Some Femmes Don't Wear Heels
by Joshua Bastian Cole
So most femmes are invisible queers, right? Well, how about a transitioned FTM who passes full-time as male and part-time as straight? Talk about invisible! I am assumed to be a great many things, none of which is femme.
My experience as a femme is, in a way, the reverse from that of many femmes, and not just because I’m a boi. The visibility, or rather, the lack thereof, for femme women boils down to perceivable queerness. It’s the queerness that gets lost in assumptions, but not the femmeness. That part is often clear. But not for me.
Once someone gets to know me well, my femmeness is unmistakable. To look at me, though, most people just see a guy and whatever other indicators are there, “guy” does not mean the same thing as “femme” to them. And, of course, they are different things, but my point is that one can be both things at the same time. I am living proof, as are many other femme men, trans or not.
To a surprising amount of people, queer and non-queer alike, the word femme brings certain images to mind, images such as: long hair, dresses, heels, lipstick, maybe even fishnets. Perhaps even other words arrive as a noun to follow the femme adjective: woman, womyn, girl, grrl, lesbian, dyke.
None of those are words for me. How many, I wonder, immediately come up with words like man, fag, goatee, pomade, cologne, or bottom? How about metrosexual? Try this one on for size: straight. Need I clarify that it is possible for a transman who passes and dates women to still be femme, still be queer, while simultaneously being hetero identified? Yes, well, it is not only possible, it exists.
Personally, I don’t identify as straight, though I sometimes date women. Primarily, I date other transmen. Due to my disinterest in the flirtations of non-trans men, along with my very boy-like masculine energy, gay men tend to think I am not gay. However, my clearly effeminate behaviours and my snazzy clothes lead many women to assume that I am gay. Though, when I out myself as trans, both men and women conclude that my effeminacy is just a residual “girlyness” from my former self, and that I must be some sort of lesbian and therefore must be into dating lesbians. Whether or not it is in those words, that is the popular train of thought. It happens time and again. Although, I must elaborate that many lesbians do not have this thought pattern, concluding that I am anything but one from their queer community, and that if I ever was, I am now a sellout or traitor to male privilege. In terms of who I date, many with this concept of me, assume that I must date straight women and because I am not constantly stared at by non-queers, nor do I surprise them when I talk and my voice matches my face, I must not at all related to the queer world because I now blend in with the rest of the straight and straight-acting populus.
On the flip-side of all this, are the assumptions made by my trans brothers. Most of them pick up on the femme thing right away, but similarly to non-trans folks, they do not label it “femme” because to many transmen, “femme” means their girlfriends. In general, transmen think I’m gay, meaning that they think I date non-trans men.
Very rarely has anyone said to me, “let me guess, you are a femme trannyfag,” and never has the speaker been non-queer, non-trans.
Now, certainly there are a great many femmes out there who recognise and acknowledge that there are masculine femmes and that femme does not necessarily mean feminine. Of these, shall I say, more aware femmes, some like to use femme as a gender, as it obviously has nothing or little to do with sexual identity or orientation, and the term varies in usage per individual.
I think gender identity, or any identity for that matter, comes from two main sources. The first, and more important of the two, is one’s self-identity. That is the person who is there when no one else is, eyes closed and alone, regardless of physical attributes, presentational modifiers, and performative behaviours. Who are you?
The second source is one’s peer group. Who do you surround yourself with and why are you friends with them? Of course, one finds commonality and support amongst groups with similar interests. A sense of safety underlies immersion in shared experience. There is less fear of misunderstanding and mockery.
As with anything else, peer groups can change. Because they are so closely linked to self-identity, they are equally fluid. That is why people “grow out of” one another. Sometimes, peer groups can evolve if everyone changes at the same time.
I think, in my case, my peer group has recently mutated and expanded. I didn’t come out as a femme until after I came out as trans. I discovered it along the path of my transition. Upon initially coming out and meeting other transguys, I found I had more in common with the femme girlfriends of the guys I met than I did with the guys themselves. Besides the trans-specific conversations I had with the guys, I much preferred discussing with the women things like shopping dancing, pop culture, hair and skin care, and clothes to things like beer, motorcycles, being a sex top, and other things the guys I met liked to discuss. The group of transguys I was meeting was more of a rugged type, having recently emerged from experiences as butch lesbians. This crowd liked hiking, camping, and football.
So, my peer group remained virtually unchanged from the time before coming out as trans to the time after it. I was surrounding myself with queer femme women, our commonality being that we were all queer femmes, though not all of us women. The only significant difference of this group was that these femmes were dating my transguy friends and were not dating women. This, of course, as any partner of a transguy can tell you, is very significant. It heightens their invisibility as queer because they are then seen as a woman dating a man, and are then expected by the straight community and our heterocentric society to present the way they have already chosen to. Looking like a straight woman was not really a concern of mine, but dishing about cute bois was certainly always a fun time had by all.
