tl;dr Visibility for femme, FAAB nonbinary is complicated because femininity is devalued by society, so FAAB trans people are assumed to be vaguely masculine. So, this TDoV, I would like to make this particular experience more visible.
So this Trans Day of Visibility, I really want to talk about visibility for People Like Me and what that means. Because the thing is, visibility is different for everyone and the trans umbrella is HUGE umbrella and accounts for loads and loads of different experiences. And it’s often simplified down to “visible” and “invisible” identities, but there’s a lot more to that.
First off, what do I mean when I say People Like Me? I mean trans-identified, nonbinary, female assigned at birth (FAAB) femmes.
Now there’s a lot of discussions about the use of FAAB/AFAB/CAFAB and MAAB/AMAB/CAMAB language and I agree with a lot of the reasons for not using it. It is a way for cis people to ask “But what are you reeeaallly??? Tell me about your parts please!” without technically asking a person about their genitalia which is on every list of Transphobic Things to Never Do Ever (and some people still haven’t figured out is just…not a thing to ever do ever?). To be clear, I do not, in any way, believe that it is necessary for a trans person to ever use this language.
But, for me, my identity, and my visibility (or lack thereof) comes directly from the intersection of being FAAB and feminine. It is useful for me to describe myself in those terms because it illustrates a huge tension in my life. Being both FAAB and feminine is what creates my invisibility. Those two traits placed together mean that I am (almost) always perceived as a cis woman. They mean that it’s impossible for me to be visible as my gender.
I’m a little less attached to the term “femme” because it has a history that doesn’t quite lend itself to the FAAB nonbinary experience. It’s been an important term for trans women and for lesbians and I honestly go back and forth on whether it’s a term stuck in those communities or something I can use.
I tend to use “femme” in the same way I use “queer”. It’s not a descriptor, but a way of positioning myself socially and politically. When I describe myself as “feminine”, it is simply that I like my pigtails and wear dresses and am generally feminine in nature (although that is, of course, completely up to interpretation. Someone once told me I was “masculine” simply because I “got things done on time”…so….).
For me, femme is a power that comes from being feminine. And it represents my choice to be feminine despite the way society values masculinity. And beyond all else, femme is about the fact that, no matter how feminine I appear, I should be taken seriously.
Because society prioritises masculinity. And this isn’t just a cisgender, heterosexual problem. This is something seen in queer communities, and I see it all the time in trans communities. We talk a lot about how trans men get more quality visibility and representation because society can understand why someone would want to be a man. Similarly, FAAB nonbinary folks that lean towards the masculine (especially the white ones), have become the image of what it means to be nonbinary. Leaning or moving towards the masculine is understandable in a society that prioritises it, even if it’s not actually acceptable.
The increased visibility of masculine-leaning nonbinary FAAB folks and society’s understanding of moving towards the masculine creates pressure for all FAAB folks to present in a masculine way. And this is something I thought I had to do for a long time. I was terrible at it, but I truly thought the only way I could be trans was if I actually showed that I was “changing my gender” in some way, and that I was less trans by not succeeding at it. I learned two things from this general disaster:
- Viewing any FAAB person as nonbinary is often a retrospective act. It’s understandable for a woman to “want to look” masculine, and there is a beautiful history and tradition of butch women that has its own visibility and impact on how society perceives gender. Especially in places like the middle class, liberal, predominantly white town I come from, where “women breaking gender roles” is a value, a FAAB person that doesn’t dress feminine could easily be a woman. It’s not until you tell someone, “by the way, I identify as nonbinary” that they pause and go “oh yeah, I can see that” or, in my case, “you don’t look like it”.
It doesn’t matter how FAAB nonbinary folks present, we are still “female until proven otherwise”. Our visibility always has to be accompanied by explanations. Even many of the most visible among us are not visible enough to be able to live as our gender without having to explain it. You could even argue that visibility is impossible.
At the same time, I also learned this:
- No one was going to take me seriously. Because point 1. No matter how I dressed, even if I actually succeeded at looking masculine, I was always going to be considered a woman.
Among cis people, I’m perceived as a woman and, even though we have made advances for the rights of women in Western society (and other societies, but I’m talking about the one I live in at the moment), women, especially feminine ones, still aren’t taken seriously. Masculinity and manness is still directly linked to access to power.
And among trans people, I’m not “trans enough” because I “present as my assigned gender.” I have “passing privilege”, which is a giant can of worms I don’t want to really open at the moment. I’m the “easy” version of trans because, even if I told a cis person I was trans and explained my identity, they’re most likely to just conveniently forget it and decide I’m a strange cis woman, instead of lashing out in a violent, discriminatory way. And I honestly used to believe that meant I had less of a right to be trans than other trans people. That my trans experiences were less important.
