Sunday, March 13, 2011

Historicizing “Femme” in the Queer Vernacular

(A discussion of “Butch” and “Femme” Men.)
This reminds me a little bit of that episode of “This American Life” about sissies where Dan Savage talks about gay men policing masculinity within the queer community. He celebrates femme guys in that segment as hot and brave.
“It seems that a quote referring to femmes as girls angered some of the trans men in the community, and led to a discussion of transphobia in the femme community, as well as — and this is where it involves me directly — a discussion of variously male-identified folks who identify as femme, and whether that is okay. […]

However, I think they err in suggesting that queer men, specifically, who call themselves femme must be appropriating the identity from the specific, modern primarily queer female femme culture. Queer men have been calling each other butch or femme for ages. I was called “femme” by others ever since I came out, often in tones of high insult. One of the first books I read as I was coming out, and probably the first place I came across the word, was The Unofficial Gay Manual by Kevin DiLallo, a rather terrible guide to normative gayness, that uses the words “butch” (as a compliment) and “femme” (as an insult). It was published in 1994.

I’ve since discovered that gay men have been using the words butch and femme much earlier than that. “Femme” is an entry in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Man’s Lexicon by Bruce Rodgers, published in 1972, referring to both lesbians and to gay men. The latter definition is marked “dated,” suggesting that it had existed still earlier. “Butch” is also an entry, with the meaning “masculine heterosexual man” dated to the 1940s. As femme men’s star fell in the 1970s, “fem” became also one of the many epithets flung at effeminate men in Craig Alfred Hanson’s virulent screed “The Fairy Princess Exposed,” in Karla Jay and Allen Young, Out of the Closets: Voices of gay liberation, also published in 1972.
I’m not able to determine from these resources whether the word “femme” originated in the queer women’s or queer men’s community. (Couldn’t it have been both at the same time? I don’t think they were always as separate as they can be now.) But the point is that there is a history of gay men using “femme” (and “butch”) for decades, well before the rise of the modern femme community. Accordingly, I think I have a good reason to think of the word “femme” as part of my cultural heritage as a queer man; that’s certainly how I received it in the first place.”


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