Breaking free from sisterhood: Creating a liberatory movement space for non-binary queer femmes
This is the part 2 of the ongoing series. This article is being written with those who are entirely unfamiliar with the terms "non-binary" and "femmes," as well as those who may have significant misconceptions about the said terms. (Go to the part 1)
Who are the non-binary femmes?
Sometimes, everyone seems to have a different idea of what a word means. However, a word ought to mean something and its definition shared so everyone who is reading this would be on the same page.
Non-binary: I define a "non-binary" person as someone who opts out of, and occupies, the space outside the construct of gender, in particular, the binary male-female continuum and associated social and cultural expectations which are primarily informed by heterocisnormative standards. Therefore, "non-binary" and "transgender" are mutually exclusive terms (the latter still operates within the schematics of the gender binary, or in some cases, along the "gender spectrum" which is a linear continuum between the male-female poles).
Non-binary persons, contrary to a common misconception, do not always embody androgyny (Hinojosa 2017), nor are stereotypical "gender fluid" or "genderqueer" persons who might act like a "man" one day and like a "woman" the next day. At the same time, some but not all non-binary persons experience sex dysphoria (Hinojosa 2017). While non-binary genders are "non-conforming to the mainstream" their experiences and pains are different from those of trans individuals (Harkey, 2017), and therefore their identities are distinct from trans identities, albeit they may overlap in some respect and share similar political interests and concerns. In short, being non-binary is a complete rejection of and opt-out from the gender scheme altogether.
Femme: There are, broadly speaking, two different definitions of the word "femme" in the modern English language. The first definition of "femme" goes as far back as the 1950s working-class lesbian culture in the United States and was in use until much of the 1990s. In this definition, a femme is a lesbian who approximates a stereotypical female role within the context of a lesbian relationship that loosely emulated heteronormative ideas of a couple and they were also known as "lipstick lesbians." Many feminists, especially during the 1970s, critiqued and rejected the femme for upholding a patriarchal beauty standard, although some argue that the "butch-femme" structure was born out of cultural necessities of the time (Goodloe 2010). In the historical context of the post-World War II America's return to traditional gender roles, the butch-femme role distinction became a "personal behavior code and an organizing principle for community life" but the distinctions between the butch and the femme were more pronounced among the working-class lesbians whereas, among the upwardly mobile, such distinctions were more muted (Byers 2008).
The second and the newer, definition of "femme" arose in the 1990s and came into current use in the 21st century. Rhea Ashley Hoskin, one of the leading theorists of femme identity, defines it as an identity that "encapsulates femininity that is dislocated from, and not necessitating, a female body/identity, as well as femininity that is embodied by those whose femininity is deemed culturally 'unauthorized' in opposition to a white, cissexist, heterosexist view of 'proper womanhood' rooted in an essentialist view of womanliness" (Hoskin 2017b). In discussing the femme, I shall refer to this definition.
The femme-ness is both intentional and political, subverting the social expectations placed on a person both by the heterocisnormative mainstream culture and also by the binary gay and lesbian cultures (Tonic 2016). In this sense, femmes are called "the queerest of the queer" (Williams 2018) challenging culture in all directions and "queering" both femininity and queerness by turning them on their own heads.
The entrenched cultural norms within the heterocisnormative mainstream society render non-binary femmes invisible, and at the same time, the predominant LGBT cultures -- themselves deeply invested in the enforcement of binary gender norms because their sexual orientations or gender identities depends on the upholding of the very binary system, and thus the non-binary deconstruction of the femme would create an ontological crisis for their rationale for existence -- often treat non-binary femmes as non-existent or even express hostilities toward them as some kind of traitors.
Non-binary femmes may express their femininity in such a way that the casual outside observers cannot reconcile with their own stereotypical ideas about what a queer person should look or act (which often involve androgyny or outrageous "gender-bending") and might as well fit into a normative cultural narrative of "womanliness" (albeit only on the surface). Yet, many (but not all) of them use a non-binary/gender-neutral pronoun (usually "they") and some might even change their names to "unisex" ones, "masculine-sounding" ones, or even a combination thereof.
As one non-binary femme acquaintance of mine once wrote, being a non-binary femme is to become "gender neutral by becoming more than it once was, and it does this without ever disavowing its femininity" and "appreciate they/them pronouns, not because I disavow or devalue anything about femininity, but rather because I am not constrained by it. I am femme and more" (Private social media post 2017).
Most non-binary femmes that I have come to know also have a highly fluid and dynamic sense of sexuality, many of them being polyamorous and/or pansexual, eschewing the patriarchally-constructed ideas of monogamy, family, and marriage as necessarily oppressive (which echoes the early era of gay liberation movement which saw marriage and family as loci of patriarchal oppressions, being "contracts of exploitations and male dominance" which created oppressive sex roles in the first place (Jeffreys 2003)). As such, non-binary femmes reject assimilationism both in terms of sexuality and gender identity.
