Femme invisibility plagues the world. Unfortunately, it’s both the queer and straight, cis and trans communities that police and dehumanize femmes in every space we move through. Femininity is seen as a byproduct of masculinity. Only to be seen as a bait for prey, for consumption, for destruction. And what is masculinity but a shark that hunts flesh?
As a Black, queer, nonbinary fat femme, my world is constantly battling between erasure and inauthenticity. When I name myself to be queer — regardless of whether those around me recognize or understand my gender — it’s always a surprise, because the assumption is that my high femme fat black body (often read as a cis-woman) must be straight or desexualized.
Fatness + Blackness operates in a strange, violent place of oxymoronic visible erasure. We’re hypervisible to the thin white/non-black bodies we take space from, but invisible to humanity, body autonomy and sexual agency. Queerness is often denied to us; we’re read as non-sexual beings because we’re seen as undesirable and inhuman. And if we are unapologetically femme in our bodies, it reaffirms that if we do perform femininity — that if we’re going to be sexualized or in service for anyone — it could only be for the consumption and pandering of patriarchal cis-heteronormative gaze.
Visibility for queer and nonbinary identities is often always contingent upon proximity to masculinity, because femininity is read as consumable, accessible, easy to perform/less labor, prey for masculinity and a derivative of the power within masculinity. So when I name myself to be nonbinary — regardless of if the space is queer or straight, cis-dominated or trans-centered — it is always uncomfortable. There is a strange voice in the back of my head screaming, “no one believes you!” because I’m often in between not-trans-enough and too-cis-passing-to-incite-discomfort-in-cisgender-people.
While there is a privilege in being able to navigate without being assumed to be trans or gender-deviant, it comes at the expense of my erasure and requires me to authenticate myself to everyone by over-explaining my gender. This particular erasure requires me to prove my trans-ness while also never producing enough evidence of my trans-ness to do so. My femininity and presumed/read AFAB (assigned female at birth) body is seen as a assumption that my gender and nonbinary identity is not a struggle, journey or reality.
Femininity is denied queerness, nuance, gender deviance/complexity, sexual agency and visibility, because in the context of white supremacist patriarchy, femininity only exists for consumption. How can femininity be seen as queer, as gender expansive, as powerful, as struggle, as magic, as conjuring, as complicated and as a spectrum if it only exists to be taken, disposed of, manipulated, desired and destroyed?
Often the conversation around the issue and complexity of femme invisibility circles back to the privilege that exists within our camouflage. This privilege isn’t accompanied by power or access, nor does it come without expense. Erasure is still violence. Coming out over and over again as reclamation of agency and expansiveness beyond cis-heteronormativity is violence. Having to prove your identity, your validity, and that you deserve space to exist, feel and tell your story is toxic. Being seen as a challenge to be conquered, rather than a fully autonomous human being is violence. Naming your queerness, authenticating your queerness and demanding humanity in every community you enter is violence.
Even when we compare ourselves to masculine and non-femme-identifying folks, our privilege is often juxtaposed next to the misogyny and violence “more visibly queer” folks receive on sight. What’s disturbing is that while we need to talk about how those who are in positions to benefit and perpetuate misogyny are still harmed by it, it positions that femininity is protected more. Rather, I believe that there is a direct, heinous and visible target on our femme bodies for the simple fact that we’re assumed to be meant for misogynistic trauma.
Femininity being assumed to be submissive also reaffirms that femininity and femmes are only to be dominated, swallowed whole, disempowered. Yet, submissive is subjective through the dominant white gaze. So although Blackness is not scripted as innocent and pure like whiteness and white femininity is, it’s still positioned as being in service/in labor to whiteness. So while Black femmes’ femininity is often framed as overbearing, hypermasculine, overwhelming, angry and loud, we’re still positioned as belonging to white supremacist patriarchy.
Our femininity can seemingly never be sexually autonomous or exist outside of masculinity and white patriarchal gaze, because it’s assumed to belong to violent paradigms of masculinity and assumed to only exist for the sake to be desired/in service. Which is why femme invisibility is so violent and prevalent.
It’s assumed that we can’t be queer because that’s not what femininity is for. Every time femininity and femmes are read as straight, as belonging to the narrative and gaze of white supremacist heteronormativity, it only reaffirms the violent idea that sexuality and body autonomy are not meant for us. We are not meant to be humanized if we are feminized. And if we are feminized, we are always in direct opposition to systems of domination.
Therefore, when queerness is only read upon masculine bodies, bodies that push back against conformity and expectation of femininity, bodies assumed to exist outside of desirability as devouring, bodies that are gendered to the gaze of cisnormativity and heteronormativity, this reality only reinforces that femininity is positioned as weakness, entrapment and solicitation. Femininity and femmes are and always will be beyond existing for white supremacist patriarchal desire, gaze and seduction. We will always be the beginning and end to revolution.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com.