Femme Embodiments of the Other Part 2

Welcome back to Femme Embodiments of the Other, a series founded by Qwear's Founding Editor, Sonny Oram, and Theologian & Ethicist for the Movement of LGBTQ lives, Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza.

Through this series, we aim to expose the deep intersections that frame identities of femmes by highlighting the ways in which femmes are impacted by the logic of dominance that is so often illustrated in hetero-normative-patriarchy. Though femmes in our community face marginalization, objectification, exploitation, and ongoing violence, this reality isn't always recognized by the greater queer sphere. We've even heard some folks use the term "femme privilege," when confusing how the cis privilege and pretty privilege that some femmes possess intersects with society’s logic of dominance. When some people hear the word "femme," they think of femmes from shows like the L Word: tall, beautiful, white and white passing, wealthy, able-bodied, beautiful cisgender women.

But what about all the others?

We are pleased to Invite Qwear writer Mojo Disco to introduce our next segment of Femme Embodiments, in which we invite 5 new femme faces to share their stories through style.

— Sonny Oram and Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza


INTRO BY MOJO DISCO

What is Femme Privilege? 

I wish I had an answer. I’ve never seen it before. In these United States of America I think everything is Anti-Femme. Everything from gender constructs, to opportunity, in some way or form oppresses femme presenting people. Even when it appears to the naked eye that we are being honored or praised, the undercurrent is usually based in degradation, lust, or even worse, violence.

I believe there are two major energies in this world; Masculine and Feminine. Most people tend to fall in between them both. However, I never felt more connected to my power than the day I decided to tap into my divine femme energy. It was a life changing decision to choose one side of the spectrum and I decided not to look back. The power is sometimes hard to explain as it is mainly felt, but its effects are life changing. I find that I am able to directly manifest the world around me with this power. It is not only based on things like beauty, fragrance, and perspective, but it also embodies things like strength, wisdom, and love labor. The greatest thing to me about being/identifying as femme is that there is no set definition or example. However its energy is always felt.

Unfortunately, in the LGBTQ community, femmes are usually at the bottom of the totem pole (right above disabled folk) regardless of how much they are desired. This system is identical (read knockoff) to the system in place for heterosexuals. Growing up queer I would hear things that described people as “too gay” or “too femme.” Even today, I still witness the “No Fats. No Fems” mentality in gay culture. All these heteronormative aligned things progress the notion that Masc is superior and when challenged proves how Masculinity is so fragile. To be Masc identifying/presenting in this world is the real privilege.

The irony of Beyoncé’s hit record “Who Runs the World” is that however powerful it was for girls around the world, it was not the truth. Men run this world. That is a fact. However it is the femmes doing the work, birthing and nurturing this world. You will find that it is fem/femmes who are the faces behind strong social movements like the Riots at Stonewall (which is why we celebrate pride) Black Lives Matter, and even Paint and Poetry, an event I created myself. We have been, and are still HERE and we deserve the visibility and recognition for the work we do to reshape this planet no matter how close or far we fall on the heteronormative beauty spectrum.

 

Sal Salam

 
Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

 

Sal Salam lives in Chicago and works in HIV Testing and Prevention Counseling. They are also the President of Trikone Chicago, a not-for-profit organization that serves to support and celebrate queer and trans people of South Asian/Desi heritage and their allies. They write about films for a number of publications and eat prodigious amounts of dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe's. Follow Sal @thesalamanderchicago on Instagram.

Shawn Rowe (@shawnrowephoto)

Shawn Rowe (@shawnrowephoto)

Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

Can you describe a time when you experienced discrimination due to your gender presentation or physical appearance?

When I was growing up, even before I understood gender, people around me, family included, constantly my body and self-expression, implicitly or explicitly relaying to me that I wasn't doing "boy" right; that my voice, my body, my walk - things I didn't know how to control or change, despite my tireless efforts, were all wrong. Since I've begun navigating my trans identity with more intentfulness and have committed to a curious, joyous embrace of my femmeness, I haven't experienced memorable discrimination. I have the good fortune of living and moving within affirming and supportive communities, and that makes life easier and safer for me.

Colectivo Multipolar (@ColectivoMultipolar)

Colectivo Multipolar (@ColectivoMultipolar)

My enduring, defiant joy in my own body and selfhood and in the vivid beauty of the world around me is something that’s got me through cruel times all my life.

My enduring, defiant joy in my own body and selfhood and in the vivid beauty of the world around me is something that's got me through cruel times all my life. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I have the privilege of being surrounded by kind, loving, true-hearted people whose love and light give me the courage to keep inventing myself in the face of convention.

How do you use style as a means of resistance?

