Graphic by Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
*This article is a modern analysis of the themes and content of “Too Femme To Fit“ (Winter 2002), the ninth installment of our From The Archive series.*
“If your presence disturbs me, I have the responsibility to look within myself to understand why your presence disturbs me. It is not your problem. It is my problem. But that requires a lot of courageous soul searching that many aren’t willing to do.”
This quote from an interview with Ronni Sanlo, Ed.D in the 2002 article “Too Femme to Fit” is one that captures a difficult truth that both queer and cisgender heterosexual people struggle to accept; your beliefs and feelings about a person or group of people come from you, and they can be wrong. It’s our responsibility to unpack the messages that we internalize after receiving them from society as a whole, from our communities, and from the people in our lives, but few want to put in that work before they perpetuate these beliefs. This article begs us to ask ourselves why the coexistence of femininity and queerness seems to disturb so many, and that question is one that we’re still grappling with today in 2022.
Both the feminine lesbian and gay man interviewed in the article mentioned that their femininity inspired attacks from others in different ways. The lesbian had her identity invalidated and erased, while the gay man had stereotypes that he didn’t agree with assigned to him. We see queer feminine men and women treated similarly today, by both people who are and aren’t queer.
Feminine queer men are disparaged for being one of those — the flamboyant caricatures that, for decades now, have been both the butt of the joke and the only queer representation we could find in popular media. Feminine queer women are interrogated, excluded from queer spaces, and if they complain, their pain at having their identity invalidated is minimized because there are ultimately more potential negative outcomes to being visibly queer than there are to being assumed straight.
There’s an incorrect but all too widespread belief that belonging to a marginalized group like the queer community absolves us from all responsibility if we discriminate against another group. When it comes to our discomfort with femininity in our spaces, the way we behave and the core of our discomfort aligns all too well with misogyny.
Does the rejection of and discomfort towards femininity stem from a rejection of womanhood itself or a rejection of the ugly truth of womanhood that traditional femininity represents? The reality is that, for most of us, the traditional idea of femininity that we have internalized is rooted in the desires men have for women. It’s misogynistic to reduce femininity and womanhood to what a woman should be for a man, but we still do it because that’s where the majority of our beliefs about womanhood come from.
From queer women: She would never see me, because she likes to dress in a style that I know is meant to cater to men. People who are attracted to women should align themselves with masculinity because women are attracted to men. From queer men: I face rejection and persecution because my sexual orientation deviates from traditional masculinity, so I need to secure my masculinity by rejecting femininity and ensuring that people know that I am separate from and above women, like men are supposed to be.
These aren’t the only reasons people see femininity as at odds with queerness, but this and similar reasoning is often at the root of why queer people present themselves in a certain way and why they make assumptions about others. The stage theory of sexual identity development that Salno mentions in the 2002 article captures how signifcant of a role these internalized messages are playing in a queer person’s life and personal presentation at a given time.
Salno says that the goal of the final stage is to get to the point where our identity is just another part of who we are and does not need to reflect in our presentation in a way that isn’t authentic to us. Settling into ourselves in that way can help us divorce the negative connotations of traditional femininity from femininity itself and allow it to exist as it does in ourselves and others without forming assumptions. We can’t get there without taking the time to unpack the messages that we receive and becoming conscious of how we are letting them affect our presentation of ourselves and perception of others.