When I was in my first two years of university, I used to paint two of my fingernails different colors.
To many people, this seemed like an insignificant activity: a trend that ultimately meant nothing. But to me, a queer girl who wasn’t yet ‘out’ to the whole world, my nailpolish meant everything.
It was my way of signifying to the world that I’m queer. What many straight people didn’t know from looking at my nails is that I was participating in femme-flagging. At this point in my life, I wore traditionally feminine clothes and always looked like what my mother calls a ‘girly girl’. In other words, I didn’t match the stereotypical image of a queer woman. I was experiencing femme invisibility – a fairly common issue that occurs when a femme queer person isn’t recognized as queer.
There’s no firm definition of femme, but it’s generally understood to mean someone who expresses their gender in a feminine way, through clothing or other means.
‘Femme’ is often seen as the opposite of ‘butch.’ Of course, ‘femme’ means something different to each person who identifies with it. Maneo Mohale, a writer and editor by trade and a Black queer femme, calls the term femme “one of my many homes.”
“It’s how I connect to a community of family that fall on multiple points of this complex and gorgeous spectrum of gender,” she says.
Marissa, a 27-year-old lesbian, also identifies as femme recently told me that “I'm often called ‘straight passing,’ but I also see the femme identity as one of subversion in its own way.”
“It's the form of expression that feels most natural to me when it comes to style and appearance, from the clothes I buy to how I style them,” she continues, even arguing that the term ‘femme’ is often associated with lesbians, others might also identify as femme.
“I think the femme identity should be inclusive to more than just lesbians, so for example, non-binary femmes, gay men who identify as femme, and so on.”
While ‘femme,’ in this context, is a term that originated in queer communities, most queer women are stereotyped as butch. Many queer women are butch, but not all of us are. One of the problems with this stereotype is that those of us who look femme are seldom recognized as queer. In heteronormative spaces, this might be safer. But in our own communities, it can be hurtful and lonely to feel like an outsider, to feel like you don’t belong: like you’re invisible. Hence, ‘femme invisibility’.
So how do we wear our sexuality on our sleeves? It’s difficult to be ‘visibly queer’ because, of course, queerness isn’t something you can see. It’s how someone identifies. No matter your gender expression, your clothing, style, or behavior doesn’t determine your identity. That said, clothing can be a symbol we use to show our membership to a certain community.
In the 1970s and 80s, a handkerchief code or bandana code became popular amongst queer men in certain US cities. This flagging was a secret code of sorts, a symbol that ‘outed’ you to your own people while keeping you safe from outsiders. The handkerchief was usually worn in a specific way to indicate your sexual preferences: the left pocket means you’re a bottom, the right pocket mean’s you’re a top. Different colors could also refer to different sexual acts. Gray, for example, could indicate that you’re into bondage while dark blue could symbolize anal sex.
While the handkerchief code is probably one of the most commonly-discussed queer symbols, there are many others. In an Autostraddle article, the author Keena looks at the ways queer people have symbolized their orientations over the centuries. “The good thing is that even in unfriendly societies, us homos have always managed to find our way to each other,” the author writes. “We’ve done so in a variety of ways, though visual symbols are often among the most recognizable.” Some of these symbols include violets, a labrys (a double-headed axe), triangles, and of course, the rainbow flag.
More recently circa the early 2010s – femmes created their own form of flagging.
Femme-flagging, also known as finger-flagging, involved painting one or two nails a different color than the other nails. Like with the handkerchief code, certain colors of nail polish symbolized certain things. Black nail polish meant the wearer was into BDSM, light blue meant the wearer was into oral sex. But of course, without a definitive guide, different communities assigned different meanings to different colors. The colors weren’t as important as the act itself.
In my time at college, I met plenty of queer women who femme-flagged without intending to attract a sexual partner: the flagging was done for the purpose of finding friendship and community with other queer women. In 2012, interest in femme-flagging seemed to soar. An article in xoJane was widely read and shared, a number of well-known blog posts celebrated the trend, and an entire Tumblr blog was devoted to femme-flagging.
Marissa tried femme-flagging in college, and while she doesn’t think anyone picked up on it, she enjoyed flagging. “At the time, I liked the idea of it because it felt subtle enough to still be safe and not necessarily ‘out’ me in a situation where I would have felt uncomfortable or unsafe,” she says. When Mohale first encountered femme-flagging, she thought it was ‘an ingenious way to communicate desire and the particularities and idiosyncrasies around sex and sexuality.’
What was truly amazing about femme-flagging is that it used something associated with femme-ness – nail polish – to indicate queerness. “There can be a lot of pressure for femme women to change their appearance and become more androgynous or masculine as a means of ‘proving’ their queerness, and I personally find that exhausting,” Marissa says. “I think forms of femme-flagging help to communicate the right message without asking a femme presenting person to radically alter their presentation.”
The Tumblr blog is now defunct, and some might argue the femme-flagging trend is too. Soon after the great femme-flagging rush of ’12, ‘accent nails’ soared in popularity. This was the trend of people painting one nail a different color to the others: it looked like femme-flagging, but it didn’t have the same meaning because it became so popular amongst straight women.
In an article for Racked on the accent nail trend, a number of manicurists and trend experts discuss the supposed origins of accent nails. The queer trend is mentioned only once, by a contributor who moderated the Femme-Flagging Tumblr. While there are many practical reasons why accent nails are popular, many queer femmes feel that it was appropriated from them – or at least, that the trend has unintentionally taken something away from them.
“As with most things that begin within a specific corner of culture and get diluted, stripped of meaning, and subsumed within the mainstream, I understand how straight women lapped this gem up and appropriated it into the ‘accent nail’,” Mohale says. “It’s certainly made it more difficult to spot a flagging femme.”
The painted nail might not mean much in terms of femme-flagging anymore, but that doesn’t mean that femme-flagging is over. The nails itself aren’t as important as what they symbolize: a call to other femmes, to the queer community, and an assertion of one’s identity. Marissa points out that the age-old rainbow symbol used as pins, patches, or stickers are often used by queer people of all identities and expressions to flag their queerness.
However, a new flagging method specific to femmes – something as precise and powerful as finger-flagging – doesn’t yet exist. “I think a new form of femme flagging would definitely be welcome, whether people are looking to find a partner or just feel more comfortable finding other queers,” Marissa says. “If femme flagging trends help femme people communicate their queerness in a way that feels natural to them, I'm all for it.”
If there’s anything history has taught us, it’s that the death or dilution of one queer symbol will always lead to the birth of another. Yesterday was nails. Tomorrow, we might use scrunchies. As Mohale says, “Queers always have, and always will find a way to find each other. We’re brilliant that way.”