In many of the queer spaces I have inhabited for over a decade, I have observed and experienced how the toxic masculinity characteristic of heteropatriarchy has spun a web of femmephobic biases around anyone or anything perceived as feminine/effeminate/camp – portraying femmes as “less than.” For years, I have struggled with internalized femmephobia, often denying myself the pleasure(s) associated with femme/feminine-of-center gender expression/presentation. I wrote the poem ‘Debility’ as a way of healing from the self-inflicted wounds of femme denial and of reclaiming and celebrating my true self – centered on total visibility, making room for my overlapping identities (femmeness included).
For years I thought, a femme bottom—what is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting. I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The whole world told me it was true. The whole world told me that there is nothing more common and stupid than someone feminine of center with their legs open, wanting something more than a kick or a curse. –Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2015, 214-215)
[F]emme accounts of receptivity avoid a redemptive reading of sex, insisting on the fear, pain, and difficulty that can block the way to and be conjured up by making oneself physically and emotionally vulnerable or receptive. […] What’s required instead is a sex positivity that can embrace negativity, including trauma. Allowing a place for trauma within sexuality is consistent with efforts to keep sexuality queer, to maintain a space for shame and perversion within public discourse rather than purging them of their messiness in order to make them acceptable. –Ann Cvetkovich (2003, 63)
Misogyny, both crude and subtle, is deeply ingrained in our patriarchal, heterosexist, cisnormative, gender-essentialist Western cultures. As exemplified by the quotations chosen to preface the poem ‘Debility’, people of all genders and sexual orientations have been indoctrinated with prejudice against women, which results in dislike or even aversion towards anything perceived as being on the feminine end of the prescribed gender binary.
Our queer communities (even non-binary ones) are not always exempt from collective internalized misogyny and the resulting erasure of femme identities. Misogyny both informs and is informed by femmephobia: The denigration, fear, or even hatred of anyone or anything associated with femininity or perceived as being effeminate/camp (irrespective of their actual gender identity). Femmephobia is alive and well in our queer cultures too, which are still largely dominated by the politics of toxic masculinity: By the constant policing of fashion, mannerisms, or behaviors for hints of femmeness/campness; relentless shaming based on said femme/camp signs; and even violence (most notably against transwomen – especially those of color) as direct manifestation of femme/camp loathing.
In lesbian cultures, femmephobia shows itself in femme invisibility. There is a tendency in both the heteropatriarchal and the queer world to read lesbians whose gender presentation is on the feminine spectrum as ‘straight’1. As a result, many lesbians knowingly deny themselves their authentic identities while unknowingly internalizing femmephobia, all in the name of not “passing” as straight or not having your sexual orientation called into question by your very own community. Butching up to gain queer credibility to prove that we are not going along with the heteropatriarchal order and that we are ever as radical and feminist as the more masculine-of-center or androgynous members of our community, takes a heavy toll on us and limits not only our gender expression but the exploration of our true sexual selves.
Confusing gender expression with sexual orientation can be commonplace both outside and within the LGBTQIA+ community, where a femme/feminine-of-center person is only ever made visible by association with a butch/masculine-of-center lover. The dynamics, in the bedroom and public spaces alike, of butch-femme relationships have been widely documented and could be considered a subdiscipline of queer studies2. However, femme-loving femmes are still met with disbelief and sometimes mockery (based on desexualizing essentialisms rooted in sexism), even in many of today’s most inclusive queer communities and spaces.
The virulent and oppressive dialectic of masculinity also struggles to recognize intersectionality and, as dominant discourse, it oftentimes succeeds at erasing the significance of issues pertaining to trauma(s), classism, ableism, racism, etc. to an individual’s experience of selfhood. It was amid coming to terms with my own internalized femmephobia and other types of self-hate that I conceived ‘Debility’. Not wanting my identity to be policed, distorted, and potentially expunged by overriding narratives, my poem was an exercise on visibility on all fronts: An attempt to live up to my full gender-presentation and sexual potential. ‘Debility’ helped me start my healing process through exploring and reclaiming my identity in my own right: As based on my queer, feminine-of-center, NBPOC, femme-loving power bottom, migrant body-shrine to my true complicated self – who refuses to wear the invisibility cloak any longer.
1. The presumption of heterosexuality for feminine-of-center folk within LGBTQIA+ communities has been extensively discussed by numerous queer femmes who have denounced the detrimental effects such assumption has on one’s identity. An important contribution to academic discussion around femme identity, (in)visibility, and discrimination and violence arising from femmephobia within queer spaces is Karen L. Blair and Rhea Ashley Hoskin’s qualitative analysis of 146 femme-identified individuals’ responses to questions pertaining to ‘coming out, experiences of femmephobia and the notion of essentialized femininity.’ (2014, 229)
Additionally, the internet is awash with first-person narratives of the marginalization of femmes read as straight in the queer scene. One of such stories is Mary Emily O’Hara’s candid account: ‘Femme invisibility is the dirty little secret of the queer community’.
In the heteropatriarchal order, equating femininity to straightness is a tale as old as time. This unyielding misinterpretation gives way to many a ‘but you don’t look gay’ moment. Consequently, instances of comic relief at the expense of such an essentialist notion can be found in popular culture, with a famous recent example being delivered as part of Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani’s opening monologue at the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards: ‘[…] you have ended up with us: A gay woman and a Pakistani man. Or as Hollywood thinks of us: A straight woman and her IT guy.’
2. Photographic evidence indicates that butch and femme identities and butch-femme cultures and relationships date back to at least the beginning of the 20th century. In today’s queer world, ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ definitions have evolved to accommodate multiple gender expressions and identities. However, the analysis of butch-femme realities continues to be an integral part of queer studies, adding to an increasing canon of seminal and (for the most part) intersectional work which spans decades and genres and includes contributions by Ann Bannon (The Beebo Brinker Chronicles), Joan Nestle (The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader), Leslie Feinberg (Stone Butch Blues), Ivan E. Coyote (Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme), Amber L. Hollibaugh (My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home), Jack Halberstam (Female Masculinity), Wendi Kali (The Butch/Femme Photo Project), and Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) – to name but a few.
Blair, Karen L., and Rhea Ashley Hoskin. “Experiences of Femme Identity: Coming Out, Invisibility & Femmephobia.” Psychology & Sexuality, no. 6 (2014): 229-244
Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015.
[The content of this post was originally published in Feral Feminisms (Toronto, Canada: April 2018)]