There are as many ways to construct and live a femme identity as there are femmes. Some femmes wear long hair, others shave their heads, and still others do both. Some wear heels every time they leave the house and others wear sneakers. Some are CEOs and some are welders and some work in pink-collar fields. Some are “girly” and many are not. Some associate their femme-ness with their appearance, while others associate it with spirituality or energy or emotion or politics or care or strength.
Femme isn’t any one presentation or behavior or way of moving through the world, and it’s definitely not simply “being feminine.” It’s an intentional, self-aware, and queer twist on feminine energy and presentation that transcends the sum of its parts. Or as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes in “FEMME SHARK MANIFESTO!, “WE’RE YOUR BEST GIRLFRIEND AND YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE.”
If you are femme, date femmes, both, or neither, here’s a quick primer on the myths and truths around being femme.
Myth: Only Lesbian Women Can Be Femme
Lesbian women – trans and cis, duh – can be femme. Bisexual women can be femme. Queer women can be femme. Lesbian, bisexual, and queer non-binary people can be femme. (There’s also a history of femme in gay men’s spaces, and trans men can be femme, too.) The only people who can’t be femme? Straight women, for whom “femme” is appropriation.
Myth: It’s Easier Or Harder To Be Femme
Our society systematically devalues femininity and sees it as weaker or less-than. Femmes experience misogyny as a result, not just from men or straight people but from other queers, no matter how visible their queerness. Plus, on the one hand, conforming to cis-hetero patriarchal ideas of “what a woman should look like” (regardless of whether or not a femme is a woman) can make moving through cis-hetero patriarchal society more straightforward in some ways.
But on the other hand, it means that femmes often face constant erasure of their queerness and are often mistaken for straight women, which means that they have to come out over and over and over again unless they’re standing next to a butch dating partner – sometimes even if they’re holding hands with their femme wife. They hear that dating masculine-of-center people means they might as well be straight. They hear that dating other femmes can’t possibly be fulfilling – or they don’t hear about femme-for-femme at all, since many folks don’t believe that those relationships exist.
These myths are obviously untrue. The truth is, most identities have privileges and challenges. Just because someone with a certain identity can seem to move smoothly in one space doesn’t mean that’s their experience universally. Nuance is key.
Myth: Femmes Only Date Butch Folks
Butch-femme relationships have been part of lesbian culture since the 1950s or earlier. One femme author Joan Nestle writes, “the butch-femme couple embarrassed other Lesbians (and still does) because they made Lesbians culturally visible, a terrifying act for the 1950s. […] we were a symbol of women’s erotic autonomy, a sexual accomplishment that did not include [straight spectators].” This relationship dynamic remains hot today, and yet femme desire is boundless. Femme for femme is real and can be extremely affirming as well as extremely hot for everyone involved. Femmes can date outside of the butch-femme spectrum, too.
Myth: Femmes Are “High Maintenance”
Femmes are the ones maintaining themselves. See above re: misogyny.
Myth: Femmes Are Bottoms
Gender identity is not tied to sexual identity, and whether or not someone is a top, bottom, or switch – or dominant or submissive, for kinky folks – has nothing to do with how femme they are. There are femmes who are dommes, femmes who are leatherdykes, and femmes who refuse to let long nails get in the way of fisting someone (the trick is to wear nitrile gloves with cotton balls in the tips and use a ton of lube). If someone is femme, that doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not she wants to be a pillow princess or wear a strap-on – it just tells you that her dildo might be sparkly if she does.
Myth: Being Femme Means You Know How To Bake A Cake
Some femmes are absolute magicians in the kitchen, and many aren’t. Similarly, many femmes express their caretaking through community defense and political actions – and others have different expressions. Being femme is a subversion of femininity, not an instant ticket to mindlessly repeating patriarchal norms and the skillsets that go along with them, or to practicing resistance like breathing. Just like with sex and dating, gender and behavior are linked, yet separate. Everything comes from intention and learning.
So Where Can I Learn More About Femme Identity?
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman, is an overview of butch and femme identities from a wide range of contributors. In classic Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, edited by Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri, contributors examine femme identity as more self-contained. More recently, Autostraddle‘s “What We Mean When We Say ‘Femme’ Roundtable” features contemporary femmes with a range of experiences. And Glamour Girls: Femme-Femme Erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussell, and
Sometimes She Lets Me: Butch-Femme Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino, are excellent smut collections.