In patriarchal, heteronormative mainstream society, the concept of sex and gender does not usually go beyond the concepts of the male sex equals the gender identity of man and the female sex equals the gender identity of woman. However, among modern queer culture some of those who are assigned female at birth identify their gender as femme, not as woman. What does it mean to be a femme? Does one have to be queer to be a femme? Does one have to be a lesbian to be femme? How do queer communities construct gender? Is it different from how gender is constructed in hegemonic culture? What does gender have to do with sexuality? Does a lesbian identity legitmate femme gender identity? Does it need to?

Drawing on diverse sources from Gayle Rubin to Adrianne Rich, I explore concepts of gender identities among queer culture, as well as questions of gender diversity and gender definitions in general and in queer communities and femme and woman identities specifically. Questions of gender diversity and gender definitions are relevant because of the recent explosion of post-modern theory that has worked to examine and deconstruct traditional notions of identity. Questions of gender diversity, gender definitions and their link to sexuality has also been a long standing relevant issue to feminist theory and especially to the more recent developments in queer theory that questions the traditional definitions of gender and their link or lack thereof between gender and the sex one is assigned at birth and whether gender identity is connected to sexual identity.

Home is where...well, where is it?: Bisexual Femme Identities

Another queer femme's attempts at getting hot'n'heavy with a straight non-transman has had me thinking:

About myself, and my own forays into sex with non-transmen, what I like to do, what I like to fantasize about, in short, this complicated, many-layered and sometimes totally confusing and frustrating thing called 'my sexuality'.

My sexuality - in terms of what I like to do, what I like to fantasize about, who I notice, who I date, has changed so many times over it's not even funny.

“As it’s finally sinking in that if gender is fluid, how can ‘sexual orientation’ not be as well?” a Travers Scott wrote in 'Pomosexuals: Challenging Ideas about Gender and Sexuality', "How can you be rigidly oriented to something that is amorphous, shifting, tricky and elusive? Basing your identity on sexuality is like building a house on a foundation of pudding." That's certainly been my experience. Once I come up with a specific label for my sexuality, I chafe against it. There is something in me - even deeper than a conscious thought that screams 'don't fence me in!' and fights against any kind of label or category I try to put myself in, unless it's broad enough. But then I worry that a broad term could never really convey all of the nooks and crannies of my sexuality. But, that's what happens when we are dealing with, the oft-used lesbian feminist phrase, "a paucity of language."

Even though I spent a good few years identifying as a lesbian, I was only for a short time of that, exclusively attracted to women. Most of that time, I was still pretty interested in dick, even if I wasn't all that interested in the men attached to them. No one bought that I was a lesbian - it was like people could into my mind and see that I was cock crazy. Only one friend of mine believed that maybe I was a lesbian, but it was more of the lesbianism described by Adrienne Rich in her "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence" essay.

"You were always so women-oriented," she said, "You know, so into women's bodies and celebrating them and the goddess and all that typically lesbian-feminist stuff" She was shocked when I took the Klein sexuality (a more expanded scale from the Kinsey Scale) grid and revealed that I almost exclusively fantasized about sex with non-transmen. "But you've had sex with so many women!" she shouted in disbelief. "I know." I said. And I've been contemplating the complexity inherent in that ever since.

What does it mean to identify my gender as a femme, but not necessarily as a woman, except in a social gender role sense, and to be primarily visually attracted to women and sex with them the most, but fantasize constantly about dick, but prefer transmen and queer cisgendered men?

I don't know what it means, but I do know how it feels. Sometimes it feels great - I feel complex, interesting, different and other times I just feel weird and misunderstood and like I'll never fit anywhere. The queer community and my queer identity is so precious to me, especially my identity as a queer femme. I constantly live under the fear that I'll be kicked out of the queer girl club and that they'll take away my femme tiara. Every time a lesbian-identified femme says, "The difference between me and a straight woman is that I present myself as a subject of desire for a woman. That's what is subversive about my gender." I feel like I've been kicked in the gut. What the heck does that make me then, I wonder, and where does that leave me?

