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ELIXHER | April 21, 2014

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Femme Privilege Does Not Exist

Femme Privilege Does Not Exist
ELIXHER

I’m (not) sorry to inform you that femme privilege does not exist. Not in the queer community. Not in the world at large. Does. Not. Exist. In fact, the very idea of inherent “femme privilege” is rooted in misguided misogyny. It operates under the erroneous idea that the discrimination and violence that femmes in particular and feminities in general experience is not based on our gender presentations. It relies on the idea that all femmes are cisgendered and cissexual, which is cissexist. It anachronistically leaves out femme as a genderqueer identity. It is ignorant to the continuing oppression of women, femmes, and other femininities by patriarchy and masculine privilege.

The most common argument for femme privilege I encounter is that femmes are not the recipients of physical and spiritual violence because of their femininity, while female masculinities are frequently the target of such assaults. Even upon first glance this ignores the constant reality of rape and sexual assault in the lives of lots of transgressive femininities. Personally, I have been “corrective”ly raped twice for being femme, once by a doctor when I was 17 after coming out on my intake forms and the second time during my time working at a bar in Newark. According to a study performed by Keren Lehavot, Ph.D.  “women who identify as “femme” (or feminine) and have a more feminine appearance report more adult sexual assaults” than women in the study who identified as “butch.”

That’s not even to speak of the harassment that I experience every day on the street. Not just the street, everywhere I go. It is frequently terrifying, and it also leads to more terrifying things. Of course, omnipresent harassment is afforded to masculine of center folks as well: because in both cases the harassers are targeting our gender presentation. For real, they are. The truly hate us both, for the same reason. Our harassers are deeply invested in the control and ownership of bodies they perceive as “women”. They want to decide who gets to be included in that category, and what that identity means. It is not a complement when I am catcalled, grabbed, pushed, smacked, and groped on the street, it is an insult. And it is certainly not a privilege.

Then there’s that weird concept of passing privilege that I don’t even think works for sexual identity in the way that it does for race, but is so frequently employed that way. Racial groups have phenotypical markers that differentiate their skin and hair and body features from that of a privileged race. Being gay or queer looks different in every corner of this country and every corner of the world.

The idea of cisfemmes passing for straight and receiving straight privilege ignores the fact that to patriarchy inside every lesbian lies a straight woman. Straight people don’t see anything but straight. Even if very masculine female identified folks are instantly read as gay by heterosexuals, does that necessarily make not experiencing that a privilege? Passing is a privilege when you pass into a group that has privilege. “Woman” is not an inherently privileged category at all, nor is “feminine”. Femininity, queer and straight alike, is viewed as frivolous and shallow, stupid and excessive. Most importantly, it is taken much less seriously than masculinity.

Moreover, regarding femmeness as privilege ignores the existence of femmes who are trans*women, androfemmes, kikis, and all those who may simultaneously be femme and not able to pass for straight or even pass for feminine. It forgets us femmes who try and fail and try and fail again to be seen as authentically feminine. We femmes with tapers and Caesars lined up. We femmes who are 6’4 in heels and rock a bitchin’ limp that people frequently comment on yet rarely stare at. We femmes who sit gap legged in flannel waiting for folks to stop telling them to be more feminine when we are trying as hard as we fucking can.

In her interview with Elixher.comBrown Grrlz Project Co-Founder Trinz Massiah writes that femme privilege “is a matter of perspective. A femme identified womyn has to negotiate always safe spaces to “come out” over and over again… Can you imagine the anxiety of negotiating safe spaces constantly?” Central to femme invisibility (which should be called femme erasure, in my opinion) is the allegation that femmes are not “gay looking”. Ok, then who is and why? Who gets the privilege to set the tone of the conversation of what it means to look queer or gay? Clearly not femmes or we would have at least included ourselves.

There is the problem of “looking straight” and needing to access queer/gay safe spaces and being questioned uncomfortably. Of spending time scrimping and saving to dress up for the dyke bar and pay the cover just to have everyone treat you like a fag hag. Of being out for almost a decade and still getting treated like an interloper until someone sees me with a stud they know. Of being made to find people to vouch for your dykedom. Of having to come out every day to everyone, often several times to the same people because apparently femmes are not experts on their own lives.

So, in short, don’t come at me with that shit. Quit relegating feminitinity to the backburners of queerness because of a faulty generalization. Check your own association of femmeness with excess and shallowness and stupidity. Learn how to see femmes, and stop blaming us for our own erasure.*

- Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.

*This piece was originally posted on Femme Dreamboat. Read the original post here.

