Beyond the Binary: Question Six
June 13, 2013 § 18 Comments
Panel bios here – onwards!
I am genderqueer and have a femme presentation, which seems to be a distinct minority among genderqueer people. The “standard” (maybe stereotypical is a better word) genderqueer presentation is more androgynous or genderfuck. Is there a good deconstruction of this around, or do I need to write it? I have heard a lot of people talking about what makes a gender presentation more or less genderqueer, or that they have a more genderqueer presentation than femme or butch. It just seems really invalidating to have that be a thing that a gender presentation is rather than just a gender.
(Pagebreak because of length of answers)
Nat: This immediately came to mind http://nonbinary.tumblr.com/post/12688803797/recommended-reading-this-is-how-gender-is-all-only
As I commented there:
“I have observed a tendency in some circles to conflate androgynous appearance with nonbinary identity or to imply that those who are androgynous (or who take or once took hormones, or who have transgender surgery, or who use gender neutral pronouns) are ‘more successfully’ nonbinary than those who express their nonbinary gender in other ways.
“We must resist any implication there is only one way to live outside the restrictive gender binary. We all have different comfort points, we are all individuals. We should not re-create the hierarchies of ‘success’ and ‘passing’ seen in other trans* communities. We should be united in the cause of gaining greater freedom to be our authentic selves, express our genders in whichever way is right for us, and celebrate the diversity of identities possible outside of the rigid binary.”
Another article that came to mind was this by Militant Barbie talking about femme as a queering of femininity http://www.squeamishbikini.com/4/post/2012/09/im-not-a-girl-i-just-look-like-one-femme-identity-gender-and-queerness.html
Jennie: I miss the days when I was a muscular person in a dress; when I could respond to people being patronising and calling me a girl by lifting them off the ground and asking if they wanted to rephrase that. I feel that my identity is taken less seriously now. Wheres trditionally feminine garb used to make me look queerer, now that no longer worrks and, ironically, the damage my illness has done to my legs means I can rarely wear trousers without considerable pain. I used to feel that I was comfortable enough in my masculinity to wear a dress (much like, say, Iggy Pop), but now that people can’t see that masculinity it’s harder. A woman I used to flirt with once said I reminded her of Lola – “she walks like a woman and talks like a man” – because, though my voice wasn’t particularly deep, my approach to conversation was completely masculine. That incongruity has got me in trouble over the years. It is probably now the clearest remaining expression of my gender but in my experience it’s a troublesome one because of the way it surprises people, which can attract a lot of aggression.
I do feel, sometimes, that people treat me now as less deserving of the right to describe my gender as I do, even though I’m the same person I was when I was muscular. A huge amount of the way we understand masculinity, as a society, is dependent upon physicality.
CN: Hmmm…while my appearance now is pretty ‘standardly’ androgynous, I did get some of this when I was younger and still sometimes wore a dress/had my hair down to my chin or shoulders – I do think it’s a distinct problem in some genderqueer spaces/with some genderqueer people. For me, there are four stereotypes in particular that need urgent attention – and I’m incredibly grateful to all the people working on challenging and dismantling them:
1) That all genderqueer people are young, white FAAB (female assigned at birth) androgynous types with edgy haircuts and skinny jeans.
2) That misogyny TOTALLY doesn’t exist in queer spaces, so it’s just by accident that masculinity is privileged over femininity, right?
3) That ‘femme’ automatically means someone FAAB – what transmisogyny?
4) That femme genderqueer people who were FAAB aren’t somehow queering gender too.
There are some great deconstructions around, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need more – and if (for want of a better word) the philosophy of genderqueer teaches us anything then isn’t it the value of plurality and individuality? Surely a genderqueer presentation is simply the way any genderqueer person presents – and the more we can demonstrate and celebrate that plurality the better.
GrrlAlex: Gender presentation seems like an important part of communicating gender. I dislike the idea of creating ‘proper’ ways of doing genders – this is where Az Hakeem has argued that some within the trans community have very simplistic and rigid views of gender and I’m keen to be part of a broader movement showing that things don’t have to be that black and white. Beemyn & Rankin 2012 is an important read on the subject of new and emerging genders among the trans community. At a recent conference in Warwick there was an interesting paper on genderqueer femmes. A video of the presentation is on youtube.
Hel: In terms of stuff that’s already out there, here are some things I’ve read on the topic which you might find interesting or valuable:
– Dr Cary Gabriel Costello: “The Transsexual Empire, Transnormativity, and Other Bugaboos” (interesting discussion of how new normativities are formed and enforced, with particular reference to the standard/stereotypical form of genderqueer presentation you’re asking about)
– Boldy Go: “The Pursuit of Androgyny” (on the valorisation of a specific form of androgynous presentation among genderqueer people) and “Femme Hatred in Non-Binary Communities”
These are far from the only things out there: unfortunately I’ve forgotten quite a lot of the other things I was going to link to, and digging around on Google isn’t currently turning any of them up. I’ll leave the links in the comments if I find them later. (There was a blog by a genderqueer USA-based graduate student which I seem to remember had some very interesting stuff – commenters, do any of you have any leads?)
