A couple of months ago, I posted an Instagram story with the words “hi, femme” hovering above a video of my impeccably made-up face in a neon script.
I was in the dressing room at work, just having finished applying the physical manifestations of Janis, the alter ego I rely on at the strip club. Janis, like many sex worker alter egos, is femme to the max: thick, dark, perfectly arched brows; a long, pointed manicure reminiscent of a cat’s claws; precise jet black wings of liquid eyeliner; lashes at least an inch long; and a mouth so red it looks like she just drained a man of his hearts’ blood. Janis is a femme fatale, a dream girl in ripped fishnets and sky-high stilettos. She’s your perfect, classic, Hollywood ending. Janis is the very picture of high femme aesthetic, and it takes approximately two hours to become Janis. Sometimes, in my normal life, I feel drawn to emulate aspects of her: subtle wings beneath my thick-framed glasses, a dark red lip stain on an otherwise un-made-up face—especially when I’m feeling tired, sad, or despairing of the state of the world. When I need to draw on my power, that power comes from who Janis is because she is femme.
Shortly after posting the story, a wild stranger appeared in my inbox, as strangers often do, to tell me that my use of the word femme was an act of violence, and to please stop. She told me patronizingly that it was “okay” if I “just didn’t know” because “a lot of women don’t know this history.” And she flippantly shrugged off my bewildered reply that I am queer, though, and that it took me a long time to get to this place of authenticity about it, specifically because of the way femme-invisibility, and the erasure of bisexual identities, compound each other.
This stranger identified herself as a cisgender lesbian and tried to tell me about the queer history that I, in fact, already knew and knew well: the dynamics between butches and femmes in mid-century New York City and how butch/femme relationships were an act of resistance to a compulsively straight culture—a culture that wanted to see queer people either in compliant relationships between cis men and cis women, or wanted to see us dead. Bisexual women, she said, continuing to make assumptions about my life and my gender, were not allowed to use the word “femme” to describe our gender identity since “femme” as an aesthetic was created for women who were performing femininity for other women and other women alone— a radical act. “Femme” was not for women who experienced sexual attraction to men, or performed femininity for them.
Let’s put aside the fact that the days when I genuinely “performed femininity for men” in my personal life, without compensation, are long gone. Let’s also put aside that Janis’s gender presentation and high femme aesthetic also have little to do with men. I don’t have to spend the hours that I do at work applying my make-up, and many of the women I dance with dance wearing just a bit of mascara and lipgloss and are comfortable doing so. The ritual of becoming Janis serves me. Janis’s high femme aesthetic has much more to do with me than it has to do with men.
The stranger’s argument was one that I’d heard before and usually categorically dismiss. But that night, something about being approached in my inbox tripped me up. I reached out to several of my femme friends, sharing screenshots, and expressing concern. I never want to overstep my bounds when it comes to navigating my identity, particularly the parts of my identity that give me privilege and power. According to this person, my bisexual identity and ability to be in “straight-passing” relationships with cis straight men was a privilege. And, to be honest, I sometimes agree with that. I don’t feel afraid when I walk around in public with my cis male partner; the fact that I am “claimed” by a man keeps other men from even looking at me. Generally, though, when he’s not around (and we’re long distance, so he’s frequently not around), street harassment runs rampant in my life. I experience harassment to the point where it sometimes stops me from doing things that I love—like going on long runs, or wearing cute summer outfits, or wanting to be in public at all.
At the same time, I have experienced homophobic violence: walking hand in hand with my girlfriend a few years ago, for example, and kissing her on the corner, just to be hollered at by a man. Witnessing the fear in my girlfriend’s eyes when I shouted right back at him because she thought he might hurt us. If the street had been less crowded, if it hadn’t been the middle of the day, maybe he would have. Who knows.
I’ve also experienced biphobic violence within the queer community itself, of which this message, with its gatekeeping about who gets to determine bisexual people’s gender identity, is an example. So while “straight-passing” femmes (who may or may not identify as cisgender) certainly do experience privilege, it’s privilege that must be considered with nuance. After all, “bisexual people are far more likely to experience mental health issues than either lesbians or gay men within the community,” perhaps because we experience discrimination both from the straights and from within our own queer communities.
Many powerful articles have been written about what femme identity means to the people who hold it. My personal favorite is this round table over at Autostraddle, which draws connections to the ways in which femme is more than just an aesthetic. Femme, according to participants, encompasses a way of being in the world, not just a way of dressing or styling your make-up and hair. Femme has to do with emotional labor: the way we are vulnerable, soft, and sensitive, and yet strong enough and courageous enough to be nurturing others, and emotionally honest with ourselves, in this hard and callous world. Femme has to do with spirituality, with magic. Femme is ancient. Think Aphrodite goddess of love and sex; Persephone, Queen of the Underworld; Demeter, goddess of spring; Eris, goddess of discord, a wild goddess whose wrath is relentless; Osun, river goddess of fertility, purity, and sensuality; Kali, who is violence, destruction, and mother-love; and Ishtar/Inanna, our lady of erotic energy and political power, the protectress of sex workers, and Queen of Heaven and Earth. All of these are the faces of what it means to be femme—and yet femme is even more than this. Femme is, in some ways, indescribable.
Still, my femme, because of my supposedly imperfect sexual orientation, was not enough for this stranger. In fact, not only was it not enough but also my femme identity supposedly harms the queer community that I love, serve, and am a part of. This stranger was even so gracious as to offer me an alternative means of describing my gender identity (stag/doe as the bi equivalent of butch/femme), ignoring the fact that the words you use to describe their gender identity are profoundly personal, and no one else gets to determine your identity for you but you. My femme friends—many of whom also don’t identify as lesbians, but some do—all reassured me that, at best, it was the height of presumptuousness for this stranger to contact me with the sole agenda of policing my gender identity and expression. At worst, the contact was straight-up rude as well as historically inaccurate. The inaccuracy is also based in the erasure of bisexual identities and lives in history. The first response on a Quora entry about butch/femme identities, for example, states that, “these [butch/femme] identities were created before bisexuality was even a thing,” (emphasis mine), a patently ridiculous statement, since bisexuality has been around forever (as one responder noted). Just like any other sexuality, bisexuality isn’t something new that we millennial bisexuals invented just to get away with our slutty hijinks.
In Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg wrote frequently about the butches and femmes who, along with gay men, drag queens (who were included under the umbrella of “femmes” though they weren’t cis lesbians), and sex workers, created safe havens out of their bars. A place where they could just be, and a place that some died or suffered unimaginable trauma when defending from police raids and police brutality. That many sex workers were femmes is not lost on me, and I’ll be damned if someone tries to tell me there were no bisexual femme sex workers in Feinberg’s recreation of that world. Stone Butch Blues resonated with me so strongly because for the first time, I recognized my queer history in my bones. I knew without a doubt that I would have been one of those femme sex workers throwing rocks and bottles at the police, or nurturing my lovers back to health after we’d been brutalized.
While I agree that straight cis women should not use the word femme—nor have they earned it—the idea that bisexual/pan/queer folks can’t identify as femme sits wrong with me, deep in my gut. I also disagree that the definition of femme is limited to the idea of performing femininity solely for women instead of men—because that is a limitation. Femmes are not objects. We are subjects in our own right, protagonists of our own stories, and our femmeness is our own. My embodiment of femme is not about performing at all. It’s about creating. It’s about magic, history, and connection to the past. My femme is not for women, or for men, or for my sexual partners of any other gender. My femme is for me alone. It is powerful because it is mine.