Femme (alternatively spelled “fem”) is a queer resistive embodied identity liberated from the limits of normative gender (Story 2016). Femme approaches femininity, encompasses it, and then pushes against its boundaries—especially those informed by Eurocentric ideals of “woman.” Femme demands repositioning gender as a fluid and creative process of being. When language seeks to confine or define our sexualities and genders, femme marks itself as an ineffable performative gender. In what follows, I trace the historical usage of the term femme in US LGBT culture, centering a femme framework that is “bent, unfixed, unhinged, and finally unhyphenated” (Rose 2002, 12). I explore femme across three movements in an effort to describe its “unruliness that struts across time and place” (S. Lewis 2012, 106): the homophile movement of the 1940s to the 1950s, the gay liberation movement of the 1960s to the 1970s, and queer organizing of the 1980s and 1990s. I ask the reader to understand not only the shifting uses of a gendered term but also how reading the past through the language of the present can provide a deep understanding of human experience across time (Snorton 2017; Stryker 2008). Alternatively, the term movement asks us to consider the ways that gender is embodied—its rhythms appear in gesture, form, aesthetic, and lived experience. Taken together, femme is movement work characterized by possibility.
Contemporary use of the term femme emerged in queer subcultures through midcentury lesbian working-class communities. In the pre-Stonewall era of the homophile movement, “femme” described a feminine lesbian with a sexual and romantic proclivity for butches. The butch/femme dyad marked the core of midcentury lesbian “community, culture, and consciousness” (Kennedy and Davis 2014), offering an outward representation of “homosexual” life and sexual desire at a time when many lived in secrecy to evade abuse, attacks, and ridicule (Nestle 1997). According to Audre Lorde (2011), in the dyke-chic scene fashion of the fifties, clothing choices were unspoken symbols of sexual desire, romantic attraction, and self-stylized gender. This is not to simplify the butch/femme dyad as role-playing, however. As Black femme elder and author Jewelle Gomez explains, femme is “not a role but an identity, as in something embedded inside that manifests externally in many different ways” pointing to a nuanced, internally recognized ontology (quoted in Pulley 2013).
A decade later, trans women Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (who would later form the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) challenged gay and lesbian homophile politics of respectability and ignited the Stonewall rebellion. Although they may not have used the term at the time to describe themselves, the movement work of these femmes sparked what we now know as the antecessor of the contemporary fight for LGBT rights—the gay liberation movement. However, the post-Stonewall lesbian feminism of the seventies critiqued the femme/butch dyad as an antiquated attempt to mirror heterosexual relationships and championed “freedom from cosmetics and high heels” (Gomez 1998, 105). Even as the more masculine-leaning “androgyny” became a norm of cultural feminism, writers like Gomez and Joan Nestle celebrated the femme aesthetic of the era as a form of self-expression and erotic independence (Gomez 1998; Nestle 1992). Paradoxically, by narrowly defining “woman” by anatomy, the lesbian feminism movement reified the very essentialized gender system it critiqued (Smyth and Roof 1998).
After Crystal LaBeija founded the House of LaBeija in the late 1970s, the explosion of the ballroom scene among Black and brown queer and trans subcultures expanded the use of the term femme beyond its exclusively lesbian history. Uncoupled from the cis-centered origins, femme-as-performance in the 1980s and 1990s shaped the imaginings and artistry of ballroom culture with categories like “femme queen” represented by trans women. As gendered work, the ritualized planning, design, and implementation of balls by femme “house mothers” also fostered kinship, support networks, and safe spaces for queer and trans “children” otherwise outcasted and ostracized in larger social spheres (Tinsley 2018).
The rise of queer politics and radical leftist resistance of normative gender and sexuality demanded more nuanced discussions of race, class, ethnicity, and other categories of being. Poststructuralist shifts in academic queer theory during this era, largely informed by queer movement work in the shadows of the HIV/AIDS crisis by organizations like ACT UP and Queer Nation, demanded rethinking the essentializing binaries of “man” and “woman,” “gay,” and “lesbian” (Jagose 1996). Although deconstructing these binaries was not a new practice, critical engagement with gender and sexuality inside and outside the academy required interrogation of the “collapsed and naturalized coupling of femme-ness and femaleness” (Snorton 2017, 174).
Today, femme continues to be further separated from “woman,” and gender identities beyond an existence rooted in biologized essentialist discourse keep expanding. Femme is not synonymous with woman, and woman is not synonymous with femme. All femmes are not women, and all women are not femmes. These terms must not be conflated. Although patriarchy and embedded power often undervalue femme existence, not all femme lived experiences are parallel, nor do they have the same access to safety. Femme aversion can inform desire in gay men’s circles where the term fem is used pejoratively to insult feminine men, and femme cis women often experience invisibility in lesbian circles. Trans women and trans femmes of color specifically often end up murdered, missing, or subject to other forms of violence as a result of their gender identities.
Grounding our conversation in femme embodiment can lead us to explore the possibilities of gender expansion. First, femme demands dissolution of gender binaries by conceptualizing a femme whose existence is not dependent on the butch. Femme exists in completion with no opposites and requires no counterpart: iterations of enby femme, gender-fluid femme, femme boi, and trans femme identities emerge to disrupt and deconstruct the normative, narrow concepts of gender.
Second, femme provides a counternarrative for “femininity,” rejecting cis-heteronormative beauty and body ideals with roots in Eurocentricity. Femmes of color, in particular, challenge racist, dominant narratives of form and experience and ask questions of the future where the past and present fail us. Centering femmes, whose embodiment troubles the norms of respectability, provides opportunities for freedom from the confines of static gender and “proper” bodies. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2017) asks in “Femme Futures,” “Is there a free future in this femme of color disabled body?”
Third, femme embodiment is informed by erotic subjectivity. This framing centers the body and requires that we “consider how erotic meaning is produced and made pleasurable through acts and articulations, gestures and utterances” (J. Rodríguez 2014, 22). Here, the femme body is the vehicle for the erotic processes of transformation and the politicization of femme materiality. We see this in Fatima Jamal’s documentary-in-process No Fats No Femmes, which explores the politics of desirability on dating apps. A femme erotic self-articulates notions of pleasure and power within the experiences of subjectivity, using them as fuel to demand a different world (Lorde  2007c).
Femme disrupts, mocks, and simultaneously rejects cis-heteropatriarchy, demanding that we trouble gender. The untranslatability of femme demonstrates that although the term entered our lexicon in the mid-1950s, it has long existed ontologically and phenomenologically in subaltern and fugitive form (Keeling 2007). Femme is theory (Hoskin 2019). Femme is expansive, performative, performed, and deeply felt (Shange 2019). It “makes room for the spectrum of gray-area” (Shelton 2018, 33). It is praxis, becoming and emerging (Ellison 2019). It disrupts the standards to which we have societally clung, propelling us into a future orientation of gender identity beyond the confines of normativity. Femme is movement work.