And now here’s a more personal response from me about the issues you raise in your question – it ended up being very long, I hope that’s alright!
While I don’t consider my usual gender-presentation to be femme, I am very often read as someone who is presenting ‘as female’, even in LGBTQ spaces. I think this is probably because I have long hair and usually don’t bind my chest (and even when I do, there’s still quite a pronounced difference in both my chest:waist ratio and hip:waist ratio). I do sometimes feel like there’s a form of pressure – whether from myself or from cultural forces – to ‘compensate’ for these things about my body before I can be read (and thus socially legitimised?) as trans, by skewing heavily towards a masculine-coded presentation (whether by physical modifications like cutting my hair and binding my chest, or gender-coded clothing). While I do bind and wear masculine-coded clothing sometimes, I think that my standard outfit of a t-shirt and casual trousers is pretty gender-neutral – so for me it’s so much not my presentation that’s being read, as my body. As for when I do choose to present as femme – yeah, I don’t think I’ve been assumed to be anything other than a cis woman. (Hello, widespread internalised cissexist assumptions about bodies and meanings!) And in my particular cultural context – queer spaces in the south of England, various parts of the English-speaking blogosphere – I have encountered quite a few times the idea of ‘genderqueer’ being a term that generally refers to female-assigned-at-birth people who present in a masculine/androgynous/ genderfucked way, and normally in quite a subcultural way (punk, goth, etc), and a whole host of other stereotypes (a majority of which, embarassingly enough, do describe me more-or-less accurately. Although I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks I’m trendy). So, this sense of pressure to present as masculine/genderfucked in order to be legibly genderqueer, is certainly something that I, as a person with a body that is frequently read as female, have felt at various points.
However, I think that this sense of (sub)cultural normativity, where masculine/genderfucked presentation (usually on female-assigned bodies) is somehow equivalent to and determinant of genderqueer identity, should be examined closely. I think there are some unspoken assumptions behind all this which are important to unpack. Here’s some of the stuff I think it’s important to think about – my questions can be taken as rhetorical, and I’m mostly just thinking aloud (as it were), but if you’re here and reading then I’d be really interested to hear your answers about the context and spaces that you’re moving in.
When we think about communities and spaces where masculine/genderfucked presentation is the standard/stereotypical idea of what genderqueer looks like, and/or where masculine/genderfucked presentations are what makes you legible as genderqueer – are these spaces the only spaces in which genderqueer identities are legible? What other spaces (genderqueer spaces, spaces that queer gender, spaces populated by those who live and/or identify in some way outside the male/female binary) might exist in the future, or might exist right now but elsewhere (whether in your cultural context but out of your notice, or in otheer cultural contexts), or might have once existed? (I find it important, and actually rather comforting, to remember that the terms we use to categorise ourselves, and the ways we organise spaces, are not immutable, ahistorical things – whoever we are, we are simply one point in time and space, with language and structures that are (to some extent) unique to here and now, that have grown out of past discourses and that will continue to grow and change.)
And then – what sort of power structures might operate within the spaces/communities you currently occupy to make certain kinds of genderqueerness more visible/legible than others? (It’s not as though patriarchy, with its contruction of male/masculine-as-default and female/feminine-as-marked-Other, and its systemic valuing/privileging of masculinity over femininity, is something to which LGBTQ spaces are immune. See: this, this, and many others – I would be linking to Natalie Reed again if her blog hadn’t now disappeared.) Is it possible that there are other femme-presenting/femme-identified genderqueer people who are there, but who aren’t being read or acknowledged as genderqueer, and/or who aren’t openly describing themselves as genderqueer? (I think it’s not only possible, but incredibly likely. I know a number of femme-presenting/femme-identified genderqueer people who tend to be read as cis women, or as trans women, or as male-to-female transvestites.)
I wonder if there might be confirmation bias at play here. If a certain gender-presentation seems indelibly associated with genderqueer within a certain space/community, might it be more likely that a) people who present in that way are more likely to be given the opportunity to discuss/voicetheir genderqueerness and b) people who identify as genderqueer are more likely to present that way so as to become legibly genderqueer? Indeed, the term ‘genderqueer’, when claimed as an identity, is just one among a great many identitarian terms used to describe experiences of gender which are other than uncomplicatedly male or female. Would searching for people who identify as (for example) gender-fluid, or bigendered, or transvestite, or non-binary, perhaps show a different sort of demographic/style/subculture from those which you find to be associated with the term ‘genderqueer’?
