On Femme-ininity – Part 1


I’ve been pondering all things “femme” of late. As my pondering turned to writing on this topic, the post got a little lengthy so I’m splitting it into two parts.  So don’t be surprised when you get to the end and…well you’ll just have to get there and you’ll see.  Read on.

Since bursting out of the closet, I considered myself a femme lesbian as did all the people in my life–once they got used to it that is.  I went through a period of figuring out what my identity was in the beginning and I got definitive feedback that I am not a butch.  I’m not androgynous or tomboy-ish; those terms don’t quite fit either.  I’ve always presented as very feminine and I liked all the standard girly toys as a kid.  Of course, so did my gorgeous gay brother but that is another story.  Dolls, dollhouses, EZ Bake ovens, playing dress-up, “toy” nail polish and perfume.  I thought it was all great.  My favorite present ever received for Christmas was when I was about 9.  My mom, I mean Santa, presented me with a box about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide that was filled with many smaller boxes and packages.  Inside each was some type of feminine beauty product:  mirrors, lip balms, barrettes, headbands, perfumes, powders, jewelry, bubble baths, beauty bags to put the stuff in and more.  I thought I was in heaven. I would love to receive another box like that right now—but from Sephora : )!  The appreciation of all things feminine carried over into adulthood and I cannot have enough beauty products to this day.  But are beauty products what make me a femme?  I’ve known butch women who had as many products as me, if not more.


The thing is, I always had this little tomboy streak in me too.  I like to get dirty.  I wanted to climb trees. I loved working on cars with my dad, first just helping hand him the tools as he asked for them then later letting me try fixing the problems myself.   I like cars, car races, and football.  And boxing.  Does liking these things mean I’m not femme?

So what does it mean to be femme?  Before writing this, I read several other blogs including Queer Fat Femme and AlphaFemme on the topic and sought out something definitive.  I’m sure there are several books that claim one definition or another, but what it all really comes back to is there is not one answer.  However there are some commonalities in presenting to the world as a femme.  Someone who dresses in feminine-styled clothing typically wears make-up, jewelry, bling, glitter, accessories, styles their hair, and loves shoes is presenting femme symbols, but being femme is personal and unique to each of us.  Some femmes do all this and more, some only one or two, but I think there is a difference between feminine and femme-inine and that is what led me to this blog post.

One of the ideas I think that separate them is intention.  Presenting my self as feminine by wearing a dress, heels, and makeup is only one part.  Why I’m doing it is another.  My intention in presenting as femme is first and foremost to feel good about myself and all the parts of me that are inside swirling around.  When I am all dolled up and ready to roll, I am HOT – inside and out – because it’s me and it all comes together.  The next important intention factor for me (since I am not trying to speak for anyone else’s experience) is that I am not feminizing my presentation to draw the attention of males.  I love women.  I have been with my amazing hot butch wife for almost 5 years, legally married since 2008.  But still, if I’m dressing to impress, it is to draw the eye of women.  I’m femme-inizing.  Here is where the hard part comes in.

Femme invisibility is another frequently discussed issue in blogs and chat groups around the globe.  To come out as a femme lesbian can be somewhat anticlimactic.  It’s like, so?  You look just the same as you did before.  Worse, you appear just like all the other millions of non-lesbian feminine-looking women all around you at work, on the street, at the bars and coffee shops.  Shit.  You want to meet women.  How are you going to find another woman who likes women when you appear to be a “straight” woman?  How will you know each other?  I always thought there should be like a gang symbol or a signal.  Like instead of peace sign, what if I throw you the “sign of the rainbow”?  Or holler “Queer-side Bitches!” with some digit-contorting “Q”?  Then we’d know we could advance, right?

Without any for-sure, tell-tale sign that a particular femme is lesbian (NOTE:  I want to be inclusive that the femme issue affects straight women, transgender women and others who present as femme although the focus of my blog is on lesbians who are femme) we have to try to read between the lines to look for things that might not be readily evident.  This is where, to me, the how I intend to project the FEMME part comes in.

