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July 22, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

To All the Kick-Ass Femmes

“Sometimes, you are invisible. I have no idea what this must feel like, to walk by your own people and not be recognized, to not be seen … I want to thank you for coming out of the closet. Again and again, over and over, for the rest of your life. At school, at work, at your kid’s daycare, at your brother’s wedding, at the doctor’s office. Thank you for sideswiping their stereotypes… You fight homophobia in a way that I never could.”
– Ivan Coyote, ‘To All the Beautiful, Kick-Ass, Fierce and Full Bodied Femmes Out There’


What the butch and beautiful Ivan Coyote outlines in this piece can broadly be described as ‘femme invisibility’ – the effects of the assumption that femme lesbians are in fact heterosexual, and thus fail to feel accurately included or identified in either straight or queer spaces. This seasoned slam poet spends the next few minutes fighting back sneaky tears, confessing her love and understanding for the plight of the girly dyke.

The scepticism, prejudice and exclusion that often accompanies this experience can be broadly termed ‘femme-phobia’. This disdain for feminine traits is one of the insidious ways that sexism sneaks its way into the queer community. Because of the layers of disadvantage involved, manifestations of misogyny such as this are often more difficult to identify, but they are no less damaging or discriminatory, and thus important to identify and discuss. The following aims to be a simple outline of a few of the ways sexism, and femme-phobia in particular, manifest within queer communities and relationships.

Queerdom inevitably involves the rejection of compulsory heteronormativity and, subsequently, the particularly nasty brand of misogyny that protects it. This usually comes in the form of bullying. Taunts of ‘sissy’, ‘man-hater’, ‘freak show’, ‘fugly dyke’ or countless other gender-based insults punctuated many a fraught adolescence.

These comments were, in retrospect, sexist, as they served to remind us that being too girly or being unattractive to men were socially disadvantageous traits. Sexism tried to convince us homosexuality was a bad idea (and, boy, was it wrong about that). Thus, for many, the coming-out process resulted in the conclusion that gender roles are erroneous and that femininity is neither inherently good or bad – a collective experience that lays the foundations for feminism in the queer community.

So, what exactly does allow some forms of patriarchy to thrive in the queer community? For a group of people very invested in equality, diversity and personal expression, it doesn’t seem likely that open intolerance for women or femininity would be tolerated. I can only postulate a few justifications:

(a) that the queer community does not exist in a vacuum and that homosexuality does not make one immune to the pervasiveness of patriarchy.

(b) that queerness often results in a sense of disenfranchisement and patriarchy, as it puts others down, is an exceptionally effective tool for reclaiming a sense of lost superiority and empowerment.

Similar ideas affect gay men too, with men who exhibit fewer traditionally masculine traits treated badly, and there is certainly a relative privilege afforded to ‘masculine’ queer men. There are two types of men we see in the media too – the flaming gay man who is never the never the author of his own story; always the assistant, the sidekick, the comic relief or the party trick. More recently, as homosexually has become more acceptable, nay, fashionable, the butch gay man is the new public fascination – gay rappers and sports stars and even serious and certainly masculine professionals like Anderson Cooper are viewed as more enabled, empowered, important individuals. They are SO BRAVE to have come out in such a masculine world and it’s SO IMPORTANT for the world to be able to see such powerful and driven personalities in the public eye. They’re successful and emotionally stable. They have careers and a chance and a happy (and coincidentally very heterosexual-resembling) domestic life.

These men, in and out of real life, are three-dimensional people, compared to your standard Will-and-Grace-style stereotype. If you’re a masculine gay man, you’re challenging, interesting, and three-dimensional. If you’re an effeminate gay man, you’re a gimmick.

Femininity in a woman is considered advantageous outside the queer community, where it endears women to men (and subsequently supposedly makes moving up the social hierarchy easier), whereas in the gay community it’s not uncommon to find traces of the opposite. Butch women are often found in higher regard than their femme-presenting counterparts, presumably because of the perception of authority it bestows.

You know what the worst thing in the world is? Feeling invisible to your own people. “Aren’t you in the wrong bar, honey?” “So where’s your gay mate?” “You wouldn’t understand, you’re not … we’ll it’s harder when you look like me.” Looking girly is associated with being less secure in your queer identity, with weakness – can you really be a lesbian when you paint your nails? But, don’t you want to attract women? A friend of mine has recently come out and is naturally very girly-looking. Consequently, even some of her closest friends, who also happen to be gay, doubt her legitimacy.

I confess, that when I first came out, this was the way I thought. That I needed to be good at this. That I wasn’t really an actual lesbian if I couldn’t seduce a chick. (Not unsurprisingly, this train of thought got me approximately NONE. Insecurity is not an attractive trait, folks.) It was possessive, objectifying, and it was straight out of the patriarchal text book. I thought one’s sexual conquests can be traded for social hierarchy, and I really wanted my dykey brownie point.

Furthermore, these initial targets of my misguided fumbling flirtations needed, I thought, to be girly, as though my worth would be affirmed by the relative attractiveness of my conquest. I would gain respect and fascination from male counterparts as opposed to the prejudice and confusion I might expect if my hypothetical squeeze were particularly butch. Yuck.

You cannot barter with women, ladies. Just because you are female does not mean you are exempt from treating women as commodified objects. Lesbians are still fully capable of being misogynistic and possessive towards women – this is rape culture, straight up. It’s not uncommon to see butches appropriating the sexist behaviour of their hetero male counterparts – complete with belittling slurs for femmes, rapey slurs (‘dominated’, ‘pounded’), and a sense of elitism in their personal presentation, as if their identity is more politically evolved.

Queers, pull it together. Community ain’t gon get built if we’re putting down the women or femme-presenters in our midst. There is no right way to look in the gay community, but there are a few wrong ways to think, such as perpetuating the hatred of women in any way.


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