All that said, you definitely aren’t alone as a genderqueer femme – if they’re not in your offline community spaces, they’re certainly online, and in books (I’m pretty sure there are genderqueer femme writers in anthologies like Gender Outlaws and Nobody Passes). It’s not a set of circles I particularly move in, so I don’t know how helpful I can be in recommending blogs/sites – I started trawling through my internet history but got worried about making a patchy/weird set of recommendations about how to connect with an online community that isn’t one I spend much time in. (Plus I’ve already written a disproportionately large wall of text.) Maybe compiling genderqueer femme resources is something for another day – or hey, commenters and/or fellow panellists, do you know of some good starting points for linking up with femme genderqueer people? Sorry, this has really gone way beyond the scope of the original question… (Oh – I’ve just remembered – Caroline Walters gave a great paper about femme at Spotlight on: Genderqueer, including things on the London-based and genderqueer-inclusive Queer Femme Coterie – the video will hopefully be up online soon, but there’s a Storify with the live tweets! And Queer Femme Coterie might be a good space to seek out, if you’re based in or near London.)
Anyway, I don’t know how helpful this is, and I realise I’ve come out with a ridiculous wall of text in response to a request for articles/links – I think at the end of the day, I’m basically saying:
1. I too have noticed the construction of “AFAB-masculine/androgynous-presenting = genderqueer” as a normativity (and as such, aspirational goal?)for people who use the term ‘genderqueer’ to describe themselves. This normativity (like all normativities!) is a bad thing.
2. This construction is not necessarily universal – that this the product of particular spaces, contexts, and cultural moments. (See also: patriarchy, misogyny, transmisogyny.)
3. There are lots of awesome genderqueer femmes in the world.
(Oh, and one side-note, about your final point – “It just seems really invalidating to have that be a thing that a gender presentation is rather than just a gender.” While I obviously don’t think it’s right to talk as though only one type of gender-presentation is the genderqueer presentation, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to discuss “a genderqueer gender-presentation” as distinct from ‘a genderqueer gender identity”. I think so long as it’s clear that presentation is not the same as identity, and that they don’t constitute or necessitate each other in any way, ‘genderqueer’ is an adjective than can be applied to both.)
For me, there are four stereotypes in particular that need urgent attention – and I’m incredibly grateful to all the people working on challenging and dismantling them:
1) That all genderqueer people are young, white FAAB (female assigned at birth) androgynous types with edgy haircuts and skinny jeans.
This is why I thought I ‘couldn’t be’ genderqueer for so long.
(Posted too soon!) Once again, thanks so much for talking about this issue. I am a not-sure-what-to-call-themself feminine-presenting non-binary person, and I did get the very strong impression I had to wear skinny jeans and get an undercut to be genderqueer. I don’t really have all the vocab yet for my feelings, but these posts and you folks are helping so much. Thank you.
@GrrlAlex: ” I dislike the idea of creating ‘proper’ ways of doing genders – this is where Az Hakeem has argued that some within the trans community have very simplistic and rigid views of gender and I’m keen to be part of a broader movement showing that things don’t have to be that black and white.”
I am disturbed to find you referencing Az Hakeem, Alex, not because I disagree with your own stated intentions, which I fully support, but because of Hakeem’s gratuitously violent viewpoint on what he terms “trans-sexuality” and the toxic straw men he has set up in the past as a result. His chapter “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is no longer online but is referred to here: http://zagria.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/az-hakeem-19-psychiatrist-psychoanalyst.html#.Ubm07xZl8-Y
I won’t go into a long deconstruction of his views here because I don’t want to suck air out of a space dedicated to discussing beyond the binary.
@CN: “1) That all genderqueer people are young, white FAAB (female assigned at birth) androgynous types with edgy haircuts and skinny jeans.”
I’m having sudden deja vu re: gay clones who predominated in the late 1970s. Perhaps non-binary is passing through a similar stage … the result of a particular context as Hel suggests.
As someone who can’t afford to buy new clothes very often, I have a lot of female-coded clothing from when I was presenting in my assigned gender. I can’t bind my chest for medical reasons, and clothing made for cis men is uncomfortable for me and doesn’t look very good when I wear it. I don’t identify as femme, but I tend to find myself wearing female-coded clothing most of the time for those reasons.
For a while I struggled with this, largely because of these ideas that I had to present androgynously in order to be read and accepted as genderqueer, but more recently I’ve felt better able to tell myself that my clothes are genderqueer because I, a genderqueer person, am wearing them.
This post is fabulous. For one thing, it makes it clear that there is a level of femme-phobia and transmisogyny that needs to be called out in the non-binary community; for another, it’s helped me recognise it in myself and therefore come a little closer to being comfortable in my own skin. So many thanks to all the contributors for that!
Thanks for this.
