Femme Fatigue (Queer Wounds Part 4)
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I sat in last week’s therapy session, eyes closed.
“What are you noticing?” my therapist asked me.
“I’m so, so tired. I’m exhausted.”
Exhaustion isn’t new to me as someone living with fibromyalgia. But that’s not why I’m tired. It’s not my body that’s exhausted – though it is; it’s my heart that’s speaking to me. I’ve got femme fatigue.
In using the word femme, I want to be clear that this experience is one that I’m sure many if not most cis straight women have experienced too, as well as those have been raised as girls. For me, this fatigue is very much rooted in my lived experience as a queer nonbinary femme, and so I speak from that position.
For those of you new to the word femme, I’d like to offer some definitions. Historically, femme identity has been understood as being the counterpart to butch lesbian identity, and thus connected to those who were assigned female at birth. Femmeness can be located in gender expression (the donning of nail polish and lipstick and floral prints) but it is also a gender identity and thus might refuse to be easily indexed. Femmeness does not need to be tethered to gender, sex, or sexuality. Rather, as non-binary femmes like Alok Vaid Menon have shown me, femmeness is a way to exist in a world without gender.
For me, being femme is not just about gender identity and expression; femme is a political orientation towards the world. To be femme is to refuse the cisheteropatriarchy’s valorization of the totally autonomous, independent individual who doesn’t need anyone else because they can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps. As my fellow femme friend Andi Schwartz writes, in her zine Soft Femme: “there is something distinctly femme about forming and valuing connections with others. In our masculinist, binary-obsessed society, independence is prized, while interdependence is seen as weak. Our desire for connection is called ‘crazy’ and ‘needy.’” And yet, “to be femme is to rely on each other.” What femmes recognize is the power of interdependence: that we need one another in order to live. Femmes are the ultimate dreamers of care and intimacy.
They’re also the ones who are disproportionately performing care work. It has been well-documented that the majority of care providers are women, and within queer community, this is no different. That isn’t to say that there aren’t men or masculine of center folks who do care work. And there are femmes who refuse to do this work. The reality remains: women and femmes are doing the bulk of this labor – and these folks are all too often working class, poor, and BIPOC. Some folks respond to this truth by proclaiming “not all men,” and if you find yourself doing this, please don’t turn to the femmes in your life to comfort you. That’s another form of femme labor that exhausts us.
What then is femme fatigue? It’s the feeling of exhaustion that so many femmes experience from all of the free, unacknowledged emotional labor that they perform – most often for the benefit of men and masculine folks (as I’ll explain below, femmes are generally quite good at reciprocating emotional labor. I do not experience femme fatigue in my relationships with other femmes). Femme fatigue is being romanticized for your capacity for vulnerability by those who desire to be as emotionally open, but who are, at the end of the day, unable to show up and reciprocate the labor that such vulnerability entails. Femme fatigue is having your heart punched again and again by those who fetishize and then dispose of femmes when shit gets messy. In other words, femme fatigue is the result of encountering toxic masculinity day in and day out.
While we’re all pretty familiar with the term toxic masculinity, I think it’s also helpful to define it. For Laura Gruebler: “Toxic masculinity entails socially destructive habits that encourage social codes such as misogyny, homophobia, physical and mental violence, or domination.” Here’s how I’ve experienced toxic masculinity:
Treating women and femmes like they’re disposable. Wanting us when the relationship feels easy and light. Valuing us for our emotional availability, vulnerability, and open communication skills. And then abruptly ending things, often in ways that are cruel, unkind, and unaccountable, when things aren’t so easy and they’re asked to show up and reciprocate the emotional labor. This is femmephobia and misogyny.
Being unaccountable for hurt, harm, or abuse. Being unable or unwilling to recognize that their behavior was harmful, let alone why. Refusal to understand why their actions were not okay even when we do a lot of free emotional labor to unpack how and why. Taking weeks, months, or years to offer an actual apology, if at all.
Enacting power over dynamics. Setting rigid boundaries and then crossing any boundaries that we set. Getting defensive when we name hurt or harm caused; minimizing our feelings / making us feel like we’re over-reacting. Gaslighting. Using intellectual language to justify shitty behaviors/actions.
Inability to reciprocate / opting out of emotional labor. Wanting to keep things “casual” or physical but not being explicit about it and/or believing that keeping things casual means that feelings don’t need to be talked about. Shutting down when feelings are brought up. Inability to move through conflict, choosing instead to end the connection. Extraction of / benefitting from emotional labor with no reciprocation.
