Recently in queer culture, I have noticed a trend towards a rejection of labels and an emphasis on fluidity of presentation and sexual identity. From conversations I have had and articles I have read, it seems to me that this tendency stems from a desire to remain unfettered by stereotypes and identities that feel externally imposed and inauthentic.
I believe strongly in freedom of expression and certainly would never wish someone to attach a name to themselves that does not fit. I also understand the argument against labels because they are often used to relieve the discomfort of others who may not be familiar with the LGBT community. For those who have not been exposed to queer culture, it can be easier to make sense of an LGBT person as fitting into a simple and intelligible box rather than as a complex and unique individual. In a way, labels remove the burden of having to work to get to know someone; one can simply say, “Oh, she’s a butch,” or “She’s a femme.”
However, in my experience, the label of “femme” has been useful to me in feeling centered and as though I have a place in the world. Rather than floating in a family tree of people unlike myself, I feel a connection to a line of other femmes who have come before me in history. “Femme” has helped me to make sense of myself.
It is also a reclaiming of my inherent femininity, which I had fought strongly against for so long. In my early coming-out days, with my painted toes just peeping out of the closet, I was teased for wearing make-up, dressing in girlish clothes, and speaking in my naturally high and feminine voice. I started to hate that part of myself, as it became a source of ridicule. It was little things, like being told to hurry up when I was getting ready to go out somewhere with friends, rushing to find the perfect outfit while they sat on the couch in jeans and t-shirts. It was the rolling of eyes when I defensively said that lesbians can be feminine, or being made to feel silly when I showed that I cared about things like hair curlers and eyeliner.
I remember one incident in which I went along with a friend as emotional support while he was getting tattooed. When we discovered that the tattoo artist was a lesbian, and therefore everyone in the room was “family,” we laughed and chatted like old friends. (I love how LGBT folks can come together so quickly based on our shared similar experiences.)
The tattoo artist, let’s call her Kara, turned to me and asked me what kind of women I am interested in. When I answered truthfully that I tend to like women who are on the butch or androgynous side of the spectrum, her face changed. “Are you sure you aren’t bisexual?” she asked, a hint of disdain in her voice.
The demonization of bisexuality in today’s culture is a topic for another post, but as a self-identified lesbian who feels strongly in myself as a woman-loving-woman, and a feminine one at that, my feelings were hurt. This woman had just confirmed my fear that being a femme who loves butch and/or androgynous women somehow made me less of a lesbian.
For a long time, I spent my life on edge, careful not to dress or act too femininely and fighting desperately to prove that I was gay. Then, one day, I just let go. I stopped working against myself, and I stopped feeling as though being called “femme” was an accusation. I started dressing however the hell I wanted to dress and stopped caring what other people thought.
I’m not sure how or why this change happened, but part of it certainly has to do with my beautiful relationship with my partner, who loves me for me, and teaches me every day to accept all parts of myself. “Femme” is now a label I embrace whole-heartedly. By loving it and identifying with it, I am working to remove all the negative power the word used to hold over me. And every day I am farther along in my journey towards the conviction and strength that comes with self-love and acceptance.