A Portrait of the Artist as a Queer Femme
I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.
Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.
To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.
I’m not sure I need people to read me as femme on the street. The idea is appealing, but it takes work. I delight more in reading and embracing other femmes than I do in trying to make my own body legibly femme.
I totally have a thing for the hard femme, the fierce femme, the femme who is knives and stilettos or a dark lipstick and a chrome cane. I used to envision myself somewhere in this realm, as sophisticated, sharp and brilliant with a sort of dapper executive femme aesthetic that would revolve around heels and pinstripes. When I was young, I imagined having disposable income and being able to dress this way, to be both unstoppable and constantly armed. But that’s not quite the femme I grew into.
Like I said, I’m squishy. I’m soft and think a lot about care and access and I like lying in bed and makeup doesn’t adhere to my face the way YouTube videos say it should. I’ve given up on the effort it takes to be attractive in a certain queer way. I’m growing my hair out for the first time in ten years, experimenting with how to exist in the world without my sharp half-buzz and my visible transqueerness.
Sometimes, people still see me as a version of that femme I thought I was but don’t know how to be, and I’m not sure what to do with it. When I wear five-inch heels, I get a lot of attention but am expected to be aggressive or dominant, and let’s face it, I giggle a lot. When I have consent, I rub up against people I’m attracted to like a cat. The shoes I’m wearing are more a reflection of how much I want to stare at them than how I identify.
I relate really strongly to other femmes, though often I’m intimidated or don’t know how to feel in the face of their awesome. I want to appreciate their marvelousness in a way that’s not butch or masc or aggressive or dominant, to queer the heteronormative idea that femmes are only femmes in relation to butch. But maybe I’m seen that way, most of the time. I’m not sure how much other femmes see me as kin, and when someone expresses a desire for “femme on femme action,” I pause before I reply, wondering if my femme is legible (desirable?) enough for such a thing.
Sometimes, I feel lonely.
But when we actually talk about it, like that experience at FemmeCon, I do end up feeling community. I revel in mutual admiration and feeling free to squeal in happiness at a common interest without being denigrated for femininity. I trust other femmes with my non-binary identity. Even the flighty, popular femmes who wear armor to create distance feel warm and safe when we mutually consent to share space and let go for a little while.
I would like to be identifiable, but this human body just isn’t cutting it most days. I think a lot about access and spoons and clothing-related dysphoria. I relate a little more to femme boys than I do to femme girls, but an aesthetic designed explicitly for either of those things feels “off” on my body. Sometimes I just feel scruffy and unkempt, and I’m frustrated that femme expression is not considered “adult” or “professional” without a full compliment of makeup + jewelry. I forget that I own jewelry, or leave it on the floor beside the sofa most of the time.
Ultimately, I think all of this is okay, because I can exist as who I am, squishy shy alien robot creature thing who likes more than anything to burrow in my pink jersey sheets, and there are those who do recognize me so that I can be femme without a relational reference. But some days, it would be nice to actually be that punk pinstripe-wearing fully armored businessqueer that tiny Avory dreamed of growing up to become. Probably, I would have a crush on hir.