At a Crossroads: Femme and Disabled

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been femme. I was twisting tiny earlobes long before ever getting pierced; my outfits were almost exclusively pink from the years 2000 to 2012; and I gravitated towards makeup and red nail polish well before I was old enough to wear either. While femme is all those things for me, it’s much bigger than how I choose to clothe my body or a set of preferences. Growing up in a household that was a living thesis statement on female masculinity (Literally. In 2017 my sibling wrote their undergraduate thesis¹ on butch culture and female masculinity by way of my parents’ circles), femme identity gave language and form to my queerness that departed from the monolithic representation of lesbianism that I saw in my parents, my (now non binary) masc-of-center sibling, and most of their friends: short haircuts and cargo pants, hairy arms and legs, a pride and attraction to the messy, defined at least in part in character and history by being the antithesis of society’s idea of what a woman looks like. This is not to say there were no femmes in my life, only that I did not see myself in their expression of gender or lesbian culture. My hesitancy to come out despite coming from a queer household came from not yet knowing the word “femme” or that there was a whole, acknowledged group of queer women who looked more like me. Looking back, I think I first settled on the word “bi” not because I was actually bisexual, but because it was not the word “lesbian.” I could not be a lesbian because my parents were lesbians, and I was not like my parents. Already I had been infiltrated with stereotypes of what it meant to be gay- and was affected by a sense of tweenage rebellion- so much so that I forgot the actual definition at play: a woman who loves women- which, gasp, applies to both myself² and my moms. 

While I’ve changed a lot over the twelve years since I first grappled with queer identity, my femme identity has not only remained, but grown and expanded. My parents’ generation comparatively clung to labels such as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ to create a language to speak their truth in a world determined to silence them. In categorizing something, you are naming its existence. In contrast, my generation relishes in the rejection of labels in post marriage equality America, where the simplified idea that “love is love” has been triumphantly mainstreamed. As such, words like ‘femme’ are now often seen as restricting more than liberating. Young people may read this and think “Why is being a femme so important to you? You’re putting yourself in a box.” To that I say feminine expression is a major part of my gender identity. Though I am cisgender, I am not a feminine woman just by default. If gender is a performance³, then I enthusiastically opt into femininity as means to take care of myself. Aligning with ‘femme’ is my way of embracing the hard and soft, it is batting long eyelashes while changing the minds of people who, like I once did, think lesbianism is limited solely to the butch archetype. Femme is ingrained in me. It is standing in my power. While femme is no one thing for any two people, and I am in no way emblematic of all femmes, I know how it manifests for me. My whole day feels better if I make time to put on makeup in the morning; I feel empowered in putting together an outfit that matches how I see myself that day; and I must have agency in and resources for specific personal hygiene practices to be a happy, fully functioning human being.

The topic of personal hygiene is where physical disability intertwines with femme identity for me the most. Because for as long as I’ve been femme, I’ve been disabled. At every turn in life as a physically disabled person, someone is ready to diminish the importance of personal hygiene. Struggle to use a razor? Shaving isn’t really that important. Can’t button that shirt? There are shirts without buttons. Eyeliner not happening in the face of no motor skills? You look fine without it. Having surgery? Spongebaths will have to suffice for now; who really needs to wash their hair that often, anyway? These are more obvious examples to make a point, but the idea that function always outweighs form wiggles its way into my life in innumerable ways. Abled society taught me to dress myself. But technically, once I’ve learned to put a T-shirt and sweats on, I’ve dressed myself independently. I must push to present with any bells and whistles. This was a big motivator for me in learning independent living skills: If I had extensive care wants, or wanted to pamper in a certain way, I had better learn to do it myself. Of course, modern disability justice teaches that having personal care help is a tool like any other4, but that was not an option presented to me growing up. That’s a separate blog post. 

So for all intents and purposes, I did figure out how to do it myself, with my parents watching to ensure success. Some of this process was similar to others my age: I poured over youtube makeup tutorials and went through phases of loud color combinations to learn how (and how not) to use makeup, and stabbed myself in the eye countless times before I could get that coveted black line on my eyelids. But then some of this process was specific to my having Cerebral Palsy: spending so long trying to button the same shirt that I’d cry out of exhausted frustration; grimacing at the frizzy texture of my Jewish Italian hair, unable to operate hair tools in the days before the straightening brush; constantly having stains on my clothes from food that became victim of spasticity; wearing ill fitting clothing not made for Palsy posture or bent legs; my mom insisting on standing outside the shower to ensure I was properly thorough in cleaning my hair; and of course, cutting my legs in early adolescence in an effort to get a close shave enough that I worried if others saw my bare legs they would think I was self-mutilating. For a long time, my outside presentation didn’t match how I saw myself because disability and abled society’s lack of inventiveness prevented me from the No-Hair-Out-Of-Place-Totally-Put- Together-High-Femme that I understood myself to be. Perhaps I craved that prim togetherness because it was so hard to achieve. Over time, I both relaxed a little in my femme presentation and adjusted to my disabled truth. I found hair tools I could manipulate, my mom gave me an electric razor, I learned how to minimize and accept stains, and found one standard makeup look that feels sufficient for all occasions, among other things. Unsurprisingly, that one look does not involve eyeliner.

