In my city, there’s a monthly queer-women-and-company dance event called Flannel Takeover. It’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the visuals of being a queer woman: someone who wears lots of flannel. Line up, ladies and trans gents and non-binary folks! Grab a beer, don your snapback, aaand let’s perpetuate the lazy stereotype that queer woman equals masculine.
A memory: my best friend since college, when I first visited him almost seven years ago in the city I now call home, wanted to take us out to a queer party. As he saw me putting on lipstick, he asked incredulously, “You’re wearing lipstick?” I immediately felt stupid, like an outsider who had lived in lipstick lesbian southern California too long since I last saw him, marked and not as cool or radical as all the people I’d be meeting that evening with their shaved heads, denim vests, and combat boots. (My best friend cringes at his reaction now, realizing in hindsight that the real transgression was not my lipstick, but his internalized femmephobia. We all make mistakes, and we’re even closer now than we were then.)
I was already nervous, that night, about what to wear, since the version of “acceptably,” visibly queer I had been exposed to since I started identifying as queer at a New England women’s college in the mid-2000s was not only white (which I am), but also masculine, skinny, athletic, and able-bodied, typically with class privilege. There were almost no queer femme role models. The only time I really encountered the idea of queer femme was in Leslie Feinberg’s iconic Stone Butch Blues, which left me and my peers with the impression that femmes were something that happened in the ‘50s, and then maybe sorta in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before becoming embarrassingly outdated. “Gender is performative,” everyone would say unironically on campus, nodding wisely after reading Judith Butler but forgetting that femininity isn’t the only gender that people perform.
I’ve found a similar dynamic at play when it comes to queer folks sharing their baby photos with a wink and a nod. Typically, this means feminine cis gay men showing off photos where they’re posing using adorably campy and dramatic gestures as toddlers, maybe with an accessory such as a feather boa. For more masculine cis queer women, or even just cis queer women who don’t particularly identify as femme, they show off similar photos indicating their gender transgressiveness, always a riff on the tomboy (or tomboi) aesthetic.
And this is great as a way to make sense of your past, to think about how your identity now may have started expressing itself earlier before you had the words to describe it. Sharing these photos, in such a situation, can be incredibly empowering.
But too often, certain binary ideas about gender—feminine boys and masculine girls—are seen as synonymous with queerness. Where does this leave masculine cis gay men, queer femme cis women, and non-binary people? Or trans men and trans women who don’t fit into certain narratives about how they came to their trans identities, or how feminine or masculine they’ve always felt or feel? And what’s more, what about those of us who feel less comfortable or authentic searching for a queer “root” in our toddlerhood?
I look back on my own baby photos and puzzle over what I’m supposed to make of them. I see a little cis girl sometimes dressed in pink, who loved pink as early as I can remember, who relished dress-up and Halloween and chose to be a ballerina, a fairy princess, a queen, and a witch. When my mom took me to McDonald’s, I never wanted the “boys’” Hotwheel cars. I was obsessed with reading historical fiction as I grew older and wished I could wear elaborate, super-femme medieval gowns (and was way more interested in the strong female protagonists than any of the male characters). I would read the American Girls books and yearned to be Samantha Parkington, with all her fancy pinafores and hair bows and Victorian wealth.
Sure, there is a photo of me as a toddler wearing Osh Kosh overalls and holding another little girl’s hand as we walk down the street. Is that my “aha” queer baby photo moment? Where are the narratives of someone showing off her seemingly gender-normative photos of her little girl self in a pink nightgown and confidently telling her friends, “Look how queer I was!”? Because queerness encapsulates all genders, all expressions, all tantalizing permutations of gender and sexuality in our diverse LGBTQ+ communities.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, there is also a push for us queer folks to claim early queer identities as a way to counter conservative religious bigots’ claims that we simply “chose” to sin against their idea of God and that therefore, we don’t deserve equal protection under the law. If we can show everyone how super duper gay and/or trans we’ve been since the beginning, we can argue that we deserve to be protected as a class of people versus people who merely made specific life decisions.
And of course, many of us have been super duper gay and/or trans early in our lives. Some of us not so much: we may have come to these identities much later in life, and/or experience ourselves as sexually fluid and/or gender fluid. But regardless of how we came to be how we are, and regardless of who we will become (as change is a constant in the human lifespan), there are so many ways to be those selves. So many ways to experience our bodies, our emotions, our sense of what gender(s), if any, make sense to us.
More Radical Reads: Ain’t We Femme?
So when I look back at my baby photos, sometimes I’ll show my partner, who loves and worships my femme-ininity, as a sort of joke about what a cute baby femme I was. Most of the time I don’t particularly assign a sexuality to my baby or toddler self, but it makes sense that I’ve always gravitated toward certain experiences of femme. There was a period of years in which I was experimenting more with masculinity, with tamping down on my femininity, but I think those years were also about femmephobia, first at not knowing how to be feminine if I wasn’t an enthusiastic boy-crazy heterosexual, and later, not knowing how to be feminine if I wanted other queers to desire me. Both experiences involved a lack of diverse feminine and femme role models.
Eventually I got rid of the couple of flannel shirts I’d purchased in the effort to “fit in” at Flannel Takeover and elsewhere. When I claimed my queer femme identity, I was able to grow my hair long, wear bold lipstick and dresses nearly every day, and still show up to queer ladies-and-company events. While that didn’t completely stop femmephobic microaggressions, it made me a hell of a lot stronger and more self-confident.
More Radical Reads: “…But You Look Straight:” My Femme-Identity Does Not Invalidate My Queerness
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could talk more about being little queer femmes, or even more amazingly, if our communities didn’t reinforce the idea that we have to look or act a certain way to be taken seriously? Let’s check ourselves and embrace everyone. The femmes who don’t wear flannel, hate sports, and rock the best manicures in town. The femmes who will kick your ass at basketball and emerge triumphantly from a knock-out roller derby match. The femmes of color. The trans femmes. The femme witches and brujas and brujxs. The poor and working-class femmes. The femmes with disabilities, both visible and unseen. The tall femmes, the short femmes, the in-between femmes. The femmes of size. The sex worker femmes. The lesbian femmes, the bisexual femmes, the pansexual femmes, the asexual femmes. The survivor femmes. All the femmes who are a part of our communities, whose baby photos tell so many stories, so many beginnings on the road to their babely, badass selves.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person, wearing a white necklace, looking in the mirror brushing their blond hair. The brush is yellow and behind them is a shower curtain and a wooden door. Source: pexels.com]
Thanks for this. I do see lots of femme queer women around me, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel more visible. I think I have some internalized femmephobia that makes me feel like we don’t count unless we’re partnered with a more masculine lesbian. Maybe it has something to do with only being attracted to more Butch women, but it’s not a feeling I like.