Stop Saying “Women and Femmes”

What’s wrong with saying “women and femmes”?

Nothing, if you know what that means, and that’s what you mean. It almost never is, though, and sloppy attempts at sounding inclusive does more harm than good. I know the title says STOP, but really I think that understanding what you’re saying is more important than following hard rules that you don’t understand, so maybe the rest of this will help.

I want to be inclusive! What do I replace the word “woman” with when I want to talk about feminism/hold a women-in-tech conference/hand out scholarships/recruit for my improv team?

First of all, admirable intentions. Thank you for wanting to acknowledge that gender is more than a binary. The bad news is that you have to do more work than that. This is a paradigm change, not just a cosmetic language change. You can’t just slap on “..and femmes” here and there and call it a day. Sounding inclusive is not the same as actually inclusive. There is no one single phrase that is appropriate in every context, that’s the point. To figure out which one you should use requires thought, clarity of purpose and precision of language.

Simply replacing every instance of “women” in your vocabulary with “women and femmes” is NOT “more inclusive”. This also applies to uncritical application of all the other variations on “women” that I’ve been seeing lately (female-identifying, womxn, women*, female-aligned, women and nonbinary, etc etc). You are still operating within the paradigm in which there are exactly two oppositional categories of people, exactly one of which requires whatever resource you are offering, regardless of what that resource is. You are saying that there are women, and then there are people who are …basically women? almost-women/women lite/women-but-more-complicated?

What is a “femme” anyway? Random misuse has eroded the word of its meaning. This word belongs to lesbians, queer women and trans-femmes. It doesn’t mean “feminine woman”, nor is it a more fancy way to say “woman”.

What do people really mean when they say “women and femmes”? Lots of different things, some of which can be expressed much more accurately and precisely, others of which are not coherent categories. Some things I’ve seen people use “women and femmes” to mean and why they’re bad:

  1. women = cis women, femmes = trans women. This is incredibly bad! Obviously, trans women are women. If you want a group of women, say “women”. If you want to explicitly include trans women, say “women (cis and trans)”.
  2. people who can get pregnant/breast-feed/etc. If you mean people with uteri, say that. Literally, just say what you mean! This is the most ridiculous use of “women and femmes”.
  3. feminine people who experience misogyny. Eck. Sometimes people ditch “women” altogether and just say “femmes” when they mean this. Misogyny doesn’t only happen to feminine people. Misogyny is about gender, not lipstick. Butch women experience misogyny. “Women and femmes” suggests that butch women somehow have male privilege or are exempt from misogyny, which they are not. Womanhood is not defined by femininity. Saying “femmes” instead of “women” pushes butch women out of womanhood.
  4. AFAB (assigned female at birth) people who experience misogyny. This is another misunderstanding of how misogyny works. Misogyny is about gender, not sex. Trans women experience misogyny. Some AFAB trans people experience misogyny, but that isn’t a feminine experience, and that experience doesn’t make them “women and femmes”. Trying to fight misogyny while defining womanhood based on assigned gender is called biological essentialism, and quite unproductive. If your feminism isn’t inclusive of trans women, what’s the point?
  5. gender minorities/marginalised genders/people who experience gendered oppression. I am a genderqueer person. It really irritates me when people make a thing for “women and femmes” and then tell me I should go. Like… didn’t you get the memo? I’m neither a woman nor femme? Did I come out for nothing?!

It is very important to say exactly what you mean, and to do that you have to think about what you mean. Using “women and femmes” or any other terms to refer to people who are not those things is obviously very rude. Offering resources only to “women and femmes” ignores the many other groups of people who experience gendered oppression and with whom solidarity would be productive. Anti-misogynist efforts CANNOT be solely for feminine/AFAB people.

I know some people are reading this thinking, “okay but so what should I say? Just tell me what to say!!” But this really isn’t a language problem, it is an understanding problem. Words matter because of the ideas they represent. There is no shortcut!

I’m always extra concerned when people ask me, their one trans acquaintance, for help writing copy for gendered spaces. Even if you got the phrasing right, how inclusive is the space itself? Are you going to assume that everyone there is cisgender after claiming to welcome all gender minorities? Will you be centering trans voices or are trans people just supposed to observe and not take up too much space? We need actual inclusion, not just better sounding labels on the same shit. I cannot emphasise that enough.

Addendum: Some assorted bonus gripes.

