I’m femme as fuck. I used to want to change that, though, because I thought to be femme was to be less than. Offensive, I know, but I had learned to equate femininity with fragility. Before I began trying to be less feminine, I had done my best to be as dainty as possible. I tried to eat less, feel less, and take up less space. I tried to turn my anger into sadness, which was easier to contain. I aspired to look breakable.
Then during first-year orientation at Smith College, I discovered rugby. The team had a major presence on campus and used recruitment tactics like covering walkways with suggestive chalkings: “Wanna Ruck? Meet us on the pitch at 4:00 p.m.” As deeply invested as I was in appearing delicate, I cherished the idea that if put to the test, I would prove to be tough, like the love interest in an action movie sprinting through the jungle in a pair of heels, slender arms pumping. What better opportunity to try out my toughness than showing up for rugby practice?
I had no applicable athletic skills. I didn’t even know how to run efficiently, earning me the nickname “Electric Eel,” a reference to my body’s tendency to swivel from side to side as I moved through space as well as to the MGMT song that was wildly popular at the time. On the rugby pitch, however, what my body could do mattered more than how it looked. My big hands ready for a fast-moving ball to smack into my palms, my flat chest heaving after running sprints, my broad shoulders slamming into the rucking pad, my whole self straining to drive the person behind the pad backward and, ideally, to knock them off their feet.
The first time we did a tackling drill, one of my fellow rookies ended up with a black eye. I was jealous. I was hooked.
A few weeks into that fall season, I kissed a girl for the first time. Or really, she kissed me. I did not feel an especially strong desire to kiss her, except that I could tell she wanted me and I liked that. The kiss was not great, but it lit up a ball of sparking wires that had been rattling around behind my sternum since I arrived at Smith. Being surrounded by so many out-and-proud queers had released something inside me. Before too much time passed, I kissed another girl, one I had developed a dizzying crush on. Later, I undid her bra clasp, unbuttoned her jeans, and thrust my hand inside.
My first time was a muddled, drunken mess. It was amazing. I was hooked.
By my second year at Smith, I had started calling myself a lesbian. I still yearned for a descriptor to underline that, like butch, though I knew that was not the one for me. I believed femme was not the one for me, either. Coming out meant freeing myself from the constraints of heterosexual traditions. To identify as femme, I thought, would be to recreate those. Femmes were prissy pillow princesses who handed out perfectly-frosted pink cupcakes. I drank tequila from the bottle. My body was perpetually bruised from collisions with other bodies and the hard turf. I wanted to touch as much as I wanted to be touched. Femme, I thought, just wasn’t me.
During sophomore year, my coach moved me from my initial position far out on the wing to one at the center of the heaving scrum. I loved the new position — lock, for those of you that means something to — which required me to scrum down, to ruck, to seize opposing players and drive them into the ground. “Pick the biggest one,” a beloved assistant coach once advised me, “and look for an opportunity to tackle her. Then they’ll take you seriously.”
The more I stepped into my toughness and my queer identity, the more I felt I needed to renounce the trappings of femininity. The high point of my experimentation with masculinity came near the end of my junior year when I borrowed a suit from a rugby teammate to wear to the spring formal. The suit fit me uncannily well. I wore no tie and left the top two buttons of the grey, shadow-pinstriped shirt undone. I felt at ease in those clothes that night in a way I never had before, in part because I wore my hair, which fell below the bottoms of my shoulder blades, sleek and loose and applied a full face of makeup. It turned out masculinity suited me best when I let myself bring some femininity to it.
Senior year, I went to that same dance in a shoulder-baring, figure-hugging dress. I wore strappy heels with pinprick sequins (despite a recent ankle sprain) because I loved the look of them. Not coincidentally, I was about seven months into my first serious relationship with a woman. Also not coincidentally, she was butch, and appreciated every swivel, swish, and feminine trait I felt I should eradicate in order to be a better lesbian. She saw me as every inch a lesbian just the way I was. Oh, and she played on the rugby team with me and took my toughness seriously, too.
I had begun to reconsider my definition of the word “femme” before that relationship, but to leave out the role it played in that process would be to tell a less true story. With her, I got to be the one who wore lace lingerie and the one who carried her off in my arms. I felt sharp, powerful, and intensely femme.
My femme fire has continued to burn long after that relationship ended. Yet it can feel like my identity is seen primarily as a counterpart to butchness, rather than as its own fully-realized thing. Like many femmes, I am often read as straight. Being visibly queer comes with its own set of challenges and—especially for trans women—an increased risk of physical harm. While it’s safer and more comfortable for me to move through the world as a white, cisgender, straight-appearing woman than it is for many other queer people, passing for something I’m not feels like a double-edged privilege. Often I go unrecognized by the people I most want to see me.
When I say I’m femme, I mean I love wearing how-can-she-walk-in-those heels and I love wrapping my legs around a naked woman, perhaps with those heels still on. I mean I will come out again, and again, and again for the right to be a lesbian who swivels her hips and tosses her hair. None of that negates the fact that, while I no longer play rugby, I continue to relish opportunities to prove my toughness through feats of physical strength. I can’t control what others assume about me based on how I look, but I can learn to care less about it. And I am.
Femmes don’t need to define ourselves in relation to anyone else. Femme is more than enough all on its own.
Image via Getty