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Frowning on Femmes: Policing Femme Gender Expression

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When a world famous drag queen is physically removed from a gay club in Paris for presenting too femininely, what does that say about the queer community’s acceptance of femme gender expression? Nothing positive, that’s for sure. The Season 7 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Violet Chachki, was physically dragged out of the gay club Le Depot in Paris this past month. While they weren’t in drag, they were wearing makeup, and were not deemed masc enough to be allowed in. Chachki agrees that the policy is transphobic, which confirms that even if a space says it is queer/trans friendly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.

Femme Fundamentals

Le Depot is a prime example of the disgust and rejection of femininity in the queer and trans communities. To be femme means different things to different people. According to the lesbian blog Autostraddle, “femme” is a descriptor for a queer person who presents and acts in a traditionally feminine manner. Gina Tonic, a writer at media company Bustle, claims that “all femmes hit upon two key aesthetic and identity-related traits: Being feminine and falling somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.”

For a non cis, white perspective, I asked Romeo Jackson, a 24 year old black, nonbinary femme student at the University of Utah, what femme means to them.

“Resistance; survival. To me, it is an homage to ways in which we have tried to eradicate black women from the Earth – from existence. It’s also a disposition, something you feel. Earrings, hoops, and lipstick are part of that, but more importantly, femme is owning something that is despised in our culture.”

The Power of Femme

Jackson confirms that the queer community has quite a bit of work ahead of us in regards to accepting and celebrating femme expression and culture. “We can’t be misogynistic. We have to understand what femininity looks like. That starts with people in power resisting the hyper masculine nature that we lean towards.” There are even opportunities to embrace femininity in activities as small as icebreakers for groups activities. “We do team builders in queer spaces but I’ve always wonderred, why don’t we take teen magazine quizzes and talk about those? Femininity is seen as unimportant.”

One of my personal role models is the gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, educator, and entertainer, Alok Vaid-Menon. “Their eclectic sense of style, political comedy, and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. Alok was recently the youngest recipient of the prestigious Live Works Performance Act Award granted to ten performance artists across the world. They have been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker and have presented their work at 300 venues in more than 30 countries.” Their Facebook and Instagram posts often feature their phenomenal outfits and inspirational, personal, and poignant commentary.

The last time I wore this outfit (photo on the left) I was punched in the face by a white man who told me that “He was okay with gay people, but I was too much!” Every time I saw this outfit in my closet I thought about that man, that pain, that fear…and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it again. It’s been a year today since the incident & I decided to wear that red jumpsuit out with a big smile and a belief in something greater than myself. That man was wrong about a lot of things: but he was right about something. I AM too much! I am TOO honest, TOO beautiful, and TOO powerful to prioritize other people’s hatred over my joy. I am TOO free for fragile masculinity and I am TOO determined to end the gender binary to give up!

A post shared by ALOK 🥀 (@alokvmenon) on

Femme: The Final Frontier

As my conversation with Jackson came to a close, it ended on a healing and inspirational note, as well as a call to action.

“Cis women, trans women, nonbinary people who are femme – there is a radical potential to build together. We could reimagine gender systems. So much of our society is based off of masculinity and capitalistic notions of femininity. Groups of femme folks working together will transform queer politics in a beautiful way.”

Sara Whittington is a genderqueer artist raised in Central Louisiana, but currently residing in Brooklyn, NY.
They have had the good fortune to be able to travel across the country, as well as abroad. Some of their favorite trips thus far have been adventuring across Iceland, spending summers on Lake Michigan, and a family celebration in Mundesley, England.
In their spare time, Sara enjoys writing letters to loved ones.

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The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson Gives LGBTs’ a History They’ve Needed

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*To honor the gender fluidity of Marsha P Johnson, I will be referring to them as they.

 

We study our history, so we know from where we came. To learn about the American Revolution, we study the Founding Fathers, Susan B. Anthony for Woman’s Right, Martin Luther King Junior for the Civil Rights Movement. We are taught those histories. However yet the media and even history books have glossed over the gay rights movement, the one that is still being fought today. Who are our leaders? Where are their stories?

Thanks to director David Frances we have one, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson a documentary released last month on Netflix. It tells the story of Marsha P. Johnson, their life as a transgender person, their activism in the LGBT community, and their mysterious death.

Even as a member of the LGBT community, until this documentary I was unaware of whom Marsha P. Johnson was, this Rosa Parks of the LGBT community. Therefore I was very much a blank slate about what this movie was going to be about. But nothing could prepare me for how emotional, impactful, and eye-opening this movie was going to be. This is a movie that blends both the past and the present, showing those in the community how far we’ve come, and how much work we still need to do.

The documentary uses a mix of never-before-seen footage, rediscovered interviews, and modern times, creating both a mystery that needs to be solved and a wake-up call.  This is especially seen in the opening of the film when we are shown a clip of people marching on the streets of New York , some waving rainbow flags, others holding signs, and others carrying a picture of a black, femme presenting woman, smiling. A Clark Kent type anchor man is heard in the voiceover, using the word “transvestite”, now an insensitive term, informing the viewer that it’s 1992 and Marsha P. Johnson is dead at 42 years old. Police say it’s a suicide.

