Against Femme Privilege

There’s been good discussion over at A Brown Girl on the question of femme invisibility and femme privilege, prompted by ABG’s reposting of Nikki’s thoughtful piece on that issue.   I’m a big fan of Nikki and her blog, give me space (to rock), but I think the concept of “femme privilege” doesn’t actually capture the experience of living as a femme-identified queer.   Here’s why.

Nikki’s point is that femmes have privilege over people who read as “androgynous,” “butch,” or “masculine.”    While I agree with her about the discrimination faced by gender nonconformists, it seems like a dangerous overgeneralization to assign privilege to femmes.  Femmes may deal with different forms of gender oppression and homophobia than other members of the LGBTQ community, but this doesn’t make us a privileged social group.   Furthermore, to describe femmes as privileged doesn’t account for mutiple or overlapping oppressions such as race, class, nation, ability, age, etc.  For example, is a Chicana femme living in poverty more privileged than Ellen Degenerous or Samantha Ronson? 

Still, maybe you’re thinking that I’ve been sidestepping Nikki’s central argument–namely, the idea that femme invisibility is a form of privilege. While some femmes may experience forms of unearned privilege–i.e. white privilege–“femme privilege” implies that women in general have a privileged status and that femmes in particular aren’t oppressed sexual minorities (because of the cloak of invisibility).  I just can’t get on board with these positions.

For me, “femme privilege” divides queer women in terms of gender at a time when we would be better served by thinking about what connects us.  By pitting “gender variant” butches/genderqueers against “gender conforming” femmes, femme privilege implies that (1) these are opposing groups that can be neatly divided (2) all femmes can or do pass (3) passing = privilege. The last 2 points remind me of those who say that bisexuals aren’t “real” queers because they can always pass for straight by cashing in on their heterosexual privilege.  (A biphobic stereotype, needless to say.)  It also reminds me of the argument that gays and/or queers aren’t an oppressed minority because, unlike blacks and other racial minorities, they can “hide” their sexual orientation.  Grrr, I hate this one!  I think anybody who says this has no idea about the struggles and problems produced by living in the closet, which is itself a form of oppression.

I think  Nikki is right that we all need to consider questions of oppression and privilege in our lives, but the privilege model doesn’t allow us to do this in a complex, multidimensional way.  My beef is really with the whole notion of dividing the world into privileged vs. nonprivileged people.  In my view, most of us are both privileged and nonprivileged in multiple aspects of our lives.

Do you think femme privilege exists?  I’m interested in your thoughts about this!

20 Responses

  1. I’ve had similar discussions with dykes before about the perceived ‘privilege’ of being able to ‘pass’. My conclusions have generally been this:

    ‘butcher’ dykes obviously are very easy to spot and target for verbal/ physical assults,

    But, femmes (from my experience) face a higher risk of sexualised assults/ invasions of privacy. Femme can be perceived to be straight so get hit on/ groped by men in bars/ clubs, whistled at in the street and face more ‘i bet i can turn you’ type harrassment. I had some very scary moments myself when men have really pushed themselves on me in due to disbelieving my sexuality. This brings me to a second point, femmes have to continually defend our position of being queer and feminine (cuz some people think you can’t be pretty and a dyke) so our sexuality is often dismissed -including by some fellow queers. Also femmes who like butches have to face the indignity of being asked why they ‘don’t just get with a man’ and more frequently being perceived to be simply mirroring heterosexual relations rather than constructing our own roles and realities.

    And one final point -because femmes are feminine, it is quite easy (even for feminist, choosing to be feminine femmes) to get caught up in the negative aspects of societal defined feminity e.g. we must be thin, pefectly shaved, tanned etc ALL the time which can do harm to the self esteem of femmes not in a financial position to purchase what is needed to maintain ‘glamour’ and to those whose body does not match a size 0. (though I appreciate that we are in a more advantageous position to pick, choose and critique femininity so can avoid some of these issues a little easier)

    Sorry for the long post but -I do not call what I’ve listed above as putting femmes in a position of privelege!!

    Hi vintage femme, Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I think you make a great point about sexual violence and harassment. Of course dykes whose gender expression is more masculine face related problems, and most of us know all too well the horrific violence experienced by transgender and genderqueer people. The point, at least for me, is that these are problems that affect all of us in the LGBT community in varying ways. It’s not a oppression sweepstakes.

