Why is Femininity Such a Shame?

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Colin Gill

Unapologetically queer, world-traveling, feminist writer.

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Recently on my daily walk to the metro in Madrid, a person wearing a dress was yelling at me, “Eres feminina! TÚ! Escucha me, eres feminine!” (You are feminine! YOU!  Listen to me, you are feminine!)

I am not ashamed of my feminine nature and, in fact, I embrace it now that I am older and more comfortable in my skin. However, the inflection in their voice was threatening and strong, almost as if I were being shamed for being feminine. I’m not quite sure how they read me as feminine. Perhaps it was the stride in my walking, this person saw elements of themselves in me, or they were under the influence of some substance. I will never really know.

But it really struck me because of the tone of disgust in their voice. Automatically, I began thinking about the ways in which femininity and masculinity operate in society. Femininity, within my experiences, has been discouraged and viewed as inherently weaker. Meanwhile, masculinity has been praised as strong and capable of leadership. Could this be the root of disgust from the person yelling at me? Were they ashamed of femininity because it rendered them powerless within our patriarchal society? Perhaps. But again, I will never truly know. But this interaction certainly made think about the concept of femininity being viewed as feeble and something to hide – especially if you’re trans.

Being shamed for my femininity is not a new experience for me. I felt it in the ways that customers spoke to me versus my “masculine acting” co-worker. It wasn’t necessarily in the words they would say, but how they would say them and their body language. Men would open up to this person and talk to him as if he belonged to their cisgender, heterosexual tribe. I, on the other hand, was the strange “other” and in their eyes more like a woman – their socially constructed idea of womanhood, anyway.

Other instances were quite blatant that I was the “other”. For example, one woman came to me and asked, “You’re gay, right? I have a friend who would be perfect for you. You two should go on a date!” I was taken aback because my masculine acting coworker never would’ve been exposed like this and it was presumptuous of her to just assume that I was gay. There are plenty of heterosexual men who are feminine. Furthermore, I actually prefer the term queer, since it encompasses a deeper understanding of the links between my anti-capitalist politics and non-conformity to homonormative LGBTQ politics, gender, and orientation. It was in this moment, where I had another reminder of the assumptions that people have of feminine identifying people; that we are approachable and can be freely unloaded upon with these types of questions because we are not seen as strong enough to fight back in such a situation. Unfortunately, I remained silent in this situation. Her words entered my body and simmered like a stew waiting to boil over the brim.

Julia Serano pictured above

Biologist, Poet, and Trans Rights Activist Julia Serano revealed in her book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity that oppositional sexism is “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories.” Serano goes further to argue that oppositional sexism is the root of cissexism, transphobia, and homophobia. In Serano’s words:

“While all people who fall under the transgender umbrella potentially face social stigma for transgressing gender norms, those on the male-to-female (MTF) or trans female/feminine (TF) spectrum generally receive the overwhelming majority of societal fascination, consternation and demonization. In contrast, those on the female-to-male (FTM) or trans male/masculine (TM) spectrum have until very recently remained largely invisible and under-theorized. This disparity in attention suggests that individuals on the trans female/feminine spectrum are culturally marked, not for failing to conform to gender norms per se, but because of the specific direction of their gender transgression—that is, because of their feminine gender expression and/or their female gender identities. Thus, the marginalization of trans female/feminine spectrum people is not merely a result of transphobia, but is better described as trans-misogyny.”

It should come as no surprise that anyone embodying a more feminine nature and presentation will endure the brunt of toxic masculinity and be hyper-visible. Once upon a time, when I was a baby queer, I wanted to believe that the LGBTQ+ was one big happy family.  However, the issue of trans-misogyny and exclusion is prevalent within the LGBTQ+ community. There are instances where trans men, but not trans women, will be welcome in women-only spaces (e.g.- The Michigan Women’s Festival, Lesbian bars) based upon their genitalia and gender assigned at birth.  We also see internalized misogyny manifest in gay male-dominated spaces (e.g. – gay male bar, Grindr) where I have heard men say that they don’t like feminine guys and only want to date “real men”, that they don’t see trans men as “real men”, and I’ve witnessed them openly grabbing at women’s bodies. Their logic is that since they’re gay it doesn’t matter if they touch a woman’s body without permission.

One way to dismantle internalized misogyny and oppositional sexism would be to deconstruct the myth that femininity is inherently weaker than masculinity.  Deconstructing femininity as weaker starts with reflecting on the ways we were raised in our families and communities. If, for example, you were taught that men are supposed to play sports, be strong, stoic and aggressive towards women you may internalize this and project it back into your relationships and society at large. Another area to address within this matrix is to detach body parts with gender (e.g.- penis = boy, vagina = girl).  We need to ask ourselves the tough questions of why we think the way that we do about masculinity and femininity.  Furthermore, people who are living in marginalized communities need to assess the ways in which they are simultaneously oppressed and privileged. To illustrate, a person could be minoritized because of their sexual orientation, yet still be privileged in their socioeconomic status, ability, race, gender identity, and citizenship status. Once you have acknowledged the positions of oppression and privilege the second step is to work in solidarity with other minoritized groups. This could be through volunteering, showing up at a protest, educating others within your own community about power and privilege, and committing yourself to being a lifelong learner and seeing progress as a constant evolution – rather than just an end point.

Another way to continue the process of deconstructing oppositional sexism is to continue having open dialogues about this topic and hearing subjective experiences of covert and overt misogyny from womxn, transgender, and non-binary people.  Furthermore, this will facilitate reflection on the ways in which men, womxn, transgender, and other genders internalize misogyny and oppositional sexism and project it back into society. A second step that can be taken is to put reflection and conversation into practice. For example, changing the ways we speak and refrain from using words that degrade womxn and femme people. Also, respecting the bodies of womxn and femme people and not treating them like objects and less than human. A third step in this process is promoting self-advocacy and empowerment for individuals who experience misogyny. This means amplifying our voices and allowing us to have the space to speak; and to not invalidate our subjective experiences with misogyny. What I mean by this third example is, when men try to mansplain about why our experiences are inaccurate as well as, when cis-gender womxn dismiss trans womxn and feminine people as being “real womxn”, and when white womxn only focus on issues affecting them.

I am feminine, I am queer, and it is a constant struggle for me to proudly own these identities in a world that praises masculinity as stronger. There are days that I absolutely hate myself and wish I could be that “straight-acting masculine” man. But, I am not, and that is okay.  I am actively working every day to love myself, interrogate my own internalized misogyny and be okay with my gender and orientation. The person who yelled at me in the streets of Madrid is right. I am feminine and sometimes, I am okay with that. To all the other femmes and womxn reading this, please know that I love you and I see you. You are strong, you are beautiful, you are valid, and know that self-love is a continual evolution.