Importantly, being a femme is not same as being feminine or being womanly; being a femme is rather a "refusal to approximate patriarchal norms of femininity," a revolt against essentialized femininity that seeks to "maintain the sanctity of 'proper womanhood'" and is independent of any forms of "categorical imperatives" whether such imperatives come from the mainstream cultural norms (Blair & Hoskin 2015), from women's circles, or from the pro-binary LGBT community.
At the same time, in reclaiming and remixing femininity, the non-binary femmes combat the systemic devaluation of femininity, policing of femininity, and homogenization of femininity by the male-dominated society, second-wave feminists, and third-wave feminists alike (Hoskin, 2017a).
It is, after two decades of (that is, my entire) adult life attempting to fit into the unrealistic idea of "womanhood" imposed by the society, this group of individuals that I found my home in.
How "women's space" fails non-binary femmes
The unspoken cultural signal behind being seen as a "woman" (and therefore, constantly bombarded with the social pressure that tells me "you're a woman, you're a woman" even though I've felt rather uncomfortable with this since I was about 28 years old) is that I must embody the essentialist cultural expectation of what "a woman" is supposed to be: empathetic, friendly, vulnerable, relational, and so on -- in addition to the more overarching social and peer pressures toward heterosexuality, childbirth, monogamous marriage, and motherhood. As someone who falls on an autistic spectrum who is also queer, much of this idea feels utterly foreign to me.
At the same time, there is a flip side to this: a fantasy of a strong womanhood and women's empowerment. Too often, "women's groups" -- especially the ones who claim to be feminist or spiritual or both -- idolize a certain kind of "successful" woman, which almost always happens to be attractive, well-educated, white, heterosexual (and married to a man and has children), and upper middle class with an impressive career.
Put together, the double imagery of the idealized womanhood upholds ableism, heterosexism, cissexism, neuronormativity, classism, capitalism, and racism. Members of these "white lady woo-woo sisterhood" often take part in various "women's spaces" that reinforce and reify this double imagery of oppression, blissfully unaware and uncritical of what they are promoting. This is a feminism of Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, decorated with culturally appropriated "goddess" or "gypsy" aesthetics and punctuated with questionable New Age practices such as guided meditations and yoga, often led by self-appointed gurus and "coaches" and motivational speakers who make six-figure incomes from their commercialization of what feminist author Kelly Diels calls "female lifestyle empowerment brands" (Diels 2016), or better described as "a slurry of cultural appropriation, spiritual bypassing, neoliberalism, multilevel marketing, and random woo punctuated by various signals of authority, virtue and performative vulnerability from their leaders" (Rice 2017).
For many years I failed to critique the problems of the white lady woo-woo sisterhood and even took active roles in promoting it. In doing so I threw under the bus many womxn, trans, and femme folks -- all in the name of assimilationism and respectability politics. Now I am disgusted with what I had done, and in the end, having destroyed myself in the end instead of gaining anything out of it.
These women-only groups and spaces fail non-binary femmes not only because of their enforcement and reification of the patriarchal, sexist gender norms but also because they are neither interested in nor is committed to the liberation of all womxn and femmes. Too often, their activities are prohibitively expensive for working-class womxn and womxn of color (who are disproportionately underpaid). Too often, even as these groups often purport to be "inclusive" of lesbians, queer womxn, and trans folks, they are merely tokenizing them to justify the groups' continued promotion of oppressive ideologies, while also failing to do more than merely tolerating sexual minorities and actually engaging them in the group leadership in a meaningful way. And even if they did, non-binary femmes won't be welcome anyway, either because they'd be rejected for not "self-identifying as a woman" or else, coercively treated as one of the "women."
In support of non-binary femme separatism: toward "coalitional" feminist struggle
These years of my rather negative experiences with so-called women's communities led me to conclude that time is ripe for a femme separatism. Even though femmes and women share a multitude of common concerns and political goals, they are never identical in any way. The lived, embodied experiences of femmes differ significantly from those of women who occupy the heteronormative and binary world.
For too long, feminism has suffered continuing inner strifes because inclusion (into the white feminism) has come to be seen as the golden standard -- even though, the inclusion inevitably failed to transform feminism away from a movement of white, middle-class, heterosexual women. They can tokenize Black women, Latinas, lesbians, and even trans women all they want as a virtue signal and earn "progressive" points, but fundamentally nothing is being challenged. The massive, historic crowd of Women's March on Washington across the United States and around the world may have inspired more women to run for elected offices, but very little is being done to stop Donald Trump's ethnic cleansing agenda. In fact, it almost seems like the Democratic Party has all but abandoned any pretense of "resistance" (Stancil 2018) and the recent polls are now predicting wins for the Republicans (Payton 2018) -- in a midterm election where the ruling party is supposed to lose.
We must all abandon the fantasy of "global sisterhood," that there is some kind of universal, idealized "womanhood" that everyone must share in order to engage in a feminist struggle. "Sisterhood" is neither powerful nor is unifying; rather, it is a colonial hegemony that continues to enforce the power of affluent white women in North America and Western Europe, who set the agenda and construct the narratives.
