Every once and a while — once, maybe twice every few years — it happens. It takes me and everyone around me by surprise. I don’t have an explanation for it. But every now and then I trade in my baggy jeans and plain white tee for a short skirt and high heels. I paint my eyes and lips with makeup and head out into the night.
Even though it’s a rare and short-lived occurrence, it feels authentic in those moments. I am still the same me. I’ve just felt the need to express my gender differently, in a more traditionally “femme” way.
And the world reacts to me differently, too. Doors are suddenly swung open for me. Masculine-of-center folk who never would have approached me on any other day slyly try to get my digits. Men yell things from street corners and shamelessly try to grab at me or ask me where I’m headed. The focus on my looks and appearance is at its peak. And I quickly become uncomfortable.
It’s a minor (though not at all comparable) glimpse into the daily experiences of femmes and women in my community.
Daily life in my usual gender expression can be pretty uncomfortable too. I constantly have my gender questioned and denied to me because I don’t cleanly fit into the binary. The police are more likely to stop and follow me when I’m dressed as I usually am. And in some places, I’m more alert and nervous about my safety as a masculine-presenting Black person because I don’t dress and behave how someone with my assigned sex is “supposed to.”
People fear and hate what they don’t understand, and for those of us who are queer and gender non-conforming, this can result in violence. As masculine folks, and especially folks of color, our bodies often carry trauma, violence and messages of what we “should” be.
This trauma isn’t just limited to masculine-of-center folks, studs or folks who appear “more queer.” Yet within queer communities, other realities — especially femme realities — are made invisible.
“Femme privilege” is basically the idea that femmes within the LGBTQ community are privileged because they don’t “appear” queer and can therefore “pass” as heterosexual or consistent with mainstream gender norms. It’s often argued that femmes are less at risk for violence than masculine-presenting folks and that the treatment femmes receive (such as being seen as more beautiful, being able to depend on vs. fear men) are benefits.
While I think it’s true that queer cisgender women have multiple privileges that come along with identifying with birth-assigned sex, to make a sweeping statement that “femmes have privilege” more than transmasculine and butch folks is oppressive and silencing.
This conversation around femme privilege isn’t anything new, but I’ve rarely heard about the privileges that masculine folks within the queer community receive.
What’s more, I wouldn’t describe what some folks — femme and otherwise — consider “benefits” as privilege. To me, privilege is a system of unearned benefits that one group receives over another that’s more marginalized.
Having men open doors for you and pay for your dinner and being able to “bat your eyes to receive help from men” may seem like “privileges” to those who don’t also receive them. But all of those examples are based on misogynist assumptions: that women and feminine people are incapable, helpless objects for sexual consumption.
The notion that queer femmes are less subject to violence is also deeply problematic. I have watched full-grown men follow my femme friends to their cars in parking lots and then become violent when they’re rejected. Femmes remain frequent victims of sexual violence both within and outside of queer communities. Reported rates of fatal violence against transgender women of color are among the highest within the LGBTQ community.
We also don’t always acknowledge that “passing as straight” or gender-conforming can be painful for femmes within LGBTQ spaces. Femmes often have to prove their identity among folks they sought community from; their images are erased in place of more androgynous and masculine aesthetics, which are considered “more queer.”
I don’t think the conversation around femme privilege is as simple as whether it exists. Like most things, it’s more nuanced than that.
Our experiences of oppression and violence are more linked to misogyny than we think: the street harassment of femmes; the homophobia that feminine gay men face; the violence and gender policing that masculine-of-center and trans men face; the erasure of femme experience within queer communities.
Each of these is deeply rooted in a historical and pervasive hatred of women and femininity. Each of these is reflective of a society that strictly enforces binaries. And we are all oppressed and privileged within those systems in different ways.
What message does it send that we are often more willing to discuss “femme privilege” than the power that masculine-of-center folks hold?
How can we find commonality and collective healing in our experiences as queer people, rather than asserting who is more or less privileged, more or less oppressed?