    I love your photostream. Did you see my post on Janis Joplin? Think you might like it. It’s called “Janis: Undoing Femme.” xo SF

  2. your point about intersectionality is spot-on but i think it doesn’t negate the existence of femme privilege, necessarily.

    i think of it less as femme privilege and instead as gender-conforming privilege (where conforming obviously isn’t necessarily a choice and isn’t a bad thing). so it’s not about passing, and it’s not about overlooking the sexism that structures all our lives.

    plenty of our straight acquaintances & family members, and some queer ones, too, have made it explicit that they are much more comfortable with fg’s (gender-conforming) presentation than with mine. she’s not passing as straight; she’s just not offending their notions of inherent differences between men & women. does that increased comfort=privilege? i’d say, on the whole, yes.

    Hi Leo, You said, “it’s not about passing, and it’s not about overlooking the sexism that structures all our lives.” Thanks for making this point–I really like that you are taking passing out of the discussion. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I’m not a fan of the concept of “privilege” because I think it promotes binary thinking (i.e. people are either privileged or they’re not). However, if I were to use the term “privilege” at all, I would want to distinguish between individual and institutional forms of privilege. Your FG may have individual privilege with some of your friends and family because of her gender expression, but–like other sexual minorities–she does not have institutional privilege. It is this larger context of social inequalities that I am trying to emphasize. And hey, I hear that you and FG recently celebrated an anniversary. 😉 Congrats! xo SF

  3. It depends on the occassion and particular situation, but I believe privilege does rear its ugly (pretty) head as often and as obvious as a circumstance might allow. There is privilege to be found within any group, culture and sub-culture, and I believe that a form of femme privilege exists just as a variable of butch privilege exists alternately. My (femme) girlfriend and I have discussed this often, but those conversations usually center around the issue of race since we’re an interracial and butch-femme couple so often what I perceive as femme privilege she may see as white privilege, so it’s not easy for me to make the distinction. I also respect and will even go as far to agree with your assessment of the negativity surrounding privilege on the whole, in that it is self defeating mainly because we all experience a form of what can be perceived as privilege depending on any number of things, but I think it boils down to peoples ideas and perceptions of privilege at and beneath the surface.

    All in all, your final sentence summed up my sentiments quite well. Thanks for plugging me into your site! I shall return. 😉

    Hi knowledge, Thanks for visiting and for sharing a little of how this issue plays out for you and your gf. I’m glad my conclusion resonated for you. Don’t be a stranger! -SF

  4. Isnt this a double edged sword here? I mean femmes can “pass” based on both the straight and queer communities perception of them, and even that is very subjective. What about the femmes who say they have a hard time getting the queer community to acknowledge them or being more visible? I think we’ve moved into a wonderful amorphous time where sexuality and gender identity are neither mutually exclusive or pluralistic. Do we have to be more aggressive/out within the community to attract partners/validity/standing?

  5. I think, for femmes who are femme in a way that appears to conform with societal standards and fits what they were assigned at birth, that there is some amount of privilege to that, but that obviously isn’t universally true of all femmes. And femmes in general tend to get to deal with a lot of sexism and femmephobia, the fact that some femmes get cis privilege or have access to cis privilege is orthogonal to that. Like you said in your reply to Leo above, femmes don’t get institutional privilege for being femme; some femmes have cis privilege (or access to it, in the case of some genderqueer femmes), and being femme is part of why that’s the case.

    I know my personal experience of having previously identified as butch, I got a ton of flack for not being gender conforming, but I was also in a lot of in the moment things to be presumed to be more competent than I am now as someone who is femme. I do have quite a different take on it, though, as a genderqueer femme because a lot of the access to privilege I get that way is from getting passed as cis, which makes a big part of my identity invisible when it happens.

    When I was butch, I was targeted less, but any time I was targeted it was a serious event — people questioning whether I was a man or a woman, men trying to assert dominance with physical violence, etc. Now, as a femme, it’s constant, but some of it is stuff like catcalls, which are upsetting, but once the car has driven by, the situation is over. Of course there is a lot of serious stuff, too, like being at higher risk of sexual assault , having my sexuality dismissed, and dykes who aren’t femme assuming they have open access to my body and not seeing how that is busted and misogynist.

    I *so* appreciate this comment. It’s great to hear from a genderqueer femme with your life experience, and your point about cis privilege is extremely well-taken. Now, if I just could understand what you mean by “orthogonal”…! (Math is not my forte so you lost me with that metaphor.) Thx for adding your voice to the conversation. -SF

  6. I really object to the idea of passing as ‘femme privilege. Yes, I am often read as straight. Don’t assume I like it that way! I couldn’t possibly tell you how many times I have had to come out to strangers- it must run into the thousands. Yes, some straight people are more comfortable with my gender expression but having been practically shunned by the gay community (my people??) for half my life this doesn’t exactly comfort me.

