Out On The Couch
November 20th has been known since 1999 as the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). On this date, across the world, ceremonies and vigils are held to remember transgender individuals we lost to murder and suicide in the past year. Often somber and emotionally triggering, TDOR allows the community to gather and honor individuals whose stories are often ignored or incorrectly told. As this day approaches, I often think of Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson, a transgender black woman, has long been credited within the queer and trans community for being the person who threw that first brick at Stonewall (Feinberg, 1996) and the creator of STAR, an LGBTQ+ youth shelter. Many don’t know that Johnson was an activist from early on in her life, fighting for gay rights and visibility instead of assimilation (Chan, 2018). After high school, she spent her days on the streets of New York, learning to survive and being repeatedly sexually assaulted and harassed (Chan, 2018). But the assault, harassment, and oppression she experienced due to her sexuality, gender identity, and skin color didn’t stop her for standing up for what she believed in. Knowing firsthand the discrimination the often-ignored transgender community suffered, she took an active role in ACT UP (https://actupny.org/), helping to speak out for HIV+ individuals and give a voice to people of color who were dying from the disease (Jacobs, 2016). Johnson was an inspiration to transgender individuals, especially to those of color. Her tragic death is frequently regarded as the first “notable” and documented murder of a transgender person in the United States.
In 1992, shortly after the New York City Pride Parade, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River (Feinberg, 1996). The cops ruled it a suicide, despite many people’s protests that Johnson was anything but suicidal and eyewitness reports that she was being harassed earlier during the day they believed she had died (Feinberg, 1996). The case was limitedly investigated and never solved. The media portrayed Johnson as a trans woman who was a sex worker and a drug user, leaving out the truths of her activism and every other aspect of her life (Feinberg, 1996); it is likely that had she been a cisgender white woman, media coverage would have been vastly different and much wider. Johnson’s voice, something she worked so hard to give herself while navigating major oppression in her lifetime, was taken away. Even worse, her killers were never found; to this day, minimal effort has been put into solving her murder.
You may be wondering what this has to do with psychology, and how Johnson’s death can show up for you, as a clinician, in the therapy room with your transgender clients. Well, it’s simple: the reaction of the public to Johnson’s death parallels how many transgender individuals feel about what their lives are worth to the rest of the world. It also relates to transgender people’s sense of whether others care about their safety. As a clinician who has worked in the community in varying capacities, I can attest to the fact that transgender people feel that their lives don’t matter. There is a constant threat of insufficient safety and feelings of protection, especially under the Trump administration when it seems as if transgender rights are under attack daily.
Almost every week I hear about another transgender individual, usually a trans woman of color, who has been murdered or found dead under mysterious circumstances. In many of these cases the killer is never found, or if they are, they are not named. The media often misgenders the victim, and very little coverage is given in the first place. My trans clients come to me with fear in their voices, wondering if they will be next just because they are living their authentic truths. Worse, and heartbreakingly, clients sometimes find that this fear is accompanied by wondering whether or not anyone would even care if they were gone, and if they deserve being killed due to being transgender.
Furthermore, clients have to navigate safety in many other aspects of life. Transgender clients have told me that they often don’t feel safe in their jobs and have a fear of being fired; what’s worse, nobody in their workplace will do anything to help when they are feeling threatened. I have heard about clients being assisted when buying shoes or clothing, and fearing that a salesperson will “find them out” and make a scene. Clients can fear for their safety in terms of secure housing and access to other social welfare services, the loss of which threaten their ability to survive.
So how can we, as clinicians, help with these fears? Certainly, the wrong thing to do is to try to make excuses for others or diminish the situation, because these fears are real. Also, if you are a cisgender therapist, there is no way to fully understand what your client is going through. It is best not to try to relate or use comparisons to other marginalized communities. I have heard of individuals telling their therapists about the fear of shopping, and the therapists suggesting in response to “shop online,” unsolicited advice that comes across as invalidating.
But then what is the right thing to do? First, validate the fear, which is constantly present. Ask questions. What does this fear look like to them? How does it show up in their lives? Secondly, address the fear and help empower your client to find ways to protect themselves. While we do not teach our clients physical self-defense techniques, we can certainly teach them mental defenses. Find positive self-talk and coping techniques when encountering non-life threatening yet mentally damaging situations. Third, help your client devise safety plans and locate resources. Is there someone they can call any time of the day, or put on alert when they are encountering any new or potentially triggering situation? Is there an emergency line they can reach that they know they can trust? Having access and knowledge to trans-affirmative resources can be life saving.
With all of that said, November is always a difficult month for the transgender community. Whether or not your client is aware of this fear on a daily basis, we cannot deny that the number of deaths we recognize during TDOR and the number of clients facing fear seem to increase annually. November is filled with a constant reminder to be vigilant and that the fight is far from over. As clinicians, we must recognize this and do everything we can to support our clients in the most affirming way possible.