Toxic masculinity lives within all of us because it is the water in the patriarchal world that we swim in. And, I can’t help but note that my experiences with toxic masculinity have come out exclusively in my relationships with cis and trans men, as well as transmasculine AFAB (assigned female at birth) nonbinary, agender, and gender fluid/non-conforming folks. As a femme, I feel reticent to talk about the presence of toxic masculinity within the trans masculine community because it is deeply complex and messy. Raised as girls and women, trans masculine folks often know the experiences of being treated as objects for cishet male consumption. Being trans and nonbinary are also not privileged positions. But within my queer community, trans men and masculine of center folks are the most desired and the most proximate to power. We need to hold the tension that is part of existing at the intersections of power and oppression.
And this tension has contributed to silence around this issue. We know that being assigned a gender that does not match who you know yourself to be is traumatic. Then to come out as trans in a deeply transphobic world that threatens your existence at every turn. A femme friend shared with me: “Is a part of femme fatigue holding that knowledge (of the fear and difficulty many masc of centre folks experience) with empathy, and then letting them off the hook by way of our collective silence for the harm they perpetuate? I feel like we help them work through their experiences of oppression in ways that side step how toxic masculinity is perpetuated in our own dynamics, which is something we in the queer community often want to look away from.”
I believe that those of us committed to social justice work don’t know what to do when oppressed folks in our communities cause harm. We worry that we’ll be betraying them if we call attention to their behaviors. And, at the same time, we become complicit in cycles of harm – which all too often turn into abuse. Queer and trans people cause harm. We know it. And now we need to speak it into existence so that we figure out how to stop each other and move towards the healing we all desire.
Now I have watched as women and femmes treat one another as disposal, as competition, as threats. And, as someone who has been in relationships with people across the gender spectrum, I have never had a woman or femme abruptly end a relationship with me, have never been ghosted after sharing sexual intimacy; have never experienced an unwillingness to move through conflict, be accountable for hurt or harm; I’ve never felt that the emotional labor wasn’t reciprocal; nor have I experienced other women and femmes enacting power over dynamics. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen. I do worry, however, about replicating the line toted by then Men’s Rights Movement and incels, who claim that women can rape and cause harm as a way to not acknowledge how harm happens disproportionately at the hands of cis men. As Aleo Pugh writes in “Re(Doing) Gender: Trans Men and the Reproduction of Toxic Masculinity”: “As transmasculine folks in particular, we need to be more critical about our positions and our culpability in reifying the gender hierarchy. While our male/masculine privilege may operate differently than cis men’s, this does not negate its existence. Oftentimes, our replication of maleness/masculinity is nearly identical and equally as toxic.”
Toxic masculinity hurts us all. It robs us of the magic of vulnerability and deep intimacy with one another. It teaches us to be hyper-individualistic and under-responsible. Under the hold of toxic masculinity, we believe that needing care is a weakness and that causing harm is something to be ashamed of or totally ignored. We owe each other so much more than replicating the very dynamics that have harmed and traumatized us. In acknowledging the root causes of harm, we can unlearn, untether, transform, and heal.
In the past year I have dated a cis man, a trans man, and two nonbinary transmasc folks. And in each relationship, I have experienced the same script of toxic masculinity play itself out. Every time, the person I’m dating is very, very into me at the start. I’m told at some point that I’m special, that they aren’t normally this comfortable or open, that I make them feel safe; they praise me for my vulnerability, emotional availability, and open communication. Intimacy progresses, sexually and emotionally, and then something shifts. Suddenly they’re more distant. We may have had a conflict. But often, nothing bad happens at all. The result is the same: they swiftly end the connection – in some cases via text or email. That’s it. We go from “I want you I want you I want you” to “I’m done.” (For the record, I’ve also dated women and femmes. But I only experienced these dynamics with those who hold some proximity to masculinity. Look at me, carefully qualifying my statements for you. There’s a reason I’m doing this.)
When this happens, I start to spiral into “What did I do?” This is femme over-accountability, and it’s something we’ve been trained to do: to blame ourselves for the harm or abuse we experience. When things go wrong, we interrogate ourselves endlessly. We are masters at self-gaslighting. Over the past two months, and countless times before this, I’ve turned to my femme friends. I trust that if I do need to be accountable for something, they’ll tell me because they’ve done so in the past. But in these instances, they’re the ones who will help me see that the way I was treated was disrespectful and inhumane. That I deserved so much more care and consideration than what I was offered. Emotional labor piled on top of emotional labor.