  7. Discussions around femme privilege are pretty… I don’t want to say bizarre, I wouldn’t quite say oppressive either, but it’s kinda unreal to me, how invisible trans and non-binary gender issues are, despite the fact that many of the folks participating do identify as gender-variant and sometimes trans. But then I shouldn’t be surprised because people conflate queer visibility with certain kinds of gender-variance, and people rarely distinguish between being oppressed because of your gender/gender-expression (cisgenderism) and being oppressed by your sexuality. Just because someone has (or has access to) cisgender privileges doesn’t mean that they deal with less homophobia. (Nor does having some access to cisgender privileges means they’re not gender-variant or outside of gender-binary altogether.)

    I never believed that “femme privilege” existed (since I learned about femme identities vs traditional femininity and trans identities at the same time) because the idea falls apart in a nuanced discussion of gender that centers cissexism and cisgenderism and recognizes the diversity of femmes/people with feminine genders. The idea of femme privilege depends on everyone focusing only on cissexual females (and masculine trans people who were female assigned). The dynamics that people point to, as examples of femme “privilege” (like not being harassed for gender expression) depend on the femme being cissexual and cisgendered, or at least passing for both. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter how femme they present, they won’t get the benefits of those “privileges” (in fact for some, the more feminine they present the more bullshit they get). So it’s not about being “femme”, its about having (or having access to) cissexual and cisgendered privilege.

    There needs to be way more in-depth and advanced discussions about cissexism and cisgenderism, which is what I think some gender-variant masculine people are trying to get to, when talking about the things they deal with. But centering these discussions on femme identity in this way is not only femmephobic, it also reinforces cis*-isms because it makes them invisible to create the idea of “femme privilege”. Not to mention, it depends on the idea that femme identities can’t be gender-variant or non-binary, which reinforces the invisibility of the issues faced by genderqueer people whose genders/gender-expressions are considered non-existent or non-genderqueer or non-“radical enough”.

    However I don’t have much hope of that coming in any real force anytime soon, it’ll be a slow and painful process. It’s kinda hard for me to get into most of these kind of debates over femme/butch identities. We can’t get to the heart of the issue, and truly respect and affirm everyone’s identities because there’s a protection of cissexual/cisgendered/masculinity-in-queer-spaces identities that frames the issue in a way that keeps the discussion from getting there.

    Welcome, synchronicity! Many, many thanks for this insightful and very helpful comment. I think you and anarchafemme are absolutely right that the “femme privilege” argument only makes sense if people are ignoring trans and/or qenderqueer femmes and instead assuming that all femmes are cissexual/cisgender. I know what you mean about the narrow way in which certain debates about b-f are typically framed. Or at least I think I do. However, it’s enormously helpful to have you be a part of this discussion. If you have a chance, can you clarify your last sentence? -SF

    • Heh, I have a terrible habit of talking around my point. In the last line, I was trying to say that analysis handling cis*-isms and femmephobia is a rarely opened can of worms. It can expand the discussion to better explain these gender oppressions and dynamics in a way that doesn’t erase as many identities or struggles, but it will also highlight other privileges (or access to privileges) and advantages that are in the mix too. Like, one person can better explain the cisgender oppression they deal with, but then it might mean that they’d also have to acknowledge cissexual privilege, the way masculinity is treated in queer communities, and how that can affect other people.

      Dealing with oppression as a tangled matrix instead of a straight up and down hierarchy (though some people are much closer to the top of that messy cloud than others) is tough for everyone, and takes a long time to make that shift. It’s much more comfortable to stick with the ladder analogy (and ignore our own access to privileges) even though maintaining the illusion helps hold people back from real freedom. To get back to the can cliche, it easiest to just leave the can opener in the drawer.

      Hi synchronicity, I don’t think you talk around your point! I think it’s often challenging to tease out these issues when we don’t have a vocabulary in common. Actually, what was unclear to me is “the way masculinity is treated in queer communities.” There’s an entire argument contained in that phrase but I’m not sure what it is. I think Julia Serano overgeneralizes about this point, so I’m just curious about your thoughts. Thx, SF

      • Actually, what was unclear to me is “the way masculinity is treated in queer communities.” There’s an entire argument contained in that phrase but I’m not sure what it is

        For people who were female-assigned at birth, the dominating idea is that queerness == masculinity. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, sometimes it has a subtle effect on the social dynamics/conversation. Genderqueer is almost synonymous with masculine/andro-masculine people who were female assigned at birth. So when talking about gender-variance (and being marginalized for it) among people who were female-assigned, gender-variant feminine people and their issues are erased. It leads to a debate about access to privilege for some gender-variant feminine people, that also ignores the price of that access or people who can’t access it at all.