  1. Please immediately banish the term “female-identifying” from your brain. Please stop it. People who identify as female ARE FEMALE, and the word for that is WOMAN. It’s okay to say woman if that’s what you mean!!!! If it is not what you mean, see above. Dear god. This one is the most transparently uncritical attempt to “sound inclusive and fancy”.
    • bonus bonus mention to “female and female-identifying”. NO. nonononono. This implies that some people are female and others merely identify as female. What? JUST. SAY. WOMAN.
    • Seriously, “woman” is a very important category to have. Say it.
  2. Please stop categorising non-binary people into “femme/female-aligned/etc” and “masc/male-aligned/etc” unless that person personally identifies as such. I’m NON-BINARY, the whole point is that I don’t fit in the binary.
  3. Hey cis women, I know menstruating is a key feature of womanhood for you. That’s good, I support that. However, period-related puns when naming women’s events? Unfortunate implications. Uteri aren’t inherently female, womanhood doesn’t reside in the uterus for everybody.
  4. Have I mentioned that sounds inclusive ≠ actually inclusive?

Women Lite (TM) is a tweet by:
Do Butches Experience Misogyny?? is a whole exhausting Thing (yes they do), I especially like this thread on the subject:
Additional reading: Sam Escobar’s article On Being Non-Binary in Female-Centric Spaces
Kat Marchán’s On the Design of Women’s Spaces
If you want to read about gender theory, how gender/misogyny works, and the pitfalls of biological essentialism, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is a good place to start

Stop Saying “Women and Femmes”

Fun Home/A Monster Calls

If no one sees you, are you really there at all? – A monster calls

This weekend in London I saw Fun Home again, because of course I did, and then the next day I saw A Monster Calls, a play adapted from the book which I’d read.

There’s this scene in Fun Home that really fucks me up. Little Alison is forced to wear a dress for a party, and she doesn’t want to do that. She makes a fuss and her father yells at her and tells her all the other girls will be wearing dresses and everyone would laugh at her if she didn’t, but SURE she didn’t have to, go right ahead, and offers her her sneakers back. She doesn’t take them.

The worst thing about gender policing is that we are taught to police ourselves. We are taught that if we don’t follow the rules we would be unlovable and ugly and everyone would laugh at us. That there are no alternatives. Then when we grow up and there aren’t any more dress codes written on paper, shame keeps us in line and keeps us hiding from our truth.

Later Alison sees a butch woman for the first time and sings “Ring of Keys” and I lose it again. We need to see people like us because they give us permission. They tell us that what we are is okay. I’ve seen Fun Home twice now. It is hard to talk about because I cannot think about it without dissolving into a puddle. I think it is about the damage that it does to everyone when we think that what we are and what we want are not okay. (Fun Home was rated R18 in Singapore for “homosexual content” by the way. When the government TELLS you that who you are is not age-appropriate… well, fuck.)

Your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. The only way out is to speak the truth. – A monster calls

Fun Home/A Monster Calls

Pulling Apart (On Deserted Islands)

“Your voice is like a girl but you look like a boy I’m confused”

I’ve learned that the vast majority of people of all genders do not like their voice unless it is something they have consciously worked on, because it is a naked vulnerable undisguisable part of us. We can train and control the voice, but it is still our voice. This is in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people sound perfectly fine. This suggests that disliking one’s voice is not actually about the voice itself.

A misogynistic and patriarchal society tells us a lot of things about voices that are read as female. We are conditioned to perceive a man’s voice as authoritative and a woman’s as annoying and shrill. Lots of women lower the pitch of their voices in order to be taken seriously.

We also know that there’s no such thing as “sounding like a girl”. Girls can sound all sorts of ways.

I believe that: 1. Sounding like a girl is not a thing
2. I sound fine
3. Girls sound fine

I sound fine. My body is fine as it is. I recently discovered that a sizeable number of people think I’m cute (a surprise!). I am lovable as I am. There are people who will let me be their boyfriend and call me handsome and pretty in equal measure. I am in London right now where non-binary genders are affirmed a lot more frequently than I am used to. On bathroom signs, in the announcements on the tube that recently changed from “ladies and gentlemen”, among cis queers who actually know what pronouns are and don’t require a long explanation. All this has taken a lot of the pressure off and made me feel like maybe I don’t have to go on T to have gender-affirming relationships.

Most of the time my voice and body don’t inherently bother me unbearably. In spite of this, I want to go on T. If the whole world always affirmed my gender regardless of how I look or sound would I still medically transition? If I lived on a deserted island would I transition? The answer is not clear to me. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think answering either way makes my decision more or less valid.

