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What Does "Femme" Look Like?

a woman in a black and white dress

“It shouldn't be assumed that just because you wear skirts you're straight.” – Kathleen, from the Femme Project. 

Artist Toni Latour’s The Femme Project is an exhibit of 64 photographs of self-identified members of Vancouver's queer femme community. Accompanied by quotes from the women who are photographed, the show is currently on exhibition at the Station Gallery in Whitby, Ontario, fortuitously coinciding with WorldPride in Toronto.

“Femme can look a lot of different ways,” says Latour.  “Visually, I have witnessed a love and celebration and infusion of power and confidence and grace within femininity and feminine attire. But it is also utilitarian, aware, playful. It is multigenerational. It crosses gender, sexuality and race.”

What we see are portrait after portrait of women gazing into the camera with assurance. Some are smiling, others not. Some are more guarded, but all of them face the gaze of the viewer with unabashed certainty. The photos are clear, direct. They are not confrontational but candid. The prevailing expression of most of the participants is one of radiant positivity.

toni latour

Artist Toni Latour (at left) and other participants in The Femme Project. 

 Overlapping audio statements made by the participants play as the viewer faces the portraits; a series of quotes in vinyl lettering runs beneath the photos giving the viewer a wider context to explore the reflected gaze of the subjects:

“My femme identity is complicated by the fact that I date male-identified people, and I can sometimes be read as straight. So when I speak to people about my male partner or my boyfriend, especially in contexts that aren’t queer, it’s almost like my identity disappears.” – Zinnia Heartland

“I have never been called a fucking dyke when I'm walking down the sidewalk by myself. I can be incognito. I actually resent it somewhat.” – Samantha 

“My mom complained that she never had any warning. There was no sign. I looked like all the other little girls. I behaved like them.” – Emah Engleder

Because many femmes “pass” as heterosexual and are read as straight, they are made to feel as though presenting a more typically feminine appearance makes them somehow less queer. 

“Visibility, or a perceived lack of it, is what inspired me to do this project,” Latour says. “I was feeling invisible as a femme in the queer community at the time, and I wondered what other femme experiences were. I would walk down the street with my butch partner and she would get nods and eye contact and hellos and I would be ignored.”

These portraits redefine queerness for the viewer, particularly a viewer that might have formed their idea of what it means to be a lesbian decades ago, when the only outwardly acceptable presentations of lesbian were as a butch or a “lipstick” lesbian. In a short video clip that accompanies the exhibit, Latour explains, “I wanted to know what other people's experiences were, and to know if there were some commonalities.”

Also, this is the first show featuring queer content in the history of the gallery. Located in a commuter suburb just outside of Toronto, the Station Gallery is a community hub in a place that does not have a visible queer population and is for the most part ethnically and financially homogeneous.

“In the 44 years the gallery has been open this is the first exhibit that directly addresses gender identity and the LGBTQ+ community,” said Station Gallery curator Olexander Wlasenko.

Wlasenko and Latour met fifteen years ago in grad school. When Latour launched The Femme Project in Vancouver in 2012, Wlasenko offered Latour a solo show at the gallery. 

“ I think it is so important to not only preach to the converted, but to expand visibility, representation and education to places where it is so needed because it is so lacking,” says Latour.

Since the gallery is a busy destination for school tours, classes for youth, children and family events, Latour is pleased that The Femme Project has been used by gallery staff to explore the concept of identity and has been a springboard for anti-bullying outreach projects.

“Incorporating the themes and visuals into children's art programming is exceptional and so important to breaking down stereotypes and prejudices of LGBTQ+ people. We are currently fighting a battle of inclusion at the Vancouver School Board that protects and includes trans and gender variant children. Dispelling myths and assumptions about identity at an early age is key to creating healthy communities.” 

The Femme Project runs until July 6. 

Related Listening: The "Dress Up" episode of our podcast talks all about tomboy fashion. 

Roxanna Bennett is a freelance writer and artist-educator in Toronto, Canada.


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Comments

2 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Very cool! And also how not all of these women are gay...

I like that the term "queer" does not just mean gay men and women, it also means bisexual people, pansexuals, etc... and even to some extent asexual people. Including Zinnia Heartland which is awesome! But this article almost made it seem it was only talking about lesbian people, when it's obviously not completely true. Still very neat project, I'm glad it's being recognized. :-D

I wish there was more

I wish there was more representation of femmes who are not cis women. Obviously I don't know how the individuals here identify but it feels a bit like this article is operating under the assumption that femmes are all cis women who date masculine people, and I feel that's what most of the narrative here is presenting as our experience, when in fact who we date and how we identify as femmes is so much more varied and complex. Sometimes well meaning things like this article perpetuate the same stuff they're trying to address as a problem. It would be great to see more marginalized femme experiences, trans* femmes, genderqueer/gnc femmes, male femmes, femmes who date other femmes, femmes of size, femmes of color, femmes with disabilities, go to the front and center of a visibility project like this. White and cis is all too often what gets validated as "properly" femme and we need to de-center the hell out of that.

-Owning my own privilege here as a white cis femme woman who mostly dates masculine of center folks.