This paper traces a genealogy of femme experience through femme life writing from the 1970s to the 1980s in order to challenge reductionist stories told about queer femininities. At a time when lesbian feminism advocated the exclusion of trans women, sex workers and heterosexual women, and ignored the specific needs of women of color, femme activists countered this exclusion with an intersectional politics that sought to articulate a feminist, queer identity that could incorporate diverse voices. Excluded from dominant feminist theories, femmes’ life writing, such as essays, memoirs and oral histories, is positioned as a femme theory that produces knowledge about gender, erotic identities and the intimate histories of lesbian, feminist and queer communities. Analysis of this cultural production traces differences in femme embodiment and identity across decades and contexts and locates recurring topics such as prejudices against sex work, racism and femmephobia in LGBTQ communities. By centering queer feminine voices from this historical period, this paper will explore an intersectional politics that challenges the narrative normally told in queer and feminist knowledge production, which associates femininity with stasis, hegemony and normativity.
Given the current resurgence of young queers claiming femme identity, this paper resists a homogenizing notion of femme identities and looks to previous generations to place the present moment in historical context. Central questions are: What does femme life writing tell us about queer identity, both historically and today? How can tracing a genealogy of femme experience challenge a homonormative reading of LGBTQ history and reintegrate an anti-racist, sex work- and trans-positive lens?
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