify to the artist that it’s my femme tattoo. Within the Nineteen Fifties, butches used to get blue stars that may very well be hidden underneath their wristwatches as a strategy to silently talk queerness. I attempt to make my greatest not-in-excruciating-pain facial features as I clarify that I need one thing symbolic to make seen what my female presentation typically renders unseen, the aesthetic equal of a homosexual nod. Once I’m strolling with my butch companion, I’m seen as queer. With out her, I may very well be any girl. Femmes by no means get homosexual nods. I like the thought of femme solidarity, of recognizing one another in a subculture that within the early aughts prizes masculinity as power, and designates it essentially the most subversive queer class.
By 2021 requirements, it’s a corny tattoo. I’m 45 now, and I’ve been a queer femme since I used to be 18 years previous. I dedicate my new novel, The Spectacular, to Queer Femmes In every single place. I’ve solely began qualifying the phrase femme with queer in the previous couple of years. You didn’t should say queer femme in 1995; it was implied. That was earlier than Ellen, at a time when a therapist suggested me to remain closeted, when my Dad expressed fear that I’d have a lonely life, and after I dodged beer bottles from passing vehicles after I kissed a lady on the road. Now, the pink star tattoo has light together with my must sign femme-ness fairly so emphatically. However even now, I battle to outline the phrase if I detach it from my sexuality, or my curiosity within the masculinity of others. For these of you exterior the queer tradition chitchat wars, this isn’t one thing cool to confess.
Although I dated butches for 20 years, my previous few lovers have been nonbinary or males, each trans and cis. I’ve additionally been on dates with different femmes. Each the thought of femme as a largely lesbian identification class and the phrase femme we now use in widespread spoken language, even amongst queers, has shifted considerably within the intervening years. The phrase butch has shifted a bit too–typically you’ll hear mascor masculine of middle as an umbrella time period for these on the masculine spectrum, greater than you’ll hear butch or genderqueer. However straight, cis of us haven’t begun to make use of butch the identical method they’ve began to include femme into their lives. Femme shouldn’t be a synonym for female ladies. It is a queer phrase. I believe cis ladies are utilizing femme, as a result of the class of girl, or female as an adjective, are phrases that don’t embody that indescribable factor they’re attempting to call.
I hardly ever thought in regards to the that means of the phrase femme till I started to see it used incorrectly, particularly as a synonym for any straight or cis girl who embraces femininity. If I needed to outline it, I’d say a femme is somebody who presents in a female method and identifies on the LGBTQ spectrum. You don’t should establish as a girl to be a femme. There’s one thing that’s more durable, brighter, louder to it. (Within the aughts, this might manifest in each femme sporting pleather skirts, leopard every thing, lingerie as outwear, the reddest lips.) In 2015, Zooey Deschanel used it in Cosmo when describing why she will be each girly and a feminist. Lately, journalist Talia Lavin used it in her humorous essay “Blob Girl Summer” interchangeably with the phrase girl. I see it used typically on social media as a alternative for the phrase female, particularly when speaking about vogue and feminism, and infrequently used when defending themselves towards accusations of frivolity or heterosexual banality, a concise, linguistic equal of I’m not like all the opposite women. It might probably typically really feel like straight ladies try to queer their lives just a little, stopping wanting really, you recognize, having queer intercourse or relationships.
In a kind of halcyon pre-pandemic procuring days the place one may lounge a couple of mall retailer caressing plastic purses and age-inappropriate quick vogue, my buddy and I discovered shirts at H&M emblazoned with the phrase femme in all caps. “Straight ladies have taken our phrase. I’m not beneficiant about it. You’ll be able to’t have EVERYTHING,” I muttered as I grabbed a handful of shirts and hid them beneath a stack of cheesy attire. I used to be reminded of after I labored the door at a homosexual bar in my 20s and so many straight ladies introduced their bachelorette events to the dance flooring that we needed to begin kicking them out. “However we’re so protected right here!” they mentioned, whilst they groped homosexual males and threw up on the dance flooring, showing to care solely about themselves. Their appropriation of the phrase provides me the identical feeling I had working the door: Is the phrase safer for them than simply utilizing the adjective female, with all its misogynistic connotations?
However what started as a phrase that simply “felt proper” given my love for fishnet stockings, the poetry of Minnie Bruce Pratt, and butches is now a phrase meaning extra issues to extra individuals with each passing yr. It’s just like the phrase queer, a considerably open-ended phrase that nonetheless feels particular and true. I do know what it’s by understanding what it isn’t.
I didn’t absolutely perceive how embodied my femme identification was till my mid-20s, a yr or two earlier than I bought the tattoo, when a gaggle of associates and I dressed up for Halloween because the Outsiders. A lot of the femmes dressed up in drag, and one butch dressed up as Cherry, the one lady character who seems prominently within the e-book. I used to be courting a trans man on the time, and we thought that my dressing as Ponyboy is perhaps attractive. However as quickly as I left the home the place we’d been fixing one another’s binders and facial hair, I felt the least attractive I’d ever felt in my life. It jogged my memory of after I was a baby in a clog dancing class (I grew up rural), and since no boys needed to clog dance, half the group needed to costume up in boy’s garments to do the companion dancing. I occurred to have quick hair that yr, because of a tragic ’80s bowl reduce and thus, I needed to put on pants and a button-up shirt and tie. I hated each minute of it, craving for the crinoline and the correct female faucet footwear. I remembered this that Halloween, as I modified my outfit in a bar toilet, hours forward of everybody else, simply so I may have an excellent time. Being a femme is a part of being snug with who I’m in my physique and in my social world.
