It’s weird developing role-models when you’re different from society norms. I’m not talking about a general teenage angsty feeling of being different (which is totally valid, it’s just not what I’m talking about), but rather the effect of being a minority in the eyes of society. Straight white dudes get to look out into the world and see a world of role-models reflected back at them but for those of us who aren’t as privileged (Full Disclosure: I’m white and am male, though I usually need to butch up before my male-ness is entirely recognized) finding role-models can be tricky. I’d like to talk about my experience as a femme boy in the world of searching for role-models.
First I want to acknowledge that it’s completely possible to have role-models who don’t reflect your exact identity. Straights can have role-models who aren’t straight and female identified people can have genderqueer identified role-models and so on and so on but there’s something comforting in finding role-models who share at least part of your identity. Particularly when you’re already ‘different’ finding a role-model who shares your differences can be really nice.
The trouble with growing up as a femme boy in rural Vermont is that you don’t really have a lot of femme role-models in general. Carhartts are standard dress for men and women in the town that I come from (and I don’t just mean Carhartt pants but Carhartt shirts and boots and hats and if it has the Carhartt label you can bet people in my hometown are wearing it), and heels really aren’t practical. From the moment I began expressing my own opinions I was leaning towards a femme aesthetic, an early indication that I was going to be different from my fairly butch community.
Before I could verbalize my emotions I was hunting down femme role-models in history books and the pages of magazines. Finding other men who presented as femme was basically impossible. I picked up a few male role-models (Benjamin Franklin and Captain Picard and, well, that was basically it…), but I ended up getting drawn into the world of women who behaved badly and ended up making history. I became fascinated by women who were femme but also were loud and took stands and were sometimes even abrasive. They proved that it was possible to be a soldier in a petticoat (name the Disney reference), that femininity didn’t mean weakness.
The likes of Nellie Bly, Abigail Adams, Virginia Woolf, Coco Chanel, Minerva McGonagall, Queen Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton and others filled my head. (You’ll notice that all the women I listed are white and cisgender. At the time I thought nothing of it but looking back at it I’m almost horrified at how white and cis my exposure to history and current affairs was.) When I looked at them I didn’t just see people who had done great things but who also looked like I wanted to look like. If this idea, the idea that there is immense power in finding a role-model who looks or acts like you, is strange then I humbly suggest that perhaps you’ve always been exposed to role-models who you can relate to.
As I got older I began to find a few more femme male role-models but these were far and few between. Quentin Crisp was practically heaven-sent for me and watching The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York warmed my soul but these moments are far and few between. It’s easy to suggest to me that I might take inspiration from drag queens and while I do love a good drag show I can’t really relate to drag queens. As a general rule the drag queens I’ve seen take on characters that are so outrageous that they’re almost comedic portrayals of femininity. Drag is great, I’ve even performed in a drag show, but it’s not who I am in my daily existence.
There are some who challenge my femme presentation and say that it makes me a less effective activist. They will say that my lipstick and pencil skirts make me appear too weak. In response I would like to remind them of Ms. Emmeline Pankhurst, a woman who wore skirts and big hats and make-up (possibly, I don’t actually know this for certain but looking at photos of her makes me suspect she had at least a smudge of makeup on her face), and heeled shoes and was most definitely not weak.
Some suggest that my clothing and make-up are the product of a society dominated by the patriarchy and that I’m buying into beauty standards of a backwards and sexist age. The fact that I’m a man makes my daily fashion radical but even if we put this aside all I can say is, “Shove off.” I am consciously choosing my presentation based on how wonderful it makes me feel and not because I’m being pressured into it. (This being said I do have strong issues with the European centered standards of beauty that our society is so fond of and would like to see us begin dismantling these standards.)
I take strength from my femme identity. Being able to express myself gives me strength. Being able to go about my day feeling attractive gives me strength. It’s a wonderful, wonderful strength that helps sustain me when shadows draw near and I know that I’m where I am today because I was able to find my role-models. The fact that I can look at my role-models and see that I’m not alone gives me more joy and strength than I can express. That’s the power of role-models.
So for all of you who will ever interact with a femme boy:Please, please let him have his role-models, it’s damn important.