But Johnson’s friends and members of the LGBT community believe that she was murdered.

This is not your typical documentary. Instead of a linear timeline or an autobiographical story of Johnson, we are given almost an LGBT detective story. An episode worthy of the show Cold Case, for sure. Our protagonist is Victoria Cruz, a transgender activist from the New York City Lesbian and Gay Anti-Violence Group and now amateur sleuth, about to retire, and her last case will be the 1992 murder of the beloved transgender icon.

While this is a movie about Johnson, we are given the personal backstory about not only Cruz and their personal history of assault, but other gay icons. For example, the movie goes into a side story about the LGBT activist Sylvia Rivera who co-founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Johnson which was a housing and support program for young trans women of color.

We are also introduced to so many other transgender community members that it almost became overwhelming. One of the drawbacks of this movie was that there wasn’t enough time for everything. The film is only an hour and 45 minutes long and it is so jam-packed with topics and issues and people that the viewer can be completely overwhelmed with both information and emotion. Personally, I feel that Sylvia Rivera could, and should, have their own documentary. Also, I would have been fine with the film being longer which is a rare critique, but with some much to cover, it needed time to slow down.

However, what it may lack in pacing is made up with impact. This film is a bucket of ice-cold water, waking up everyone in the LGBT community. Many people believe that the LGBT community has finally gained equality because they’ve won the right to get married. That’s it right? The war is over? But that is not the case for our trans members in our community who are still suffering today and often getting the brunt of anti-LGBT attacks.

Throughout the documentary we see trans women homeless, in prison, assaulted, and horribly murdered, with no one else to lean on but other LGBT community members who are also vulnerable. These trans women, many of them people of color, are ignored by society, even their fellow LGBT members. This is said best at the most powerful and poignant part of the movie. At the 2016 sentencing of a man who confessed to beating 21-year-old trans woman Islan Nettles to death in Harlem three years early. One activist standing outside of the courthouse goes on a rant about the “privileged gays” who once protested with the transgender people for equal rights and then promptly left them to fend for themselves once they won the right to gay marriage.

“It’s LGB T. It’s LGBT,” the activist cries. It’s painful because it’s true. Transgender and “drag queens” created the LGBT movement, they were the representation of the community. But who was there to represent them when they were being murdered and attacked? Who was there for Marsha P. Johnson?

Going back to the detective drama genre aspect, we go into theories to why Johnson was killed. There’s even with a theory that the mafia did it (Stonewall Inn being own by the Mafia at the time). Again, this movie has a lot of information, with not a lot of time, and at the end, we don’t get an answer. But what we do get are the stories told by POC Transgender woman and the smiling face of Marsha P. Johnson, and that is priceless.

The verdict

As someone who came into this movie not knowing a lot about LGBT history, I was blown away. I learned so much from this movie. It opened my eyes to a lot of subculture and caste systems of the LGBT community of which I wasn’t aware. I loved the old footage they had of Marsha P. Johnson in drag singing (poorly), Cruz in her younger, model days, and other older, historical clips. I felt really emotional watching Cruz getting hung up on over and over again. It affected me in a lot of ways, even if it was overwhelming and confusing at some points. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about LGBT history.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Queens.

“The Death and Lift of Marsha P. Johnson” can be watched on Netflix

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Growing Up with Gender Neutrality

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Even before we are born, gender seeps through the womb like a glaze on a cake: very slowly, but all-encompassing, soaking what was a blank slate with gender norms and heterosexual expectations. From then on we slowly become more and more conscious of societal expectations, and unwritten rules and consequences. Whether they be intentional or not, the impact can be substantial.

Equality at Egalia

When people are young, they are malleable. The surroundings they are subjected to and the individuals that interact with them are instrumental in forming their first viewpoints of the world. Egalia, a preschool in Sweden, is a prime example of a safe learning environment that provides space to explore interests and activities that might be frowned upon or not offered in other preschools. “We don’t say, ‘Come on boys, let’s go and play football,’ because there might be girls who want to play football,” says Frida Wikström, the schools’ coordinator.  

Keeping the Ball Rolling

How does one continue the example of a safe environment shown at Egalia at home? It can actually be more difficult due to our own personal ingrained ideas about gender and what they look like. The first place to start in creating a freeing environment is the toy chest. Here are my top 10 picks for gender neutral toys:

  1. Stuffed animals – Who doesn’t love something soft and cuddly to carry around?
  2. Doctor Kit – I remember growing up with a Sesame Street doctor kit, and loving it.
  3. Building Toys – Legos, Lincoln Logs, blocks, etc.
  4. Appliances – Kitchen sets have always been a favorite of mine; cooking is a great skill to have, especially when you’re hungry!
  5. Play Food – A kitchen isn’t much good without some food to cook with!
  6. Tools – Fixing your vacuum cleaner, or changing a tire are skills everyone could benefit from learning.
  7. Bike or Trike – Once you learn, you never forget!
  8. Bath Toys – I was never a fan of bathing growing up, but having bath toys always made it much more bearable.
  9. Outdoor Games – Balls, frisbees, and hula hoops are all classics.
  10. Musical Toys – Who knows – maybe a toy xylophone will be the catalyst of creating a great percussionist!

