women | The Affirmative Couch

Out On The Couch

Trans Women ARE Women

Posted: 8-26-19 | Rachel Jones

trans women

By Rachel Jones, MA

NOTE: Throughout this article, I will refer to different gender identities including non-transgender women and transgender women. Every person has a gender identity, which is separate from the sex assigned at birth. Non-transgender or non-trans describes a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex assigned at birth–for example, someone who identifies as female and was assigned female at birth (GLAAD, 2019). Cisgender is another term used in replacement of non-trans, but it will not be used in this article for the sake of centering on transness and to avoid centering cisgender as the “norm” (GLAAD, 2019). Transgender or trans describes a person whose gender identity is different from the sex assigned at birth–for example, someone who identifies as female and was assigned male at birth (GLAAD, 2019). Distinguishing non-transgender women and transgender women throughout the article is solely for the purpose of pointing out perceived differences in a clear manner, and NOT to suggest that either term makes someone more of a woman than the other.

Women’s Equality Day

In the United States, August 26, 2019, will mark the 46th annual Women’s Equality Day. In the 1970s, President Nixon and the US Congress appointed August 26 to be Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the nineteenth amendment (Greenspan, 2018). In 1920, the United States government allowed women the right to vote, ratifying the nineteenth amendment that declared voting rights would not be denied on the basis of sex or gender (U.S. Const. amend. XIX). Today, millions of people across the country continue to advocate for women’s equality. However, a major aspect of mainstream feminism seems to be forgetting something pretty important. The battle for women’s equality has not been won if the only winners are white, non-transgender women. Mainstream feminism’s definition of a woman must be inclusive of transgender women, women of color, queer women, and other women in marginalized groups – otherwise, it is simply not feminism. In recent years, major feminist-driven events such as the Women’s March more explicitly and affirmatively include women of color and queer women in their mission, but transgender women continue to be blatantly left out of the major feminist discourse (Anti-Defamation League, 2017).

Similar to the experiences of non-transgender women vying for equal rights, transgender women experience dramatic disparities in civil liberties, legal protections, and cultural equity (Grant et al., 2011). Unlike non-transgender women, transgender women don’t have millions of privileged people fighting alongside them with the goal of equality. Instead, trans women are banned from women’s locker rooms, unprotected in public restrooms, left out of feminist manifestos, mocked by government representatives, and robbed of basic human rights to safety and respect. Many self-proclaimed feminists gleefully join their peers at Pride parades, yet express outrage when a trans woman hopes to share safe spaces.

A women-only space cannot be labeled safe if trans women are not allowed in that space–or are at risk of harassment or other hurts in that space. Equal pay for women has not been achieved if non-trans women receive higher wages than their transgender sisters. The quality of women’s healthcare has not been enhanced if clinicians are only trained to care for non-transgender women and their bodies. Misogyny has not been defeated if trans women are still being misgendered and pronouns are not respected or affirmed. Refusing to acknowledge trans women in the rulebooks of feminism makes it difficult to apply the narratives we work so hard to rewrite. Is the team really winning if half the players have been benched or disqualified?

Transphobia and Feminism

Transphobia is a driving force attempting to keep trans women out of feminism. While transphobia is often seen as a politically far-right driven attitude against transgender people, a popular subgroup of modern feminism has been loudly promoting transphobia across the country. This subgroup of radical feminism is often referred to as trans-exclusionary radical feminism or TERF and is considered a hate-group by many since its mission seems to promote transphobia and transmisogyny (Lewis, 2019). TERF ideology argues misogyny can only affect people with ovaries, uteruses, and vaginas, claiming trans women cannot be targets of misogyny (Dembroff, 2019). Furthermore, this group of radical feminists states trans women “by definition” are not “adult human females” and therefore “no trans woman is correctly categorised (sic) as a woman” (Stock, 2019). Other group members have acknowledged the decision to purposely misgender trans women, stating that using she/her pronouns for trans women is a “courtesy” they rarely extend (Bindel, 2019). Radical feminists have gone so far as to argue transgender women identify as female in order to “infiltrate women’s spaces” and assault or harass non-trans women (Kacere, 2014).

