What Makes (Me) a Femme

Long, long ago in a gender galaxy far, far away…

…I was butch!

I know what you’re thinking: how could your favorite ravishing femme queer theorist–who is typing these words with perfectly manicured red nails–have ever been butch? But it’s really true, my lovelies, I swear. I had Hilary Swank’s haircut in Boys Don’t Cry, stomped around in big Timberland boots, got my clothes from the men’s department, and my only grooming products were shampoo, soap and chapstick. In the community that I came out into, to be a lesbian meant that you were butch, andro, or flannel, period. I actually had no idea that other kinds of lesbian genders existed!

I’m writing this piece in response to Hussy Red’s terrific post “The Femme Archive” on The Femme Guide, which asks all of us to share our own stories about how we’ve come to our identities as femmes. So, I’ve been asking myself: Who and what inspired, affirmed and taught me as I traveled the long and winding road to femme? What made me feel authorized to express my own queer femininity? Here are my answers, in no particular order:

1. Femme Icons. These are the brave, beautiful women who inspired me and educated me about femme, even if I never knew them. For me, Joan Nestle, Susie Bright, and Amber Hollibaugh are at the top of the list; their brilliance, political activism, magnetic eroticism and kick-ass femme attitudes made me think, that’s what I want to be when I grow up! Femme icons from earlier eras have also been a big source of inspiration for me. If you’ve read my post on Greta Garbo, you know that I love old Hollywood glamour and the beautiful and talented lesbian and bisexual women who serve, for me, as icons of queer femininity. (For the scoop about Garbo, Tallaluh Bankhead, Mercedes de Acosta, Marlene Dietrich and more, check out Diana McLellan’s The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood!) But Femme icons are also people we see everyday. For me, getting to know and work with smart and successful femme/feminine lesbians who were my teachers and mentors was an incredible blessing. By modeling their own versions of femme in their lives and work (from lipstick lesbian to campy, queer femme identities), they introduced me to ways of inhabiting lesbian gender that I had never imagined possible.

2. Butch/femme and lesbian history. Learning about the history of butch/femme in the 40s, 50s and 60s was incredibly important to me. Reading Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues–which was itself a life-changing experience–motivated me to learn more about butch/femme working-class communities in postwar America. I was so inspired and impressed by how brave these women were, and how hard they had fought to carve out spaces for public, visible lesbian communities under extremely oppressive social conditions. In fact, the main reason I began to identify as a femme (as opposed to lipstick lesbian, for example) is precisely because I wanted to connect with that past. This is still true for me today; calling myself a femme is one way I strive to honor the struggles, sacrifices, and hard-won victories of butches and femmes and carry them forward into the present. To learn more about butch/femme communities in the 50s, I highly recommend Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ wonderfully readable oral history, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold.

3. Gay men. What can I say? I’m a huge fan!! Meet me at the intersection of Oscar Wilde and John Waters. Gay men helped me to embrace my identity as a femme because they offered me a space to celebrate femininity with joy and a sense of playfulness, which felt worlds removed from the shaming, suspicion or just perplexed confusion that I felt from some lesbians and feminists. In the gay world, I wasn’t just “tolerated” for being femme, I was loved and respected. Gay male friends who appreciated beauty, fashion and glamour also taught me a thing or two about queer aesthetics and camp, both of which changed the way I look at the world. Most importantly, they inspired me to approach gender and sexuality with a sense of adventure and frivolity that has shaped how I “do” femme.

4. Facing My Own Pain and Gender Oppression. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had an epiphany sitting in the audience at a GenderPAC conference, that I realized how hurt I’ve been from the years of being shunned in lesbian/feminist bookstores (for being too femme) or being marginalized in the straight world (for being too queer). At GenderPAC, Riki Wilchins was talking about the oppression faced by femmes, which often isn’t recognized because we do not (typically) transgress gender norms. Suddenly, tears filled my eyes and I was overwhelmed by a powerful emotional reaction I had never anticipated. What was going on?

I went to the conference because I’m an ally of trans and genderqueer people, and I wanted to participate in the important education and advocacy work that GenderPAC does. But as I was listening to Riki speak, I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be–not for others, but for me. Coming to terms with my own gender oppression not just as a woman but also as a femme has enabled me to work towards healing the pain I didn’t even realize I was carrying inside me. It has helped me to politicize my own experience as a femme in ways I hadn’t previously, because now I understand and appreciate the depth of that experience not only with my head, but also with my heart.

By Way of a Conclusion. All of this doesn’t quite tell you how I travelled from the andro butch of my younger years to the capitivating vision of femme-ininity I am now, but these snapshots of my journey are at the core of what has made me a femme. I hope you’ll go to The Femme Guide and write about what made/makes you a femme, because I can’t wait to read your stories! Regardless of how we identify or the differences that shape our lives, we all have *so much* to learn from each other.