For several years, this remained the same. However, within this past year, I have been forced to interact with a larger set of people in my workplace. I was surprised to find similarities between myself and the people I work with because I have never put myself in male spaces, because I never really felt comfortable in them. I never felt it was my space to share. That is not a statement about transmen in general, but only about myself. I do not feel that I am the same as assigned males and so in male spaces, I feel to be an outsider. It is usually a feeling I create myself, as many non-trans men who are trans allies have been very welcoming.
My current job is in a higher end fashion retail store, a large chain that is known for an image of clothing for clean-cut and exceptionally good-looking rich business people. There is a high expectation of presentation in the store. With such an emphasis placed on looking good and creating interesting and fashionable wardrobe options, I expected many of my male coworkers to be gay, but surprisingly, I found that not to be the case. It is not a secret that gay men dominate the fashion industry, and different companies have different looks to match their overall images. The image of my store is, perhaps, a bit too fancy for the typical straight man. The level of detail in the clothes and the outfit combinations are things I have rarely seen straight men care about. It is not the typical straight man who considers accessorising and creating an entire wardrobe, not just one piece at a time. I suppose, I should say that it used to be that way, before the age of metrosexuality. An era I am very proud to be a part of. The stereotype of gay men being snappy dressers certainly could be worse. I am sure things like gerbils are much more offensive than to assume that if a guy likes to accessorise, his sexual taste is all clear and understood without even asking.
All this being said, I have worked in clothing retail before and I have been in the queer community for quite a while. I know the behaviours associated with both things. So, to my surprise, I came to a workplace filled with effeminate men, who actually did their hair in the morning and thought about which socks matched their belts and shoes and believe it or not, these men date women! My own comfort levels in presentation have been strengthened by seeing so many men present in a way that at one time was perceived to be only characteristic of gay men. I have no problem being perceived as gay because I like to be read as queer. It is the only clear option left available to me. However, it throws a wrench into the works when I am looking for a date. It has just been a welcome surprise to be in a space where I can match the men around me, and many of us can also appreciate femaleness from the aspect of attraction.
In my very large store, there is an unfortunate lack of gay men. I like to have gay men around, even if I am not one, because I do also like to discuss queer things, and the effeminate straight men can’t help me there. There is one in particular, in my workplace, who I have taken as my own personal role model. He has a very strong self-esteem and unlike many gay men in his age group, his relationship patterns are more similar to the ones I recognise from the lesbian trans communities. More monogamy (or at least more dating) and less hookups. He actually likes to build relationships, and cares less about the physical part of dating. I think that is an honorable and self-respecting way to interact with people. I am not a part of the random reckless hooking up party scene. Maybe I have outgrown it.
There are also the everyday type of straight men at my job, as well. To these guys, I am completely invisible because many of them do not consider the queer world having very little need to encounter it. I have been horrified by some comments that have been made by these men who have not realised that I do not share their experiences nor their opinions of women. At one time, in a different and less fashionable job, I found myself in the midst of a group of guys, all of them straight, all of them all kinds of stereotypical and overcompensatingly masculine (I, the transguy, the one not assigned male, noticing the desired machismo of this particular group of non-trans men.) They said something that I do not need to repeat that involved women and sexual positions and wonderfully disgusting if not colourful nicknames for female body parts. I was simply horrified and felt it unsafe to be the odd one out, though I desperately wanted to be the awesome feminist and say something. It is not always the right thing to do if it is potentially dangerous. So, I said nothing, and hoped it would not happen again. But men and their power do exist in other places. A fellow coworker in my newer job, blindly suggested “rocking out with your cock out” to myself and a roomful of women. While I get the joke and don’t mind the comment in different spaces, I was disgusted by the allusion to his member to a roomful of biologically female people, and I reported it to the manager. I, once more, felt insecure approaching the situation myself. Why do men have to be scary sometimes?
There are women, too, in my workplace, and though they present femme, its meaning is lost because it is not consciously chosen to represent their identities. I am sure they find it comfortable, but if you were to ask them why they present as they do, it would have very little to do with complex identity politics. It would be about what flatters their bodies, and maybe that’s really all it has to be. But then, that wouldn’t be what being a femme is about. And that is why my non-queer women coworkers are just that, and though they look like femme women I know, they are not themselves femmes.
All in all, even with a smattering of regular Janes and Joes, I find myself being very comfortable around men who present in ways atypical to the expectations of straight men but do not necessarily date other men. I like the idea that one doesn’t have to be queer to look queer. I realized, we femmes aren’t the only ones invisible out there. The world is slowly getting mushier.
All images and content copyright © Joshua Bastian Cole 2007. All Rights Reserved.