However the iconic femme author and activist Amber Hollibaugh mentioned it higher when she wrote in her feminal (see what I did there?) memoir, My Harmful Wishes: “The distinction between myself and most of the straight ladies I do know is that they suppose that they’re regular and pure. They imagine in girl-ness, that girl-ness turns into woman-ness. … My femininity is about irony. It’s a assertion in regards to the building of gender; it’s not simply an appropriation of gender. It isn’t being a lady, it’s watching your self be a lady.”
There are methods through which the phrase femme has expanded to go well with the present queer and trans vernacular. The historical past of the phrase has its roots in working-class and Black lesbian bars, queer ballrooms, and in sex work culture of the 1940s and ’50s. Once I got here out in 1994, I may very well be femme on the dyke bar, however in my college courses, I used to be suspect within the eyes of the tutorial lesbians, who had been androgynous as a political selection. (Their vogue appeared to contain cumbersome T-shirts with slogans aimed toward erasing gender.) However this class distinction that’s oft repeated by queers in regards to the Nineteen Nineties now wasn’t at all times true or constant—in any case, I watched S&M porn in my ladies’s research courses and twice was turned away by bouncers on the door to lesbian bars for “trying too straight” whereas sporting a skirt.
So what does it imply to really feel like a phrase belongs to you, or your group? Femme poet Annick MacAskill writes, “It apparently means every thing now. Some cishet individuals appear to wish to use it for everybody who’s not a cis man and/or very clearly masculine, and no matter how others establish themselves.” Others step in to principally say, “Who cares? Language at all times evolves.” In different arguments about our shifting lexicon, I’m typically on the facet of “language evolves.” However then I attempt to think about a world through which the phrase butch is immediately de-queered. It’s unimaginable to think about.
But it surely’s additionally unimaginable to not discover how queer language evolves on a regular basis. And phrases don’t simply exit of vogue, they develop into “offensive” and markers of people that aren’t updated or politically savvy or good within the eyes of social media activists. It got here to my consideration just lately that some youthful queer individuals suppose the phrase dyke is offensive. “If you happen to watched Glee along with your dad and mom as a baby, you don’t get to police my language,” I tweeted in response to this. However this presents a problem as a queer femme author who typically writes about my milieu. Lots of the phrases we used with one another after I got here out in 1994 are actually both antiquated, unknown, or offensive to your common 21-year-old queer individual. Is my attachment to the phrases queer, femme, and dyke about my age, getting older, nervousness about irrelevance? Am I simply one other white queer getting defensive and anxious about being canceled, a phrase that has misplaced all that means?
The opposite cause straight and cis ladies are utilizing the phrase femme is in an effort to be extra inclusive, leading to sentences like this one from a New Yorker article, titled “The Dread of Getting Dressed,” by Katy Waldman: “For femme individuals, particularly, there’s a stress to pour ourselves into our appearances.” Utilizing femme as an adjective and the gender-neutral individuals is only one (awkward, on this case) method of how language is evolving in methods to attempt to embrace queer, trans, and nonbinary individuals. Some may suppose this enlargement ought to prolong the opposite method. Femme theorist Andi Schwartz writes that she doesn’t care if straight ladies name themselves femme. “Any time femininity is taken up with a political consciousness, that’s femme,” she writes within the essay “Can Straight Women Be Femme?”
We’re within the period of banks sending out delight messages whereas refusing to have interaction with any significant political motion, and companies capitalizing on Black Lives Matter imagery and language with out supporting police reform not to mention abolition. It might probably really feel like queer language and tradition is now not inside the group’s management and there’s a hazard of phrases being flattened and co-opted and offered again to us. The straight ladies who wish to be femmes—are they talking out towards homophobia, racism, transmisogyny, and violence towards intercourse employees of their lives, or are they only completely satisfied to have a phrase that makes vogue and aesthetic selections political and fewer superficial? In spite of everything, the necessity for secret tattoos is perhaps over, however there have been extra anti-LGBTQ legal guidelines handed in the USA this yr than some other yr in historical past.
In my early 20s, heartbroken by a butch lover, I requested a femme out. I used to be rebuked, as a result of it simply wasn’t accomplished. Femme-trying ladies dated on a regular basis, however in my queer artist and activist world, we known as them LA or L Phrase lesbians in a pejorative method. However on the time, I felt accomplished with the masc-femme dynamic and questioned if it wouldn’t be enjoyable to attempt one thing new. This anecdote is now one thing I recall at events, as a result of in 2021 it appears ludicrous. I used to be sitting in a restaurant just lately when that very same femme approached me and apologized for the best way she’d reacted and mentioned that she now dated different femmes, and we laughed about how femmes 10 years our junior wore #femmeforfemme nameplate necklaces and had no issues hooking up. The phrase femme in my very own life has modified and stays considerably versatile.
However the reality stays that even when I clocked numerous hours on-line working exhausting at being my greatest “public scold” (a time period stolen from an Ariana Reines poem), can queer individuals actually maintain a phrase as soon as it’s gone? Even after we typically disagree about definitions and historical past amongst ourselves? This week, I heard the phrase’s energy backside and twink utilized by straight characters on a number of mainstream TV exhibits. If we’re going to be a part of the broader tradition, so will our phrases. The fact is correction and training efforts solely go to date. However I want that when straight, cis ladies use the phrase, they had been capable of acknowledge or take into consideration the best way that utilizing it to explain vogue or an perspective is borrowing in a method that sidesteps tangible solidarity with queer individuals.
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