Femininity and the LGBTQ+ community have a complicated relationship. Much like the cis, straight world in which we live, the LGBTQ+ community (both subconsciously and explicitly) understands femininity as fundamentally less valuable than masculinity. Femininity is read as weakness, and, crucially, as a kind of superficiality: The feminine person cannot possibly be being themself; they are putting on a performance for the straight, male gaze. One of the most significant consequences of this way of seeing is that it essentially invisibilises feminine queer women. If any woman who looks ‘womanly’ is just playing dress-up for a man, gay women who look feminine – gay women like me – simply don’t exist.
‘Femme’ – a lesbian sexual identity used by feminine bisexual and lesbian women to distinguish themselves from their butch/stud counterparts – developed in response to that invisibility. Rooted in lesbian working-class bar culture in the 1950s, ‘femme’ became a way to actively assert your desire for women without having to compromise your femininity. You could wear stereotypically feminine things (like dresses or lipstick) without being seen as inauthentic, or inauthentically gay. The identity became a clear way to place your femininity as something that wasn’t in opposition to being a lesbian: it was in fact a key part of who you desired and who, in turn, desired you.
Societal and historic shifts in our understanding of gender and sexuality have broadened the meaning of ‘femme’. It’s no longer the preserve of lesbian and bisexual women; it’s now a descriptor used by a range of LGBTQ+ people including trans women, non-binary people and gay men. In some ways, that is a testament to progress: a kind of lessening of the shame around femininity in queer circles. In reality, that conception of femininity as not being ‘queer enough’ persists. If you don’t explicitly present in a way that divorces you from straight, patriarchal standards, you’re not queer enough. I have friends who’ve been called out for not wanting to cut their hair short; I’ve been told that you’re not a ‘real lesbian’ if you have long nails. This hetero-patriarchal hangover is built into LGBTQ+ spaces – you see it in the Grindr profiles that read ‘no fats, no femmes’; in the lesbians in gay bars who are dismissed as ‘fag hags’; in the trans women accused of ‘aping femininity’.
To be femme, in some ways, is a radical act of reclamation. It means standing in defiance of routine devaluation. I spoke to four very different femmes about what that feels like – the breadth of their answers gives a window into the complexity, and the power, of being LGBTQ+ and feminine today.
Click through to read what they said...
Ladybeard magazine is a UK feminist print magazine. Taking the traditional ‘glossy’ as a point of departure, it is a space to play with gender, sexuality and identity, rather than dictate their terms. Their latest edition, the ‘Beauty Issue', looks at how we make and unmake ourselves in the image of what our culture finds beautiful. Shape-shifting through time and across continents, who sets the standard tells us something unnerving about who holds power. With this issue, they want to disrupt the ideal.
They are celebrating the launch of the issue on 28th April in London (tickets here). This article, from the Beauty Issue, has been reprinted with permission of Ladybeard magazine. Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.