Maybe there is something deeper under these layers of socialisation and perception. I don’t know what it is, and I feel it only faintly. I don’t think that we exist apart from socialisation (Waking Up Trans in the Wild). Nevertheless, I will keep pulling at the threads.

Pulling Apart (On Deserted Islands)

Tattoos I want to get

This post is for my friend Imran. I usually have very little interest in explaining myself to people who aren’t going to understand anyway, but we’re now at THAT part of the semester, so here we are.

Listening to my normie friends talk about tattoos and speculate on what possesses people to get them is one of the main reasons I think of them as my normie friends. Hell, I grew up being told to be careful of dangerous men with tattoos and to judge people who give in to “peer pressure” and try to “fit in” by getting tattoos. I was told that tattoos are foolish spur-of-the-moment decisions made by people who just can’t think more than a day ahead, who will surely come to regret it. Slightly more open-minded people think that tattoos come in either “deep personal significance to the bearer that makes sense to me and hence I approve” or “stupid and bad decision”.

But really the most telling thing I’ve read today was about tattoo stigma in Japan. (I was quite concerned about whether I can visit an onsen if I got a tattoo.) Apparently, there is still stigma even though people know that tattoos are no longer just for criminals, because it is seen as “rejecting the mainstream”, which is bad.

Here’s an idea: what other people do with their bodies doesn’t have to make sense to you for it to make sense for them. Honestly, it is such a cishet dude phenomenon, to demand that people justify themselves to you and then declare that it makes no sense and is a stupid decision. Could it be that other people have different lived experiences and live in different worlds than you? Of course not, yours is the one true objective, neutral, sensible and most-mainstream worldview through which everything should be judged.

I know we live in different worlds because normies are always asking “WHYYY do you want a tattoo??” and expect a very good reason, while at this point I’m like, “why not? It’s nice.” Tattoos are nice. I know quite a few people who would get some if there was less stigma. Think of all the great art more people could have on them if they just stood up a bit to “peer pressure”. Somebody told me earlier today that he has no friends who has tattoos. Like, none. God it must be so boring to be straight.

I’m sorry that was a bit aggressive. People in marginalised sub-cultures don’t have a monopoly on being true to themselves despite social pressure, of course, though it certainly helps. People are constantly asking me “what next” with morbid curiosity. As in, “you got a nose ring and now you’re getting a tattoo, what edgy frightening thing will you do next?!??” If only they knew. I don’t usually tell people this but I plan to finally shuffle off this mortal coil and transcend my meat-casing to become more powerful than imaginable.

None of this was aimed at Imran actually, who is very sweet and really just wanted to know what I wanted to get. Heh sorry frond. I just wanted to say all this because while I love to talk about body mods and how I feel about them, I also feel like people who ask are usually like, “explain this so that I can decide whether I should be judgy or not”, which, hey, the answer is always no.


Tattoos I want to get

Fuck The Patriarchy (on “reconciliation”)

Being a woman is hard, because the world is a fucked up unfair place. Gender dysphoria is difficult to differentiate from anger at stupid misogyny and sexism and gender roles in the world. I have often questioned whether I am “really” trans, or that all female-assigned people dislike their genders because of how the world is. It is not clear-cut, but I think it is both. I am angry when people tell me that as a girl, I should behave a certain way, because 1. fuck you girls can do anything, and 2. I’m not a girl and hate being seen as one.

It is difficult for me to imagine why anyone would want to be a girl, and why all AFAB (assigned female at birth) people don’t transition. But that is because am trans. My feelings about not wanting to be a girl come from societal pressure as well as dysphoria, and it took me a while to realise that not everyone experiences dysphoria.

A strongly cisgender-identifying woman explained it to me as such: when i witness or am on the receiving end of sexism, it doesn’t make me hate being a girl, it only makes me hate that people think they can view women that way or say / do such things. (Not being a woman) might be more convenient in practical terms but i would not enjoy it one bit!!!!!

Everything in the media has been telling me that my only purpose in life is to look pretty for men, and not to have too many opinions. My body makes me unsafe, a target. I have had to live with all sorts of double standards. These are fucked up, unfair things, and they are why feminism is important to me. We need to call out all the ways that cishet men have power in society, and we need solidarity, and to organise. We need to reclaim our bodies and to redefine womanhood for ourselves in ways that aren’t just convenient excuses for men to control us. These are good, important things. The patriarchy is not going to fuck itself.

