Reclaiming Femme: Queer Women of Colour and Femme Identity

Members of queer and feminist communities often associate femme identity with subordination. Even within progressive circles, femininity is devalued due to its association with repressive heterosexual sex roles.[1] In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich argues for a rejection of sex roles, and she differentiates between male-identified and woman-identified women. The male-identified woman is socially, politically, and intellectually attached to men, whereas the woman-identified woman directs her nurturing and emotional energies towards other women.[2] Rich commends the latter, while criticizing the former. In a patriarchal society, she argues, women who ally themselves with men are complicit in maintaining the hetero-patriarchy. For Rich, the ultimate embodiment of woman-identification is lesbianism, feminism’s natural extension.[3] This form of lesbianism—often based on politics rather than desire—sets up an androgynous, egalitarian ideal of lesbian sexuality, which reflects particular white, middle-class feminist values.

Because they have rejected sex roles, second-wave lesbian feminists perceive butch/femme roles to be oppressive imitations of heterosexuality.[4] Lesbian feminists of the 1970s and 1980s link butches’ masculine gender expression to patriarchal power and femmes’ feminine presentation to artificiality and frivolity. Such feminists dismiss butch/femme roles as anachronistic, even when the individuals in question report feeling empowered and satisfied with their masculine and/or feminine gender presentations.[5] Defining butches as male-identified imposters and femmes as subordinate throwbacks imposes a singular standard of (white) lesbian authenticity, ignores the rich history of butch/femme resistance, and disregards the ways in which butch and femme women successfully create alternative gender identities that subvert the dominant sex/gender system. Assuming androgyny to be a more radical and empowering gender expression in all cases fails to recognize the multi-faceted identities of femmes of colour, whose specific position within queer and feminist communities invites a racial analysis that exposes issues of authenticity. Far from being passive victims of butch supremacy, femme women of colour challenge, empower, and transform femininity. Whereas heterosexual femininity is associated with artificiality and passivity, femme identity is a unique gender expression that enables self-acceptance and resistance to white, heterosexist, and patriarchal control.

Prominent feminists have dismissed femininity as artificial and instead praised the development of traditionally masculine characteristics. This dismissal conflates femme and passivity. In her 1952 work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir seeks to define what it means to be a woman. She argues that constructed ideals of femininity lie at the root of sex difference, and transform women into submissive prey, fixated on ensnaring men.[6] To counteract this subordinate status, de Beauvoir encourages women to become emancipated by “[refusing] the passivity man means to impose on her.”[7] Women achieve this emancipation by taking on “masculine values”: pursuing intellectual study, actively engaging with the world, entering the workforce, and competing in the capitalist system.[8] Embodying aspects of traditional masculinity, with its associations of power and legitimacy, allows women to challenge and expand their self-image and social role. However, feminism’s encouragement of masculinity comes at the expense of trivializing feminine expressions and roles, to damaging effect. In Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, scholar and gender activist Julia Serano criticizes the feminist movement (specifically that of the 1970s and 1980s) for encouraging women to become more masculine or androgynous. Certain second-wave feminists believe that femininity is intrinsically linked to heterosexual indoctrination; it is nothing but an artificial performance designed to attract men.[9] However, in seeking to criticize sex-based oppression, these feminists replace the feminine-woman ideal with the androgynous-feminist ideal, itself a restrictive identity that does not leave space for many women to express their preferred gender(s).[10] Second-wave feminists fail to address the fact that gender itself is not oppressive; rather, it is the belief in binary gender and the disregard for gender variance that are the problem.[11] Further, the assumption that femininity is a heterosexual, socialized performance rather than an innate trait ignores the lived experiences of femme women. For femmes, femininity is an empowering, subversive, and intrinsically queer gender identity. It may be aesthetically pleasing to heterosexual males, but this fact does not invalidate femme identity’s potential for resistance. Paula Austin, a working-class African-Caribbean lesbian femme, echoes this sentiment in her statement that “looking like a proper woman can provide cover for far deeper survivals . . . [providing] both a safe disguise and secret nourishment.”[12] Taking on a femme identity does not relegate women to a subordinate status; rather, it allows for the queering of femininity itself.

