When I first came out as a lesbian, I wore “the uniform”: khaki pants, short boy-cut hair, button-down shirts and combat boots. Like every dyke in Montreal, I tried to walk with a little bit more swagger, and desperately wished I was thinner through the hips, so men’s clothes would hang out my curvy body with more panache. But after a few years, there was no hiding who I really was: a femme in disguise.
I came out as a feminist before I came out as a dyke. And it took almost 10 years to embrace the label of “femme.” Because what’s the first thing a thinking teenage girl does to rebel against societal expectations of beauty? She ditches the lipstick and the skirts, shoves her hair under a hat, and demands to be recognized for what she has to say, rather than how attractive she may be to men.
For some women, this represents their most comfortable state of being. But for those of us who covet the mascara and low-cut tops, it can also represent a different form of oppression — this one from our chosen community.
The lesbian feminist movement has a long history of valuing androgynous gender expressions over feminine ones. The demise of butch-femme culture in North America came at a time when feminism was burgeoning in the 1960s. In an effort to free women from sexism and the drudgery of housework, feminists ignored the women who wanted to smash the patriarchy without burning their bras. They assumed that women who wore lipstick were simply complying with the patriarchy, and hadn’t been liberated yet. This trend continued for many years, and still touches women today.
As writer Julia Serano argues, “While femininity is in many ways influenced, shaped, and enforced by society, to say that it’s entirely ‘artificial’ or merely a ‘performance’ is patronizing toward those for whom femininity simply feels right.”
At a recent screening of the documentary film Female To Femme in Ottawa, an intergenerational audience related their experiences of coming out as femme during different decades. Marie Robertson, a long-time “lipstick lesbian” activist, talked about the rude looks she used to receive at activist gatherings in the 1960s. A woman in her 30s talked about how the grunge era in the 1990s made it seriously uncool to come out as femme. And many of us talked about how our femme attire often makes us feel like queers in disguise, unrecognizable without a lover on our arm or some other marker to make our predilections more obvious.
So, what distinguishes a femme from any other woman who shaves her legs? For me, a femme represents a girl who doesn’t play by the rules. Instead of blindly accepting the beauty ideals imposed on us by a sexist culture, we choose the fashions that make us feel good, and discard the rest of them. When my friend Carolyn dons a dress and replaces the radiator in her car, she demonstrates that women are capable of anything — no matter what we choose to wear.
According to Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri, editors of Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, femme identity is not only restricted to dykes. As they point out, “many femmes are lesbians, but femmes are also drag queens, straight sex workers, nelly fags, all strong women and sassy men.”
Serano makes a similar argument: by removing the stigma associated with femininity, we create a basis for unity amongst anyone who shares similar characteristics. This includes everyone from the most flaming gay man who gets rejected in dating circles, to the teenage girl whose intelligence is questioned when she dyes her hair blonde, to the stay-at-home dad who cares for his children.
Two male students at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia understand this point well. After a Grade 9 student was subjected to homophobic bullying for wearing a pink T-shirt, David Shepherd and Travis Price took action. They bought 75 pink tank tops for male students to wear, and the trend spread like wildfire. The next day, according to the Chronicle Herald, at least half of the school’s 830 students wore pink to school, in solidarity with the kid who had been picked on. In doing so, they took a stand against homophobia. But they also dealt a blow to misogyny and femme-phobia by being brave enough to wear pink.
“If construction workers were man enough to wear skirts and heels, they wouldn’t whistle at women who walk by,” writes Serano. “And if presidents and generals were man enough to wear lip gloss and mascara, they wouldn’t have to prove their penis size by going to war all the time. Because male pride is not really about pride. It’s about fear — the fear of being seen as feminine.”