A friend of mine and I who both identify as femme were chatting the other day about the different ways our identities are understood in our various communities. She, who identifies herself as a queer woman, moves in predominately queer female and trans circles, whereas I operate in a largely gay male context. Both us of expressed frustration with the fact that our femme presentations are often devalued and degraded by the queer communities we belong to, and are even seen as selling out. She spoke of the “dyke hierarchy” in her community, the endless pressures to be as transgressive as possible by prioritizing and playing up masculine qualities–pressures which labeled her as a traitor. I talked about the suspicion with which I was consistently met, and the conception that by being effeminate I could only be caricaturing an unreal part of myself, satiating the hallmarks of the gay servant and the reviled sissy. Both of us talked about feeling undesirable because we were not masculine enough. Both of us were struck by the fact that communities which are so focused on transgression could simultaneously place such great emphasis on masculinity and patriarchal structures of power. Both of us were saddened that we often felt disrespect and spite from the people whom we love and struggle alongside, simply because we identify in ways which we have all been taught to stigmatize.
Amber Hollibaugh, who has come to be seen as a leading voice on high femme identity and politics, writes in her book My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home that the femme identity is always treated with suspicion and distain precisely because it invests itself into the qualities most commonly associated with weakness and powerlessness. Even across queer communities, we, too, are often convinced that relying on masculinity is the only way to be commanding and threatening in the face of the powers we seek to challenge. To Hollibaugh, the femme identity is always a radical one, no matter who dons it, because it works to command and threaten without reifying male status or masculinist hierarchies. It challenges power on the terms which power most fears, and refuses to forfeit any of its own desires, tendencies or passions in the process.
For myself, identifying as femme is not about adhering to any code or strictures of conduct. It is about loving my body, even when I am told I am too skinny or not in shape. It is about respecting and revering the women in my life without objectifying or essentializing them, but also without pretending that we are the same. It is about loving who I love, desiring who I desire, and not worrying about what types of roles I or my partners should take on in a relationship, or in bed. It is about dressing the way I like, and moving the way my body wants to move. It is about talking in the slang of Black and Latin@ queer communities. It is about being unapologetically raunchy. It is about making people uncomfortable in ways that I hope will make the world a safer place. It is about speaking loudly. It is about placing myself in a lineage of other queer folks of all identities who also stood by their communities while challenging them to change. It is about remembering the riot, and never being comfortable with the way things are. It is about dancing and laughing, gathering and organizing. It is about feminism. It is about fearlessness. It is about always being ready to fight.
My truest hope for the future of my community, and of all queer communities, is that we let go of suspicion–that we love and respect all of our incredible ways of being as subversive, and as having the potential to unite us in radical efforts. For being a gay man in good health is subversive, but so is being one who is happy with his body the way it is. Being a queer women who identifies as butch is subversive, but so is being one who does not feel the need to identify herself in any particular way at all. Rejecting gender all together is a way of challenging power, but so is finding an unexpected space for oneself that makes straight people and queers alike uncomfortable. And any one person can do some or both or all or none of these things and still be a subversive. Our true radical power comes not merely from the labels we don nor the ways we present. It comes from recognizing a structure which needs to come down, identifying our friends and allies in the struggle, and figuring out how we can best support one another in the innumerable ways we find to break chips off the stone.