These infuriating and inflammatory messages spew misinformation and hate, and can lead to dangerous misunderstandings. No transgender woman casually goes through the costly and trying physiological, social, professional, and emotional transitions.Transitioning often is motivated by wanting to feel affirmed in one’s gender identity, avoiding repression, combating suicidal ideation or dysphoria. In fact, research shows approximately three-quarters of trans women who transition experience an increase in psychosocial well-being and quality of life (Hess et al., 2018). Transgender people do not transition for the sake of harming or harassing others, and it is upsetting that such a statement needs to be spelled out. Non-trans women experience blatant inequality in the United States, and there are many ways to address those inequalities while involving trans women. In fact, it is almost impossible to effectively approach feminist issues if the female population is being separated into trans and non-trans women.

Feminism Must Include All Women

Equal Pay. Although the nineteenth amendment was a major feat in the fight for equal rights, it was by no means the end of inequality for women in the United States. In 2018, women in the US earned on average 81.1 percent of their male colleagues’ weekly earnings (Hegewisch & Hartmann, 2019). When broken down by race and ethnicity, this gap became even bleaker. White women, Black women, Hispanic (sic) women, and Asian women earned 81.5 percent, 65.3 percent, 61.6 percent, and 93.5 percent respectively of their white male colleagues’ earnings (Hegewisch & Hartmann, 2019). Objectively, these disparities are alarming.

Workplace Discrimination. While precise numbers on transgender wage earnings are lacking, research findings on the experiences of transgender women in the workplace are nothing short of disturbing. More than one in three transgender women have lost a job due to gender identity or expression, and over half have been denied employment due to being transgender (Grant, et al., 2011). Furthermore, 32 percent of transgender people have been “forced to present in the wrong gender” to keep their job (Grant et al., 2011). Because of the lack of legislature protecting gender identity and expression in the workplace, transgender people experience unemployment and insufficient income at rates three times the national average (Grant et al., 2011). As feminists fight for equality in the workplace, it is vital to be aware of these experiences of transgender women in addition to the more widely publicized inequities of working non-transgender women. Due to the intertwined intricacies, we cannot fix one issue without facing the other. The fight for women’s rights and equality have been going on in the United States since its conception, and all women deserve advocacy.

School. 21 percent of school-age transgender girls are sexually assaulted at school because of their gender identity, and 22 percent had to change schools due to mistreatment (James et al., 2016). Over 20 percent of non-trans girls experience some form of harassment or bullying in school, and eight percent avoid attending school due to feeling unsafe (Hess et al., 2015).

Homelessness and Poverty. Over 20 percent of trans women of color reported homelessness in the past year due to gender identity, and many were denied access to shelters due to being transgender (James et al., 2016). For trans women of color, the rates of homelessness rise to around 50 percent (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). Non-trans women have higher poverty rates than men, and non-trans women of color have higher poverty rates of approximately 25 percent (Hess et al., 2015).

Sexual Violence. Five percent of all transgender people have been attacked by strangers and almost 40 percent of transgender women have been sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime (James et al., 2016). Furthermore, trans women of color make up 80 percent of all anti-transgender homicides (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). Approximately one-fifth of non-trans women experience sexual violence or rape in their lifetime (Hess et al., 2015). For Native American and multiracial women, those numbers jump to one-third (Hess et al., 2015).

Hate Crimes. In addition to widespread transphobia and the disturbing inequities in many other areas, transgender women experience inequality, misogyny, and oppression perpetuated by an obscene lack of civil protections. Almost two-thirds of states have laws protecting non-transgender women against hate crimes, while less than half include biases against gender identity and transgender people in their legislature (Human Rights Campaign, 2018). In the United States, there are on average five hate crimes against transgender people for every single hate crime targeting non-transgender women (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017).

