Nonbinary femmes, the second

For reasons that escape me, ‘Beyond the binary: Yes, nonbinary femmes exist‘ remains one of my most enduringly popular posts. It’s over a year old, and yet it remains perennially in rotation, and I get a lot of interesting responses to it. Some are great. Some are…not so great. As is often the case with a standalone piece that people are linked to without context, often those comments fail to recognise that the piece fits into a much larger framework of posts about identity, about gender, about other things.

Today, I wanted to specifically address a question I get a lot, because it is reasonable, and also well-meaning, though it tends to come from a place of not knowing me or my work very well at all, and today I have reached my breaking point with it when I should be working on things that I actually get paid for instead of writing things for free for people who rarely acknowledge that. If I sound testy, well, you try writing a daily website for over a decade and see how you feel.

It goes something like this: ‘Hey, in that post of yours about nonbinary femmes, a lot of the traits you describe — like having breasts and wide hips — are associated with people who are assigned female at birth. Does that mean that you only think those people can be femmes?’

That is an excellent question, gentle reader, and the answer is: No, no I do not. And I’m really not trying to be patronising about this, but it really is starting to irk me, so I’m going to say this once and then let it go: If you read more of my work, especially the series that post is in, you’d know the answer to that.

So why does that post focus on people who are assigned female at birth, because it absolutely does? The answer is that I was speaking to a specific kind of erasure — the erasure of people who are assigned female at birth, but who are not women, and who are forcibly passed as women by the people around them because of their physical traits and the way they present themselves. It arose from a complicated conversation I was having with a lot of nonbinary femmes, particularly fat people who like to femme to the hilt, who were getting extremely tired of hearing that they’re women over and over again.

And who were also getting extremely tired of hearing that they ‘don’t belong’ in the nonbinary community, or that they’re really just women and they’re faking it for the attention, or they don’t understand what it really means to be nonbinary. They’re often saddled with ‘passing privilege,’ and the ability to slip quietly by with what appears to be a normative gender identity, without consideration of the fact that this is a double-edged sword, and that being forcibly passed is incredibly psychologically stressful. Just because most people read you as a woman and you don’t endure the harassment aimed at people who very visibily fail or refuse to conform with gender norms doesn’t mean you don’t experience dysphoria, or distress related to your gender.

The thing about a massive body of work is that many elements aren’t intended to be read alone. I wanted to specifically focus on issues faced by a specific subset of the femme community. As I’ve watched people respond to that post, I’ve seen that there are some ways it could have been better framed, but I don’t usually edit things after the fact (except to remove factual errors), because I think people should see things as they were written. I prefer to stand by what I say, even when it is wrong or less than perfect or in need of more nuance, and I’m not going to hide behind ‘intent’ or magically make things that make me look bad disappear. (For values of ‘disappear,’ given the Wayback Machine.) That post is what it is.

That post was also intended to be partnered with another post which was never written, and probably will be at the future, but you’re not going to be reading it today, because look at all the time I wasted above! That other post is a post that deserves to be read on its own, rather than shuffled into something else.

Because there’s a different kind of femme who is also erased, and because I don’t bring it up in that piece, the post inadvertently appears to be collaborating in that erasure: That’s nonbinary or otherwise gender nonconforming people people who were assigned male at birth, or who are assigned male identities because of how they look, who are also femmes. Instead of being forcibly passed as women, though, they’re usually assumed to be cis gay men, because we live in a transphobic and homophobic world. Or they’re assumed to be cross-dressers. Or they’re assumed to be trans women (usually with the implication that they aren’t ‘passing’ appropriately). One thing no one seems to think they are is nonbinary people who are also femmes.

Gender and identity get layered and tangled and complicated. Not everyone with a beard, long hair, and a skirt is nonbinary. Or a cross-dresser. Or a trans woman who likes her beard. Sometimes those people are men who like to wear skirts (and who wouldn’t, honestly). Not every slender person with a pixie cut in foofy clothes is a woman trying to assert her femininity to make herself look less like a man, either, for that matter. Weight also interacts with people assigned/assumed male very differently than it does with women, which makes things even more complicated. To wit: Our hypothetical skirt-wearing person could have a slim, angular, ‘classically masculine’ build, or could be chubby. This person’s build is definitely going to interact with the way people perceive their gender.

Thus, people assigned/assumed male experience a different kind of femme erasure. Being treated as a femme man (gay or otherwise, though usually gay, because as we all know femme men can’t be heterosexual (I am being sarcastic, just so we’re clear)) when you are not a man is really terrible. It means that you’re being forcibly passed as something you are not. Having people assume you’re a cross-dresser means that your gender is being turned into something else — and people usually mean a ‘fetish’ (i.e. gross icky) when they think of cross-dressers, or assume you’re a drag queen, or…lots of other things that aren’t necessarily the case. Having people assume you’re a trans woman when you’re not is also an act of erasure, and it carries stark notes of binary transphobia as well, because it carries some very heavy overtones of assumptions about trans women and what they look like (‘men in dresses,’ just so we’re all on the same page).

However, remnants of binary sexism creep in here as well. Femmes commonly read as men when they are actually nonbinary still tend to be more welcome in some nonbinary spaces, with the implication that their gender is more ‘valid’ than ‘someone dressing like a girl who really is a girl and is pretending she is not.’ Conversely, a femme assumed to be a woman who actually isn’t is less likely to be beaten up and harassed than a femme assumed to be a man who actually isn’t. That’s something that people have to confront, and that’s something addressed in that original post, as well — some femmes are more privileged than others in various ways and no femme is an island.

I hope that some of this clarifies some of what’s going on there. If you’re a longtime reader who’s been wondering ‘uh, hey…uhm…so…,’ now you know. If you’re a newcomer, I encourage you to poke around. There’s not some sort of ‘you must read everything I’ve ever written ever before being allowed to talk’ requirement, but you might find interesting things or answers that you wouldn’t find by asking me — though you can always poke me anyway! (n.b. the best way to contact me if you have questions about my work is via email, not Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. I am more likely to see it there, and I am more likely to be able to give you a thoughtful, considered answer — including, perhaps, a post not laden with passive-aggressive frustration.)

Image: Blue, Elizabeth Albert, Flickr