Femme (fĕm) adj. Exhibiting stereotypical or exaggerated feminine traits. Used especially of lesbians and gay men. (thefreedictionary.com)
All my life I have been a femme boy. The innate femininity of my personality and behavior was evident at age five when I saw Batman Returns and decided that I wanted to emulate Catwoman, whip and all. Not Batman, Catwoman. My parents bought me sets of Batman action figures and my favorites were Catwoman and (to a lesser degree) Poison Ivy. They were female and fabulous and I loved it.
Throughout elementary school, my femininity manifested in writing assignments, performances, and social interactions. I was often told that I sounded like a girl when I spoke. Though this bothered me and other children, I had many friends who thought I was fabulous. The majority of my close friends were male at the time. Though my male friends didn’t question my lack of masculinity, aversion to sports, or love of Madonna at age 8, it was often a concern for other boys at school. As children are curious and blunt, I was often asked why I acted and spoke the way I did. This is where my femme-shame began. It wasn’t until fifth grade that somebody gave me a new label: “gay”.
Femininity and male homosexuality are often thought of as interchangeable by people of all ages. At ten years old with no sexual realization, I didn’t know what to make of being called “gay”. All I knew was that it deeply hurt me. It made me feel uncomfortable. There was suddenly something wrong with me and I desperately wanted to fix it. Alas, there was little I could do to change anyone’s mind.
In middle school, kids became more mean and vulgar. Aware of my femininity, I tried my very best to stifle it in order to fit in with all the other boys. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t always control my feminine mannerisms. Among the most notable were my voice (a constant), the way I walked (still), the way I held my bike handles, and my crippling fear of contact sports. I’m not sure exactly how many times I was called “faggot” in middle school but it was enough to make me hate myself. 7th grade was the last time I can distinctly remember being ashamed about the way I am.
Many gay men experience a shame or harassment struggle sometime between middle and high school. As mentioned, the worst of mine occurred in 7th grade. Though I was never physically assaulted because of my femininity or perceived (soon to be known) sexuality, I felt extremely threatened and vulnerable in public spaces. Male counterparts who spoke against my girlish ways made me fear for my safety and my reputation. Being harassed in hallways, parks, and classrooms embarrassed me to the point of isolation and self-loathing.
With the help of some new friends I made in 8th grade, I began to confront who I really was. After all, the age at which a boy reaches puberty is often his golden age of sexual desire discovery. When I had wet dreams, they weren’t about girls. I knew exactly what I wanted and I had the urge to experience it. By the time I began high school at age thirteen I had come out to many peers as gay. The need to act straight and “manly” disappeared and there was no turning back.
Gaining control of my identity helped me to accept and embrace my innate femininity as a teenager. About 90% of my close friends in high school were girls. I confided with these girls on a regular basis, giving them an intimate look at my funny, frantic, and FEMININE self. Less boys harassed me in high school than in middle school, and in the few instances that they did I knew I valued myself too much to let the “fag” label get to me. The comfort that I felt with myself as both queer and femme is one that many gay men don’t experience before graduating high school. I was very fortunate to have the support of friends, teachers, and my family as I femininely fumbled through adolescence.
At 21, I am as comfortable with my feminine self as ever. That being said, there are still aspects of everyday life that make me want to tone it down. Within the gay community, being femme is commonly considered unattractive in favor of muscular, athletic, “straight-acting” masculine men. Users of the gay hookup app Grindr often specify in their profiles that they are not interested in feminine guys, using indicators like “mas4masc” or “no femme”. This leads to femmes like me questioning our value in our own sexual category. How any member of the gay community-a group that has endured so much oppression, discrimination, and social exclusion-can tell fellow gays that they are not worthy is truly baffling.
Outside of Grindr, gay men are often wary of being femme because they view femininity as a burden and don’t want to resonate with a “sissy” or “bitchy” stereotype. If you call a gay guy feminine to his face with no vocal inflection, chances are he won’t take it kindly. Butch gays are often favored over femme gays, whether it be in the context of sexual preference, social acceptance, or simply fitting in. This is why we have the word “queen” to describe certain gay men in a pejorative sense. A queen is female and a king is male. When a male is feminine he is a queen and language implies that there is something wrong with him.
Men who exhibit the same behavioral characteristics as women are still something of a taboo in contemporary mainstream society. In my experience, the link between femininity and homosexuality is at the root of the harassment and discrimination that surrounding effeminate men regardless of sexual orientation. Femininity itself is not what others have an issue with. Women can be feminine and it is lusted after and therefore celebrated, while men who are feminine are ostracized and shamed. When men exhibit behaviors that are culturally assigned to women and embedded in the public psyche, they breed disgust and disapproval.
Though I’ve tried to cover it up, I can honestly say that I am proud of being feminine. All my life I’ve idolized women, hoping to adopt their most empowering, endearing, and engaging qualities and make them my own. Being openly femme takes a lot of guts, and I salute my femme brethren who choose to fearlessly flaunt their femininity no matter where they are or who they’re in front of. Weakness is hiding your true self because of haters and gender norms. Strength is embracing who you are and strutting in the face of adversity.