These statistics are not for the sake of creating a “who has it worse” narrative. Rather, they are presented to point out that transgender women need feminism and feminist support, too. There are intrapersonal and community-level implications for empowerment that come from having a strong network of peers who support and understand each other’s experience (Labonté & Laverack, 2008). In order to boost this empowerment through trans inclusionary feminism, non-transgender women must be willing to share some of the power they already have (Labonté & Laverack, 2008). If we create a hierarchy of women and ban certain women from safe spaces, the meaning of feminism becomes lost entirely.

How Clinicians Can Help Fight Transmisogyny

Therapists and doctors are not immune to transmisogyny; and following clear guidelines to affirm all patients can help prevent it. When running support groups for women, it is imperative to explicitly include transgender women. If trans women are not allowed in a women’s group, it promotes the warped narrative that trans women are not “real” women. The same goes for asking for a patient’s “real” name, the name the patient uses to introduce herself, the name she chose to affirm her gender identity, is her real name. The name on the patient’s original birth certificate does not automatically become her “real” name. Prioritizing what a piece of paper says over the patient herself is a perfect example of transmisogyny, and it is completely avoidable. Being a trans-affirming clinician requires an agreement that trans women did not “become” or “turn into” or “choose to be” women, but truly are women. When in doubt, trust the patient’s first-hand account, and affirm her identity as she defines it. Listen to women.

Including trans women in feminism is not a dramatic shift and requires nothing more of non-trans feminists than the ideals they fight to uphold: respect, equality, and reciprocal support. Trans women are women––it’s that simple.

References

Anti-Defamation League. (2017). What the women’s march teaches us about intersectionality. ADL Blog. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/blog/what-the-womens-march-teaches-us-about-intersectionality

Bindel, J. (2019). It’s time for progressives to protect women instead of pronouns. Quillette. Retrieved from https://quillette.com/2019/06/14/its-time-for-progressives-to-protect-women-instead-of-pronouns/

Dembroff, R. (2019). Trans women are victims of misogyny, too–and all feminists must recognize this. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/19/valerie-jackson-trans-women-misogyny-feminism

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2017). Hate crime statistics: Incidents, offenses, victims, and known offenders by bias motivation. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2017/topic-pages/tables/table-1.xls

GLAAD. (2019). Glossary of terms–transgender. GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. National LGBTQ Task Force. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Greenspan, R. (2018). On Women’s Equality Day, here are 3 things to know about the suffrage moment. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/5372770/womens-equality-day-2018-facts/

Hegewisch, A., & Hartmann, H. (2019). The gender wage gap: 2018 earnings differences by race and ethnicity. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Retrieved from https://iwpr.org/publications/gender-wage-gap-2018/

Hess, C., Milli, J., Hayes, J., Hegewisch, A., Mayayeva, Y., Roman, S., Anderson, J., & Augeri, J. (2015). The status of women in the states: 2015. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Hess, J., Breidenstein, A., Henkel, A., Tschirdewahn, S., Rehme, C., Teufel, M., Tagay, S., & Hadaschik, B. (2018). Satisfaction, quality of life and psychosocial resources of male to female transgender after gender reassignment surgery. European Urology Supplements, 17(2), e1748. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1569-9056(18)32062-1

Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2018). A national epidemic: Fatal anti-transgender violence in America in 2018. Washington, DC: Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Public Education & Research Program.

James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Kacere, L. (2014). Why the feminist movement must be trans-inclusive. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/02/trans-inclusive-feminist-movement/

Labonté, R., & Laverak, G. (2008). Health promotion in action: From local to global empowerment. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lewis, S. (2019). How British feminism became anti-trans. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/07/opinion/terf-trans-women-britain.html

Stock, K. (2019). Doing better in arguments about sex, gender, and trans rights. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@kathleenstock/doing-better-in-arguments-about-sex-and-gender-3bec3fc4bdb6

U.S. Const. amend. XIX.