        Gotcha! Thanks for spelling this out. -SF

  8. Hi sublimefemme. Thanks for a great post and a very interesting discussion. Synchronicity’s comment says it for me really – and puts my thoughts together better than I could! I think that the idea of femme privilege is totally flawed – it assumes that all femmes are cissexual / cisgender and it ignores multiple or overlapping oppressions. And assuming that “passing” is a privilege? Yeah. It’s a real privilege to be seen as a second class lesbian! QRx

    • I think it’s interesting that you infer that the idea of femme privilege indicates that all femmes are cisgender. I clearly stated in my original post that I do not believe this is true and I was taking that point into high regard and consideration. My point is specifically in regard to femme-presenting people in a heteronormative society compared to masculine-presenting-female-identified people.

      • I think it’s interesting that you infer that the idea of femme privilege indicates that all femmes are cisgender.I clearly stated in my original post that I do not believe this is true and I was taking that point into high regard and consideration.

        Your checklist of advantages femmes have only applies to cisgender cissexual women or those who pass as such (though those passing for something they’re not gives them many issues too). They’re not femme privileges, they’re cisgender cissexual privileges. If a femme doesn’t pass for a cis* woman, they’ll have problems getting employment, they’ll get harassed in the bathrooms, and they’ll be targeted for violence. If their femininity increases their chances for being assaulted and murdered, can we really call that a privilege?

        Or is femme an identity limited only to cis* women (sometimes open to trans women)?

  9. Hi. I think you have way more experience than I do about these things, and definitely way more education, so I definitely don’t want to try to argue with you about this! Mostly I think it’s important to consider our privilege in all situations, and remember that certain privileges give us an “edge” in society that other people do not have based on reasons beyond their control. Yes, we’re oppressed because we’re gay. Yes, many of us are oppressed because of our race or ability status. Some of these things certainly override our other privileges, and all of these things have complex intersections with one another. And while we may not want to acknowledge the existence of certain binaries, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the rest of the world recognizes these binaries and puts us on one side or the other whether we like it or not.

    Clearly our lives aren’t easy because we are femmes. I was simply presenting another side of the argument that femmes have it so much harder than butches.

    Hi nikki, I’m glad you stopped by, and I appreciate your effort to clarify your argument. Who’s saying that femmes have it so much harder than butches?! I’ve never heard this either in the b-f community in particular or the queer community in general. As I said in my comment to vintage femme above, the bigger point for me is that this is not a competition; there is no oppression sweepstakes of gender.

    Whether we’re talking about femme privilege, cisgender privilege, white privilege, class privilege etc., I believe strongly that marginalized social groups have nothing to gain from measuring oppressions against each other and parsing individual privileges. As the saying goes: United we stand, Divided we fall.

    Thanks for your words. I hope we can continue to discuss these important issues. xo SF

    • “…this is not a competition; there is no oppression sweepstakes of gender.”

      I agree 100% with this and find it very difficult to take seriously those who insist upon comporting themselves in a competitive way where being oppressed is concerned.

      Who the hell wants to win that one, anyway?

  10. excellent discussion – there’s not much left for me to say.

    but i really want to jump off of “It’s not a[n] oppression sweepstakes.” (excellent phrase!)

    saying that femme privilege exists in no way excludes the possibility of butch privilege as well – even regarding the exact same thing. that is, being able to pass as straight is a privilege (femme or otherwise, as some previous comments have brought into question). but it is also unprivileged at the same time.

    it gives you some privileges (some forms of safety, “insider” observations, etc.) while it takes away others (other forms of safety, not needing to “out” yourself, etc.). viewed this way, it seems a bit ridiculous to say that anyone is simply “privileged” versus others who are simply “unprivileged.” but perhaps it is reasonable to describe ourselves as “having privilege,” which allows much more for the complexity of it all, and for identity overlap.

  11. It took me awhile to make it here, but I finally did. Thanks for the link back.

    Part of the reason why I didn’t write my own post about femme privilege & invisibility is because I don’t identify as a femme. I don’t identify as a stud/butch/AG either.

    I can relate to being overlooked by the gay community, as I’m often mistaken for bi or straight, never gay. The straight community assumes I’m one of them and is often surprised by my sexual orientation.