I claim the right to beauty and visibility, neither of which is afforded as a right to trans folks by society at large. I get to tell fun, complex stories about all the varicolored bits of myself - queer, femme, desi, immigrant, child of my mother, lover of films and books and sunlight and sex - through the things I wear. In this way, I wear a complexity that the world, even at its most sympathetic, often denies QTPOC.

 
Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

Photo By Tanay Dubay @tanaydubey

 

Kat Lloyd

Kat Lloyd is a writer, performer, and media personality based in Brooklyn. She is a model for Tyler Wallach Studio and has been featured in Real Simple Magazine for a piece on inspiring women who've honed their personal style. Kat's written work has been featured in BUST Magazine and on The Brian Lehrer Show. She is the current host of the podcast Beat Face Radio and will be launching a new show in the fall. Follow Kat @katlloydnyc on Instagram.

 
 

Can you describe a time when you experienced discrimination due to your gender presentation or physical appearance?

When I experience discrimination it is usually in regards to my being a fat, brazen femme who looks like a cartoon. People have loved to exploit and criticize me for this. I’d been beaten down in my life by many additional issues that eventually devaluing myself became a habit. It was instinctive to feel unworthy. I wouldn’t even notice when I was being abused. I would let it roll off my back, and default to my boisterous “funny” character. I can recall a subtler example of this when my friend invited me to a party at a short-lived lounge on the Lower East Side. The club wanted to establish a “models and bottles” reputation. When I arrived, my friend informed me that there were issues at the door. They apparently didn’t want to let too many fat girls in. Being since there were a few of us who fit this description, we had a problem. Once I gauged the situation, I looked at the proprietor of the venue and said, “Excuse me, I’m on the big girls list!” Because I made him laugh he whispered to the doorman to let us in. 

With his faux-Transatlantic accent he looked and me and said, “I like your style.” I wanted to say, “Oh, thank you your highness for allowing a fat peasant like myself into your glorious party!” Instead I said thank you, as if I were grateful for being “chosen.” I’d secretly validated myself in these brief moments of worthiness from those I’d perceived to be the higher echelon. I’d experienced worse, but this story came into my consciousness because it was the last time that I recall allowing myself to be one of those “victims who respect their executioner.” This vapid guy in a tacky suit was explicitly disrespecting me and I smiled at him. I vowed not to do it again. I can’t blame myself, I was conditioned to feel that way, but I feel differently now. It’s taken a lot of work for me to recognize when I’m being undermined and now I won’t tolerate it.

What empowers you to live authentically despite society’s ongoing policing of femme bodies and surveillance of what a femme should be?

In order to navigate through the world I pretend I’m in a John Waters film. I developed this vision fairly young. I wanted to wear too much makeup, loud clothing, possess a brash attitude, and provide overtones of old-Hollywood glamour. Although I was perceived to be sure of myself, I was very sad. I projected exuberance but felt worthless and disgusting. This was mainly the result of growing up with PTSD and the unconscious shame that haunted me for being fat. I’d seem put together, but when you’d peer closely I’d exhibit toxic behaviors, fear taking better jobs, and I’d date people who were ashamed of me or who used me. The high-femme act helped hide the self-hatred.

These actual feelings of fearlessness didn’t come until I decided to stop punishing myself for my body and trauma. I’m empowered to live authentically now only because I changed the core beliefs I held about myself and actually feel confident. Now I am that bold femme! I’m still a work in progress, but I have an easier time forgiving myself and recognizing when I’m treated poorly. I can say, “fuck off,” and mean it. That’s empowering.

How do you use style as a means of resistance?

I was always fat, so rather than trying to hide myself or fit in, I just painted my face and wreaked havoc.

I developed my femme identity as a child. At 3-years-old I would watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Steel Magnolias incessantly. I also lived with very animated women: big hair, big breasts and plenty of makeup. I was inspired. I was always fat, so rather than trying to hide myself or fit in, I just painted my face and wreaked havoc. Luckily I have always rolled with a lovely band of misfits who do the same, and we made it work. 

If you belong to any marginalized group, you face adversity. When you add being an absurd weirdo who likes to play dress up, your life may be even more chaotic. Our current leader has opened the floodgates to the already demeaning attitudes society holds toward queers, femmes, People of Color, trans folks, and so many others. Those in power have allowed me to become even more of a subject for public scrutiny. I can only try to not open the door for it by owning my identity. Because so much of my persona is based in my aesthetic, I suppose this is how I use style as resistance. If boldly showing off my body and manipulating beauty standards can somehow combat the objectification and rejection of my existence, then I’m hiking up my skirt, piling on the lashes, raising my voice and reminding everyone of my autonomy and beauty.