I want to throw my “sign” by being intentionally queer with my femme presentation.  Maybe this is a good place to segue into how I define queer.  It’ll take a couple paragraphs, so hold on.  I started this blog saying I came out as a femme lesbian; that is what I called myself for years.  Some have defined me as a “high lesbian” meaning the ultimate of the femme-y type lesbian.  I don’t consider myself that; you wouldn’t either if you could see how I’m dressed right now writing this blog.  Some have called me a “lipstick lesbian”, probably because I never go anywhere without some type of lipstick/balm/gloss/tint/whatever.  I can’t help it that my lips virtually disappear without color on them!  Shaaahh.  But I think there is confusion over what that term means.  My understanding of a “lipstick” is a femme lesbian who prefers to date other femme or “lipstick lesbians.”  I have dated other feminine women, but my heart (and nether region) is drawn classically, as much as I’ve tried to skirt the stereotype, to the butch woman.  Butch women are *much* easier to spot, right?   Ooh, I just get all wobbly just thinking about them so let me get back on track to queer here.

The words that LGBTQ people use to define themselves vary a lot depending on when or where you come out, perhaps your family history, the peers and friends you had at the time, and many other subjective factors.  I happened to come out in 1993 (officially, after a year or so of thinking I must be bisexual. I’m not.) in San Francisco, while working in The Castro, and the words I heard around me most commonly were lesbian, butch, femme, and dyke.  I initially rejected the word lesbian as old-fashioned sounding…a little too Radclyffe Hall and kumbaya for me.  It didn’t seem to fit me.

Butch?  Clearly not.  As much as I loved looking at them, I knew I wasn’t one OF them.  Dyke?  This has often been used as a disparaging slang term for a lesbian but in the spirit of taking back the power of words, I liked it.  I still like the way it sounds in my mouth.  I tried calling myself a dyke for a couple weeks and my already-out-and-jaded friends in The Castro just laughed at me.  That left Femme.  Yes, I was feminine, but I was not only feminine.  I had the butch/tomboy twist in there somewhere and She was not happy being relegated just to the Femme label.  So I tried Femme Dyke.  That didn’t really last too long either.  No one “got” it and my community just saw me as a femme.  Notice I said “just.”  This is part of femme invisibility too.  The fact that somehow being a lesbian femme somehow makes you less than in the eyes of the overall gay community.  Some think we are copping out of the LGBTQ battle for equality because we look straight.  Or that we are afraid to come out and really show our gayness. Or my least favorite, which I battled for years because I came out at 32, that I’m not really gay.  FUCK OFF YES I’M GAY JUST BECAUSE I’M WEARING A SKIRT DOES NOT MEAN I’M STRAIGHT STOP MAKING ASSUMPTIONS.  Femmes really have to try harder even to be gay.   Same old battle, new game.

So.  Over time I came to love the word queer.  First because I grew up hearing my grandmother using this word from her childhood in the 1910s.  She used it like we use “weird” or “whaaaat?” today.  But in grandma’s vernacular, queer was kind of like “weird” to the 3rd power.  She only said queer when something was really out there, really unique.  When I first heard the word queer as a derogatory word about a gay friend, I was like, yeah he’s queer because he’s really unique.  I knew in the current time it was considered a negative word, but again, I do believe in the power of taking back words so I kept using it.  As I became more and more of a gay activist over the last decade I struggled with older (usually male) gays over use of the term queer.  As the gay “alphabet” (LGBTQIA) expands, I think one problem it creates is more barriers for getting our message across to the rest of the world.  If we can’t even define who we are, how do we expect others to understand all of our many differences and why we’re all in the same acronym?  Before you get your panties/boxers/briefs/underwear in a knot, I most certainly think everyone should be included.  But to me, the best way to include everyone is using the word QUEER.

… Hang on….to be continued in Part II!

Read Pamela’s blog here…


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