‘There’s a sort of misconception about femmes being submissive or weak,’ explains Riley, who identifies as femme. ‘Because historically that’s been the sort of use of femininity culturally.’
You’ve heard it before. The damsel in distress. The shrill woman. The passive housewife. There are very specific, often discriminatory standards, for women who express themselves through their femininity.
What happens to these standards, assumptions, and stereotypes when women happen to be queer as well?
The term ‘femme’ first began to appear in the 1950s. It’s a term used to distinguish lesbian, bisexual, and queer women who identify and express themselves in inherently feminine ways.
As the scholar Joan Nestle explains, this identity is often historically underrepresented and misconstrued. Femme women have been accused of passing as straight, mimicking heteronormativity and patriarchal beauty standards, and shamed by the community, especially in the 70s and 80s.
I spoke to some women about what it means to them to be queer and femme, especially in a society that deeply misunderstands them.
Femme is inherently queer
The historical friction between femme women and the rest of the queer community denies an entire group a sense of belonging.
‘I think femme is an inherently queer identity anyway,’ Mia, whose real name has been changed for privacy, says, not without a touch of indignation. ‘It’s about embracing femininity in a radical way.’
Bailey continues: ‘The queer femme identity is about subverting heteronormativity. I’m queer, and I love lipstick, jewelry, and dresses. Just because I want to be with a woman doesn’t mean I have to assume a traditionally “masculine” fashion role.’
Rather than shying away from the community, and embracing a more traditional, heteronormative life, these women instead view their identity as specifically tied to their queerness.
‘It wasn’t until after I came out and became comfortable with myself that I felt like I could finally allow myself to express myself as more femme; something I thought I wasn’t allowed to do,’ adds Kate.
The strength of femininity
One of the common threads as I spoke to these women was the idea that being feminine is powerful.
‘There’s something really empowering for me about taking things that are coded as feminine and finding strength in them, strength of my own,’ Riley says.
‘When we do that then they kind of strip away that historical power. Now they’re only here to serve myself and other queer femmes as we see fit.’
The passion and confidence was immediately noticeable when they spoke about their femininity. Outdated gender ideas view women as frail or needing saving, but these women express the opposite.
It’s not only in their own lives, either.
‘Part of the reason I think Sailor Moon is so popular about queer femmes is because it shows strength in femininity. It’s about the compassion and emotional intelligence of the characters,’ Mia comments.
‘I’ve always been interested in folklore and female-coded things not shown as weak, but also not tied to masculinity or masculine ideals. I think femme is about embracing those ideas and not restricting them to a single, traditional gender.’
‘When I put on eye makeup, that’s my battle paint’
Predictably, one of the key ways to expressing a femme identity is through personal aesthetic choices like clothing and make-up.
Society scrutinizes women for these things, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, assumptions about these aesthetics make it especially hard for femme women.
‘It’s something I’ve struggled with since I’ve come out,’ Mia explains. ‘It’s a difficult line to walk where you are dressed in a feminine way but coded as queer. So many default to reading you as a straight, especially since I’m bisexual.’
Yet that doesn’t stop her walking the line.
‘It’s really frustrating that people’s ideas of queerness don’t encompass traditional femininity. I pick out aspects coded as queer replicate them. It might be wearing a particularly quirk or bold lipstick that makes people stop and look. Queer by definition is going against the grain a bit.’
For Bailey, it’s about drama.
‘When I knew I’d be seeing my ultra-conservative extended family, I’d always “queer drama up” a bit, with heavy eyeliner, lipstick, and the weirdest shirt I could find.
‘I feel my femme-queerness is inspired by my childhood/teens as a ballet dancer and the aesthetics of flow and drama.’
Riley, meanwhile, channels that strength again.
‘When I put on eye makeup, that’s my battle paint. Bracelets and other accessories are decorations to my armor,’ she says. ‘I never feel more tough than I do when I’m rocking an awesome dress. I don’t dress the way I do or present the way I do because anyone else wants me to, in fact most people don’t want me to. But I do it anyway. Because I love it.’
Yet for other femmes, it doesn’t always come as naturally.
‘For the longest time I didn’t label myself as “femme”,’ Kate discloses. ‘Growing up I was a self described tom boy and vehemently against wearing dresses or anything that expressed stereotypical femme qualities.’
‘Now, to me being queer and femme is being comfortable and confident in who I am, in all ways, and allowing myself to express my identity as I choose,’ she finishes simply.
Living in two worlds
As has always been the case, though, straddling multiple layers of identity isn’t easy.
‘I think women who are femme are seen as embracing gender norms and that’s a dangerous idea because that makes us invisible,’ Mia laments. ‘People call it straight privilege but that implies I’m enjoying the benefits of it. Really, I just don’t feel like I fit in anywhere.’
So how to combat this? Mia has a suggestion.
‘We need to be feminists in our approach to it, we need to think of it as equal to masculinity.’