the femme question(s)

January 3, 2007

This blog is called saltyfemme. And since I started it six months ago, I have yet to write a single entry on what being femme means. That’s for a number of reasons, the primary one being that identity talk/politics seriously bore me to tears, the second one being that it’s intensely personal. But I feel some responsibility to write some of this down, because I have these conversations in my head, and I can write, and I keep a blog with the word femme in the title, and so…

I’d like to begin working on a longer piece about femme identity – I’m hoping that this entry can provide some sparks for that essay (or at least serve as a brainstorm). And the format: questions! Because life is full of them, and because I want to try and cover all my bases if I can.

1. What does it mean to identify as femme in a world where women and therefore femininity are considered ‘other’?

2. How do I synthesize the following two thoughts: 1) there are many femme-identified women in the queer community, 2) I feel completely alone in my gender identification.

3. What does being Jewish have to do with being femme, generally speaking, and for me specifically? What do I learn from the stories of femme Jewish writers? (see Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country)

4. Butch and femme genders in the US prevailed mostly in working class, POC lesbian communities in the 1950’s and 1960’s (see Kennedy and Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold). What was the connection between butch or femme identification and class during this time? (the answer to that question, actually, is in the book I just cited, and it’s really interesting). What does it mean for a middle-class white woman to identify as femme in 2007?

5. How do I, as a femme, connect to butch/femme lesbian history? What *is* butch/femme lesbian history if so much of it happened behind closed doors?

6. Why do people assume that I am boxing myself in when I identify as femme when I feel that it is totally liberating? Why is any label considered limiting?

7. What does femme identification have to do with feminism? How can I feel that they are inextricably linked while others think that femininity is the antithesis of feminism?

8. Why is femme not the opposite of butch?

9. What makes femme identity queer?

10. Why is there still stigma in the queer community about femininity? And is this true in all queer communities, or just in white queer communities? Does femininity have the same stigma in black queer communities?

11. My queer community is made up, for the most part, of female-bodied masculine identifying people (that was a mouthful of queer PC talk but that’s who I am and how I talk), transmen, and people who identify as women but not particularly feminine or femme. I wonder if this is true only in my community or if it is relevant in a larger context.

12. Finally, how do I counter all the countless myths and stereotypes that exist about femmes and femininity?

So these are my starting questions. I don’t know who my readers are, but if you’re out there, whether I know you in person or not, I would love your feedback before I embark. Please don’t suggest books, I’ve read lots of them and I’m pretty full of theory and academic jargon. Too full, in fact. I’m looking for personal stories and creativities, either from femmes, femme-lovers, or people who think femmes or femme identity are ridiculous and want to (respectfully) tell me why. If you’re out there, take a moment, and speak up.* Please reply in the comments. And thank you.

*Blogs and the blogosphere are nothing if they are not interactive. I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately, and I wish for my blogging to strive towards the interactivity that I experience when I take part in grassroots activism. Talk to me!



  1. hm. I’m interested in all of these questions (particularly: what makes femme identity queer?), but have no answers. I identify as femme, and do find it liberating – perhaps only because it allows my femininity to be read as queer. or maybe I shouldn’t say “only.”

  2. I’d love to be part of the discussion started by a couple of your questions:

    6. Ah, labels. I think that self-identified labels help people understand who the presenter is as a person (if communicated in a mutually understandable language) and in relation to their life experiences. This is something that helps human beings all over the world connect and even co-exist. Where I think labels become limiting is when a label is given with a definition that isn’t what/who you feel you are. This happens to everyone all the time. It’s an issue if you a) desire or need confirmation of your identity from others, or b) are being treated a certain way because of your label, self-identified or other. Big conversation – I’d love to hear what others have to say.

    8. Femme/butch: I think that rather than opposites, femme and butch are actually more similar than other presentations of identity because they embrace and embellish our society’s idea of what a gender norm is.

