As a member of the queer community and someone who needed to figure out my gender identity and presentation before figuring out my sexuality, I've always been interested in queer expressions of gender. For many of us in the queer community, finding unique ways to express our gender is a liberating part of queer experience. Gender, after all, is tied to sexuality and heteronormativity.
Over the past few weeks I've felt compelled to explore queer expressions of femininity due to a new hashtag that has been popping up on social media: #FemmesOfColorVisibility. Created by a new group, the LA Femmes of Color Collective, and used more than 300 times so far, the hashtag is bringing visual representations of femmes of color to the forefront. I talked with the folks behind the hashtag and to femmes of color who've written about their experiences online to understand how this identity and community is shaped.
How did you come to identify as femme?
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, "queer disabled Sri Lankan cis femme writer, performer, organizer and healer": "I'm a nerd and I've had my life saved by feminist and queer-of-color writing. I came to identify as femme [after] finding writers who were queer femmes of color--Chrystos, Amber Hollibaugh, Jewel Gomez. [I was] reading people's writing and seeing the way their bodies moved through the world [and saying], 'That's the kind of gender that I want to embody.'"
Mey Rude, "lesbian, Latina, trans woman living in Idaho," and the trans editor for Autostraddle: "I started identifying as a femme as soon as I realized that I was in charge of my own gender. Being trans, I felt for most of my life that I had to fit my gender and gender presentation into what was expected of me, and that was pretty much the opposite of femme. I was always taught that it was shameful for me to act or look or even feel feminine. Thinking about gender had always made me feel weak and depressed, but once I found out about being femme, it suddenly was a source of strength, pride and joy."
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, "black, femme, essayist, zinester and poet": "I absorbed a lot of the femmephobic ideas that I grew up with in the '90s. I had so many messages about needing to be masculine in order to be part of queer community. I didn't understand why. I've always felt like I chose femininity. I have a feminine connection to the divine. I stayed in femme because of the black femme community."
Vanessa Durand, "unapologetically fat, genderqueer femme," social justice activist and member of the LA Femmes of Color Collective: "Seeing strong, outspoken, unafraid and unapologetic women talk about how their queer identities and love for their bodies represented something so powerful, beautiful, subversive, and radically intentional about how they show up in the world. [It] made me feel like I had finally found home--a sense of belonging. Identifying as femme and learning how to practice self-love ultimately saved my life."
Has being a person of color informed your femme identity?
Johnson: "It's about being under more scrutiny than other femmes. [It's about] a rich history and [being] in really good company [of] black femmes who do the motherfucking work and are amazing. The best thing about being a black femme is that you know that you are in good, hardworking, incredibly tough, incredibly talented company."
Piepzna-Samarasinha: "Ableism lifts up a white, able-bodied, traditionally feminine, middle-class body as the 'right' way to be femme. Because of ableism in the movements I'm part of, it took me years to find a disability justice community where I didn't have to closet my disability in order to still be femme. My cane, sexy non-stilleto boots and bed life are femme now because of the labor of disability justice comrades. Many of them, liike Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, are deeply femme."
Rude: "Pretty much all of the femme inspiration and strength I get is from my fellow trans femmes of color [such as] Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Luna Merbruja and Morgan Robyn Collado. One label that I like to use for myself is 'bruja femme,' which is an identity that combines the spiritual power I get from my femme rituals and tools with the spiritual power I get from my faith and beliefs rooted in my Chicana version of semi-lapsed Catholicism. It helps me stay rooted in my culture of fellow Latina femmes."
What do you think about the idea of femme invisibility and privilege?
Piepzna-Samarasinha: "For a lot of femmes of color--black femmes and indigenous femmes--we're hypervisible. We're not the less oppressed side of the butch/femme continuum; we actually face a lot of violence because we live in an incredibly sexist world. In a world where femininity is universally hated, being femme in a way that's powerful, beloved, tender and valued is revolutionary."
Johnson: "I've been catcalled and questioned on the street since I was a child so I don't know what it's like to be invisible. [I was once] choked in a store* in the middle of the day. I would have paid for invisibility in that moment--it would have paid to be invisible."
Where do you find femme community?
Rude: "I find femme community in two interconnected places: my fellow trans women of color and on the Internet. Seeing beautiful, powerful and confident trans women of color gives me all the strength I need as a trans-Latina to fully express my femme self. Since I live in a small city in Idaho with a really small queer community and a really small POC community, the Internet has been a godsend to me."
Durand: "[The L.A. Femme of Color Collective] noticed that there was a lack of accurate and diverse representations of people on social media and in femme-focused blogs. They are so often filled with images of thin, white, cis women. #FemmesOfColorVisibility allows us to document our selfies as a form of resistance and it gives femmes of color the opportunity to combat invisibility, misogyny and the devaluation of femininity perpetuated by masculine-of-center folks within queer communities and spaces. The hashtag allows us to be intentional about creating a sense of community in digital spaces; an that can manifest to community-building in many other settings. This is not just a hashtag. It's a social justice movement that gives people the opportunity to witness the brilliance, beauty and badassery that is femmes of color!"
Where do you hope to see the femme of color movement go in the future?
Laura Luna P, "community builder, cultura curator, chola bon vivant, mama femme and self-identifying fat femme" and member of the LA Femmes of Color Collective: "I think that organizing in this collective has taught me that in our brilliance there is abundance, that there's no need to be scared of scarcity. I'd like for that feeling to spread to all femmes of color regardless of gender, sexuality, race and ability. I'd also really like for femme-of-color identity to be accessible to everyone who wants to identify that way. I'd like for the myth that femme only looks one way to be smashed. Femme doesn't only mean red lips, sky high heels and perfectly manicured nails (although it can most certainly mean that). Femme means whatever you want it to mean for yourself and however you want it to look like if that gender feels like home to you."
Rude: "One thing I hope for is more visibility for fat femmes of color. I want the femme-of-color movement to be the place where Westernized standards of beauty and femmeness are thrown to the side. I'd like us to fully embrace versions of femme that are currently pushed aside so that the white, cis, Western femme ideal can be praised."
Jo De La Torre,"stylishly dreamy writer, mother, caregiver, artist, community builder and brown femme medicine": "My hope is that femmes of color find each other when they want, take care of one another when they need to, and build interconnected movements that fight the systematic violence of all oppressed people."
Piepzna-Samarasinha: "I want all of us to get laid, be happy, live rich lives and mentor the queer femmes coming up. And I want the queer femmes coming up to bloom, lead and take up space with their genius."
*Post has been updated since publication to indicate that Johnson was choked in a store, not on a street corner as previously stated.