10 Responses

  1. This is a really great post. It also shared many similarities with my own process- I wouldn’t say I was ever butch, but I cut my hair, dressed a bit more “boyish”, etc. Quite simply, I wanted to fit in with the lesbians I knew and also be recognized as a lesbian by other queer folks, which I think is often important in the coming out process. I didn’t really have queer femme role models- but my grandmother (who wasn’t queer) definitely taught me about style- she had beautiful clothes and accessories and her hair was always perfect and I can still smell her perfume- Estee Lauder’s White Linen. I used to sit at the kitchen table and study her as she applied her makeup.

    Also, like you, connecting with a history has been huge for me and quite recent. I always kind of knew I was femme, but didn’t feel like I could relate to “femmes”-at-large. Reading their stories (and also hearing butches describe their femme lovers) has instilled a sense of pride and belonging in me that was sorely missing.

  2. For me my femininity was never something I questioned or felt compelled to transition into. I just always have been feminine. What I did struggle with was my sexual orientation. Although looking back now I say to myself that I should have known, but for some reason I did not recognize it until I was in my late teens. I was always drawn to and fascinated by women. My feminine icons have always been old school Hollywood. Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page are women I consider to be the epitome of femininity and sex appeal.

    My mother was probably the biggest influence. She NEVER left the house looking and smelling her best. She was always made up perfectly, the latest fashion, the best perfumes– lots of beautiful jewelry. Her nails and toes always manicured. I swear I have never seen my mother in a pair of sneakers! Even to stay home she was dressed and made-up. To go to sleep she only wore silk gowns and sexy slippers. LOL! Not to mention her exquisite manners and tons of sex appeal. I guess she conditioned me to be that way as well. She was always fussing about the way I looked and how a “lady” should present herself.

    I had no idea I was a femme when I first came out—I was just me. I learned the term from my first butch. Honestly, I don’t understand why other lesbians who do not identity as femme have such a problem with it. I love being a girly girl and all the bois I know love it too. I couldn’t care less if others don’t understand or find it strange that I can be so feminine and be a lesbian. This is who I am—take it or leave it.

  3. Great post which caused quite a stir today! Had to write my own: http://greeneyedgrrrl.blogspot.com/2008/09/who-am-i.html

  4. What a wonderful post, SF! Thanks for taking the time to write it. I, too, once sported a rather butch look, though so unsuccessfully. I remember wearing cargo shorts and a polo shirt and still wanting to try pulling off a headband. It didn’t work so well on me 😉

    Thanks to everyone for all the positive feedback, and to you Hussy Red, for inspiring my post in the first place. And, for the record, I don’t think I was ever very convincing as a butch. Even my gf during that time bought me a retro black lace slip (think Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for an xmas present, so who were we fooling (except ourselves)?! -SF

  5. lovely post! and my absolute favorite part of this internet thing is these wonderful discussions that span multiple blogs – it’s even better than comment discussions. so, of course, my addition:

    re: your very own femme award – i thought you were the one handing them out 😉 anyhow, i’m sure no one would argue if i say i think you are quite deserving of one =)

    Thanks, Lady B., you’re a doll. I already can feel the Halle Berryish acceptance speech rising in my throat! And I agree; these cross-blog discussions we’re having are fantastic. xo -SF

  6. Great post SF, I found a few similarities that I also experienced. I think the hardest thing is that our identities as femme’s are always being called into question. We’re not heterosexual — we’re femmes! *feels like screaming it*


  7. Hey — Thanks for a really moving blog entry. Glad the conference and speech meant so much to you. Everything I know about femmes I learned from Joan Nestle and Amber Hollibaugh. They really taught me about the erasure of femme identity and the frequent invisibiity of femmes in lesbian/gay/queer politics. One of the downsides of the rise of “trans” is that everyone is looking to promote and valorize whatever is most “transgressive.” Well, some kinds of transgressions are obvoius, and some are more subtle — like femme. That’s doesn’t make them less importtant or any less dangerous or radical. Overturning the gender system will require that we use ALL our voices… and all our genders!

    Thanks again,


    I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this comment, Riki! I’ll drop you a note later, but I just wanted to say now that I am truly honored by your visit, and inspired (as always) by your insights and leadership. Thanks so much for reading. -SF

  8. […] slow evolution. It took place over many, many years. In fact, I recommend that you reread my post “What Makes (Me) a Femme” with the following in mind: I’m talking about close to 20 years of life experience in this […]

  9. gender is fluid and our fashion statements/the way we want to look have nothing to do with our sexuality. I know of many butchlooking women who are just as “girl” as you and me.

    on some days i feel like going butchlooking, on some days i wear skirts, but it doesnt change who i am


  10. I have been reading a lot about genderfuck lately, and after reading your blog I would like to ask you a couple of questions if you dont mind. (I am on a road to try and understand this term)
    Why did you go for the butch “dress code” in the first place and not dress to express your femininity? (back then)
    Do you feel treated differently by people?

    Hi, I didn’t know I was femme then. I knew I was a lesbian and so I did what everyone else did: I cut my hair and adopted the dyke “uniform.” As I said in my post, in the lesbian-feminist community that I came out into, the only kinds of lesbians that existed were either butch or more tomboy/andro/flannel-wearing dykes. The idea of a feminine lesbian would have been seen as an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. As for your other question, treated differently by whom? -SF

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