    11. Mine too. I think that people in general can’t help but be attracted to people with similar shared experiences/interests/personal beliefs. For those of us in the queer community that starts out for a lot of us as being attracted to anyone/everyone gay, and as we grow personally – realizing that we connect to friends more through who they are than what – (definitely easier in a larger, typically urban, queer community) we shrink that circle to only those people with whom we share the characteristics above. I assume I ended up in the circles I did because I embrace the idea of gender as fluid, because my friends and I have similar stories about life to share and laugh at, because we like to treat and be treated in a similar way, and because my friends and I are interested in the same social experiences. I could have ended up in other circles and I may very well at some other point in my life…and I have no idea if this answers any of your question other than if you are alone in this experience, but there you have it.

  3. Thank you, Emily and Emma. Emily, I agree that it is liberating to have one’s femininity be read as queer. I often feel like it isn’t, and most of my queer friends tell me that if they saw me on the street and didn’t know me, they would for sure know that I was queer. I guess self-image is in the eye of the beholder. Or something.

    Emma, what you wrote about labels is interesting. I think they do get a bad rap because people often limit *themselves* when they take on a label. Like once I start calling myself femme, I’m not allowed to leave my house without makeup. Which is absurd, of course – whose definition is that? Sometimes I wear makeup, and sometimes not. The rules are my own, and are mine to change. And the rules, in some way, are arbitrary. I do know some femmes who have that rule about makeup or heels – I happen to have it about perfume (which I wear every day). But that’s me.

    Femme/butch. Yes! Absolutely.

    It’s great that you’ve found a community based on common social experience, specifically around ideas of gender fluidity. I’m wondering if you live in an urban environment – I’m assuming you do. I also wonder if your cultural or religious background plays any role in which community/ies you choose to be a part of. For me, this is huge, but I know tons of people who are pretty disconnected from the families into which they were born or the culture in which they were raised. I always wonder what it’s like to create cultural interests “from scratch” (in effect.

  4. I do live in an urban environment, and a very gay one at that – SF. On the cultural and familial connection front, I am still close with my family; though my “blood family” group is very limited (it’s never included those outside of CA and is therefore mostly immediate family), my folks have always chosen to include friends who are like family in the definition of who is family. I don’t know if/how that effects the kind of community I’ve surrounded myself with. I have many friends that have developed their own community without the old family/cultural ties…at least as far as I can tell. Actually, almost my entire circle…

  5. I consider my femininity to be hard won and chosen in struggle. Really interesting to see the point made about family–I am always inspired by the Song of Songs for its construction of gender and desire and have been struck again and again by the potentials for interpreting a “mother’s house.” On conclusion I have regarding the link between queer and femme is choice–that one chooses this on one’s own: mask and/or adornment and “what is pleasant.” (In Song of Songs jewelry is likened to armor; today’s Times has evolutionary biologist Dr. Nina Jablonski making the same link to makeup.) In the fifties I might have been described as kiki (attractive/ed both to/as butch-femme), in the twenties as an artist (which has been my own preference in the past), or in these oughties as a queer bisexual. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with labels re: self-presentation–for myself. But I find them delightful on others when they are embraced consciously. After some thought I’ve decided, provisionally, that Jewess or trans-Jewess (meeting gender and preference expectations differently or variously) is the label I can wear best; here’s a recent piece addressing some these ??? (I think). In terms of intertextuality (which always happens both in life and in literature), I call it Fragment with Sappho’s Fragment 31 in mind.


    Yes; like being stoned,
    An execution by trajectory:
    Utterly prey to her person.
    Her charm . . . as if it were
    A classroom on failure
    To live light—live it up to
    Ourselves and be lifted up
    Into something voluntary,
    Warm to feel out denials
    And redeem layaways,
    Because I hazard to pass
    (Ace through finals) her
    Juridical suggested smiles.
    Or do I merely lack grace?
    I haven’t wanted to want
    Anything but to breathe
    For I’m Fort Living Color.
    How can one be anything
    But an image on TV, if
    I’m supposed to resemble
    A gay blade—man about
    Town (kill me now!)? No
    Shames in deed can ensue
    (Vis-à-vis G. Stein’s aperçu
    Gendering sexual remorse:
    The campaign is to listen)
    Upon sensations of levelly
    Tapering nuclear fission—
    And, woe, that by seeing:
    The miraculous pessary . . .