About The Author

Rachel Jones

I am an Associate MFT working in private practice, specializing in treating individual adults, couples/multi-partners, adolescents, and children ages 5 and up. I also provide individual therapy in conjunction with phone coaching and skills groups as a part of the Comprehensive DBT treatment team at Suzanne Wallach Psychotherapy.

http://www.racheljonestherapy.com/

Breaking Mental Illness Stigma: The Broad City Way

Posted: 3-12-19 | Briana Shewan

By Briana Shewan, MFT

If you are a dedicated viewer of Broad City, then you’ve already seen “Make the Space.” Directed by Ilana Glazer and written by Jen Statsky, the fourth episode of the fifth season of the Comedy Central series, which aired on Feb 14th, 2019, focuses on mental illness by way of characters Jaimé’s hoarding and Ilana’s take on a therapy intervention.

Spoiler alert – details of this episode are referenced throughout this article.

This is not the show’s first episode dedicated to addressing mental health (for example, Ilana’s struggle with seasonal affective disorder, aluminum foil, and a light so powerful she blows a restaurant’s circuit in season four, episode five, “Abbi’s Mom”). What this current episode manages to do, though, is help to break mental illness stigma; portray queer, brown, and affirming love; and set us up to cheer on Ilana’s pursuits as a therapist.

Breaking Mental Illness Stigma

“Make the Space” is reflective of what makes Broad City so great: their unique take on a subject in a way that is relevant, upbeat, funny, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite the prevalence of people experiencing mental illness and the range of media portraying these issues, this episode uses its platform to normalize anxiety and focus on positive, however comedically flawed, responses.

The episode features Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer) non-consensually going into her roommate Jaimé Castro’s (Arturo Castro’s) room. She does so to find the source of a funky smell, though not without acknowledging it as wrong, particularly given that she is white and Jaimé is brown. Jaimé later makes clear that he doesn’t excuse her breach of his privacy. When she opens his door, she finds evidence of hoarding in the form of excessive amounts of alarm clocks, newspapers, piggy banks, and the like. Ilana proceeds to recruit her best friend and co-star Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson), and together they put Jaimé’s things into black plastic bags and carry them out to the trash. Just when your cringing reaches its climax, Ilana reads about hoarding in her old psych textbook that she found amongst his items and, realizing they’ve crossed a boundary, puts his room back the way it was before he returns home, thus returning his autonomy and agency.

I imagine that if I experienced hoarding or specialized in it as a therapist I might have more criticism of the portrayal of it, particularly because the episode doesn’t go into Jamié’s struggles or challenges. Despite the drawbacks in relatability of its linear and reductive approach, the episode achieves a non-pathologizing stance by focusing on his stressors.

Keeping it Queer, Brown & Affirming

When Jaimé returns to the apartment with his boyfriend, Johnny (played by openly gay actor Guillermo Díaz), Ilana facilitates a therapy session to address Jaimé’s hoarding (again, non-consensually). This is not the show’s first go at portraying queer sexuality. Many of us cherish Ilana’s love and attraction for Abbi, whose actress came out publicly as bisexual in real life.

What “Make the Space” does more than ever before on the show is contextualize Jaimé’s mental illness as a gay brown immigrant. As Ilana prompts him to reflect on the origins of his anxiety from which his hoarding may have manifested, Jaimé speaks about the lack of control he experienced due to his status before becoming a citizen as the initial source.

As a white U.S. citizen since birth, I can only imagine what the significance of this representation of Jamié and his partnership might be for queer, brown and undocumented people. As the show often does in overt and covert ways, it seemed as though Broad City was making a timely point to address our political climate, this time taking on immigration, racism, and homophobia amidst Trump’s wall-building agenda.

Finally, it’s when Ilana is constantly distracted by Abbi from attempting to be a therapist for Jaimé that he is truly affirmed. Through face-to-face conversation with Johnny in Spanish, and Johnny’s non-judgmental, supportive approach, Jamié is able to talk about his embarrassment over hoarding and his more recent source of anxiety, their relationship. Through their intimate and honest communication, Jaimé and Johnny agree to face the vulnerability of falling in love together in order to continue to grow their connection. While the 22-minute episode presents a feel-good arch to hoarding that’s just as short, doing so highlights the strengths of its queer brown characters. However unrealistic, this take is a refreshing narrative when focused on Jaimé and Johnny’s relationship.

