We Are All Subversives: Femme Strength and Queer Solidarity

Can’t there be more than one way of challenging power?

A friend of mine and I who both identify as femme were chatting the other day about the different ways our identities are understood in our various communities. She, who identifies herself as a queer woman, moves in predominately queer female and trans circles, whereas I operate in a largely gay male context. Both us of expressed frustration with the fact that our femme presentations are often devalued and degraded by the queer communities we belong to, and are even seen as selling out. She spoke of the “dyke hierarchy” in her community, the endless pressures to be as transgressive as possible by prioritizing and playing up masculine qualities–pressures which labeled her as a traitor. I talked about the suspicion with which I was consistently met, and the conception that by being effeminate I could only be caricaturing an unreal part of myself, satiating the hallmarks of the gay servant and the reviled sissy. Both of us talked about feeling undesirable because we were not masculine enough. Both of us were struck by the fact that communities which are so focused on transgression could simultaneously place such great emphasis on masculinity and patriarchal structures of power. Both of us were saddened that we often felt disrespect and spite from the people whom we love and struggle alongside, simply because we identify in ways which we have all been taught to stigmatize.

Amber Hollibaugh, who has come to be seen as a leading voice on high femme identity and politics, writes in her book My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home that the femme identity is always treated with suspicion and distain precisely because it invests itself into the qualities most commonly associated with weakness and powerlessness. Even across queer communities, we, too, are often convinced that relying on masculinity is the only way to be commanding and threatening in the face of the powers we seek to challenge. To Hollibaugh, the femme identity is always a radical one, no matter who dons it, because it works to command and threaten without reifying male status or masculinist hierarchies. It challenges power on the terms which power most fears, and refuses to forfeit any of its own desires, tendencies or passions in the process.

For myself, identifying as femme is not about adhering to any code or strictures of conduct. It is about loving my body, even when I am told I am too skinny or not in shape. It is about respecting and revering the women in my life without objectifying or essentializing them, but also without pretending that we are the same. It is about loving who I love, desiring who I desire, and not worrying about what types of roles I or my partners should take on in a relationship, or in bed. It is about dressing the way I like, and moving the way my body wants to move. It is about talking in the slang of Black and Latin@ queer communities. It is about being unapologetically raunchy. It is about making people uncomfortable in ways that I hope will make the world a safer place. It is about speaking loudly. It is about placing myself in a lineage of other queer folks of all identities who also stood by their communities while challenging them to change. It is about remembering the riot, and never being comfortable with the way things are. It is about dancing and laughing, gathering and organizing. It is about feminism. It is about fearlessness. It is about always being ready to fight.

My truest hope for the future of my community, and of all queer communities, is that we let go of suspicion–that we love and respect all of our incredible ways of being as subversive, and as having the potential to unite us in radical efforts. For being a gay man in good health is subversive, but so is being one who is happy with his body the way it is. Being a queer women who identifies as butch is subversive, but so is being one who does not feel the need to identify herself in any particular way at all. Rejecting gender all together is a way of challenging power, but so is finding an unexpected space for oneself that makes straight people and queers alike uncomfortable. And any one person can do some or both or all or none of these things and still be a subversive. Our true radical power comes not merely from the labels we don nor the ways we present. It comes from recognizing a structure which needs to come down, identifying our friends and allies in the struggle, and figuring out how we can best support one another in the innumerable ways we find to break chips off the stone.

34 responses to “We Are All Subversives: Femme Strength and Queer Solidarity

  1. Great post. Also recommend Julia Serano’s wonderful book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. She writes about trans misogyny (hating trans women as betraying masculinity)and effemmemania (obsession/ hatred of feminine or effemminate men).

  2. Oh hell yes! I hope you’ll consider bringing these insights to the upcoming Femme Conference in Baltimore this August: femme2012.com

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  4. This is a fine piece. A few years ago I read “Gender Outlaw” by Kate Bornstein. I grew up under strenuously encouraged gender norms, and though I read a LOT and am a writer myself, this is probably in my lifetime top five books that really expanded my intellectual perimeters.

  5. “It is about making people uncomfortable in ways that I hope will make the world a safer place. It is about speaking loudly.” — Thanks – yes. & yes. Much agreed, & appreciated.

  6. I love this! I’ve just started designing these femme-proud tshirts. Check em out if you like http://www.cafepress.com/queerityshop/8416146
    I’m trying to put together some designs which express revolutionary ways of viewing queerity. I also have a blog where I write about queer issues/news. I am thinking of writing a femme post… And this was really inspirational.

  7. Oh, I feel I should add I’ve only done one specifically femme design… But there are a few other general Lgbtqia ones :) I plan on doing more though!

    Also please do check out my blog – http://totalqueerity.tumblr.com/

    Apologies for the double post! Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  8. “My truest hope for the future of my community, and of all queer communities, is that we let go of suspicion–that we love and respect all of our incredible ways of being as subversive, and as having the potential to unite us in radical efforts.” YES! All the way.

  9. Thank you all so much for checking out this work, and for your supportive and thoughtful feedback. It is all deeply appreciated, and I hope we can continue building together into the future. Strength and respect!

  10. Thank you for this insightful post. As a femme, I have often struggled with feelings of authenticity, belonging and validation from the queer community. What inspires me most is that femmes of all genders and sexualities are working together, are raising our voices and stepping out from the shadows to be seen and heard in all our subversive strength and beauty. I once read that Femmes were the “queerest of the queer” and I believe it – not that I am trying to compete ;)
    I am also interested in femme visibility and representation and have an ongoing participatory art project called beyondlipstick.ca. Femmes from around the world have submitted self-portraits and written about their identities. I would love to see this project truly reflect the diversity in our community. Check it out and see if it is something you would be open to participating in.
    Thanks again! In solidarity,

  11. wow…….

    I would really like to translate this into german and spread it to the (mostly Berlin) queer community! the femme_inist activism here is just beginning and we need more powerful words that stand behind us to feel ourselves getting stronger.
    Would it be ok with you if I translate it and spread your words?
    thank you so much for this!

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