“…it’s so much not my presentation that’s being read, as my body.” – this in particular struck a chord: I’m judged as ‘not really’ genderqueer or not genderqueer enough partly because of my body shape, which is difficult to modify because of disabilities, but anyway, why should I?
I think that speaks to something that deserves a blog post of its own – this idea, that so many seem to have (consciously or unconsciously) that our body shapes validate or invalidate our authenticity as trans people. I know that I’ve had an easier deal being accepted as ‘properly’ trans because my body never really fitted into stereotypes of my assigned sex than have my trans male friends who are short and curvy, or trans female friends who are tall and lean. Urgh.
This. I think the term I use for it is ‘coercive gender assignation’, but with the prefix ‘social’ to distinguish it from the medical and legal forms. It’s a very violent act, really, but people don’t know they’re doing it.. how do we tackle something like that!?
I think that challenging people (usually with humour, if it’s me) with the arbitrariness of their bodily configuration tends to do it. I think that we can get used to a narrative idea of the body as premonition, effectively: a heroine in a romantic comedy looks one way, a brooding poet looks another – and forget that bodies contain people of all kinds. I’ve always found that turning the question around is effective: (to a cis man) “because your hands are smaller than mine, are you the more ‘womanly’ of the two of us?”, (to a cis woman) “actually, your shoulders are broader – guess you’re the one who’s more masculine”…etc.
It’s definitely something I struggle with internally too. I’d like to have smaller breasts for all sorts of reasons (including convenience/physical comfort) but one reason is that I experience my body shape being interpreted incorrectly by others as a signal of my gender.
Me and a number of people very close to me are a kind of invert of the monotype that CN described, in that we’re AMAB femmes. Although, I also strongly identify with the idea of butchness, I identify with it in a much more dysphoric/i-‘should’-be-more-female-because-cisheteropatriarchy way than with femme, so it’s possible that it’s about my legibility as genderqueer. Then again, it’s also easier for some(most?) AFAB people to deliberately avoid ‘passing’ for a binary gender than for AMAB people because of (a) the patriarchal assumption of male-as-norm/default, and (b) stubble. The exception wrt AFAB people are those who don’t want to/can’t bind or have chest reduction, but even when I appear to have boobs people are more likely to gender me male, even at times, in a skirt or a dress or a big fur coat…… Anyway. Also yes RE being read as ‘just a big fag’, ‘transwoman’, ‘transvestite’ or, and usually I prefer this one (coz it’s less troublesome, rather than that it’s a better thing or somehow more accurate), ‘ciswoman’ .
I think facial hair is an interesting thing. I’ve become accustom to people searching my face for facial hair/clues – it feels like this: height/no boobs/clothes = male
pretty face/voice = female
check for facial hair.
[…] On femme genderqueer people: this is a thing I’m really glad to have read. […]
“I am genderqueer and have a femme presentation, which seems to be a distinct minority among genderqueer people.”
I’m genderqueer too, but in fact my primary gender identity is femme. Being cis male as well, femme invisibility isn’t much of a problem for me. The rules of cis male gender expression are quite strict, so I don’t have to do very much for difference to be visible. And generally I don’t do very much. I express my femme by wearing clothing entirely from the women’s racks, but these are still mostly just jeans, t-shirts and jumpers and stuff. I rarely wear skirts or anything, so what difference people see generally isn’t enough to disturb them. Actually I’m not sure exactly what people see. Possibly some slight genderfuck. I quite often get little comments like “nice coat” or “nice shirt” etc. But yesterday, in black jeans and a black denim shirt together with my shaved head, people probably didn’t see any femme at all and just thought I was in the BNP or something 😉
On one thing Hel said above: “I know a number of femme-presenting/femme-identified genderqueer people who tend to be read as cis women, or as trans women, or as male-to-female transvestites.” As to the last of those, I wouldn’t be too surprised by that as it’s my opinion that a lot of MTF TVs are femmes – and that’s what my own blog is mostly about. Okay, I’ve not managed to convince very many TVs of this – and I can think of lot of reasons why not (one of which is that I might just be wrong) – but still, femme offers the best explanation to me of what a lot of us are doing.
On other genderqueer femme resources: Sorry, I can’t really point to any at the moment. Femme blogs and sites took a massive nosedive about a year ago and a whole load of them just packed in. I’ve no idea why.
[…] reading CN Lester et al’s answer to a question about genderqueer femmes, I did recognise this post was incomplete, especially as I don’t talk about AFAB queer […]
Just in case pingbacks don’t work, I did a post lack week on queer masculinity privilege, which I did expand after reading this question.
[…] chocolate cake’ for a while and this week went and presented the perfect opportunity. After Thursday’s question to the panel, femme things have been on my mind – and then I realised that I’d be making cakes for […]
[…] A discussion of femme and genderqueer identities/intersections […]
[…] https://cnlester.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/beyond-the-binary-question-six/ […]