Queer and trans politics are often tied into visibility, becoming politics not just of the body but of the eye in particular. Practices like “coming out,” staging mass public spectacles, and creating signals and fashions that allow us to more easily identify each other are all to some degree constitutive of this politics of the eye. Since our oppressions often revolve around being obscured from view, pressured into conformity with exclusive cis and hetero-norms, or transformed into empty spectacle by straight pornography and other media, wresting control of our own individual and collective aesthetic presentation is a way to create power for ourselves. Broad and deep social change requires other forms of action, of course. However, being visible on our own terms is a valuable and necessary goal if we’re going to reclaim public space in human communities for queer and trans people.
For me, femme is one of the most valuable forms of communal aesthetics. While it emerged in opposition to butch in the early and mid-twentieth century and continues to have a close connection with femininity as a whole, femme is not reducible to just a pole for either of these binaries. It describes a particular commons or reservoir of resources, a way of expressing ourselves for our own benefit. Femme involves individuals, and it is a means for individuals to express themselves, but it’s important to recognize that no one expresses themselves in a solipsistic void.
Doing femme, being femme, expressing femme–for me, these are acts that bring me closer to people, that make me more legible to those close to me. It’s a way of sharing myself, gifting myself, even, to ones I love and lucky people who see me on the street. Think of femme as a way of improving public and private spaces, of making our existence more beautiful! Of course, it does so using some of the tools and styles associated with womanhood and femininity, but when femme emerges in a more liberating, less confining world where genders don’t map onto binary notions, it can use those tools with an experimental and radical edge. It’s not avant-garde, and it’s not revolutionary–or it’s not necessarily those things–but femme is a term that captures my personal favourite attempts to make ourselves beautiful.
People who prefer masculine or butch aesthetics (since butch does not map directly onto masculinity as such), I suspect, experience similar pleasures. With that said, it’s true that masculine presentations are often seen as the default or preferred mode of expression in a capitalistic, cis and heteronormative world. Even within feminist circles, androgyny or masculinity might be preferred over femininity because the latter is more thickly “gendered.” Gender as a judgment or insult sticks much better to femme people than it does to those who present in a masculine fashion. I do not suggest that masculine-presenting people always or even mostly occupy an oppressive position over femme people, only that this dynamic, this was of seeing gender only in femininity, is a significant barrier to be overcome in our intimate and political circles.
As I continue to develop in my understanding of gender as a system of naming and classifying and my own position in that system, femme remains a touchstone. Though I recognize that being femme is, to some extent, the only way I can be perceived as feminine at all given my body shape and size, I remain attracted to it and excited to perform it in new and different ways.