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As Femme As We Want to Be:

Tracy Schmidt Reports from the 2nd Annual Femme Gender Conference

I was volunteering at the Harvey Milk Institute's Butch-FtM Dialog this spring when this guy came rushing up to me. "Can I ask you a question?" he gasped. "I've been trying to figure this out all day, and no one's been able to tell me, and I looked over and I thought well, gosh! if anyone knows, it's her!" I braced myself. He looked at me plaintively and demanded, "What's a 'femme'?"

Better femmes than me have passed on that question, but he looked so desperate that I searched for an answer. "Well," I ventured, "to me, a femme is someone who takes the characteristics and stereotypes associated with being a woman and uses them as a source of personal power. Like, if someone is gonna stare at my body anyway, I'm damn well gonna make them look, and once I have their attention, I'm gonna tell them something. Get it?"

He burst into a gigantic smile, and with a breathless, "Thank you!" he rushed off again. Hey, at least I knew I'd dressed right that day.

The Second Annual Femme Gender Conference, sponsored by the Harvey Milk Institute(HMI) this May, gave more than 400 people a chance to explore that question and more -- what femme is, how we work it, struggle with it, display it, honor it. HMI put on a huge event, with film screenings, four different performances, an art display, and two days' worth of panels and workshops.

Just like the term "femme", this conference covered a lot of territory. The conference organizers aimed to welcome every kind of person with more than a drop of femme in their souls, and to make plenty of space to talk about how we are, perform, or just love femme. Girls, boys, dykes, bi-femmes, fag-femmes, people from communities of color, young femmes, trans-femmes, lesbians, drag-femmes, working class and rich femmes, parents, fat femmes, and a few garden-variety freaks like me crowded the 33 workshops. (Oddly enough, lots of our volunteers turned out to be butch or female-to-male transgendered folks. Gee, I wonder why...)

Femmes flocked to sessions like Femme As An Evolving Gender Identity; Bisexual Femmes and Femme Bisexuals; Fag and Drag Femme; I'd Love To Ask You Out But I Don't Know Who You Are; Trans Femme: Beyond the Bedroom; What We're Rolling Around In Bed With (femmes of color only); Femmes With FtM Partners; Switch Femme; Fem-man-inity; and How To Fuck In High Heels. We spoke with incredible panelists including Kate Bornstein, Lani Ka'ahumanu, Liz Highleyman, JoAnn Loulan, and Karen Bullock-Jordan.

We examined the challenges and joys of claiming femme identity alongside other identities in our lives. We discussed how different communities hold different experiences of femme. We debated whether we should speak of femmes as somehow transgendered. We ranted about inclusion. We argued about community. We laughed at ourselves. And we celebrated the power and range of our femme styles.

Most important, we met each other in a world where it can be hard to even see one another. It was experimental and emotional and challenging and practical and brilliant and contentious and connected all at once -- two amazing days of the best of queer culture.

I never did find out why that particular guy needed to understand femme so bad, even though I spotted him there at the conference. And like the rest of the crowd, I'll bet he still can't exactly define "femme" -- but now he's finally found several hundred more of us, dressed just right and ready to tell him something about it.

Tracy Schmidt was the Conference Coordinator for this year's Femme Gender Conference. She identifies as a bi and poly femme dyke top whose areas of obsession include gender, motorcycles, S/M, travel, and cleavage. Her current project (with Liz Highleyman) is an anthology focused on newly emerging gender identities.

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