Women and femmes are not the same, but they are intertwined, and its exactly that mutual oppression and shared experience under patriarchy that has led activists today to identify “women and femmes” in their organizing spaces.[Editor's Note: This analysis is being re-published with permission from B.B. Buchanan's Medium page.] By B.B. Buchanan
I need to start this article with a clear declaration:I am a Black non-binary femme, and I’m proud of that.
Lately there has been some confusion around what the phrase “women and femmes” does — what it clarifies analytically and what work it does to build solidarity in our activist/organizing spaces. In particular, this article responds directly to critiques leveled by Kesiena Boom in a recently popular Slate article making its way through the queer community. I’d like to break down the term femme, it’s contested meanings, and it’s use in activist spaces today.
As a fellow Black scholar and sociologist of gender and sexuality I’d like to invite a deeper and more nuanced discussion of linguistics and gender than simply calling my gender presentation (and solidarity across femininity) “incoherent nonsense.”
As a historical sociologist, the first place to start in any analysis is with the origins and transformations of the category we’re talking about. Often times “femme” is reduced to a term used by working class lesbians to connote a feminine gender expression, often seen in contrast to the masculine lesbian construction of “butch.” It was a performance of femininity which subverted and rejected standards of heteronormativity and patriarchy — with an explicit focus on the ways femininity (often understood as excessive, artificial, and criminal) could be understood outside of a masculine/feminine dichotomy in which femininity is only defined as it’s opposite.
Interestingly, the claim that working class lesbians “owned” the word femme fails to take into account concurrent trans histories. During this time period — in the same book suggested by Boom (Stone Butch Blues) — we can see that trans identities are named through expressions of gender rather than identity. The book itself troubles the categories so necessary to Boom’s analysis, as the main character Jessie moves back and forth between the categories of trans and butch. This is also certainly true of the feminine presenting people throughout the book — including and especially the “drag queens.” We can see this blurred nature historically as well — particularly within queer of color spaces like the balls which proliferated throughout American cities since the 1930s. When one walks in the ball category of “femme queen realness” it’s not about sexed bodies, nor identity, but the ability to demonstrate and perform femininity. Without the creation and dispersal of words like “transgender” people often identified as drag queens, femmes, and other labels which upset cis-normative standards and expectations. In fact, the difference between gender expression and identity is a product of the historical construction of the categories of sexuality and gender.