I remember the first time I read Gayle Rubin in school. I remember when they mentioned her name thinking, hey, I've read her work before, in butch-femme anthology ‘The Persistant Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader'’ edited by Joan Nestle and the lesbian (dare I say lesbian-feminist?) BDSM anthology, ‘Coming To Power’ edited by Samois, a BDSM women’s group.

Gayle Rubin is most famous in feminist and women's studies for her essay 'The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex' which all of our teachers would tell us she wrote while in grad school. We would roll our eyes and groan because we knew they were saying, hey, you could write something like this too! We really didn't need the pressure.

In an essay on the sex wars in ‘Coming to Power’ Gaye Rubin recalls a conference, not at Barnard, which is famous for a conference that occurred in 1982 that was a major showdown between feminists of different factions, but at Mount Holyoke. The different factions that were ‘at war’ were (are?) namely the butch-femme, kinky, queer feminists and the cultural feminists who felt that heterosexuality, butch-femme and BDSM was assault and reproduced women's oppression. The conference that Rubin writes about takes around the same time period as the Barnard conference in 1982, but preceding it, and in the essay, Rubin quotes some of the cultural feminists.

What struck me this time that hadn't before were their names. I recognized Sheila Jeffrey's and Janice Raymond, but I realized that I recognized them from their writings on how and why transpeople were the anti-Christ, excuse me, I mean anti-feminists. I was struck at how it seems the same people often consider groups that I belong to, to be the enemy. I also marveled at how the usual suspects; leather people, butches, femmes, transpeople, bisexuals, non-monogamists, overtly sexual women, have often been the target of not only mainstream society, but of the some members of subcultures we are often connected to - the queer and feminist community. I find this very interesting.

Rubin's essay in ‘Coming To Power’ details the ways in which mainstream oppression of BDSM and clashes in feminism over the issue, have worked toward the oppression of kinky people. When she mentioned that she used to be excited about reading feminist press and now dreads it, for fear that there will be a new installment about how sick she is as a sexual person. It reminded me of why I became to dread reading the local gay paper. It seemed every week a new article about why transpeople and bisexuals were 'wrecking the movement, making 'us' look bad, or hijacking the movement' were frequent themes. I would sigh. Close the paper and wonder where the hell that left me.

In Rubin's work in 'The Persistent Desire’ she notes that when the slogan 'Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice' was taken too literally that lesbian sexualities merit to exist as a sexuality had dropped out of the landscape. It had to be justified politically. It struck me then that I felt that way about femme identity. That when lesbian femmes rushed to legitimize femme identity based on its queerness and the queer direction - that what made it subversive is that the gussying up is for a woman not a man - then the ability to legitimate femme gender not on the basis of queerness drops out of the landscape.

Both of these lines of reasoning make me profoundly uncomfortable and just as I'd like to see sexuality considered legitimate because it's sexual, not despite it, whether that's a BDSM or lesbian or queer sexuality. I'd like to see gender considered the same way. Not based on who the compliment is, but for femme gender to stand on its own. With or without justification from a butch or queer desire. I don't need a justification to be who I am and I don't feel that my being a kinky queer femme who fucks people all over the gender spectrum is incompatible with my feminism. But I know full well what it feels like to be alienated by mainstream culture and the communities you so want to call home. It's frustrating to seek out community and see all these signs that say 'You Are Not Welcome Here' I know that I myself and many other queers and feminists of my stripe have felt that way in feminist and LGBT communities.

I've solved this for myself by creating my own communities of friends and reveled in that. But friendship circles is not the same as community so it makes me thrill to hear about conferences, classes and other venues that deal with femme gender and identity and hope that new dialogue and new theory is being written just as it is being lived each and every day by my brave people who have the courage to be themselves, even if we do get disowned every step of the way.

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