Learn More about working with Transgender and Nonbinary Clients
Chan, S. (2018). A transgender pioneer and activist who was a fixture of Greenwich Village street life. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-marsha-p-johnson.html
Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis. Boston, MA. Beacon Press
Jacobs, S. (2012). DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving ‘saint of gay life’. New York Daily News. Retrieved from: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/da-reopens-unsolved-1992-case-involving-saint-gay-life-article-1.1221742
By Briana Shewan, MFT
In order to prioritize femme voices, all quotes in this article are from femmes.
Positionality makes a big difference in femme identity: Please note I am a cisgender, white, thin, millenial femme from an upper-middle class background formally trained as a psychotherapist.
Have you ever wondered if you’re femme? Have you been circling around femme identity for a while without knowing if it fits? Are you unsure if you get to call yourself femme? Maybe you’ve heard “femme” more and more and you’re curious about it?
Femme is a beautiful, complex identity. What it looks like, means, and encompasses is different for each of us. I’m sure for many femmes there’s a sense of resistance at my attempt to categorize the identity here. I don’t mean to imply that being femme fits into one specific box! In fact, quite the opposite is true. Femme is all about stepping outside of traditional femininity. Spoiler! I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rather, this article is intended to broadly clarify femme identity by exploring its common themes. As the term “femme” becomes more widely known than ever before, it’s helpful to distinguish what it isn’t, and what it is (I’m a therapist; I’m choosing not to end on a negative note). Whether you share it as a resource for starting more nuanced conversation in your community or you wait until no one’s around to see you secretly explore the magic of femme essence, this article is for anyone who isn’t sure how they relate to it. May you be a baby femme in the making!
What Femme Isn’t…
A Straight Identity
Not all queer-identified femmes agree on this, but many, including myself, strongly feel that femme is a queer identity. Therefore, to be straight and call yourself femme is appropriative. . This is because to do so erases the history of femmes in queer liberation movements and its political identity as it relates to heteronormativity, and perpetuates femme invisibility for those who are queer identified (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). In reference to femme invisibility, Alaina Monts states “…I do think that a lot of it has to do less so with any sort of purposeful femme erasure in queer communities (although that is extremely prevalent), and much more to do with the fact that it’s an identity being co-opted by folks who aren’t queer… Part of me wonders if femme invisibility has less to do with us being mistaken as straight and more to do with the fact that straight people are trying to be us” (Monts, as cited in Chung, 2016).
“It’s possible that femme’s resonance may be partly due to our current political climate, and the resistance it represents to the toxicity of masculinity” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017). It’s important to note that, despite its wider current-day political relevancy, femme isn’t a trend. It’s history dates back to the 1930s within queer of color ball culture (Buchanan, 2018). To identify as femme while straight dismisses its historical, political, and cultural significance.
Synonymous with Femininity
Although femme and femininity are closely related, they aren’t interchangeable. Femininity refers to the socially constructed idea of what is feminine and isn’t necessarily queer, whereas femme is, in a sense, the queering of femininity – not just identifying as queer, as I’ve already discussed, but the embodiment and embracing of queerness in the full meaning of the word. This key differentiation is why it’s so important for femme to stand on its own (Tonic, 2016).
As Cassie Donish clarifies, “The term ‘femme’ does not simply mean ‘feminine’; it is used in queer circles to designate queer femininity, in a way that’s often self-aware and subversive. It’s both a celebration and a refiguring of femininity” (Donish, 2017).
“I see femme as the rebellious teenage daughter of femininity,” distinguishes Chung. “Femme is the process of taking the feminine words that were placed in my body, words like ‘soft, weak, quiet’ and transforming them into: ‘wild, loud, confident’… When I broke up with femininity and embraced femme, I felt strong and confident and powerful…” (Chung, 2016).
Every Feminine-Presenting Queer Woman
Self-identified femmes and feminine-presenting queer women are all feminized people and, as such, experience being devalued in our patriarchal society (Buchanan, 2018). That being said, not every feminine-presenting queer woman identifies as femme. Madeleine said, “Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors” (Urquhart, 2015).
The term femme can be used loosely without understanding how someone self-identifies. There is value in both someone claiming femme identity, and not claiming it. You can’t assume that a queer woman is femme because they are assumed feminine-presenting.
…And What Femme Is!
Yes it is!
“…Among the LGBTQ+ community, femme is a descriptor that can feel as inherent to someone’s identity as lesbian, bisexual, or genderqueer,” writes Kasandra Brabaw (Brabaw, 2018). Femmes may have any gender identity; some consider femme their gender identity, whileother femmes may have a different gender identity (such as transwoman, nonbinary, cis-woman, genderfluid, agender, etc.) and consider femme their gender expression (“femininity” aligns with gender expression in that it encompassess behaviors, mannerisms, appearance, etc. within a certain cultural context).
Additionally, there are femmebois, tomboy femmes, femme daddys, femme dykes, etc. who use language to describe their femme identity even more accurately. Other femmes reject these categorizations altogether. “Ultimately, ‘femme’ is about breaking binaries. It’s about subverting cultural expectations. It’s about being more than one thing. It’s about queerness,” sums up Tonic.