    I do think feminine women experience certain privileges. Those privileges don’t just apply to the LGBT community though. A feminine woman standing next to a broken down car on the highway will usually get help. That same feminine woman may get more attention from males than she wants…

    Hmmm, maybe privilege isn’t the right word…

    Hi Alix, Glad you stopped by. About the example of the stranded female motorist, it’s not only femininity that affords privilege here but also attractiveness, right? -SF

  12. Hi Sublimefemme,

    You left a comment on my blog a while back, and I only rarely update – as serendipity has it, I wrote last night about femme invisibility. I should make it clear that the post is centred around my own experience as a cis woman, partnering mainly with butch cis women and trans men, so it kind of centres around the idea that femme as a queer identity for cis women is only visible in opposition to butch, rather than in its own right. It has privileges and its own unique drawbacks. ‘Passing’ as straight and cis in mainstream society is a curse and a blessing, as has already been discussed here.

    I wonder if it is to do with the privileging of masculinity over the feminine, where a butch identity for cis women is seen as ‘authentically’ queer, whereas femme, owing to the fact that femme women pass as straight in gay and queer spaces, are thereby invisibilised.

    I don’t mean to privilege the cis experience here, just to be clear – it is merely that that is the experience that I have, and trans women experience femme in a slightly different way – if you are a trans woman, you are policed for signs of ‘butchness’ which supposedly betray you – signs that would be applauded in a cis woman wtihin the queer community!

    So my thoughts on this are slightly confused, I supposed, and clouded by personal experience. I think that this conversation does need to be had – ‘femme’ is seen as a default identity for cis and trans women, and little work has been done so far on the unique ways in which we experience and wrestle with this particular gender identity.

    Hi Shazbat, Welcome! I think it’s important to speak from our own experience. I popped over to your blog and read your post–sounds like you had a great Pride. And, hey, who doesn’t love older butches? 😉 Looking forward to reading more of your posts. -SF

  13. As I recall, studies show gender variant people are often more likely the victims of crime whether they identify as gay or trans or not. Myself, I’m a bit a freak so no matter how I dress I stick out to some. I think being femme (and attractive and tall) in the straight world is a big advantage, but it gets less clear after that point.

  14. I’ve had one too many woo-woos tonight (don’t ask – it involves Ketel One, peach puree and cranberry juice) to offer anything constructive, but I will add that after I stormed in and out of the Social Security Administration offices in less than 10 minutes without an appointment, following the CA Supreme Court decision to uphold Prop. 8 a few weeks ago in order to take my wife’s last name as my new married name, my friend’s first response of astonishment was, and I quote, “That is so hot privilege in action, right there.”

    Whatever it was, I guess it worked, because they changed my name without a fuss at all and within minutes, but it does sicken me to think my “unfortunate” opposite would run into trouble or deliberate inefficiencies, etc. I’m not up-to-date on my studies, but aren’t there always steady streams of studies published proving that being attractive both serves and undermines people, depending on the day?

    As a femme, to be frank, I think any privilege assigned to me by society-at-large would have nothing at all do with my being femme and everything to do with the fact that they perceive me as an attractive, excessively feminine straight woman, which might fluctuate ever-so-slightly once it’s discovered that I am a lesbian, but not enough to change the overall privileges of any nature. Whether or not one wants to analyze that that perception or assumption IS exactly femme privilege as opposed to “pretty assumed-to-be straight woman privilege” is, I suppose, free to do so, but it’s very difficult to bring the idea of femme privilege to fruition when it’s based solely on assumptions made by (let’s face it, predominantly narrow-minded) people with a binary idea of gender and little else.

    It seems like it would only really even be fair to discuss femme privilege if the majority of people saw a feminine woman and instantly wondered “Is she femme or not? If she is, what sexuality options can be assigned to her?” instead of going straight to the straight woman assumption as they do.

    In closing, it looks like woo woos make me chatty. Hi!

    Hi back! Congrats on being Mrs. M. I agree with you about how attractiveness (in a normative sense) gives one unearned privilege. And yes, this isn’t exactly a news flash. Van always comments that I get little perks (e.g. free stuff) when she doesn’t, but I often think this is just because I’ll chat up almost anyone. Still, appearance is a major factor, without question. Do you ever run out of the house looking less…um…put together? One thing I always notice is how many more smiles I get when I’m looking pretty/dressed up. From mostly women, actually. Or maybe I just notice and appreciate the smiles of women more! xo SF

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