Repost: 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.

[For original post and comments–which are excellent–click here.]

4 Responses

  1. “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?”

    I can say from my personal experiences as a Latina femme that I’m infinitely more acceptable to people than my mixed race butch girlfriend. There is a certain (undeniable) amount of privilege involved in being able to pass and in being relatively safe from the assumptions and harassment that more obviously queer people face. I know that there is the tendency for femmes to feel invisible in queer communities but I can’t understand why that invisibility is worse than what butch/andro women face living their everyday lives out in public.

    “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.”
    This is really upsetting to me. Being queer and being a POC cannot be compared. Unless you are a POC you have no idea what it’s like living as a racial minority. I’m not saying that there isn’t oppression that queers have to face, I’m just saying that it is really NOT THE SAME THING. Before anyone knows I’m queer they know I’m brown and for lots of people (as evidenced by the rather heinous anti-latino legislation that has already passed in Arizona and is being proposed in 13 other US states right now), that’s way more upsetting to them.

  2. I think that the generalization about different identifiers within the community is divisive. Each persons experience with respect to growing up, coming out, identifying in the workplace, finding space in the community is unique and not identical to others, regardless of their other commonalities. Just because SF identifies as femme does not make my experience and hers the same. Historically some femmes could pass, but chose not to because they were partnered with butches who were being violently discriminated against. Instead, femmes have often had to be MORE overt wearing their sexuality and their politics on their sleeve. This is not unique to femmes, this in not unique to the gay community. Being gay is only one facet of who we are as individuals, there are so many other things that we struggle with/or celebrate.

  3. I don’t get the “femmes are invisible” stuff thing. I mean, I have the impression that my femmes friends are usally over-visible, and while they may not be read as “queer” by straight people, being targetted with sexist insults or harrassments doesn’t sound much as privilege to me. It might take a different form (a butch will probably be more often insulted with directly lesbophobic insults while a femme will probably be more sexualised) but I certainly don’t have the impression that femmes suffer less oppression and agressions than butches.

  4. Gosh, what a topic. I agree that femmes have the privilege of Passing. But so do most lesbians. Unless you are really butch, and I mean REALLY butch, most straight folks apply their own oblivious het privilege to most lesbians because we don’t exist unless we are flaming butch dykes. The last time I looked, most lesbians are of the vaguely adrodg variety, even most that identify as short haired “butch” or “soft butch”. The truth is, we are mostly invisible to straight people unless we out ourselves or are undeniably hyper masculine appearing, ie studs, drag kings, or what is considered hyper masculine acting (ah the constraints of assigning behavior to sex), which the majority of lesbians just aren’t. We mostly fall within the range of midwestern haus frau to ball busting urban new yorker to ellen degeneres to portia de rossi to you (whomever you are).

    I understand why this discussion is happening, because we are an obsessively self-reflective community. This is sometimes a very good thing, and sometimes it’s a pain in the ass.

    I am a femme of color. I am understandably invisible to straight people because of sexism and homophobia (I look like a nice straight rural girl except when I am with my utlra butch gf), and I am less understandably invisible to white lesbians because for parochial majority I don’t fit their lesbian paradigm (even when I went through a minor butchish phase – lawdy what was I thinking!), at times when I am in an all lesbian environment. The issue of invisibility and privilege are tied together for me, both are true.

    I have been an out lesbian for decades, I have always been out at work, I am out in my neighborhood, I am out to my family, I am out because I tell people I am a lesbian. I own my identity because it is as much a part of me as is my race. I have been punched, hit, spit on, threatened, and run off a road because of my race; I have been verbally and publicly harassed and denied service as a lesbian; I have sexually assaulted because I am a woman – that’s the real stuff for me. As a femme lesbian, white lesbians don’t see me at all, and straight men think I am available to fuck – and some lesbians consider me a traitor to feminism and a het conformist because I wear lipstick with my, uh, jeans.

    I wish our community would do more to discuss the often intense homophobia and sexism faced by butches. My gf is a working class white butch who is the target of disgust and marginalization for her unabashed and natural embrace of her own masculinity even by those within our own community. While I think it is instructive for femmes to acknowledge and own our privilege to pass, I think it would be more liberating for all non-butches to examine how we participate in the oppression of butches, because we can change that.


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