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on femme invisibility and street harassment

July 21, 2007

There’s been a great deal of fantastic blogging about street harassment (SH) over at Feministe – first, a post on SH with a focus on queers and one about SH and race/class, both courtesy of Jack, who is guest blogging this week. I don’t usually read the comments underneath the posts – mostly I don’t have the time or the energy. My ears perk up, though, when I see nuanced writing about an issue that is not explicitly queer that includes queer perspectives on it. Jack asks towards the end of her post:

And then I always think – how do visually feminine women, who get way more of this than me, deal? How do femmes and other feminine queer women handle that on the daily?

While I can wax theoretical for hours and hours around other queers about my experience as a femme, I haven’t had much experience doing it with straight women. (sidenote: the vast majority of the women who comment at Feministe are straight – case in point, Jack gives her queer perspective, asks for others to give theirs, but with a few exceptions, the thread ends up being dominated by a discussion of whether a man should be allowed to give a polite compliment on the street – as in, is it a man’s tone or the mere fact that he’s talking to a strange woman that makes me feel degraded and violated?).

Maybe I’m just exercising caution. The differences between straight femininity and queer femininity are pretty huge but nuanced, especially to the naked (i.e. straight) eye. Hell, the differences between how white women and WOC experience femininity are also huge and complicated and I wouldn’t even know how to touch that. I can only talk about my own experiences as a white femme and admit that I share some of those experiences with white straight women. I fear that when I talk about empowerment or “reclamations” of femininity or especially about how I relate to masculine partners, I will hear the dreaded “why is your experience any different than a straight one?”

This is actually exactly what happened at Feministe. I posted this and then got this response. Read it if you like, the gist is that I wrote something about invisibility and about the complications of queer femininity becoming lost on the street and that catcalling further invisibilizes the queerness. The responder rightfully asks, how is your experience any different from a straight one?

I can’t speak for straight women. I don’t know what makes up their personal reaction to catcalling. I would guess that if you are normatively gendered, you don’t necessarily think and obsess about your gender presentation the way queers do and you certainly don’t feel your gender being erased in the same way. After all, I experience my gender as mostly synthetic and unnatural and in that way, it is pretty fragile.

I am not saying that straight women do not obsess about appearance. I’m saying that as a queer feminist, I’ve gone through phases and thought long and hard about what femininity means in the world and the ways that it’s been oppressive and powerful and sometimes both and the ways that I, personally, have experienced it as both. I’ve also obsessed over what it means to have a queer perspective on the world, looking out from inside a body that often passes as straight. And the answer, over and over again, is about invisibility. My answer about SH was not about straight women, it had nothing to do with straight women. And maybe I just need to make peace with the fact that straight women can and do relate to some of my words. (And blah blah identity politics we can have overlapping experiences and still be different people.)

At the same time, queer femmes walk around all day long being taken for something we are not. We’re misread as straight, and of course enjoy the privileges that come along with that, and also are included in the joys of SH. This asshole comes along, “hey baby, hey sexy,” and it’s like boom, again, hit me when I’m already down and already feel like I don’t exist. If the femme experiences of femininity is “empowerment,” there’s nothing more disempowering than a strange man telling you you’re sexy. (And for the record, I hate the word empowerment but I can’t think of anything better. I wouldn’t hate it so much if the fucking Pussycat Dolls and white middle-class pole dancers hadn’t co-opted it.)

And now the navel-gazing must come to an end, please go read and take part in the discussion about SH and race/class issues – namely about why sites like HollaBack seem to be dominated by stories of white women being harassed by men of color.

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7 comments

  1. You know, sometimes I think that “how is what you go through any different from what straight women go through” comes from a weird place of oppressed privilege. Like, sometimes I feel like some feminists – say, straight ones, white ones, or non-trans ones – are threatened by discussions of the gender and sexuality oppressions that they do not face. I’ve encountered this most often in conversations about transphobia, where radical feminists especially seem unable to concede that maybe people besides non-trans women experience gender oppression, too; that maybe sometimes non-trans women have privilege. It’s like maintaining a group’s position at the very bottom of the scale of privilege is a privilege in and of itself… does that make sense?


  2. Yeah that makes a lot of sense. It’s like there’s some sort of weird hierarchy of oppression and the best place to be is at the bottom. People (myself included) have a hard time understanding themselves as both privileged in some ways and oppressed in some other ways. There is this huge privilege in saying you’re at the bottom of the food chain – once you establish that, you can’t really be challenged or called on your shit.

    Weirdly enough, this reminds me of how much the Holocaust is used as an excuse for Israeli oppression of Palestinians. I’ve seen it a lot in Jewish communities, discussions around Israeli responsibility become stifled because the Jewish people have historically been on the receiving end of oppression. It becomes totally paralyzing.


  3. Thank you.

    It’s incredibly fucking cool to see another queer femme fighting the fight.

    Adding you to my daily reading list, now.

    Peggy Sue


  4. Thank you, Peggy Sue! That comment brought a smile to my face. It’s so refreshing to know I’m not alone in this world. Femmes rock.


  5. Oh hi another femme resisting the harrasment and Doll co-option, great! Stumbled here via the feminist link-o-rama, also adding to the reading.


  6. I found you via Feministe and I’m glad I did! Thanks for speaking up for us “queer femmes [who] walk around all day long being taken for something we are not.”


  7. Welcome, outfox and Xana! So happy to have more readers to interact with. Yay for Feministe guest blogging. Outfox, I’ll have to check out your blog.

    If I can shamelessly self-promote for a moment, you should check my femme tag, there’s lots more stuff there you might be interested in.



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