I have been a queer, high-femme, butch-loving dyke for almost twenty years. I am an old-school femme.  I wear heels and lipstick, my butch wears a tie and cufflinks.  But butch/femme is about so much more than our clothes.

I have always been a feminine person and that has not always been easy. My struggle to survive a sexual assault and my internalized misogyny destroyed my ability to see feminine as potentially powerful.  Puberty left me feeling like my body belonged to any man with the impulse to comment, to touch, or to harass me.  I hated my body with a deep fury. I exercised as hard as I could, I counted calories, I obsessed about how much I despised my body parts.

Feminism began to change that for me but my self-destruction continued. I drank heavily for 15 years following an abusive relationship and a sexual assault.  I cut myself, I extinguished cigarettes on my skin, I couldn’t be sexual without alcohol.  I struggled to accept my body as I tried to annihilate it; I blamed my physical self for pain inflicted upon me.  Every queer knows this story; we have all been there or loved someone who has. Queers, freaks, perverts, gender radicals – we walk through a world that struggles to make sense of us.  We learn to care for each other because it often feels like no one else gives a damn.  What really saved my life was the love of butches and femmes.

Femme is, in part, about femme friendships.  Femmes are people who see another feminine person and purposefully ignore the culturally prescribed girl hate and learn to say, ”God, you are beautiful and I want to be your friend,” rather than, “She’s so much prettier than me, I hate her.”  My femme friendships are a mutual celebration of our brilliance, beauty, strength, power, heart and soul.  Ultimately feminist, we heal through loving each other in a world that teaches us to mistrust each other.

Femmes have healed my heart but butches brought me home to my body and stimulated my reclamation of my sexuality. I never felt beautiful until I was loved by butches.  My sexuality never felt powerful until I knew butch love.  Every time a butch touches the small of my back, kisses my mouth, and holds me in her arms I ease further into myself. My body is now a safe place to reside, a place I want to stay rather than a place I try to escape.

The queer and butch/femme community embraces fat positivity, body acceptance, and the understanding that there are myriad ways to be beautiful and healthy. All queers know how devastating the world can be on queer bodies.  We have to love each other because people want to at best ignore us and at worst destroy us.  Our beauty is often evident only to each other.

My privilege as a white feminine cissex person makes my interactions with medical professionals vastly different than that of butches and other gender variant, gender nonconforming, queer and trans people. My most complex interactions with medical professionals involve my butch partners and their bodies.

Most of my butch partners have a relationship to their femaleness that is nearly the opposite of mine.  The way we see their body is a cornerstone of our sexuality together.  But butches know that they are seen as “women” by doctors, regardless of how they personally relate to that word.  Butches are aware of the decades of queer gender pathologization in medical and mental health communities.  They recognize that being educated as a medical professional doesn’t make someone a queer ally.  They know that in terms of medical care, doctors are genital fundamentalists – whatever is in your pants decides your pronouns and how you will be seen and discussed.

That attitude can be painfully alienating for butches and other queers.  Consequently, many butches don’t go to the doctor, or refuse to have pelvic exams.  Who could blame them? Pap smears are invasive and embarrassing even for those of us who are comfortable with our bodies and our femaleness. But pelvic exams are incredibly important for the health of female bodies and I want the butches I love to live long, healthy, happy lives. I struggle between deeply respecting butch reticence on this topic and my fear for their health. Part of being a butch-femme femme is carefully, lovingly, respectfully, patiently urging my lover to go to the doctor.

Another part of loving butches involves advocating for my partners in medical settings.  Gender non-conforming people are often given dismissive medical treatment and then hurried out the door.  As the person with gender privilege it’s my job to bar the door and boss the doctor. That’s not an easy job, especially when the person you are protecting is the most powerful person you know, the person whose strength sustains and nurtures you.  But this give and take of protection and power is the core of butch-femme love.  She sees in me what other people ignore – my strength and power and queerness – and loves it.  I am blown away by her strength, her beauty, her to-the-core queerness, and her survival in a world that tries to beat all of this out of her.  That gender queerness is what makes her hold her head up high and walk into the world.

Butch/femme is my heart.  It’s how I have made sense of my sexuality, my body, my gender, and how I love.  People often ask me, “Why do you have to use labels at all?” All I can say is, I choose the label femme because it is, at my core, the truest part of myself. I use femme because when people know what I mean they understand something central to who I am.  Butch and femme are words that we use because the first time we heard them they resonated deep within us.  And butches, femmes, and queers have saved my life.

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9 Responses to “Body Image: I’m a femme”

  1. Cecily Says:

    I’m a butch-loving-femme who wishes she could write as eloquently as you. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. shemustchallenge Says:

    [...] Melissa Heckman, Body Image: I’m a Femme [...]

  3. Emma Says:

    this is beautiful and really resonnates with me. thank you for writing so well about the experience many of us share.

  4. Femme is, in pa… | I'm Such an AFROholic Says:

    [...] –Melissa Heckman, Body Image: I’m a Femme [...]

  5. Five things from this week :) | sapphirestreet Says:

    [...] “Femme is, in part, about femme friendships.  Femmes are people who see another feminine person and purposefully ignore the culturally prescribed girl hate and learn to say, ”God, you are beautiful and I want to be your friend,” rather than, “She’s so much prettier than me, I hate her.”  My femme friendships are a mutual celebration of our brilliance, beauty, strength, power, heart and soul.  Ultimately feminist, we heal through loving each other in a world that teaches us to mistrust each other.” – Link [...]

  6. The Fierce Activism of Feminist Theatre in Slut: The Play | F to the third power Says:

    [...] I experienced their activism through their presence. Their stories and their words enriched my experience. Seeing these girls stand before me was revealing and showed me how to find the strength to stand out and show my devotion to what matters most. They reminded me of the words of Melissa Heckman, when she describes the peculiarity and importance of relations between women: “My femme friendships are a mutual celebration of our brilliance, beauty, strength, power, heart and …” [...]

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