Cee Sando

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Cee Sando is a wardrobe stylist and style expert specializing in queer/ androgynous looks. Inspired by travel, the ocean, tea, sashimi, and an effortlessly yet perfectly put together outfit, cee has a keen eye for design, attention to detail and a passion for style. Cee has dressed actors for the Golden Globes, Oscars and Emmys and Golden Globes. She has also worked with brands such as Beats by Dre, Hyundai, LG JustFab, ShoeDazzle, and Sanctuary Clothing. find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat @ceesando.

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Can you describe a time when you experienced discrimination due to your gender presentation or physical appearance?

There’s the time I was passed over for a job I interviewed for because of my natural hair or another time I was told in a business meetings that my septum ring was just too distracting for the individual to keep talking to me, or the time a certain shoe brand did not want to work with me because I had to bring my service animal into their offices.

Sadly, it is so hard to choose just 1... There's the time I was passed over for a job I interviewed for because of my natural hair or another time I was told in a business meetings that my septum ring was just too distracting for the individual to keep talking to me, or the time a certain shoe brand did not want to work with me because I had to bring my service animal into their offices... and that is just the tip of the iceberg. While these experiences were frustrating to deal with at the time, I no longer look at them as negatives. I currently have the most phenomenal book of clients I have ever had as well as an incredible network of associates and fashion professionals that continues to grow daily. I appreciate that how others perceive me upon our first meeting is a quick ad easy litmus test for me wanting to work with them lol! 

What empowers you to live authentically despite society’s ongoing policing of femme bodies and surveillance of what a femme should be?

In my own lifetime I have seen how much mainstream society's notions and perception have changed... and I know they will continue to change and mature and I want to be a part of that process. I am thankful for all of those who have come before me to fight sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of discrimination. We each have the right to choose how we want to dress and express ourselves. My hope is that while I am having fun choosing my clothing, accessories, makeup, and hairstyles, I am also inspiring others to live their best life authentically. Once upon a time I believed that I was unable to mix my professional and personal life. I was afraid that revealing my sexuality, disability, and political leanings would somehow hinder the growth of my styling career. However, since I found the courage to embrace bring my individuality to my work, my career has blossomed in ways I could never have imagined. I LOVE being the unique/ weirdo/ unicorn stylist that I am! I would not label myself as an "activist" by any means, however, I am proud to show my own form of activism through my career and personal clothing choices. 

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

How do you use style as a means of resistance?

My style is my way of showing/ living my politics in each moment, whether it's slogans, patches, or wearing unexpected pieces. I once shied away from stares or comments about my appearance but now I welcome it! I love making some feel more comfortable in a space knowing that they have a political ally in me, and I also don't mind making others uncomfortable. I wear my loud kinky hair proudly. I have no fear of visible tattoos or piercings. I wear sneakers with evening gowns to black tie events because I cant think properly if my feet hurt. I wear "men's" clothing when it's more comfortable. I pile on jewelry and accessories and prefer black and white clothing so my personality (and accessories) can take center stage! 

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Photo by Claudia Villeda

Harry James Hanson

Harry James Hanson is an artist known for his powerful imagery, compelling compositions and provocative interviews. Whether working in photography, video or the written word, his desire to tell stories and affirm individualistic beauty reveals a sublime vision of the world. Harry and his work have been featured in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, MTV News, The Village Voice, The Daily Mail, Paper Magazine and numerous independent publications. By night, she can often be found on stage in Brooklyn as drag artist Amber Alert. Learn more about Harry at harryjameshanson.com.

Can you describe a time when you experienced discrimination due to your gender presentation or physical appearance?

I was bullied pretty badly in the 5th grade, when my hair was down to my shoulders and I wore tie-dye every day. It was perplexing to be called a "faggot" and "hermaphrodite" before I even knew what those words meant. When I did learn their definitions, it felt very surreal. How did these bullies perceive something so personal about me, that I had not yet fully discovered myself? It wasn't fair, and it was a difficult way to find out that I was fundamentally different from most of my peers.

Around this time, I was also mistaken for being a girl — constantly. It was partly due to my long hair and partly due to the universal awkwardness of pre-adolescent bodies; but the confusing part for me was that secretly I didn't mind. I knew that I was supposed to be offended when someone mistook me for a girl, because that person would always apologize. But the truth was I kind of enjoyed it. It took a long time for me to unpack all of that, in part because I just didn't have the vocabulary until much later. 

Looking back on that time in my life and that phase in my style evolution, I'm quite proud of my 11-year-old self. I was really a very genderqueer kid, and I was making fashion choices that portrayed that, even if I was unable to articulate it at the time. 