Comments

  1. Ain Hadiya

    Prominent feminists have dismissed femininity as artificial and instead praised the development of traditionally masculine characteristics. This dismissal conflates femme and passivity.Contemporary feminism seeks to interrogate and deconstruct traditional sex roles, empowering women to define femininity for themselves instead of being restricted by enforced domesticity and motherhood. However, feminism risks substituting one standard of appropriately female behaviour for another. Women who pursue traditionally masculine fields and reject supposedly oppressive trappings like high heels and makeup are applauded, rendering strong, subversive femme women invisible. Feminism must expand to make room for individuals’ complexities, chosen gender expressions (whether masculine, feminine, androgynous, or gender-variant), and identities. In order to be relevant to femmes of colour, feminist and queer activists must acknowledge their own complicity in perpetuating rigid notions of acceptable gender presentation, and make room for new voices.

    In response: Reclaiming Femme: Queer Women of Colour and Femme Identity
    Excerpted by ah

  2. Thanks for this article.

    I always felt that as a tall, butch woman who can’t quite pass for a man, but sometimes is mistaken for one at first glance, that I have the privilege of not being harassed the way feminine women are. I’ve lived in contexts where one can be comfortable being queer, so in that sort of setting, I think you’re right – there is no such thing as femme privilege.

    That said, I do think that in some settings, women who can pass as straight (which I cannot) do have a tiny modicum of privilege, but I bet it gets washed right out by the risk of harrassment just for being female.

  3. Thanks very much for this thought-provoking piece. I agree that femme is such a diverse category that it doesn’t make sense to talk about femme privilege writ large. I do wonder, though, if there is more to the crux of the femme privilege argument (however flawed) that deserves addressing.

    Let’s take for example the argument that *some* femme-presenting people can “pass” for straight. I’m not sure I understand your thoughts on this issue. You seem to want to say that passing as straight is not a privilege:

    — The idea of cisfemmes passing for straight and receiving straight privilege ignores the fact that to patriarchy inside every lesbian lies a straight woman. Straight people don’t see anything but straight. Even if very masculine female identified folks are instantly read as gay by heterosexuals, does that necessarily make not experiencing that a privilege? —

    I don’t have any clear, developed opinion about this but my immediate thoughts are that there are certain, perhaps, privileges that come from being read as heterosexual/normative in a heterosexist context. And perhaps privilege isn’t the right word, but I’m inclined to think there is something here. And of course, appearing heterosexual/normative is not an experience only available to femme-presenting people; it also exists for certain female masculinities, transpeople, and so on.

    You also say:

    — Passing is a privilege when you pass into a group that has privilege. “Woman” is not an inherently privileged category at all, nor is “feminine”. Femininity, queer and straight alike, is viewed as frivolous and shallow, stupid and excessive. Most importantly, it is taken much less seriously than masculinity. —

    I read this as basically saying heterosexism doesn’t exist, or, more specifically, that it doesn’t apply to people read as women because of sexism. Excuse the fraught analogy but this argument seems to use the same logic as one that says black men don’t “benefit” from/participate in patriarchy because of racism. Surely it’s relative to each person and each context but I’m inclined to think there are situations where “passing” as straight – woman or man – allows one to, for example, avoid violent confrontation, harassment, and the like. Acknowledging that this is not something that is available exclusively to femmes, maybe the question becomes: should we call these circumstances associated with passing “privileges”? And if not, how do we talk about them?

  4. rgl

    as a queer ciswoman who is often mistaken for ‘femme’ (i don’t find the label particularly useful for myself), i have to disagree with the title of this essay and some of the related points. the fact that femme privilege doesn’t take us all the way to the very top of the ladder does not mean that it doesn’t exist. being gay or queer looks different all over, but it looks the same to the dominant culture- if you can squeak past the radar and avoid the suspicion, harassment, abuse, or worse heaped on queer people in most situations, there is definitely privilege at work there. while it may not feel good, it still exists, and it can’t be taken for granted.

    i have had a lot of femme-identified people lament to me that ‘femininity’ is not valued or prized in the queer community, and i get it to an extent- sometimes people don’t think i ‘look gay’ or assume i’m straight, and it’s a chore to have to come out to people. that, though, is a huge privilege over people whose identities and appearances have been marked by other people as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ and for whom coming out is not a choice or an option, as it has already been done for them.

    i also have trouble believing that the femme identity isn’t valued for ciswomen- ciswomen are so heavily rewarded and praised for participating in beauty and fashion norms, and it only makes life easier to give in to makeup, dresses, and heels, because that is what we’re ‘supposed’ to do. i know it has just been my experience, but i’ve seen it happen time and again with friends and fellow members of the queer community.

    in conclusion, i do not think that being a queer femme person is the easiest identity to have or that it puts you on par with rich white guys or anything, but i do think that femme ciswomen have an amazing amount of privilege even above other people who identify as femme, let alone those who do not.

  5. Syd

    Cyree, Thank you for sharing your article. It resonates with me in many ways as a femme.

    What I would like to add is some thoughts on intersectionality. For me, I”m a femme, I”m Latina and I”m also white. So my privileges depend on the circumstance, who I am with and which of my identities trump each-other for the day. I know first hand working with many young transwomen, passing is desired and so my femme identity at work in those interactions, on a daily basis is a privilege. However, having to come out everyday to men on the street who harass me, cab drivers when they ask if I’m married or have a boyfriend, (sometimes I don’t for safety reasons).

