“I’m HIV positive” – not a line I was expecting to hear whilst watching Emmerdale a week ago, they’d kept this storyline quiet from the online spoiler pages and press, but I had an immediate and instinctual feeling that this was a good thing.
There are many reasons why this storyline is important. Firstly it isn’t conforming to modern stereotypes society holds of the ‘typical’ HIV patient. Val isn’t a gay man, a black man/ woman or an intravenous drug user. Val is a middle aged, white and married woman living in the countryside ‘up north’ not a council estate in one of our major cities. She’s not portrayed as someone outstandingly clever but nor is she pictured as stupid. Val has a husband, grown up children, one of whom is gay. She runs a bed and breakfast business, in essence she’s really rather normal.
As a femme identified person and someone perceived as female I have encountered a great struggle to find voice and place for myself in my queer community here in Portland. I have had friends who were more androgynous or masculine identified express to me that they dislike being around femme identified people because of negative experiences they’ve had with people trying to force them into more feminine identities.
With respect to my friend’s experiences I have largely remained silent when they use intentionally or unintentionally femme-phobic language and generalizations and when they tokenize femme identified or femme perceived people based on an experience with a few individuals. I have also remained silent because the times I have called my friends out on their marginalization of my identity they have retaliated by refusing to acknowledge that they are marginalizing anyone or by saying they weren’t talking about me as a femme—as if, because they like me, I am an exception to their blanket statements about feminine people despite my identity. This has made me feel that my femme identity is invisible to them.
That is a little of the experience I have had with interpersonal oppression as a femme identified person. The systemic oppression I have experienced overlaps with the oppressive patriarchal society I find myself living in; in my work history, walking down the street in revealing clothing, constantly finding that being in queer safe spaces in my community means being in largely masculine dominated spaces, etc. What really pisses me off about the patriarchal oppression I have faced as a femme is people assuming my experience. This has taken the form of people assuming my privilege level and background plus assuming my level of awareness about oppression based solely on my femme expression. People have assumed of me that I experience straight privilege because of my femme identity and have oppressed me within the queer community based on this assumption. If I do get perceived as straight within the straight community I am automatically sexualized for my feminine appearance and have my boundaries pushed by straight men who force me into uncomfortable and dangerous situations. My queer identity and experience becomes invisible in the straight community and I am marginalized as a perceived woman instead.
How do we see Femme identity in media?
Because I so strongly strive to recognize the privileges I do have in our society in order to be a better ally, these assumptions have cut me deep and on many levels. Identity is a very sticky web for me sometimes. I experience the oppression of a woman although I am not female identified, I experience the oppression of a femme and generally feminine person, and I experience the oppression of being gender non-conforming. But despite the obstacles it brings, my identity is so precious to me. Faerie gender and femme identity may seem ridiculous to some but it is the result of a long and tedious self-discovery process that has helped shaped me into the person I am.
I encourage you all to take a few moments at least to consider with me how patriarchy has impacted your life or the lives of people you know. Also, how might patriarchy affect gender perception and identity even within the queer community?