Whether I’m receiving help in the tasks or not, prioritizing my bodily presentation by way of femme expression is a rebellious response to the people- mostly medical professionals- that knowingly or unknowingly strip bodily agency from disabled individuals. When I had my big operation at 14, I was arguably at my peak of needing to present a certain way. One of my first days post op, I noticed I was hairless as I transferred from the hospital bed. “They shaved me?!” I asked my mom as panic rose to the back of my throat. “That’s totally normal” my mom tried to reassure, “sometimes hair gets in the way. To doctors, it’s all just the human body.” Tears stung my pubescent little eyes as I processed feeling violated by an act that was apparently routine. Was that in the consent forms? Why had no one thought to tell me this would happen? Why was it assumed I would be okay with this? What if I had preferred hair there? I actually preferred that I was clean shaven, but the principal deeply shook me. After I had been struggling to shave myself, some strangers accomplished it in no time, without my even knowing. The time and energy I had spent trying felt ridiculous in comparison, and I was suddenly someone’s doll to make look however under the guise of medical treatment. 

Similarly, I remember going over daily living tasks with physical and occupational therapists and becoming increasingly offended as they suggested I omit or further space out parts of my routine like hair care or moisturizing or shaving or flossing or jewelry in an effort to save time and energy. To them, my getting out of the house was a goal most achievable if simplified. The bare minimum was success because said goal only existed on paper to them. Even the nicest engaged in dehumanization of my disabled self because my emotional needs (and certainly not my gender expression) were not factored into success with equal weight as the physical task at hand. They were suggesting things they would never apply to themselves, coming to work with necklaces clasped, clean shaven legs, and mascara painted lashes. That contradiction is privilege at work.

Fast forward a little less than a decade. I have made my peace with this history, otherwise I would not be publishing it. On the whole, I feel proud when I think of the care I take in my presentation. I decided what “femme” looked like on my own despite many physical obstacles. My spending the little extra time on myself is an indicator of mental wellness and self love. You don’t become invested in the presentation of or repeatedly go the extra mile for someone you don’t care about. So like, that’s great, right? I’ve reconciled how I express myself as femme and disabled. But like all identities, how I see myself varies greatly from how the world sees me. And in a world where heterosexual is the default and disabled sexuality is still often omitted, I am grappling with the meaning of my queer sexual identity. What’s the point of being queer if, because of how the world sees you, dating is compromised? 

People often equate femme women with straightness because homosexuality is still often associated with gender-variant expression. Because I don’t look “visibly queer,” straight cis men approach me as often as they would a woman that is actually straight, because I am defaulted as straight. Similarly in queer spaces, other queers assume I am straight because of how I choose to present. This experience is also called being “straight passing” because being passed off as part of the heterosexual majority keeps me safe in environments where queer-appearing folks are in danger of discriminatory violence and prejudice5. The downside of passing for straight, though, is that I am less likely to be approached, pursued, or taken seriously by queer women. Presenting as femme results in people externally questioning my queer identity because either consciously or subconsciously, I don’t match up to what “queer” looks like in the other persons mind. I get more raised eyebrows, more “are you sure’s” and more apologies than my aforementioned masc-of-center identical twin.

This assumption of straightness is then compounded by the erasure of disabled sexuality, where I am less likely to be approached, pursued, or taken seriously as a sexual or romantic participant simply because I am visibly disabled. Disabled people are seen by the abled majority as less sexual on the whole, so the idea of disabled folks having fully formed gender and sexual identities that fall outside the majority is often left entirely unconsidered. The ensuing “rejection” is seldom a cut and dry “I’m not attracted to you” and instead is laced with nuance of forgetful indifference or being overlooked- surprise when I come out or express interest in someone despite my sending strong signals (the most common); An immediate, rigid “friend zoning”; Being strung along in a non-committal middle ground of intense though undefined queer intimacy; or a conscious fear of touch and intimacy with my disabled body that is non-negotiably a dead end. After a series of such experiences, I am left wondering “what is the point of proactively identifying as queer if I don’t get to fully participate in queer experience?” Knowing who I am can feel all for naught if there is such little external encouragement of that identity in real time. If a femme limps in the forest, and no one sees her at the crossroads, is she really out there?

To abled readers, or to straight readers, this all might sound depressing. This is where I am in my own personal understanding (see: a crossroads). And it’s not actually depressing: I’ve come a long way from the child who imagined marrying a man because that was the only scenario in which I could possibly wear a pretty dress, or from a time I fully saw myself moving as abled in my minds eye. And no longer do I allow being desexualized to stop me from making the move, at least not most of the time. It is a powerfully defiant (though possibly insane) choice to go after what you want knowing the odds are historically stacked against you. So if you read this whole thing, I hope you push yourself to dig a little deeper about what may at first just seem depressing. My writing on topics such as this is part of my effort to dig a little deeper when it is tempting to become downtrodden or overwhelmed by the complex factors at play in life. Walk with me, think with me. This crossroads in the forest is a fine place to be.

 

Today, this is Where She Stands.

Sonya

 

 

Images of me living my best femme life (2019). Photos taken by Ruby Marzovilla.

______________________________________________________________________________

Butch? An Exploration of Queer Community and Female Masculinity, the undergraduate thesis of AJ Rio-Glick at Bard at Simon’s Rock College

I currently identify as queer.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 519–531. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3207893.

Lamm, Nomy. “This Is Disability Justice.” The Body Is Not An Apology, 1 Sept. 2015, thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/this-is-disability-justice/.

5 Chimsky, Mark Evan. “The Power And Privilege Of ‘Passing’ As Straight.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 11 Oct. 2017, http://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-envy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name_b_59dcb080e4b0a1bb90b830db.

2 thoughts on “At a Crossroads: Femme and Disabled

  1. Valerie McNickol

    Explicitly unapologetic for living an authentic life! Forewarned be the traveler that challenges a self-defined femme at the crossroads- for she may slap you with a sense of reality that you have never allowed yourself. Sonya, thank you for standing in the mirror with complete honesty…..& holding up that mirror for me to do the same. You continue to wow me!! Carry on and happy journeying!😘🙌🏼✌🏼
    – Aunt Val

    Like

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