    It also depends on what your queer world(s) look(s) like. I know i feel more comfortable in my femme skin when I’m around folks i know think critically about this stuff and are less likely to question my sexuality or push me into the “bottom” box. However if I go out with certain lesbian Identified friends to certain bars….the stress of my femme self feels more real there.

    I once had a conversation with a friend and we both agreed that at the time, our queerness was visually dependent on our partners gender-queer presentation. It felt really powerful and real when we both said it out loud.

    Now for me, it’s not so much about absolutes as it is that we stop and listen to each other and recognize we have have moments that we are privileged, for many reasons and other times when we are not, for many reasons. We move in and out of spaces through our multiple identities we dance with other causing friction, heat, pain and pleasure.

  6. Kristin/D.C.

    I believe this article is misleading. The writer concludes that femme privilege can’t exist, as females are taken less seriously than males, but failed to continue the hierarchy. Butches are taken less seriously than Femmes. Thus, Femme privilege. The conversation shifts when she parallels the harassments of the Butch and the Femme. Highlighting them as equals. While I agree that there are difficulties in being a Femme, those difficulties do not erase the privilege, previously discussed.

    Unfortunately, there is a hierarchy in queer culture. Femmes are at the top as heteronormative presentation parallels privilege.

    As I femme, I appreciate this discussion. Thank you for creating that platform.

    • Hey Kristin,

      Thanks for reading my article.

      I think that people disagreeing about privilege is the nature of the game, particularly when it is oppositional and not “traditional”. I respect that people feel all types of ways about this, and have no real investment in being the absolute victor on the topic. I wrote this piece because when people have said that I was using femme privilege, they were casting me and their ideas of what femme meant to me as THE only way to be femme. They were assuming that I passed and was pretty and that men feel that way too and treat me better. That I don’t get called a dyke on the street (which is laughably incorrect). That passing for straight was a simple cut and dry issue that could be solved if I changed my appearance. I’m not the only kind of femme. I do not pass all the time, and when I do, I ALWAYS out myself (and I try to do it rudely), I do have more privilige than some femmes, and less than others. The privilege that I recieve though is not hinged on my femininity but the myriad other factors that interact with it. This argument is not that all femmes receive equal treatment, but rather that the existing argument for femme privilege paints femmes with far too broad a brush.

      Frankly, I think that the argument for femme privilege is less like the one that some commenters used (that of white women being like “but were women and that sucks) and more like the one about reversed racism. Its no secret that masculinity is taken more seriously in the world at large. Ain’t a damn thing changed about that. But lets look around our own queer home too.

      “Let’s suspend ourselves in that idea for a moment. If femme privilege does exist, what does that mean in relation to the fact that in the world at large masculinity and maleness and “manliness” is privileged, valorized and frequently rewarded? What if both or neither of these expressions were privileged in a queer politic?

      What if there was a very visible swell in resources for a queer culture of masculinities, and no similar surge for femininities? What if when you approached the leaders of such organizations and resources and their leaders flat out looked you in the face and compared femmes to straight women? Or,or, what if our only representations in media either rarely showed us, showed us as love interests of masculinities who eventually reveal their alliance with heterosexuality (Stud Life) as a complicating trope of the film and go back in the closet (Pariah), or made us completely silent (Set It Off)? What if academic books about femmes and that contained mad harsh critiques of femmes were written by people who were not femmes (The Witches Flight, By Kara Keeling), and with no femme opposing voices(Jack Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity for example)? What if we, particularly as queer and dyke and lesbian Black folk, my folx, my kindred, did not make a point of calling out misogyny as it affects femmes and other femininities, and instead uncritically promoted work we know to be classically and obviously femmephobic and misogynistic without such critiques? Yeah, what if? What would that mean for us?”

  7. Ryan

    “Passing is a privilege when you pass into a group that has privilege.“Woman” is not an inherently privileged category at all, nor is “feminine”.”

    I appreciate your article and would simultaneously like to challenge the above statement. While I agree with it, I would like to add, that for trans women, femme privilege may exist because one’s ability to “pass” and the degree to which one fits within the gender binary are related. (cis) Woman may not be an inherently privileged category, but it is a category that is inherently privileged in relation to trans woman.

    • When we pass, who fails? I don’t really think that our narratives of passing leave alot of room for, well, the truth of our lives.

      Hell yes, cis people benefit from cissexual and cisgendered privilege and also from transmisogyny and transphobia. That’s not what this article is about though. Its about how femmes are so diverse that coming up with what it means to have “femme privilege” is a project that is doomed for failure.

  8. jkitty

    THANK YOU for this…just a brilliant piece. as a femme4femme i would add, among the assumptions and abuses you so thoroughly outline, the challenge of explaining constantly that you are not looking for a butch/masculine half to complete your life.

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