To this end, I advocate for the idea of moving away from the so-called "global sisterhood" to what Allison Stone (2004) calls a "coalitional" feminism, which would no longer be "predicated on any shared set of feminine concerns; rather, they may arise from overlaps and indirect connections between women's diverse historical and cultural situations."
Several steps beyond intersectional feminism, a coalitional feminism helps maintain distinct and autonomous organizing spaces and cultural spaces for everyone while working toward common goals through a voluntary federation and mutual aid, without sacrificing or silencing the minority voices -- much like anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian models of organization -- which would no longer necessitate a fantasy of uniformity and enforcement of white middle-class "womanliness" as the basis of feminist liberation.
It also recognizes that in many cases, we are divided by racial and class lines far more than being "united" by the mere fact of "womanhood." The coalitional feminism allows us to no longer be silent about this proverbial white elephant in the women's organizing space for the sake of "sisterhood." On any given day, a typical "women's group" may count among its members a minimum-wage worker and a shareholder who profits from the former's labor; a tenant who is oppressed by a skyrocketing rent and a landlord who hoards real estates for speculative investment purposes; a houseless woman who may be wondering if she could get into the shelter tonight and a business owner who lobbies the city hall to "crack down on the homeless." As the preamble to the Industrial Workers of the World's constitution rather reads, there is nothing in common between these two classes (Industrial Workers of the World n.d.). The fantasy "sisterhood" merely erases the struggle and sweeps it under the rug so that they can have some warm-fuzzy rituals and meditations on that rug.
As non-binary queer femmes, our femme-ness is a vocation, an intentional response to a call for justice and liberation. It is personal and political. It is a solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed who toil and struggle under the patriarchal violence.
For this reason, queer femme communities must remain distinct and independent of the white lady woo-woo sisterhood, which has failed to develop a meaningful liberatory analysis and consciousness to question its own privileges and how it benefits from the continuance of the existing system.
To be continued to part 3: Metaphors and symbols of our own: Creating a spiritual and religious space for non-binary queer femmes.
Blair, K. L., & Hoskin, R. A. (2015). Experiences of femme identity: Coming out, invisibility and femmephobia. Psychology & Sexuality, 6(3). Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19419899.2014.921860.
Byers, A (2008). Lesbians and the 1950s. Lesbians in the twentieth century, 1900-1999. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/lesbians-20th-century/1950s.
Diels, K (2016, October 29). The female lifestyle empowerment brand: A definition [Web log post]. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://www.kellydiels.com/female-lifestyle-empowerment-brand-definition/
Goodloe, A (2010). Lesbian identity and the politics of butch-femme. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://amygoodloe.com/papers/lesbian-identity-and-the-politics-of-butch-femme/
Harkey, K. S. (2017, November 27). "No, I am not trans...": A non-binary experience [Web log post]. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://medium.com/@katessaharkey/no-i-am-not-trans-a-non-binary-experience-1a688a30dbe7
Hinojosa, A. (2017). "I exist": (Transcending) embodiments and expressions of queer and non-binary identities. Texas State University Digital Collections. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://digital.library.txstate.edu/handle/10877/6767.
Hoskin, R. A. (2017a). Femme interventions and the proper feminist subject: Critical approaches to decolonizing western feminist pedagogies. Cogent Social Sciences, 3(1). Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311886.2016.1276819.
Hoskin, R. A. (2017b). Femme theory: Refocusing the intersectional lens. Atlantis, 38(1), 95-109. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://journals.msvu.ca/index.php/atlantis/article/view/4771
Industrial Workers of the World (n.d.). Preamble to the IWW Constitution. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://www.iww.org/culture/official/preamble.shtml
Jeffreys, S. (2003). Unpacking queer politics: A lesbian feminist perspective. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
Payton, B. (2018, May 22). New poll shows GOP now leads in 2018 generic ballot. The Federalist. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://thefederalist.com/2018/05/22/new-poll-shows-gop-now-leads-2018-generic-ballot/.
[A private social media post]. (2017, October 20).
Rice, R. (2017, April 30). Why white lady sisterhood needs to evolve [Web log post]. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/white-lady-sisterhood-needs-evolve/
Stancil, W (2018, February 9). Democrats' 'resistance' to Trump is eroding, so are their poll numbers. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/democrats-resistance-to-trump-is-eroding-and-so-are-their-poll-numbers/552845/.
Stone, A. (2004). Essentialism and anti-essentialism in feminist philosophy. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 1(2), 135-153. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://www.academia.edu/1629266/Essentialism_and_Anti-Essentialism_in_Feminist_Philosophy.
Tonic, G. (2018, April 25). The Difference Between Femme & Being Feminine. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/166081-what-does-femme-mean-the-difference-between-being-femme-being-feminine
Williams, C (2018). The queerest of the queer: Viva la femme! [Audio blog interview]. (2018, May 3). Retrieved May 29, 2018, from https://soundcloud.com/cristan-williams/the-queerest-of-the-queer-viva-la-femme?in=cristan-williams/sets/transadvocate-podcast