Over the last two months I’ve been healing from a breakup that is the most painful one I’ve been through since I left my last abusive partner in my twenties. This isn’t the usual pain of grief and disappointment I experience post-breakup. Painful because the breakup itself was unkind, cruel, cold. My heart is exhausted. The femme fatigue is real. I continue to think about how my femme fatigue could have been avoided if he’d had treated me with more kindness and care as he ended things.
I’ve always been afraid of men. Now, I’m afraid of anyone with proximity to masculinity. Fear is another contributor to femme fatigue. I’m also afraid to publish these words, to speak my experiences out into the world. It’s wild to me that when I googled “queer community + toxic masculinity” or “trans men + toxic masculinity” I do not find any writing about how trans men/masculine folks are harming women and femmes. Instead, I find essays on how toxic masculinity harms trans men; or how it’s harming gay men. (To be fair, I only looked at the first three pages of links, but still, that’s saying something.) With the notable exception of articles about how cis men harm, abuse, and kill trans women, women and femmes are absent from the scene. Their absence only amplifies my fear – a fear that’s coming from somewhere. I know that toxic masculinity has something to do with it. It’s a risk to talk openly about the ways that women and femmes are harmed by men and masculinity. And, I know that we need to be having this conversation.
In order to create a world without femme fatigue, we must be willing to have these conversations about how toxic masculinity rears its head within our community. And we need to do so in a way that is direct, despite the discomfort and the nuance it requires of us. I want men and masculine of center folks to reach out to one another to unpack the ways in which toxic masculinity lives within them – rather than benefiting from the emotional labor of femmes, who are all too often the ones to educate after harm has occurred. In a world without femme fatigue, our attentiveness to care is matched by those who seek it out; where we take the time and energy necessary to unlearn toxic masculinity and be accountable in the moments where it rears its head. I no longer want to see myself and other femmes be pedestalized for their vulnerability by those who haven’t done the work to meet them there, who extract the emotional availability they desire until they’re asked to show up and reciprocate. I’m no longer available to help someone become emotionally available. I’m just too tired.
My fellow femmes: rest — if you can. Here’s a ritual to support you. If you’re someone with proximity to masculinity who has learned something from this writing and/or wants to share your gratitude, you can send me a tip via PayPal, share this writing, or become a paid subscriber.
NOTE: All that really matters for the ritual is the intention you're setting. If you don't have these ingredients handy, you can easily replace them with others that speak to you.
Lavender to help cleanse the space for your ritual* and help regulate your nervous system.
A blue candle to encourage rest, patience, and inner calm.
Hypersthene to help create calmness and quietness and protect against hectic stimuli.
Pyrite to remind you that you deserve abundance and that abundance lives within you.
Ace of Pentacles tarot card to remind us that rest is a conscious practice that we must learn to cultivate.
Your journal with your reflections on the questions from page 2.
10 or more slips of paper to write on.
*As a white settler, I've chosen lavender instead of palo santo or sage as both are endangered and are vital to Indigenous spiritual practice.
Select a space for your ritual that feels supportive. For me, this is often my bedroom.
Place rosemary in a bowl or dish and light it so that it starts to burn. Walk around the space with the rosemary to clear the energy and set the tone for your ritual.
Light the candle and place it at your altar space along with the Ace of Pentacles tarot card.
You can choose to place the pyrite and hypersthene at your altar, or you can keep the beside you, or hold them in your hands to serve as their own anchors in your ritual.
Pick up your notebook and re-read your answers to the first reflection question. On the slips of paper, write down all of the things that you want to let go of (stories, feelings, sensations, beliefs) so that you can open your palm and welcome in rest.
Hold these slips of paper in your hands, close your eyes, and take three deep breaths. As you do, thank these stories, feelings, sensations, beliefs for all that they've done to protect you in the past.
Grab your notebook again and read your answers to the second question. Using the slips of paper, write down all of the things (stories, feelings, sensations, beliefs) that you want to welcome into your life.
With your palms open, and eyes closed, repeat the following words as many times as you'd like: "May I know rest. May I know abundance." It's best to repeat in sets of three. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
To integrate the ritual, you can do a few different things with the slips of paper. With the first stack, the things you're letting go of, I recommend taking a walk to a sacred place and burying the paper in the earth.
With the second stack, the things you're welcoming in, I'd recommend planting them in the soil of a new plant that you'll keep in your home. That way, you'll have a reminder of your new commitments, and you can literally watch them grow with you.