Vp Issue 3: “The Evolution of Femme,” by Tristan Taormino (2002)

“This femme fucks back!” was the message on a homemade t-shirt I saw on a woman at this year’s Dyke March in New York.

“This femme fucks back!” was the message on a homemade t-shirt I saw on a woman at this year’s Dyke March in New York. Silk-screened in bright pint ink, those four words—a statement, a warning, a come-on—speak volumes about the current state of femme gender and sexuality, On the one hand, “This femme fucks back!” is meat to counter the stereotypical notion that femmes behave just like traditional straight girls are supposed to—you know, we’re here to look pretty and get fucked. It expresses the feelings of a lot of femmes I know: We are not all just sex toys for butches, and some of us are even tops. But it also speaks to me on a deeper level. It articulates an important shift happening among femme-identified dykes. We’re taking control, in and out of the bedroom, and refuse to be invisible among other dykes. 

Just because I feel comfortable wearing skirts doesn’t mean that the “F” box fits me like an opera-length black satin glove. Similar to many butches, bois, and tranny boys, my appearance is a conscious, complex, and evolving expression of my gender. My aesthetic may resemble traditional notions of femininity, but that doesn’t mean that I am your average, straight-appearing, straight-acting girl. The truth is that I am queer and there is not just one way to be queer.

Fifteen years after Joan Nestle wrote her first femme manifesto, A Restricted Country, queer and non-queer people still make misinformed assumptions about femmes. We always pass because we look straight. Our femininity shields us from homophobia and anti-gay violence. Our gender and our appearance “match,” so we don’t have the same body issues/dissonance that butches have. We were assigned a female gender at birth, and we look female and feminine, so the assumption is we cannot be gender misfits, outlaws, or warriors.

Our identities and our activism are seen as less complicated, less valid, less important. As more people who previously identified as butch lesbians begin to identify as trans or FTM, many femmes are faced with these issues head on. Although there are femmes at the forefront of all kinds of gender activism, from conference and group organizing to legislative efforts, within trans-political scenes, many femmes feel relegated to the status of “ally.” We are your wives, girlfriends, tricks, buddies, supporters, and, yes, allies. “Ally” is a descriptive and useful term, but it often leaves us feeling like we are not considered valid and valued trans activists if we don’t have a trans bodyfriend or girlfriend on our arm. One femme I know told me that after her break up, she felt strange going to trans meetings and conferences because people approached her one of two ways: Where is your trans partner who you are here to support? Or: you must be a tranny chaser, one of those dykes who objectifies and fetishizes trans people and their bodies. She said to me, “I was a trans activist before Joe, and I am still a trans activist, with or without him!” And she’s right.

Some femmes have chosen to acknowledge their erotic alliance with trans folk by calling themselves transensual femmes. Transensual femmes define themselves as femmes who are primarily attracted to transgendered butches, FTMs, and other trans guys. On the Transensual Femme website, Sonya writes, “You don’t have to be partnered with a transguy to be a transensual femme. This is about who we are, not who we are with. Although who we desire is essential to our particular queerness, it is not the end-all and be-all of our identity. We are transensual femmes whether we are in a relationship or not.” And yet, I can’t help but notice that the primary definition is based on attraction to a group of identities which themselves are still evolving. Like most identity categories, transensual femme limits possibilites rather than expands them, so it doesn’t appeal to me—a gender fucker who fucks many genders.

Nonetheless, transensual femme is an interesting example of how a new identity category and community has formed in response to what has been a radical shift within the dyke community. It acknowledges that femmes have been deeply affected by, and just as intensely involved in, the emergence of a more vocal, visible trans community. As partners and friends have searched their souls, we have searched the web for new testosterone-treatment options, searched the community for trans-inclusive spaces and events, and done some soul searching of our own about where we fit in the trans spectrum.

While the rhetoric of transensual femmes is more focused on personal relationships and less on political activism, it still raises important issues. Many femmes feel differently gendered and so we can identify in some way with other people who feel similarly. We are a diverse bunch, but many of us see ourselves as a vital part of trans activism—and not just as a chick who stands by her formerly-dyke-now-trans man. I felt so empowered by the “This Femme Fucks Back!” t-shirt, not just because I like political fashion or to get my hands in places you may have assumed I didn’t want to go. The phrase is not just about sex; it’s a revolution cry that echoes other powerful declarations, too, such as “This femme talks back. This femme fights back. This femme bites back.”


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 3 (Nov/Dec 2003), 14-15.