Ilana the Therapist

As a therapist myself, Ilana’s approach with her roommate was particularly humorous. She’s dressed in all white, wearing glasses, with a neutral, calm tone to her voice (at least when she’s not arguing with Abbi) and an empty pizza box in her lap for taking notes. She’s turned their New York City living room into her “office” equipped with tissues, candles, and the empty assurance of it as a “safe space” only to have a light fixture fall off the wall. “Well, not literally safe,” she clarifies. The portrayal is a stage of therapeutic clichés.

Jaimé, Johnny, and Abbi each separately tell Ilana that the session wasn’t real and was unprofessional, from the fake statement of confidentiality to calling Jaimé “crazy” for deciding to move in with his boyfriend- because he’s her roommate- to yelling at Abbi about toe sucking and lactose intolerance (to name a few examples). Ilana asks Johnny if she was a good therapist to which he replies, “You made the space for Jaimé to talk about his issues. That’s really all you can do as a therapist, right? Just make the space.” The episode ends with Ilana sharing with Abbi that she wants to look into schools in order to pursue a therapy career. This is a particularly poignant moment. Long-time viewers have watched Ilana not take her work life seriously. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, her sharing her professional goals with Abbi in this final season of the show is heart-warming character development for more than just Abbi to get behind.

I like to imagine that more people like Ilana in the field would help to disrupt patriarchal curriculum, exploitative labor practices, and the inaccessibility of mental health services due to medicalized gatekeeping and the non-profit industrial complex. I think Ilana’s unapologetic feminism and sexuality, and preference for weed over respectability politics would translate to her being client-centered, sex positive, and a harm reductionist. Even with these forward-thinking qualities, we all have things to work on. For example, if Ilana were my colleague, I might start a conversation with her about her appropriative use of African American Vernacular English, including her common use of the phrase “yasss queen” as well as her referring to Jaimé’s relationship as “going dopely” in this very episode. I would also mention that her joke about her mom looking at hoarding videos to lose her appetite when she’s dieting makes me hyper-vigilant of fatphobia.

The next order of business – processing our grief around Broad City ending.

References

R. (2018, April 07). Abbi Jacobson is bisexual: Ilana Wexler has called dibs though. Retrieved
From https://www.autostraddle.com/abbi-jacobson-is-bisexual-ilana-wexler-has-called-dibs-though-416956/

Blay, Z. (2015, October 19). 12 words Black people invented, and white people killed. Retrieved
From https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/black-slang-white-people-ruined_us_55ccda07e4b064d5910ac8b3

Glazer, I. (2019, February 14). Ilana glazer on Instagram: “this is one of my favorite moments from tonight’s episode of @broadcity written by @jenstatsky and directed by me! @arturocastrop is a star…” Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/Bt4XGqUlzvx/

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018, February 03). Hoarding disorder. Retrieved from
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hoarding-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20356056

Reddish, D. (2018, June 14). Guillermo Diaz, the ‘Scandal’ star who made out & proud look easy. Retrieved from
https://www.queerty.com/guillermo-diaz-scandal-star-made-coming-natural-breathing-20180614

Statsky, J. (Writer). (2019, February 14). Make the Space [Television series episode]. In Broad City. New York, New York: Comedy Central.
Trump wall. (2019, February 19). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trump_wall

About The Author

Briana Shewan

I am a femme therapist and I love working long-term, relationally, and one-on-one within my queer community! I started my private practice Mophead Femme Therapy in San Francisco, CA in 2017. Now, it’s virtual, full-time, and deeply fulfilling.

Are you Femme? What Femme Isn’t and What it is.

Posted: 2-15-19 | Briana Shewan

What Femme Isn't, and What It Is

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!

Queer

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).

References

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

About The Author

Briana Shewan

I am a femme therapist and I love working long-term, relationally, and one-on-one within my queer community! I started my private practice Mophead Femme Therapy in San Francisco, CA in 2017. Now, it’s virtual, full-time, and deeply fulfilling.