Out On The Couch
Keywords: queer, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, impostor syndrome, impostor, cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, core beliefs
I thought I identified one way, but now I’m not sure. What if this really was just a phase?
I’m afraid I won’t like all of the changes medical transition will cause to my body. What if I’m not really trans?
Can I still be bisexual if I’ve never dated someone of the same gender?
Our clients seek therapy for a variety of reasons, but commonly, they are struggling to mitigate their own core beliefs with external influences. These may include family, friends, partners, or society at large–for LGBTQIA+-identified folks, how we see ourselves can often conflict with how the world interprets us. This type of invalidation can lead to self-doubt for many people, even making them question whether they are frauds or impostors. As therapists, our goal is to help clients identify and challenge their negative core beliefs, to challenge these external influences and find internal validation.
The theory of Impostor Syndrome originates from a 1978 paper from Georgia State University that examined the phenomenon in more than 150 “high-achieving women” (Clance & Imes). The authors found that in their psychotherapy practices, women often presented with “scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities,” yet did not report “an internal feeling of success” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Rather, these clients felt like “impostors,” as though they were given undue praise or accolades they did not deserve.
In recent years, Impostor Syndrome has entered the lexicon as a common experience among millennials. A 2013 article by Weir at the American Psychological Association examined the experiences of graduate students and suggested that for many, there is “‘confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.” This attitude is compounded by factors like gender, sexuality, disability, class, and race, with impostor feelings being a strong predictor of future mental health problems among college students of color (Cokley et al., 2013).
Similarly, impostor feelings often pop up in psychotherapy with millennial clients, particularly those with one or more marginalized identities. In our culture, certain roles or industries are often referred to as a “boys’ club”–as these spaces were built by and designed for white, heterosexual, cisgender men, anyone who varies from this norm can feel like they don’t belong. Higher education is just one example of a much more global dynamic.
For LGBTQIA+-identified people, impostor feelings are often less about achievement and more about community. Many people find comfort in the use of labels or identity words–such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-binary, and more–to describe themselves and their sexuality and gender. For someone who is just starting to explore their identity, finding a community of people who have been where they are can be healing and fulfilling. But what if none of the labels fit quite right? Or what if your experience differs from that of your friend, or even of your partner?
Though it is often said that “comparison is the thief of joy,” human beings are prone to noticing the similarities and differences between themselves and others. It can feel isolating to know that how you identify differs greatly from someone else. But this is where we as therapists can employ cognitive behavioral therapy to help our clients change their thinking and develop their senses of internal validation.
One example might be a therapist working with a client who identifies as a cisgender woman and a lesbian. At the first appointment, the client shares, “I’ve only dated women since coming out in college. Lately I’ve noticed myself looking at men differently than before, and it’s confusing. If I’m attracted to guys, am I still a lesbian?”
From what this client is saying, she sees the problem as confusion about her identity. It is worth exploring with the client what being a lesbian means to her, and furthermore, what it would mean if she were to identify differently. Often, this is where impostor feelings start to surface: if I’m not this, then what? I must have been faking. I don’t really belong here.
Using the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy, clarifying the client’s core beliefs about herself can be helpful. These are deeply held feelings that are central to our being, and that influence how we see and interact with the world. Core beliefs can be positive or negative, such as “I am worthy” or “I am unworthy,” “I am safe” or “I am unsafe,” “I am good enough” or “I am not good enough.” For this client, the core belief underlying her impostor feelings may be related to belonging, or feeling like she does not belong in her community of friends–or safety, from feeling like she is on the outside.
After isolating a client’s core beliefs, one CBT intervention that can be utilized would be fact-finding, asking the client to provide as many pieces of evidence as they can why their belief is true or untrue. Using our same example, if this client’s impostor feelings trigger the core belief that she does not belong in her community because she is questioning her identity, the therapist and client can list a number of examples of evidence to the contrary.
“Well, my friends will still be my friends no matter what. They have always supported me. That wouldn’t change,” the client offers. “And even if I did have a boyfriend someday, that wouldn’t make me straight. I wouldn’t think that about somebody else in my position.” By talking through this fact-finding process, the client is starting to challenge and reconstruct her core belief of belongingness. It may also be helpful to have a client write down thoughts, beliefs, and evidence in a journal between sessions. This can be a helpful reflective exercise and also encourage clients to use their coping skills outside of therapy.
Core belief work is not always easy, nor is it a quick fix for impostor feelings. Therapy sometimes makes things worse before they get better, and clients can sometimes unearth deep-seated issues in therapy that take time, effort, and dedication to work through. That does not make their effort any less valuable, however, and small changes in the client’s self-perception should be noticed and praised. There may be certain situations or stages of life in which a client feels old impostor feelings starting to emerge again. When they do, it is important for the client to remember that they have control over their own thoughts and feelings, and that they can reconnect with their positive core beliefs.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
Cokley, K., Mcclain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development,41(2), 82-95. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? GradPSYCH, 11, 24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/e636522013-001
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