But at the end of the day, I will still be trans. Reclaiming my body from the patriarchy is not the same as “reconciling” or “coming to terms” with my womanhood, because I am not a cis woman. Forcing myself to do these things will not turn me into one, and would simply be repressing my true gender. Just as how trans women are still women regardless of how much pressure a transphobic and misogynistic society puts on them, it is not this pressure that is making me not cis.

Being trans is not a cop-out. If the patriarchy had a rule that women can’t drive and you wanted to drive, you might not be a woman, or you might be a woman who wants to drive because that’s obviously a stupid rule. One possibility does not exclude the other, regardless of what certain reactionary “”feminists”” may have to say. We can fuck the patriarchy and accept trans people at the same time.

Fuck The Patriarchy (on “reconciliation”)

Life/transition goals update

“We can run into the most remote regions and what we flee will still be so thickly daubed all around that we madly turn and run ever further never suspecting that the social, that which we run from, is stuck within us; it’s our ligaments and tendons and joints and blood. It was not leaving society behind that gave me clarity. Society came with me, stuck to me. There is no escape from everything which has made us; there is only its slow, arduous processing.” – Waking up Trans in the Wild

I haven’t written much here this year. I am doing a year abroad, one semester in Germany (April to July) and then one in London (August to December). In a way this year feels like a year away from my “real life” at home, and the things that felt pressing back home I have been leaving on the back burner, partly because I cannot do anything about them right now and partly because I have just been so occupied with adjusting to being abroad.

Right before I left I actually tried to start the process of starting testosterone despite still being quite conflicted and uncertain, but then realised that it would be wise to wait a year to be back because finding a doctor etc would be complicated. And then it happened that some people from a hospital in Thailand that I had sent top surgery enquiries to were in town, so I had a consult with them. I went with the idea of it just being for future reference, with no real plans for the next few years.

I have been away for two and a half months now. It hasn’t been the smoothest, and I miss home a lot. There has been so much to do and so much to adjust to, I simply did not have the same amount of time to constantly worry about gender as I did at home. But the quiet passage of time, meeting new people and realising how I would like to be perceived, and meeting and talking with other trans people, has slowly built a certainty in me that the constant back and forth with myself did not.

I have been spending a lot of time alone or with strangers, which provides a different perspective than my frustrations back home with my group of friends who weren’t very on the ball about my gender. I also went to a trans youth and a nonbinary group meeting here in Munich, and met many awesome and beautiful people. It is kind of silly but that let me see what was possible and what I might want for myself. I did not realise this, but I just didn’t know that many trans, and especially nonbinary people.

Something I am very afraid of is becoming ugly. What if I end up ugly?? Meeting more trans people helped with that a lot. I met the most beautiful person the other day, who had been on T for a while. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it was slightly difficult to breathe around them. It was a mixture of attraction and jealousy, I think :p I also met a trans girl who had a really lovely voice. I really love trans women’s voices, and would like to sound like them. I think it is the mixture of pitch and inflection. The Very Beautiful Person said something that has stuck with me: they weren’t that sure about starting T, but looking back realised they couldn’t have not started.

I continue to be uninvested in and vague about my sexual orientation. I really haven’t had time to think about it. I do occasionally get crushes on people? But I still have not identified any particular gender or genders that I am attracted to or can imagine myself dating. Sex is even weirder to think about, so I don’t. I do think that I will be more open to dating men after I transition.

I now have a better idea of what I want from transition (body hair, slight voice deepening, face and body fat redistribution, top surgery). I often need to remind myself that transition will not solve all my problems. I would still be the same person, and thinking of my post-transition self as a different person is a trap created by self-loathing, I think. “It’s okay to hate myself now because everything will change” isn’t a great mindset for personal growth before I start hormones.

Maybe it is easier to feel clarity now when there is nothing I can actually do. I think that when the time comes the doubts and fear will come back, and I will procrastinate. But how long do I want to continue living like this? A few years might be okay. The rest of my life, not so much. I write now, so that I may remember.

Here’s a transition inspiration moodboard I made last year:

Screenshot 2017-12-02 01.26.05


PS: I have been writing a little bit on quora. I quite like my answers to What does being nonbinary mean to you? and What is gender dysphoria like for nonbinary people? These, I think, were pretty good distillations of everything that I have been working through on this blog.

Life/transition goals update