Last night, I went to a queer/lesbian event that I had been looking forward to for ages. It consisted of a screening of a 1970s lesbian film, with a talk beforehand from one of the actors and some performances and a party afterwards. I was expecting it to be ace, and we had friends come down from Cardiff and London especially for the night.
As part of her talk before the film, the actor was telling us a bit about herself, including about her femme identity. I was pretty excited when she started talking about that – it’s not often that femmes get to take centre-stage on the gay scene, and I was expecting her to shatter some of the tired old misogynist stereotypes about femmes, which are sadly still rampant in the mainstream LGBT scene. As someone who identifies as femme myself, I love hearing older femmes’ stories – it’s validating and fascinating and empowering.
So she started recalling a definition of femme that had always stuck with her – the definition that had rung the truest for her. Again, I was pretty excited at this point, as femme is notoriously hard to define and usually misunderstood – by both the straight mainstream and lesbian culture. I was looking forward to having all the usual bullshit stereotypes blown out of the water by this older, self-confident, badass femme actor.
The definition of femme that had stuck with her for her ENTIRE LIFE – the definition that she saw as the MOST ACCURATE DEPICTION of femme – was this:
‘A femme is the kind of woman who looks like she needs some help mowing her lawn.’
And then the audience burst into laughter, because apparently this bullshit is fucking hilarious to many lesbians.
After the initial shock of it, I felt a wave of anger and humiliation spread over me. I’m sat there in a dress, boots and turquoise eyeliner, obviously, unhideably femme (suddenly TOO obviously), being humiliated by this woman – who’s allegedly on my fucking side – and the laughter of the audience – who are allegedly my fucking community. I was embarrassed, and ashamed, and extremely pissed off. I ended up leaving because the only thing more degrading than walking out mid-show would have been staying and listening to more of this unbearable shit. I even fucking CRIED a bit when I got outside. And I literally never cry. It was hurtful, and humiliating, and entirely avoidable.
Not to mention plain fucking wrong.
Femmes have been a part of every historical struggle in the gay community since time immemorial. Femme dykes fought on the frontlines of the Stonewall riot alongside the trans women and drag queens and queers of colour – all the other groups that both history and the mainstream gay scene conveniently forget.
Femme dykes were there setting up support groups and providing end-of-life care and protesting and getting arrested with and for our gay brothers during the AIDS crisis.
During the routine lesbian bar raids of the 1950s and 60s, butches were arrested for wearing fewer than three items of ‘female’ clothing (which was illegal at the time); they were often strip-searched and worse by male police officers, purely to humiliate them and strip them of their butch props and identity. And femmes stood by them, got arrested with them, got sexually assaulted by cops for doing so, paid the bail to get their butch lovers out of jail and cared for them afterwards.
Femmes continue to organize politically and work our proverbial balls off on issues ranging from sex workers’ rights to economic justice to migrant solidarity.
Femmes struggle every fucking time we leave the house against a straight culture that ‘reads’ us as straight and therefore subjects us to the same sort of shit that feminine-presenting straight women receive from men – cat calls and street harassment; being patronized and ‘mansplained’ to constantly; the presumption that we are weak, fragile, stupid, frivolous, ‘less than’, merely decorative and unable to look after ourselves.
Femmes have to come out as dykes again and again and again to every person who we have more than a two-minute conversation with. And we’re usually met with disbelief. ‘But you don’t LOOK like a lesbian’; ‘have you ever actually slept with a woman?’; ‘you probably just haven’t met the right guy yet.’
But when we seek refuge from all that shit in lesbian culture, femmes attract the same suspicion, disbelief and prejudice. Because we ‘don’t look like REAL dykes’. Because we’re assumed to be bisexual (and therefore subject to the same biphobia to which bi women are subject in the gay community): we’ll probably run off with a man; we’re probably sluts; we’re probably unable to be monogamous.
Or apparently, we can’t even mow our own fucking lawn. When in reality we would mow the shit out of that lawn wearing massive fuck-off dyke boots and lipstick and then get on with doing all the other shit that we do – being strong, badass women; working at stressful jobs; tending to our relationships; looking after our families; fighting the good fight; hanging out with the other beautiful fierce women (and men) in our lives; taking care of business.
Look: I get it. We’ve all – lesbians included – grown up in a sexist culture that equates ‘femininity’ with frivolity and weakness. A culture that can’t square the alleged circle of seeing a woman wearing lipstick with the idea that said woman is not doing so for the pleasure of men. A culture that can’t seem to reconcile the fact that a woman can dress in a manner that’s culturally coded ‘feminine’ and still have a brain, opinions, political views, strength, skills (including – newsflash – practical ones), independence.
But femme isn’t about any of those bullshit attributes designated ‘feminine’ and therefore ‘less than’. Femmes have always played an active role in lesbian culture. There is a whole legion of badass lesbian femmes out there. Discover them. Educate yourself. Don’t stand on a stage reinforcing shitty stereotypes for cheap laughs. And if you’re in the audience, have some respect and don’t laugh at those jokes.
Femmes are part of the lesbian community; we’ve always been part of the lesbian community; we put blood, sweat and tears into building that community – and we’re not going away.
So I guess my plea to fellow dykes is this: Have a brain. Have some empathy. Educate yourselves: read a book or watch a film by an awesome femme (Amber Hollibaugh pretty much single-handedly changed my own conception on femmes). Don’t buy into femmephobia – and challenge it where you see it. This shit is boring. It’s old. It’s sexist. It’s needlessly hurtful. It’s ahistorical. And it’s plain fucking wrong.
Thanks for reading.
Some people have asked me to name the speaker in question. I really don’t want to do that, and have also removed the names of the promoters (though I have shared the post with them in a spirit of open dialogue and trying to improve our communities).
The point here wasn’t to have a go at those people specifically. I’ve organized queer and feminist events before and I know that promoters put tonnes of work into these events and can’t control what people say therein. There are also very few lesbian events (in particular) left, and I think they need to be preserved. The LAST thing I would want is a feminist/queer/femme online mob descending on these individuals or promoters.
I was using this specific incident to make a broader point about the treatment of femmes in the queer scene. It’s only the latest of such incidents to happen to me; there have been plenty of others, and it seems clear from the amount of people sharing this post that a lot of people have sadly experienced similar. So please can we keep the focus on the broader problem here rather than naming and shaming, which is not at all what I intended to do with this piece.
Written by Hannah Austin (also pictured).
Hannah is a professional editor and writer – please visit her website for more details.
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