femmes as a trans identity

November 13, 2007  |  essays

Wish I could embedd this video, but it appears to be disabled – nevertheless, watch the FtF: Female to Femme trailer over on youtube. It’s from last year, and I’ve seen it around before, but wanted to highlight it for this femme discussion I’ve been having lately.Among others, I noticed Jewelle Gomez and Bitch as some of the ones interviewed. The website is over at AltCinema, and has some information about screenings and distribution. I missed it, unfortunately; I definitely want to see it.

I’ve been thinking about femme as a trans identity lately, and there’s some interesting stuff to hypothesize about. Clearly you could argue “butch” goes outside the prescribed gender roles, therefore transitioning between the usual “feminine female” and “masculine male” identities. But femme flies under the radar, sometimes, because of the ways it appears to go along with gender roles – “feminine female.” But there is one key big thing missing in this gender makeup, and that is sexual orientation – and honestly that’s a big piece (the only piece? the central piece?) of what differentiates femme from straightgirl.

This gets into the ways that femininity is compulsory and prescribed specifically for heterosexual purposes. And once a girl comes out as queer/lesbian/dyke, those rules for “getting a man” no longer apply, right?

Along with the rejection of heterosexuality, current lesbians culture tends to reject femininity as well, at least in the mainstream/sterotype. That is why shaving one’s head or at least cutting one’s hair very, very short is a particular rite of passage for most queer girls.

So, adding femininity back to a non-heterosexual female-bodied person, means something completely different. It is an adoption of gender, a serious transition into something new and intentional.

I’ll have more to say on this later …

And because I couldn’t provide you the embedded version of the FtF trailer, here is another one of my favorites from sophisticated sex comics The Wet Spots. Enjoy!

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11 Comments


  1. I had the oppertunity to see this at DC's Reel Affirmations film festival. Overall it's an great documentary. Some parts were a bit unneccessary/ long, but there was a lot of information and different perspecives from some really awesome women. Hope it eventually becomes availible on DVD.

  2. i've always bristled at the narrowness of what constitutes "feminine," regardless of sexual orientation. i've never been a girly girl, whether sleeping with men or women, yet i am all about some divine feminine power. i think that's why i just get grumpy when gender theory stuff starts getting discussed. i mean, i keep listening & reading, but it all seems so attached to the words rather than the experience of just being. it's seems like having a pantyhose fetish and forgetting it takes some legs to make that work at all. (how's that for an early morning analogy?!)

  3. tongue-tied: I would definitely say that I am all about divine feminine power – well, maybe not ALL about, but definitely I appreciate it and study it often. you certainly don't have to be traditionally within that feminine gender role in order to appreciate that. and I don't think you have to be a girly girl – or polar opposite – at all! I'm definitely not trying to say that everybody fits into one or the other of these butch/femme masculine/feminine categories, there is so much room out there in the "gender galaxy" for everyone to have their own quadrant, their own solar system, their own understanding of what it means to them and which pieces of which genders to adopt and remake and reclaim and create upon their own bodies. I appreciate that you keep listening & reading despite the grumpyness :) and I guess I hope I, eventually, can convince you that femininity – and masculinity – are not nearly as narrow as they are made out to be by our limited perceptions of gender roles, and that adopting and claiming the roles for ourselves (if/when one wants to!) can be incredibly liberating.

  4. that looks cool and interesting.toungue-tied: i recently got in trouble for calling a friend feminine. i got out of it, but it took a lot of explaining that i think of feminine as not the same as girly, and as a sort of power.also, i think that you have to be somewhere comfortable before you can just be, and for some people getting to that point takes a lot of this discussion and processing.and i love the analogy =)

  5. I think this is largely how I think about femme. But the comment I tried writing earlier got too long to be polite. I just have to write a post about it!

  6. I never understood why on earth feminine should equal weak (or at least weaker-than-masculine). My femininity has never felt like a weakness to me, especially not since my femininity turned into femmeness (after a phase of baby-dyke anti-feminine feminism, admittedly) ten years ago (yes, I'm happily over 30).And femme certainly does not equal weak at all. On the contrary, to me femme has always meant feminine + queer + tough. (Now please don't tell me that femme submissives or shy femmes or femmes who have no idea how to handle electrical power tools are not tough. They/we are. It's just a different kind of tough.)Oh, and hi. New reader, first-time comment. Will check back and say more later.

  7. hi cat! thanks for commenting. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm equating femme with weak at all. I don't have any presumption about the weak-strong hierarchies within gender expressions. I'd venture a guess to say that "feminine is weaker than masculine" has to do with the gender roles within our culture, and a general patriarchal social hierarchy that dictates that women need protecting by men because of their general inferiority and weakness. feminism and the women's liberation movement for the last hundred years has definitely done work to combat that, but it's still not eradicated. guess that's my two cents version of that. :)

  8. Sinclair, no, you didn't come across as saying femme=weak. I was referring more to what other commenters had said. And I agree about the patriarchy bit.—But to get back to your original posting (and the film "FtF"): On some level, the female-to-femme idea makes a lot of sense to me, most of all because it implies a conscious choice for femmeness/female femininity rather than either assuming a "natural" link between femaleness and femininity or assuming we're being patriarchally brainwashed. Still, I often hesitate to use the term transgender for that particular transition, mostly because I don't see the political use of making the trans* box so big that just about every human being who has ever suffered gender policing (i.e. all of us) fits in there.I do feel, think and believe, however, that what makes femmes different from straight women is about gender, not simply about sexual orientation/preferences (as if the two were separable anyway). But I still haven't found the words to describe how exactly. So I'll be looking out for what else you might have to say on this topic (and I'll keep looking for my own words, too).

  9. cat: Thanks for clarifying! I totally agree that the difference between femme and feminine, queer femme women and straight feminine women, is gender, not orientation – but what is that difference in gender? That's what I'm struggling in articulating. The only thing I can put my finger on so far is that the seemingly same things – earrings, lipstick, skirts, heels – are used to attract different genders, so are therefore different. But then, what about femmes who primarily are attracted to, date, and partner with other femmes, verses femmes who partner with trans men, vs femmes who date all over the gender galaxy? Are those differences in types of femme gender, too? For example. We should do an experiment – get the same outfit, and put it on two different women, one queer, one straight. How does that change things? How do they wear it differently? I'm sure context would make a difference, too – standing in the street vs at a bar vs at home – there are so many factors!This is really hard to pinpoint. Thanks for the ideas & further conversation … I will definitely be writing more on it soon.

  10. cat: oh, one more thing: I totally dig what you said about the "natural" link between femaleness and femininity, and seeing femme, therefore, as a trans category. But you're also right that if we make the trans box so big that we all fit in it, then what's the box for? Still, I think femme-as-trans is a really interesting argument, and I think there's more to it than just gender policing and femininity as a choice. I'm gonna have to think about it more though, and see what else I can articulate.

  11. FTF is now available for purchase, apparently? but it's like $200. While I'm tempted to just buy it, I really can't justify the purchase just for me alone. Except that I wonder how long it will be for purchase? It's my inner librarian telling me to put it in the "archives" (a bookshelf which has zero room left on it!)

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