Story time: Tiny little fresher me gets to uni and engages with the lgbt+ society at their school full of excitement about meeting OTHER TRANS PEOPLE (and is also graced with the existence of OTHER ACE PEOPLE and nearly collapses in surprised excitement, that’s another story). I, and a bunch of other trans people, work with our then trans rep to put together a trans 101 event. I definitely wasn’t the most integral part of the event, but I helped with some logistics and was present for the planning. During the event, I was sitting with the other trans folks. A trans person that wasn’t involved in our planning, but was Very Important politically within university lgbt+ spaces was asked to speak at the end and they offered for all of the trans people who had organized the event to introduce themselves. Going down the line, I was set to be last. Except, when it came to my turn, the speaker continued on to start closing down the event before I could open my mouth. Luckily, some of the other trans people there spoke up for me, but by that point, I was flustered and embarrassed and the harm had been done. Another trans person had decided I didn’t deserve recognition as a trans person. Or, that I wasn’t trans. Or, if I was trans, it didn’t matter.
And, it’s not usually this blatant. Sometimes it’s a trans person that completely subscribes to the idea that presentation and gender are not the same thing, but who only starts to discuss trans things with me when I cut my hair short, or stop wearing heels, even though they’ve known I’ve been trans the whole time. Sometimes it’s just sitting in a trans group, surrounded by trans masculine people and trans men and feeling expected to nod along and agree with their experiences because we’re all FAAB, so our experiences should be shared, even when the experiences shared by trans women sometimes resonate more fully with me. Sometimes it’s the trans person at a TDoR ceremony who asked me rather belligerently why I was there. Sometimes it’s the fact that, while every trans 101 makes a point of mentioning that presentation is not the same as gender, the examples used of FAAB nonbinary people in educational literature about transness are almost always masculine leaning. If I listen to the subtext enough, I start believing that my trans experience is worth nothing because of my femininity. Because society devalues femininity.
So, for me, femme isn’t about being feminine. I am feminine, partially in my incapability of being masculine. But femme is the thing that allows me to embrace my femininity instead of being frustrated by my non-masculinity. Femme is what says “so what if you perceive me one way? I still matter. My experiences are important. And you are going to take me seriously even if I have to step on your toe with my very painful high heel in order to ensure that happens.”
(Ok, I have stepped on my own toes with my heels, it’s not something I would wish on my worst enemy, but still…the idea is there).
And that’s the thing: Visibility for FAAB feminine nonbinary people like me isn’t about being seen, or being seen as our gender identity, it’s about being listened to. It’s about saying “yes, what’s visible isn’t what you expect, but the things I have to express are still important” and accepting that maybe Visibility, in the simplest sense of the word, isn’t possible.
It’s about the fact that us FAAB, nonbinary femmes are so often silenced – by cis people who decide we’re actually cis women with a fancy name for our identity, by cis people that get it on a surface level but keep looking for that one masculine thing that will validate our identity, by trans people who believe we are less trans, by trans people who simply think our struggles are less important and that we might as well be silent and support the trans people that face Real Oppression ™, and even from other FAAB nonbinary people who have defined their identities so much through masculinity that they struggle to understand that other FAAB nonbinary people may not share that experience.
But, the fact is, we are still trans. And our existence and our experiences do not deny or invalidate any other trans experience. It’s just a different way to experience society’s weird notions on how gender and gender presentation works. And, most importantly, we matter. We deserve to be taken seriously. We deserve to be heard.
And, in the past, I’ve allowed Trans Day of Visibility to silence me. I’ve sat and thought long and hard about hypervisibility and how it’s harming trans women (and it is! If you haven’t stopped to read a bit about it, I highly recommend doing it because yes! Important!), I’ve liked hundreds and hundreds of images of trans masculine people with captions talking about mixing genders, androgyny, or the importance of visibility for nonbinary people, I’ve discussed the ways nonbinary visibility is complicated because society only sees the gender binary. All of these things are important. All of these things are necessary discussions and actions that, to be perfectly honest, should happen on more than just one day a year.
But this TDoV, I’m talking about me. Because visibility is a huge issue, and every trans experience is important and requires recognition. And that’s it: every trans experience requires recognition. Including mine. And, in my case, visibility might not be possible, but that doesn’t mean my experiences are not worthy of sharing. It doesn’t mean I should be silent.