Identifying as femme is a way of embracing and reclaiming femininity on one’s own terms. As such, personal definitions and experiences of femme vary. Performance artist Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha describes femme as “queer. . . brassy, ballsy, loud, obnoxious . . . [i]t goes far beyond the standards of whitemiddleclass feminine propriety.”[13] Albrecht-Samarasinha performs femme style to reject conventional notions of femininity as passive, demure, and controlled. Moreover, she rejects the idea that white womanhood should be the universal ideal. She creates a new version of femininity, one that includes and values outspoken, politicized women of colour. Karen Bullock-Jordan, a “thirty-one-year old Midwestern black, single, SM/leatherdyke polyamorous Scorpio femme,” describes femme identity as

[C]omplex . . . [s]ome days I feel like a housewife, others like an Amazon warrior; some days like a bimbo, others like an earth mother; some days like a grand diva, others like a quintessential femme fatale.[14]

For Bullock-Jordan, femme identity implies fluidity. Her femme style allows for the expression of multiple identities. Even the bimbo is a choice and therefore a subversion of the conventional female stereotype. Further, the femme’s implicit love and lust for butch-identified women signifies a rejection of conformity, and a commitment to queer sexuality. Within working-class communities and communities of colour, the butch/femme relationship is often more radical and shocking than the white “uniform standard” of androgyny. Butches and femmes of colour “are queer and . . . come from home, at the same time.”[15] Queer femininity is outspoken, fluid, subversive– anything but passive.

Although femmes define themselves as active agents, they are nevertheless rendered invisible, as the queer and straight community often perceive them to be heterosexual. The femme’s learned talents of receptivity, vulnerability, openness and communication require strength and active participation.[16] However, members of the queer community do not always recognize or appreciate these talents. In the 1950s lesbian bar culture, certain butches simultaneously valued and mocked femmes for being flighty—a display of their internalized misogyny.[17] Often, other queers only recognize femmes as lesbians when they are accompanied by a butch partner.[18] Despite femmes of colours’ radical gender expression, queer and feminist communities often value a white, androgynous/masculine aesthetic that does not recognize the multi-faceted and intersecting aspects of femmes’ identities. The poet Chrystos writes,

I felt so much stricture & censorship from lesbians/I was supposed to be a carpenter to prove I was a real dyke/My differences were sloughed over/None of them came to a pow wow or an AIM fundraiser to see about me[.][19]

Within her particular lesbian community, Chrystos is only recognized if she conforms to white, masculine standards of gender presentation that bear no relation to her own experiences as an indigenous woman. The conflation of lesbianism with Western notions of masculinity is widespread. In “Dresses for My Round Brown Body,” Lisa Ortiz describes initially identifying as butch because she believed that being a lesbian meant “blue jeans, black bra, T-shirts, big boots, no more make-up, and whack off that hair.”[20] Other lesbians choose to identify as butch because their communities may assign femme women oppressive subordinate roles.[21] Puerto Rican lesbian Juanita Ramos describes choosing to define herself as butch because “[it allows her] the greatest amount of independence and control over [her] own life and that of other women.”[22] Although butch identification is a valid and potentially empowering choice, compulsory masculine identification comes at the expense of feminine queers’ multi-faceted selves, identities, and backgrounds.

Learning from the experiences of queer femmes of colour is paramount to building an inclusive, anti-racist queer movement. Too often, femmes of colour find that only parts of their identities are recognized; they do not conform to acceptable standards of heterosexual femininity or androgynous/masculine lesbianism. Ortiz, for example, describes herself as existing in-between communities. Latina communities regularly perceive her to be white, and queer communities perceive her to be heterosexual.[23] Ortiz’s situation reflects Muñoz’s astute observation that queers of colour must face the barrier of white normativity as well as heteronormativity. Often, the queer community is not a place in which queers of colour have their identities affirmed and respected.[24] Amy André, a “mixed-race bisexual African American Jew,” echoes Ortiz’s sentiment of being rendered invisible within the queer community because of her feminine gender presentation. In addition to being perceived by straight men as sexually available, she must constantly re-assert her queer identity within the lesbian community.[25] As long as white, masculine gender presentation is seen as the queer body ideal, queer femmes of colour will continue to be invisible. Queers, as members of a community that places so much emphasis on deconstructing gender roles, must reject the sexist and racist notions that femininity is inferior to masculinity and that all queers have access to white privilege.

