on fem

is “femme refers exclusively to lesbians” a white thing or no?

what tf am I missing

– alder-knight –

trying to write this quickly, if i can… my sense, fwiw, is that “fem” (i use joan nestle’s spelling, not the frenchified one) as a term is in a state of almost total incoherence right now, because there are at least three or four versions of it in circulation, all with quite different histories behind their different meanings and breaking down to some extent along racial lines.

(1) starting in the early 1900s, ‘fem’ as a specifically working-class dyke gender position, common across racial lines, which is very distinct from the normative/passable femininity of middle-class lesbian circles. after being actively suppressed in the late 1960s-early 1980s heyday of an androgynous (read: soft butch) lesbian ideal, it reemerged in the 1980s-90s, and was adopted by a whole cohort of (largely but not entirely) white middle-class queer women (mostly either dyke/lesbian-identified or so actively not that they count anyway through denial) (many of them college students, who proceeded to theorize it), as well as coming back into visibility among working-class dykes who’d never actually abandoned it.

(2) since the mid-1900s, but with roots back to the mid-1800s, ‘fem’/ ‘fem queen’ as a specific gender position and performance genre in the Ball House world, held by folks who in other connects might be called trans women, drag queens, or effeminate gay men, almost all of them black or latinx. there’s some big shifts in the visibility (and appropiation) of Ball culture going on this decade, which has brought this version into wider circulation.

(3) since 2000ish, the desperate attempt by many ‘right-on’ cis folks to avoid calling trans women “women”, which has led to the widespread use of archaic/patronizing “ladies”, has also led them to grasp for other terms that more or less mean “women” but don’t actually say the word, including ‘fem’.

(4) also since 2000ish, (mostly white) trans men looking for a way to signal various combinations of gender-nonconformity-as-men / “softer” masculinity / “not all men”-ness have used ‘fem’ as an identity term (rather than the more rooted “nelly”, because former queer women know less about gay male culture than they think).

(5) and finally, over the last 5 or so years, more and more nonbinary folks moving away from the category of man have begun to use ‘fem’ to mark a simultaneous proximity to and separateness from the category of woman, or as an umbrella category for all non-men. i think this is more common among black & latinx folks, because of the Ball/House use of the word, but I’m not sure.

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