Five Queer People on What 'Femme' Means to Them
"Femme" practices can be as empowering for one queer person as they are alienating for another. Five queer femmes told us the unique ways they approach their femme identities.
Maurice Tracy. All photos courtesy their subjects
My partner starts the water running several minutes before I get out of bed; the bathroom is already filled with steam when I slide the shower door open and step in. They are shaving their legs, as they do each morning. When they’re finished with the razor we share, I reach for it—but then I hesitate. Do my legs really need to be smooth today?
I am a queer cisgender woman, and my partner is AMAB (assigned male at birth), nonbinary, and trans femme. Although we both identify as “femme,” the word carries different meanings and implications for both of us. Since my partner came out as nonbinary, they’ve enjoyed wearing makeup, shaving, and purchasing women’s clothing and accessories—actions they find empowering, and which allow them to more fully embrace and express their gender. I, on the other hand, have a conflicted relationship with practices like shaving and wearing makeup. When I engage in them, am I acting out of my own desire? Or am I giving in to the immense pressure of beauty standards prescribed to women? It’s a question I grapple with deeply: Does it make me less queer, or less feminist, to be femme?
The term “femme” does not simply mean “feminine”; it is used in queer circles to designate queer femininity, in a way that’s often self-aware and subversive. It’s both a celebration and a refiguring of femininity. From the invisibility queer femmes can feel in some lesbian circles to the sharp vulnerability inherent in being a trans woman, no two femme-identified individuals share the same experience of what it means to be femme. I asked people across a range of gender identities to talk about how they relate to femme practices, and what being femme means to them.
I’m a writer and artist and a trans woman. My parents are working-class white evangelicals who adopted me from Guatemala when I was a month old. My life is this patchwork quilt of identities: I’m brown, queer, and femme from a poor, white, dogmatic Christian world. I understood from a young age that I was a femme, a sissy, something that desired softness.
I love calling myself a “femmy” or a “tranny,” even the word “transsexual,” mostly because I adore the absurdity of language, but I also believe in the power of radical reclamation. In my own practice, it means burrowing in the binary: tits draped in silk, stilettos, my favorite neon yellow thong, or obsessing over my Fenty lip gloss.
My family is not supportive of my trans identity, and very quickly as a child, they tried erasing me as a femme by raising me as a boy. Most of my femme nurturing came from queer and trans femmes of color, elder trans women, and femme black gay men. They taught me how to thrive as a femme, to embrace and celebrate it. For many years, I felt immense anxiety and depression as a femme. The world is still very hostile to femmes and trans women. I still have my anxieties, but today, I am the happiest I have ever been in 31 years. Femmes are fierce, and we're slaying for vengeance.
When I was a child, I remember people telling me “don’t walk like that” or “don’t talk like that.” They always meant “like a girl.” Not just any girl, but a girly girl. I never understood why “like that” was wrong. I still don’t.
Honestly, I’m not that concerned about pronouns. I answer to he/him, but when I’m with my close friends, they call me girl/she/her, and I love it.
Being femme is about so much more than beautification, which is expensive and time-consuming and opens you up to judgment. Have you done your makeup well? Do you look sexy and pretty? Can you fit into the right clothes? All this is part of femme culture, and I hate it. Yes, I love mascara, I love accenting the plump fullness of my lips with a blush chapstick, and for a period I used to wear foundation. But I don’t do this all the time, and when I don’t, I’m still femme.
I am femme because, as a femme queer boi, I have always had more in common with women than with men or masculine people. Growing up, my parents would have friends or other people over, and I would spend my time in the kitchen with the women, doing “womanly” activities. While my brothers learned about sports, I learned family secrets. For we—in a very Black way—pass down family history orally and through food, and often it is the women in a family who hold this knowledge.
Our culture hates femininity, calls it weak. Our culture is inept at nurture and care, terrified of vulnerability and softness—all things that are squarely in the femme’s handbag. To indulge in femme culture is actually to be brave, and to have strength. So when I say I am femme, I am saying that I try to live my life bravely.
I'm a queer femme with a dark lipstick exterior and a soft, glitter-like core. When I was younger, “femme” was a term ascribed to me by others based on my relationship to a butch partner. I didn't self-identify as femme until I met other queer folks who helped me see that femme is its own identity. Femme is intentional; it’s a way of simultaneously challenging and celebrating femininity. It recognizes that I identify with aspects of femininity but don't identify with the heteronormative system that trivializes and demonizes them.
More tangibly, I find my femmeness in all sorts of ways—in carefully filing and painting my long nails, friends who tell me when there's lipstick on my teeth, confidently stepping into a strap-on harness, the mutual compassion when “how are you” is a genuine question, and the feeling of hairy legs under a soft skirt. It's in everyday acts that hold a personal history of discovery and comfort.
Like most femmes who are cis women, I contend with femme invisibility. Even in queer communities, femmes are often invalidated or overlooked. My queerness has been diminished and joked about by other queer people, which instills a level of self-doubt. Am I queer enough? Can I speak about being queer if I'm not seen as queer? It takes continual work to correct and educate people while also trying to affirm your own experiences, even more so for trans and nonbinary femmes and femmes of color. I think this labor and common experience pushes us to seek out other femmes though, forming a stronger community based on validation and support.
New York City
About a year ago, I came out as a nonbinary femme; I was already out as a queer person in terms of my sexual identity, but this was a bold step for me. Because I was AFAB (assigned female at birth) and look like a very classically “feminine” woman, some have the misconception that I’m not actually gender fluid. Which is frustrating, because gender identity is not predicated on appearance, and can also change, especially for gender fluid people. While I prefer “they” as a pronoun, I still use “she” interchangeably depending on how safe or comfortable I feel in a particular space.
I’ve always loved femme beauty rituals that are also self-care rituals, like facials, painting my nails, using makeup, or wearing dresses and jewelry and flower crowns. As a writer and artist, I look at the act of dressing as an art—it’s like being a walking canvas. Fashion and makeup were a huge part of my mother’s and grandmother’s lives, and they became part of my identity regardless of my gender.
I try not to overthink my appearance and just allow myself to be fluid. Shaving is one thing I always change my mind about—sometimes I love having body hair, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s hard to know what I want, versus what I’m “supposed to want.” For me, this bleeds into many challenges I’ve had to face as a femme—largely, not being believed about my gender identity. But I exist in a third gender, in both spaces, in a neutral territory.
Chautauqua, New York
I use words that communicate what I need them to, since whenever I’m living how I want to live, people will have questions and expect answers. So I let them know I’m a trans nonbinary femme person, and to please use “they” and “them.” But there’s a way in which I could say I’m post-pronoun—that maybe I’m not a femme, that I’m such a faggot that my effeminacy got too big for the petri dish. I’m crawling on the lab tables! The sirens are blaring! The scientists fear for their lives! Gender went too far!
But I mean, I also have a lot to do besides talk about this to every person. So I try to spend less time answering to the patriarchy and more time on me, on my loved ones, on teaching, on coming up with cool outfits. That's one of the most femme things I do. It’s femme labor, a femme strategy for living. But it isn’t femme joy.
Speaking of joy, I’ve found relief in seeing how other living femme writers reply to those questions from strangers—and their insights on possibilities outside the “workplace reply,” the ways we condense our answers. When jayy dodd wrote in a Los Angeles Review of Books interview that their reply to the “gender question” is “I am your question,” it helped me feel beautiful and strangely affirmed in those moments of other people’s confusion, error, and discomfort. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “that’s exactly right.”
Interviews have been condensed and edited.