Queer women are drawn to a femme identity for a multitude of reasons. However, their choices may be qualified by particular race and/or class concerns or restrictions. For femmes of colour, femininity may be a necessary act of survival in a racist society that fears black masculinity.[26] If a black lesbian takes on a butch identity, she risks being stereotyped as a sexually voracious “butch bulldagger” because of the historical racist stereotyping that links black women and excessive sexuality.[27] By presenting as femme, women of colour assume a more socially acceptable identity, one that appears to uphold white hetero-patriarchy while secretly subverting it. In a personal essay entitled “Femme-Inism,” Austin describes her experience being stranded in rural North Carolina with her butch lover. Austin’s race and her lover’s transgressive gender place both of them in danger. To counteract it, Austin flirts and feigns little-girl innocence with the men she encounters, performing an elaborate show of passive femininity that placates the white male mechanics.[28] This high-femme persona, though at surface an act of conformity, enables Austin and her butch lover to survive. Although Austin appears to be conforming to a white, heterosexual standard of femininity, she implicitly challenges it by refashioning femininity into something that enables her queer, racialized reality.

Femme identity can be a source of self-esteem, and a way to heal the negative messages that white, heterosexist, patriarchal society imposes on queer women of colour. Mykel Johnson, a radical activist and métis femme, defines the queer femme as “[displaying] the erotic power of her beauty. She is bold enough to claim that power in a culture that has maintained a tyranny of ‘beauty norms’ that may or may not include her.”[29] Although feminists might argue that a power based on physical appearance is shallow, reclaiming a love for your body can be empowering, especially for those who are faced with innumerable reminders that they do not conform to the white heterosexual ideal. For femmes of colour particularly, affirming one’s beauty in the face of colonization’s internalized hate has revolutionary potential. By reclaiming femininity on their own terms, femmes of colour redefine the concept into an affirming gender expression that rejects both compulsory heterosexuality and white supremacy.

Contemporary feminism seeks to interrogate and deconstruct traditional sex roles, empowering women to define femininity for themselves instead of being restricted by enforced domesticity and motherhood. However, feminism risks substituting one standard of appropriately female behaviour for another. Women who pursue traditionally masculine fields and reject supposedly oppressive trappings like high heels and makeup are applauded, rendering strong, subversive femme women invisible. Feminism must expand to make room for individuals’ complexities, chosen gender expressions (whether masculine, feminine, androgynous, or gender-variant), and identities. In order to be relevant to femmes of colour, feminist and queer activists must acknowledge their own complicity in perpetuating rigid notions of acceptable gender presentation, and make room for new voices.


1. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (California: Seal Press, 2007), 5-6.

2. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (1980): 645, 646.

3. Ibid., 659.

4. Joan Nestle, “The femme question,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 138.

5. Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 2, 58, 121.

6. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952), 798.

7. Ibid., 798.

8. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952), 798.

9. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (California: Seal Press, 2007), 328.

10. Lyndall MacCowan, “Re-collecting history, renaming lives: Femme stigma and the feminist seventies and eighties,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 318.

11. Ibid., 318.

12. Paula Austin, “I Learned from the Best: My Mother Was a High-Femme Whore,” in Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, ed. Merri Lisa Johnson (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002), 104-105.

13. Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, “On Being A Bisexual Femme,” in Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls, ed. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker (New York London: Routledge, 1997), 142.

14. Karen Bullock-Jordan, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” in This Is What Lesbian Looks Like: Dyke Activists Take On the 21st Century, ed. Kris Kleindienst (Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1999), 40.

15. Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, “On Being A Bisexual Femme,” in Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls, ed. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker (New York London: Routledge, 1997), 142.

16. Mykel Johnson, “Butchy femme,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 396.

17. Joan Nestle, “The femme question,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 143.

18. Paula Austin, “Femme-inism,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 364.

19. Chrystos, “I Don’t Understand Those Who Have Turned Away From Me,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 69.