Although the bullying was cruel and felt like a total violation of my privacy, it taught me an important lesson: people who try to bring you down are just trying to build themselves up, and I refuse to give anyone that satisfaction. If you have a problem with the way I look, that's your problem and not mine, buddy. Today, I love being a faggot and if someone tried to weaponize that word against me, I would just say, "Thanks, I know!"

 
 

What empowers you to live authentically despite society’s ongoing policing of femme bodies and surveillance of what a femme should be?

I'm very lucky. Not only am I white, but I often pass as a man without trying to. It turns out that when you have a beard, people seem to give you the benefit of the doubt. I also have an incredible and very supportive network of family and friends. All of that, plus living in Brooklyn, means I typically feel pretty safe.

When I do encounter hostility or rude, unsolicited opinions, I always find humor in the situation. Honestly, I appreciate receiving attention for my appearance, whether it's positive or negative. Either way, I've elicited an emotional response from someone, and that's better than being boring. But it's always the positive interactions that I remember!

Queerness and femininity are not beholden to popular understandings of beauty and sexuality, and your experience cannot be defined by anyone else. 

I also find a lot of strength and inspiration from queer icons. I really like Laverne Cox's phrase "possibility model," as opposed to role model. People like Divine, Grace Jones, Tammy Faye Bakker, Amanda Lepore and Cupcakke demonstrate how it's possible to succeed and thrive as a result of defying others' expectations.

And finally, I see queerness and powerful, divine femininity anywhere. Yes, that is a choice, and no, I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but it's how I see and experience the world. The changing seasons are queer, the internet is queer, the items at my favorite dollar store are queer, and even literal piles of trash are queer as fuck. Queerness and femininity are not beholden to popular understandings of beauty and sexuality, and your experience cannot be defined by anyone else. 

How do you use style as a means of resistance?

It was the photographer Bill Cunningham who said, "Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life," and that really rings true for me. Putting on one of my favorite looks will totally enhance my mood, without fail. I don't consciously feel like I'm "resisting" anything, because my style has always come very naturally to me; I just wear clothes that I like, regardless of the gender that they were designed for. I'm visibly and unapologetically queer because I don't know any other way to be, and I wouldn't want to be any other way! If my fashion choices are able to convey that to the world, and thereby give someone else "permission" to be more adventurous in their own wardrobe, that would be pretty rad (and humbling). Being queer and femme is beautiful and powerful, and I wear my armor with an immense amount of pride. 

SJ Weston

 

SJ Weston is the founder and creative director of Thomas Thomas, the first British tailoring label dedicated to making menswear for women. SJ’s on a simple mission to make the type of clothes that she can’t find on the high street. Cool suits to travel around in, dapper outfits for weddings - tailored essentials that are inspired by menswear. The label is an expression of SJ’s style; old meets new, menswear meets womenswear, tailoring meets sportswear. Mixing it up is SJ’s vibe, she loves to put marmite, peanut butter and jam together on toast!

 

Can you describe a time when you experienced discrimination due to your gender presentation or physical appearance?

The pressure to conform to a very narrowly defined version of what society knows as femme is everywhere, from the moment I was born across media and society but more importantly prescribed in the clothing that is available. To step outside of this convention is difficult and challenging. It often provokes unwanted comment and attention and can be a really negative oppressive feeling.

What empowers you to live authentically despite society’s ongoing policing of femme bodies and surveillance of what a femme should be?

The more people make a visual statement to the world, the more the traditional construct of gender is pulled apart and redefined.

I think life is much more interesting when you embrace difference and originality, and so I think it's important to be true to who you are. I know that's not always easy for everyone. In doing so you encourage others to be themselves and have the confidence to express themselves. It's the 100 monkey theory, the more diversity is expressed, the more society sees it as normal...in reality it is a much slower process and there will be communities that are much more resistant to change, but broadly speaking the more people make a visual statement to the world, the more the traditional construct of gender is pulled apart and redefined.

 
 

How do you use style as a means of resistance?

My style is a statement of who I am. How I feel about the world and my place in it. I am both masculine and feminine and I like to send this message out to help break down the boundaries and help create a more free flowing expression of gender.

 
 

Mojo Disco is an artist, writer, culture coach, and event curator from NYC. Creator of the popular underground event Paint and Poetry and MUA at MojoDiscoNYC. Mojo's motto is "Too Proud, Too Free" symbolizing the ideology of challenging society's norms through queer fashion, knowledge, and love.

IG: @mojodisco / Twitter: @mojodisco / FB: @mojothemogul