Femme Privilege Does Not Exist
by Cyree Jarelle Johnson
I’m (not) sorry to inform you that femme privilege does not exist. Not in the queer community. Not in the world at large. Does. Not. Exist. In fact, the very idea of inherent “femme privilege” is rooted in misguided misogyny. It operates under the erroneous idea that the discrimination and violence that femmes in particular and feminities in general experience is not based on our gender presentations. It relies on the idea that all femmes are cisgendered and cissexual, which is cissexist. It anachronistically leaves out femme as a genderqueer identity. It is ignorant to the continuing oppression of women, femmes, and other femininities by patriarchy and masculine privilege.
The most common argument for femme privilege I encounter is that femmes are not the recipients of physical and spiritual violence because of their femininity, while female masculinities are frequently the target of such assaults. Even upon first glance this ignores the constant reality of rape and sexual assault in the lives of lots of transgressive femininities. Personally, I have been “corrective”ly raped twice for being femme, once by a doctor when I was 17 after coming out on my intake forms and the second time during my time working at a bar in Newark. According to a study performed by Keren Lehavot, Ph.D. “women who identify as “femme” (or feminine) and have a more feminine appearance report more adult sexual assaults” than women in the study who identified as “butch”.
That’s not even to speak of the harassment that I experience every day on the street. Not just the street, everywhere I go. It is frequently terrifying, and it also leads to more terrifying things. Of course, omnipresent harassment is afforded to masculine of center folks as well: because in both cases the harassers are targeting our gender presentation. For real, they are. The truly hate us both, for the same reason. Our harassers are deeply invested in the control and ownership of bodies they perceive as “women”. They want to decide who gets to be included in that category, and what that identity means. It is not a complement when I am catcalled, grabbed, pushed, smacked, and groped on the street, it is an insult. And it is certainly not a privilege.
Then there’s that weird concept of passing privilege that I don’t even think works for sexual identity in the way that it does for race, but is so frequently employed that way. Racial groups have phenotypical markers that differentiate their skin and hair and body features from that of a privileged race. Being gay or queer looks different in every corner of this country and every corner of the world.
The idea of cisfemmes passing for straight and receiving straight privilege ignores the fact that to patriarchy inside every lesbian lies a straight woman. Straight people don’t see anything but straight. Even if very masculine female identified folks are instantly read as gay by heterosexuals, does that necessarily make not experiencing that a privilege? Passing is a privilege when you pass into a group that has privilege. “Woman” is not an inherently privileged category at all, nor is “feminine”. Femininity, queer and straight alike, is viewed as frivolous and shallow, stupid and excessive. Most importantly, it is taken much less seriously than masculinity.
Moreover, regarding femmeness as privilege ignores the existence of femmes who are trans*women, androfemmes, kikis, and all those who may simultaneously be femme and not able to pass for straight or even pass for feminine. It forgets us femmes who try and fail and try and fail again to be seen as authentically feminine. We femmes with tapers and Caesars lined up. We femmes who are 6’4 in heels and rock a bitchin’ limp that people frequently comment on yet rarely stare at. We femmes who sit gap legged in flannel waiting for folks to stop telling them to be more feminine when we are trying as hard as we fucking can.
In her interview with Elixher.com, Brown Grrlz Project Co-Founder Trinz Massiah writes that femme privilege “is a matter of perspective. A femme identified womyn has to negotiate always safe spaces to “come out” over and over again… Can you imagine the anxiety of negotiating safe spaces constantly?” Central to femme invisibility (which should be called femme erasure, in my opinion) is the allegation that femmes are not “gay looking”. Ok, then who is and why? Who gets the privilege to set the tone of the conversation of what it means to look queer or gay? Clearly not femmes or we would have at least included ourselves.
There is the problem of “looking straight” and needing to access queer/gay safe spaces and being questioned uncomfortably. Of spending time scrimping and saving to dress up for the dyke bar and pay the cover just to have everyone treat you like a fag hag. Of being out for almost a decade and still getting treated like an interloper until someone sees me with a stud they know. Of being made to find people to vouch for your dykedom. Of having to come out every day to everyone, often several times to the same people because apparently femmes are not experts on their own lives.
So, in short, don’t come at me with that shit. Quit relegating feminitinity to the backburners of queerness because of a faulty generalization. Check your own association of femmeness with excess and shallowness and stupidity. Learn how to see femmes, and stop blaming us for our own erasure.