3 min

Femmes as gender outlaws

California conference contemplates queer femininity

“Femme… is like the colour red. Is it a tomato red? A blue-red? Is it the red of a candy apple, a 50-year-old burgundy, the red of the smear of lipstick you left on a lover’s collar, the red of the cop’s flashing lights as she pulls you over for taking it a little bit too fast? Femme tells you what to look for, but it never tells you exactly what form it should take.”

Author Hanne Blank at the packed opening keynote speech of this month’s historic Femme 2006 conference in San Francisco.

If femme is the colour red then being at the recent conference Femme 2006, held in San Francisco from Aug 11 to 13, was like swimming in a sea of red. Femme 2006 celebrated femmes of all shapes, cultures and desires — teenage to 60-plus, supersize to skinny, chocolate to ecru.

What motivated the 24 organizers to mount the conference (which was paid for primarily out of their own pockets and topped up by community donations, including one “blessed anonymous femme donor” who threw in $3,000)? Conference organizers say they were aiming to create a space by and for femmes, similar to ones created by other communities based on gender identities, such as the True Spirit for trans masculinities; to help build a community space for making connections and tackling common issues.

“Being femme is still demonized in our queer and trans communities, looked down on and seen as weak,” says conference attendee Gina de Vries, 23, of San Francisco. “Part of the importance of being here is to talk about how we’re strong.”

For de Vries the conference allowed “connection and the possibility to do solidarity work with other femmes. Part of what [keynote speaker Amber Holli-baugh, author of My Dangerous Desires] was saying about who we are as outlaws and who we are on the fringes… for me, being femme is always connected to that — as a femme, as a bisexual woman, as a sex worker.”

Workshop topics at Femme 2006 were lusciously diverse, including femmes and disability, aging as femmes, femme-to-femme dating, Caribbean-Canadian femmes (facilitated by Toronto’s OmiSoore Dryen) and self-defence for femmes. One of the most interesting was on femmes and competition.

“My experience is that alliances among femmes are rare in a femme/butch context,” says Janine de Mande, 33, of Oakland. “Butches are seen as a rare and precious commodity that you have to compete for. Femme-on-femme desire can be impossible to locate, let alone celebrate. We’re still on the fringes, seen as ‘not real lesbians.’ This has to change.”

Feminism and other struggles for liberation were front and centre at Femme 2006 — ironic, considering how demonized femmes were in the sex wars of 1970s and ’80s feminism.

“Right now, I think one of the only places where feminism is actively being discussed is at this conference and other conferences like Incite’s Color Of Violence conference [last held in New Orleans in March 2005],” says Iraya Robles, queer Filipina/Latina musician who was part of Queers Together In Punkness, one of the first queer punk collectives, and the seminal queer punk band Stay-Prest.

“There’s lots of cool stuff going on in activism, but feminism is subsumed. Right now, masculinities are so privileged in queer communities that this conference is vital to balance the scale.”

For many femmes, femme isa gender — or range of genders — in its own right, a complex set of choices about what kind of feminine queer woman you want to be. For some femmes, our gender is performance or drag. For others, it’s simply a queer identity every bit as strong and complicated as butch and other masculine genders, and every bit a threat to the mainstream.

“The world we live in desperately wants for there to be only two sexes and only two genders that go along with them in the strictest lockstep. Femme is subversive because it breaks the gender rules,” said keynote speaker Hanne Blank. “[We] know that the femininity we prefer is not necessarily the same sort of femininity that was right for our mothers, our sisters or our friends.”

Blank argued that part of changing the world means challenges all sexes and genders of people to cherish the feminine instead of despising it. She drew connections between hatred of femininity and sexism, homophobia and transphobia, war and conquest.

The purpose of the conference, and the radical visions of femmes, may best be summed up by Hollibaugh’s eloquent keynote:

“Nobody is going to give you community. We need to give each other the possibility of a new world, and then we need to go do it.”