Gender Neutral Clothes for Kids

Whether one is at Egalia, or at home, play clothes are a necessity. Here are my top 3 gender neutral kids clothing stores:

  1. Quirkie Kids – I adore how the majority of the clothes are images of cool things! Who doesn’t want a shark on a shirt?! Some shirts don’t resonate with me as much (“Still a boy” / “Still a girl”) but I can see how they could be validating for someone who is often told they are not behaving masc or femme enough for the gender they identify with.
  2. Baby Blastoff! – I am a VERY big fan of this company. Tabs are divided into shirts, pants, and bodysuits. Again, they are screenprinted with super cool images (trees, birds, dinosaurs). What captured my heart was seeing a child in a wheelchair sporting one of these awesome t shirts on the homepage – showing that ALL KIDS deserve awesome clothes. Representation of all types of kiddos is important, validating, and beautiful.
  3. Target – Target is setting an example by offering a ‘neutral’ setting under filters when looking at clothes. Supporting independent and local businesses is important and ideal. However, when we are in need of something affordable and closeby, it is wonderful to have validating and inclusive options.

Gender isn’t Garbage

I was raised very gender neutrally. Solid colored shirts and pants, not a lot of Barbies, and a whole lot of blocks and crayons. Even when I took ballet lessons from 4th – 6th grade, there were very few pink and frilly garments. There were times growing up where I wanted to present more femme. I wanted to wear clothes with some sparkle and sequins. I wanted to play around with makeup. There was a forbidden aspect that made it even more intriguing. This also applied to toys. The “boy” toy aisle in Walmart always looked more fun. There was action, adventure, variety, and more.

Egalia is more than just a preschool – it is an example of what all humans desire and deserve: “a space to feel security, joy and a desire to learn and develop many rich expressions, where everyone feels involved and where learning is for life!” Gender is not bad. Being assigned female at birth (AFAB) and loving dresses and dolls is not bad. Being assigned male at birth (AMAB) and loving trucks and pants is not bad. Eliminating gender isn’t the answer to creating a safe and fun environment to grow and play. Egalia acknowledges and embraces that. Critics have labelled the project as “gender-madness,” accusing the school of trying to brainwash the kids into a genderless homogeneity. Egalia’s not trying to do that. Gender is an important part of people’s identities, and the kids are free to embrace those differences.

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Thanksgiving Alternatives for Everyone

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Halloween is (unfortunately) over, and if you live in the United States that means it’s time to start thinking about Thanksgiving plans. By now, we’ve all come to realize that contrary to what Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want wants us to believe, this holiday isn’t perfect for a variety of reasons. Maybe you recognize that Thanksgiving celebrates nothing but the near-destruction of a culture and has been heavily white-washed over the years. Maybe your family is transphobic or homophobic. Or maybe you don’t have a family to visit, or they’re too far away. Whatever the reason, for many, Thanksgiving is an altogether unpleasant and/or unsafe holiday. But don’t worry, you have options. So whether you’d rather avoid your family or just can’t make it home this year, here are some ideas to consider so you don’t wind up eating dinner alone on Thanksgiving.

Friendsgiving

As adults, we have more freedom to decide how we spend our holidays. This usually involves deciding who hosts and who to invite, but this doesn’t have to only extend to family. If you’d love to host Thanksgiving dinner at your place, invite a bunch of friends over and make a potluck out of it! Have everyone bring a dish, and enjoy the family you’ve built along the way. This provides a safe space for those who don’t feel safe at home, and you’re more likely to enjoy your holidays. I’ve done this in the past with my other LGBTQ friends, and it was a blast. I felt so at home with no one to judge me (and no awkward political arguments breaking out).

Reach Out

If your close friends would rather spend Thanksgiving with family and you have nowhere to go, remember that there are always others who probably don’t have plans either. Reach out to coworkers and neighbors if you have them, and see if they have somewhere to go. If not, the potluck idea works here too and is a great way to get to know people better. And sometimes you might get lucky and a coworker or neighbor has an extra spot at their family’s table. Maybe you don’t like spending time with your family, but there are good ones out there that are more accepting.

Give Back

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful and to give back to those around you. If you’d prefer to skip the holiday meal altogether, consider volunteering. Soup kitchens and shelters can always use an extra volunteer and give you a chance to make someone else’s holiday a little brighter. Volunteer Match lets you locate volunteer opportunities in your area so you can start giving back sooner.

 

Remember, many people can’t go home for the holidays or aren’t comfortable around family, so pay attention to those around you. Ask people about their plans and consider including them in yours if they have nowhere to go. The holidays are all about caring about each other, and this is just one of the many ways we can spread the love.

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