  6. Emma, you wrote:

    “my folks have always chosen to include friends who are like family in the definition of who is family.”

    I totally relate to this – I actually wrote about it in a previous post. For me, I think that having non-blood relatives act and be treated as blood relatives affected my queer identity pretty strongly.

    Susan, thank you for your thoughts, especially what you wrote about choice. I’m curious about your rejection of labels for yourself but your enjoyment of them on others. It’s interesting.

    Keep ’em coming!

  7. Ahem, dear salty (if I may),

    I embraced trans-Jewess. It’s my term. I think it works pretty well. Covers the historical precedents that I want to acknowledge as a legatee, etc. For example, I’ve identified as the heir of R. Tarphon and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Well, then, I ask you, how not to embrace the identity of trans-Jewess? Perhaps you might think that I am not sincere in my adhesion to such a coding. It is true. But only because I strive to speak different languages: to call myself trans or Jewess also begs the question of my human commitments to communities and languages—not all of which are human or partake in human speech. I like to hug trees and rocks, for example, and I have been known to share intimacies (I’m afraid I’m entirely innocent when I make these claims, although I prefer chocolate—raw cacao beans—to vanilla any day) with dogs. I used to wonder if my English springer spaniel, Hannah Jane Gelert, was Jewish, or a lesbian, or a trans-Jewess, too. (As far as I could tell she had nothing against labels: she answered to quite a few names, both public and private. And she couldn’t wear a kippah without a hairclip.) I could spin the neo-Talmudic remark that it is surreal enough for me to worry about being Susan Pensak—but, of course, I know that this is truly my task: the speaking and acting self as individual with roots not only in a community of the like-minded but in communities where there may not be the same lux of choice, in social organizations and interpretive communities that may be “past” or “present,” or even where there are choices that I cannot yet imagine or believe I can only imagine too well. I want to realize identity in relationship and not preconvince myself that I should be or respond or initiate in a certain way. And I want not only to stand on the shoulders of the ones that came before me but rub shoulders with those with whom I don’t have any tangible means of correspondence (poetry, art, vision, prophecy, or the Web logs of the ages). I am serious about my admiration for labels and identities within any community when they lead to greater wholeness and commitment. I find the current genderings within the queer communities with which I’m acquainted to have some different things to say, as I find generationally that queer identities are more environmentally instantiated/integrated and I feel challenged as a result of what I see interpreted through embodied callings to gender and self. But what about a bigger picture—outside one’s “own community”? My attending to the “mother’s house” in the SoS is not a literary convention or midrashic gesture in this context of identity politics. It is my “fate” or (psychomytho)politics—or privilege as someone with a certain palimpsest of educations—to want to know how I measure and value, worship and extoll, husband and shepherd, chill and replenish, share and name within my Mother’s House. That may be utopic, but I don’t see any other reason to stay with identities like Jewish or woman unless they move us—preserve us and enlighten us. However, this does become tiresome; one can’t always be New to Life. One begs for routine. This is also why identities are good, not merely boundary breaking but boundary making, and, if I must choose one, I choose at least to say that it must remind me of and be close to home. The question is, how is this healthy, for me and for my Mother’s House: how is this love strong as death?

    Your questions are a privilege. And I enjoy them. I would love to see you go for it.

  8. I agree femmes are “like” butches in that both acceptreject gender norms. Here’s a question I have: Why does that piss people off so much? I rarely hear femmes or butches complain about lesbians who think of themselves as neither. But I hear the latter complain about butch/femme pretty much all the time. And straight people are so critical of me for being male-identified because surely I’m propogating the patriarchy. It seems to me we all propogate the patriarchy, whether we want to or not. And being a male-identified biofemale is surely a little bit (!) more of a challenge to standard gender norms than a lot of other things.

    Now, a superficial question: It looks like you live in New York. And you say most people you know are transmen or butches. Really? I’ve heard they are few and far between in New York. Or at least the ones who don’t fully transition. Comment, please.

