the high fem identity is viewed generally with suspicion and contempt, for many different reasons. contemporary understanding is that it refers to a highly constructed appearance of conventional femininity that is labour intensive and costly to maintain. the burden of gender performance on women under the heteropatriarchy makes many suspicious of a perceived adeptness at it, along with the implied status associated. these suspicions stem from stigmatising experiences around class, race and ability, as well as the social grooming women undergo throughout our lives to view each other as competitors.
a community that had become guarded and cautious after enduring years of relentless criticism was perceived as elitist. at that time, there was little perspective on how the queer movement’s disdain for traditional butch-fem identity precisely mirrored what we had already been subjected to during the sex wars – accusations of heteronormativity and regressiveness, ridicule and contempt. of course we were defensive. those of us who were left – many, especially of the older generations, withdrew from queer public life.
likewise, I make a variety of choices about how I present to communicate what my gender experience is to stone butches. I want certain things about me to be understood. these choices stem from personal taste and desire for self-actualisation, influenced by the culture I grew up in, but also very much from what I have learned that stone butches find attractive, and from what I have observed from being active in butch-fem community. and yes, of course we are all shaped and influenced by our social environments – this is how culture emerges and evolves.
these gender identities are often strongly attracted to each other, as sexually we are usually highly compatible; our needs and desires are complementary to the others’, our sense of selves find affirmation when together. what a high fem wants from a stone butch is mirrored in what a stone butch wants from a high fem, in terms of sexual desire and roles within a relationship.
the disappearance of butch-fem culture in contemporary lesbian and queer communities has created much confusion around terminology. observers have noted rituals and customs without realising their true intention as a means of communicating gender and sexual desire. this has also impacted butches and fems who have had no one to learn the traditional purpose behind our terminology from, and adopt certain aesthetic choices from personal taste exclusively – which has led to conflict and confusion on interpersonal levels. this is one significant reason that concrete conclusions cannot be drawn based on appearances alone – but also underscores the fact that this is a consequence of erasure as much as it is of evolution.
the truth is, who we are is most honestly told when we are naked and bare and in the arms of our lovers, our desire answered by theirs.
but it is important to recognise that how we present does not define who we are. it is the other way around. and people make choices about that, for a wide range of reasons. a high fem cannot be limited to one template of gendered presentation – for reasons that go back to acknowledging the intersections of class, race, ability and misogyny. at the heart of high fem there is a sexual and gender experience that is often expressed in certain ways due to the surrounding environment and culture. but this is not – or should not be – with the intention of leveraging power and status over others. femininity should not serve as a sliding scale where one means of expression is more authentic over another – it is a construct. constructs have meaning and significance, but we do not have to be bound by them.
understanding fem and butch as a gender experience is central to understanding the function that our terminology serves. while gender can be communicated through visual codes, gender expression amongst lesbians should never be rigidly defined or policed. there are significant socio-political motivations for many lesbians to reject the labour that conventional femininity often demands. a high fem is not defined first by how she presents herself, but by how she relates to herself as a feminine-of-center person and how that manifests in erotic desire.
this is why there has never been a “low fem” identity in traditional butch-fem community and the existence of the term “high fem” does not imply such in context. the meaning of “high fem” is not about how tall your heels are or how sharp your winged eyeliner is. “high fem” as a term was not intended to imply there is a hierarchy of femness. rather, it was a way that fems defined the nature of our desire to butches.
the high fem identity is viewed generally with suspicion and contempt, for many different reasons. contemporary understanding is that it refers to a highly constructed appearance of conventional femininity that is labour intensive and costly to maintain. the burden of gender performance on women under the heteropatriarchy makes many suspicious of a perceived adeptness at…