An Intentional Relationship to Your Femininity
Many femmes consider their identity to be an intentional expression of their femininity as opposed to one that adheres to typical constraints of feminine performance. Rather, femmes creatively and uniquely celebrate the parts of themselves that would otherwise be suppressed, denied, or defined for them. “As long as normative gender roles exist there will be an urgent need for people, femmes included, to push at their boundaries,” writes Heather Berg, Gender Studies professor at USC (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
Femme’s relationship with femininity is one of reclamation and transcendence. It’s about agency. “The whole point of [being femme], for me,” states Cassie, “is to break people away from their assumptions. I don’t like the strict rules of traditional femininity, but I don’t want that to mean that I can’t be feminine at all” (Urquhart, 2015).
Femme’s expression of femininity can be both fierce and hard as well as tender and soft and everything in between. It often challenges larger notions that equate femininity to vulnerability and vulnerability to weakness. “Our culture hates femininity, calls it weak. Our culture is inept at nurture and care, terrified of vulnerability and softness—all things that are squarely in the femme’s handbag. To indulge in femme culture is actually to be brave, and to have strength,” states Maurice Tracy (Donish, 2017).
Its Own Identity
Today femme is proudly an identity that is not defined in relation to anything else. “I didn’t self-identify as femme until I met other queer folks who helped me see that femme is its own identity,” states Artemisia FemmeCock. “Femme is intentional; it’s a way of simultaneously challenging and celebrating femininity. It recognizes that I identify with aspects of femininity but don’t identify with the heteronormative system that trivializes and demonizes them” (Donish, 2017).
Femininity is often defined in relation to masculinity and positioned as its opposite, whereas femmes don’t see themselves within this binary. Femme pushes back on misogynistic ideas that feminized people are defined through a patriarchal lens or male gaze. Femme is glorious all on its own.
Unique to Each Person
“From the invisibility queer femmes can feel in some lesbian circles to the sharp vulnerability inherent in being a trans woman, no two femme-identified individuals share the same experience of what it means to be femme,” says Joss Barton (Donish, 2017).
For many femmes, their identity encompasses more than their sexuality and gender. It is the entirety of their queerness existing in a capitalist, white supremacist society. Femme identity is often strongly linked to class due to its significant historical context as a working class lesbian identity in the 1950s and ‘60s. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said:
Ableism lifts up a white, able-bodied, traditionally feminine, middle-class body as the ‘right’ way to be femme. Because of ableism in the movements I’m part of, it took me years to find a disability justice community where I didn’t have to closet my disability in order to still be femme. My cane, sexy non-stiletto boots and bed life are femme now because of the labor of disability justice comrades. Many of them, like Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, are deeply femme (Pérez, 2014).
As Macarena Gomez-Barris, chair of the Social Sciences and Cultural Studies department at Pratt Institute explains, “In some communities, femme identity also symbolizes a rejection of whiteness, a term used to represent decolonized womanhood” (Barrett-Ibarria, 2017).
In fact, black femme scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. “Intersectionality is a tool for the experiences of black women which are “greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (Crenshaw, 1989, p. 140).
Of course, there’s also femme relationships, sex, and aesthetics. One femme may be a kinky monogamous top who only dates other femmes; another may be pansexual and polyamorous. One femme may feel strongly about shaving, while another may feel strongly against it. One femme may refuse to leave the house without makeup and hair in perfect order, another may be ambivalent about glitter (gasp!).
As Laura Lune P. says, “I’d like for the myth that femme only looks one way to be smashed. Femme doesn’t only mean red lips, sky high heels and perfectly manicured nails (although it can most certainly mean that). Femme means whatever you want it to mean for yourself and however you want it to look like if that gender feels like home to you” (Pérez, 2014).
Barrett-Ibarria, S. (2017, December 20). Who Gets to Identify as ‘Femme’? from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xw4dyq/who-gets-to-identify-as-femme
Brabaw, K. (2018, June 20). A Brief History Of The Word “Femme”. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/femme-lesbian-lgbtq-history
Buchanan, B. (2018, March 19). Women and Femmes Unite! – Blu Buchanan – Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@BlaQSociologist/women-and-femmes-unite-30ec59e6a658
Chung, C. (2016, July 18). What We Mean When We Say “Femme”: A Roundtable. Retrieved from https://www.autostraddle.com/what-we-mean-when-we-say-femme-a-roundtable-341842/
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Donish, C. (2017, December 04). Five Queer People on What ‘Femme’ Means to Them. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/d3x8m7/five-queer-people-on-what-femme-means-to-them
Pérez, M. (2014, December 3). Femmes of Color Sound Off. Retrieved from https://www.colorlines.com/articles/femmes-color-sound
Tonic, G. (2016, August 24). The Difference Between Femme & Being Feminine. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/166081-what-does-femme-mean-the-difference-between-being-femme-being-feminine
Urquhart, E. (2015, March 12). Not Your Great-Aunt’s Girly Lesbian. What Does Femme Mean Today? Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/03/femme-lesbians-shouldnt-be-defined-by-their-butches.html