20. Lisa Ortiz, “Dresses for My Round Brown Body,” in Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls, ed. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker (New York London: Routledge, 1997), 88.

21. Juanita Ramos, “Bayamón, Brooklyn y yo,” in Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, ed. Juanita Ramos (New York London: Routledge, 1994), 93.

22. Ibid., 93.

23. Lisa Ortiz, “Dresses for My Round Brown Body,” in Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls, ed. Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker (New York London: Routledge, 1997), 90.

24. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 22.

25. Amy André and Sandy Chang, “And Then You Cut Your Hair: Genderfucking on the Femme Side of the Spectrum,” in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, ed. Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore (CA: Seal Press, 2006), 259.

26. Amy André and Sandy Chang, “And Then You Cut Your Hair: Genderfucking on the Femme Side of the Spectrum,” in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, ed. Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore (CA: Seal Press, 2006), 263.

27. Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 115.

28. Paula Austin, “Femme-Inism: Lessons of My Mother,” in Colonize This! Young women of color on today’s feminism, ed. Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman (CA: Seal Press, 2002), 164-165.

29. Mykel Johnson, “Butchy femme,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1992), 397.

10 thoughts on “Reclaiming Femme: Queer Women of Colour and Femme Identity

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I was confused by the following line: “This high-femme persona, though at surface an act of conformity, enables Austin and her butch lover to survive. Although Austin appears to be conforming to a white, heterosexual standard of femininity, she implicitly challenges it by refashioning femininity into something that enables her queer, racialized reality.” It sounds like she was forced to adopt this high femme persona in order to survive rather than adopting it for subversive, introspective reasons. Can you explain how Austin is subverting patriarchal and heterosexist standards here?

    • Hi Loren! Thank you so much for commenting.
      I think you make a great point, and I will do my best to address it. Where is the line between femme-as-resistance and femme-as-complicity with patriarchal expectations? Where is the line between consent and coercion?
      Austin strategically deployed feminine tropes of frailty and innocence in order to survive a potentially dangerous situation. One could definitely argue that Austin was forced/coerced into using these tropes, because femininity may be perceived by white hetero-patriarchy as more ‘harmless’ than other gender presentations. In my view, however, the fact remains that Austin uses this ‘high femme’ persona as a deliberate tool; her gender performance allows her to survive and continue existing in the world as a woman of colour with a butch lover. Is Austin coerced into presenting as femme in this particular situation? Yes. However, I do not believe that that coercion negates Austin’s agency in this situation. Rather, it acts as a ‘cover’ for other parts of herself that explicitly challenge patriarchal and heterosexist norms.
      I think Austin’s femme presentation can be necessary for survival, subversive, and introspective all at once.

      • But is that tool really hers to begin with? I completely agree with the complete necessity of ensuring your own survivability and with your capacity to enact agency within oppressive systems, but sometimes (like in that example, I think) that entails living by the terms set by society. I’m a femme woc, but I don’t want to think uncritically about why that is. Claiming inherency does little, I think, to examine what femininity *does*, what possibility it creates/negates, and for whom.

  2. I absolutely adore this piece. It speaks to so much complexity in gender identity, particularly for femme women that tends to be rarefied, if not rendered invisible entirely.

    The piece stops short of positing the notion that while sexual orientation is not a choice, gender identity is, and therein lies the power. Actively, powerfully, often revolutionary, choosing, performing, and committing to ones gender is a power that is independent of the gender itself. And it is a fluid act that queer women of color engage in every day and every second. As such, the outcome (be it femme, butch, non-gender conforming and everything around or in-between) is no indicia of power or resistance. Rather, the active verb of purporting, performing and preserving in one’s gender is where the power and resistance lie.

    • Could you say a bit more about gender being a choice please? I really don’t think this is true. Perhaps its more that you feel and others may feel that their gender is a choice? I know that I personally struggled for over ten years from realising I was queer and not knowing how to take on the gender that I didn’t feel comfortable with. I’m sure that I wasn’t choosing to make myself uncomfortable by feeling disharmony.

  3. An excellent history! I keep saying this, over and over– a receptive sexuality is not in any way the same as submission or passivity.

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