  9. Cameron,

    My psychoanalytic two cents: I actually think it pisses people off because they see the parts of themselves they can’t deny even though they want to…they want to rid themselves of gender even though it will always be there. It’s all a matter of what you do with it.

    Re: queers in NYC. It’s true that there is a serious lack of masculine-types in NYC. I should clarify that it isn’t most people I know – it happens that the people who surround me, specifically in the activist circles I move in, are mostly masculine. It’s mostly coincidental. It does make me think a lot about femininity and I learn tons about (non-transitioning or partly-transitioning/ed) masculinities. In a way, I’m lucky, and in another way, it can be kind of a lonely world for a femme.

    I happen to be in San Francisco at the moment on vacation, and I’m always amazed at the way that queer gender (at least of the hipster andro variety) is so much more visible here than it is in NY. I’m sure that’s a whole other discussion though.

  10. I’m tempted to say that discussion would be about class. New York has a huge proportion of people trying to make it career-wise. Take my word for it, it’s not easy to make it if women don’t like you because you embrace the patriarchy and men think you’re a freak and probably a man-hater to boot. Hence, New Yorkers mainstreamize their gender. San Francisco attracts people who feel they can’t or won’t put their queer identity in the back seat.

    Since you’re in my fair city, you ought to check out the anti-war protest tomorrow–noon, at Market and Powell!

  11. That makes a lot of sense, actually. I’ll have to give that one a lot more thought. Many of the masculine-types I know in NY work mostly in the non-profit sector, which follows what you posited. It’s a powerful factor when discussing the differences between queer communities in NY and SF, in which I’ve been known to partake. Thanks.

  12. someone might want to go to this: http://www.forge-forward.org/conference/

  13. Looks like an interesting conference, anonymous. I’m curious as to why you posted it here though – can you give a little more about why?

  14. pretty simple reasons i guess… b/c it’s focused on conscious thoughtful discussion and action around gender… not about femmes in specific, but seams like the readers and commenters here are interested in gender performance, variations, intentionality, histories, movements, in general. And that the forward motion and changing experiences of masculine queer genders (butches, FTMs, genderqueers, etc) have significant connections to, affects on, dynamics and relationships with feminine queer genders… not to mention that lots of times, femmes are the partners of and/or best allies to these folks. what do you think?

  15. I would agree with you, and also add that the one thing I didn’t write about in this post (which a friend pointed out to me later on) was questions relating to femme/fag FTM identities and how they are similar and different from the identity of a woman identifying as femme.

    Anyway. Thank you for posting that link.

  16. They’re all good questions.

    mine tend to revolve around, “what does it mean to be ‘femme’, interested erotically in various gender transgressions, but -not- especially drawn to ‘butch’? is it still femme? can you be visible without a butch? does it matter? (and my Ann Landers question) how d’you court other femmes, -as- a femme, albeit with aggro/toppish leanings, perhaps?

  17. #1 Does the “identity talk/politics” bore you to tears on all mediums or only in forms like this? or in academia? Yes, I the artist are frustrated by who gets attention on intellectual discourse. Yes identity is intensely personal and maybe the boring happens when emotions and private details are squeezed into thesis statements. Us artists, many of us, are smart as hell and brave to boot. So pay attention bloggers you too can learn something.

  18. 2. How do I synthesize the following two thoughts: 1) there are many femme-identified women in the queer community, 2) I feel completely alone in my gender identification.

    I expected to fight off disbelief and doubts from my family, and the heterosexual comunity in general, but from everyone? Even my girlfriend? The guilt I am supposed to feel for not being visually outspoken?
    I don’t like being constantly taken for a straight/available woman. Especially by men. As soon as they find out I am gay they treat me entirely differently, sometimes a lot better. Why is this?
    I wear mascara and I am learning to be a farmer. I get approval for one and disgrace for the other. The gay community (for lack of a better term) wants me to be a farmer and the others tell me I can’t work that hard.
    I had no idea about other femme-identifying women. I am tired of how much stock other lesbians put into looking gay, and how incredibly insulted they are if someone doesn’t realize. Tell them and get over it.

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