Today I was walking home via Knez Mihajlova, and I glanced at myself in a storefront window. I find that when I’m out in Belgrade, I always check myself to make sure I “pass” as femme enough so as not to be harassed. Gender transgression is still ample fodder for street harassment, and since I have a 1990s boyband-esque bowl cut, I am always mindful of my appearance.
I wore my trademark cat eyeliner today. That, combined with my bootie heels and treggings, displaces my platinum butch haircut and leather motorcycle jacket. I wore my favorite tourquoise rings and earrings also to femme myself up a bit, knowing that the pants and jacket would fit my preferred pseudo-masculine style. I feel like I’m constantly doing one step towards an androgynous look and two steps back towards femme style. Doc Martens Chelsea boots? Check. I’ve taken one step forward towards my preferred look of androgyny. Bright red lipstick and matching nail polish- two steps back towards femme. I sighed when I saw myself and kept walking in the mist. Sometimes I really hate femme-ing it up.
Right after the relief passes my guilt sets in. I hate how cozy I feel in my femme performance and the privilege that comes with it. This is particularly salient living in a space where queer and gender non-conforming women are constantly under attack.
My style has always oscillated between a high femme and a pseudo-butch look. In high school I was a nerdy theater kid, and I wore vintage tops with ripped jeans (it was the 1990s). In college I was in my full-on riotGrrl stage and was all punk all the time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gravitated towards menswear and androgyny. Although, it wasn’t until very recently that I cut all my hair off and began embracing a more butch aesthetic. This is a stark contrast to just a couple of years ago when my mane was long and wild.
I loved my gender presentation back then- I still wore my trademark cat eyeliner, and I mostly stuck to suit jackets and ties. My hair and makeup were “natural looking” bordering on unkempt (I was in grad school, who has time to do a full face??). What makeup I did wear, coupled with the way I carried my slight frame gave me away as unmistakably femme. This was always a point of contention between my ex girlfriend and I. She always wanted a more “butchy” woman. I enjoyed being queer AND femme-y as fuck back then. (I think I also liked to goad her with my gender presentation. I’ve always been a pain in the ass in that way.)
When I “dress up” I tell my partner that I am going full drag. I base my high femme presentation on my drag queen friends’ performances, and I fully commit with contouring, falsies, and a full face. I wear booty dresses to show off what curves I have. I relish in the fact that I have learned how to do a flawless femme look. Nights like this I am utterly uncomfortable and feel like an alien in my own skin. I equally enjoying the undoing process at the end of the night when I have not makeup on and my hair is wild and my big bulky glasses slip off the edge of my nose into whatever book I am cozying up with.
Just a few weeks after my colleagues were assaulted I was asked to give a talk on the activist work I’ve done in the U.S. addressing racial justice in the LGBT movement. The organizer of the event, a dear and old friend of mine, asked me to send a headshot for the website and press release. She cautioned me to send a photo that sort of resembles me, but not too recognizable, so as to stay safe. I sent an old photo with my natural hair from a couple of years ago- long, curly, and wild. I look pretty and femme.
Despite my desire to look more androgynous, I am always conflicted about how I should perform my gender. There is a part of me that still wants my gender presentation to fit neatly into society’s view of what a “woman” should look like. By that I mean, the cultural hegemonic (or main viewpoint) expectations that women should perform their gender in a specific way based on the society’s values and norms.
In the case of Serbia and the U.S., the heteronormative cisgender woman is expected to dress effeminate, wear clothing “made for” women, wear makeup (preferably), and cater to the male gaze. She is supposed to have long hair, have a particular body shape, and carry herself in an effeminate way. Gender expectations are highly problematic, as they assume that the way we perform our gender is natural or innate. In other words, girls were born to wear pink and want to wear makeup and high heels, while boys aren’t. Again HIGHLY problematic (hence this blog post).
This may sound a bit extreme, but for the purposes of unpacking gender performance and privilege I am attempting to be as explicit and real as possible. I also realize that having myself as the subject of the post opens me up to a foray of criticisms.
Heteronomativity and hetero privilege means that people are expected and assumed to be straight or attracted to the opposite gender. The default is always straight, and anyone who does not identify as hetero or straight is othered. Additionally, heteronormativity also means that the way you perform your gender in a relationship should fall in line with cultural expectations. Men and women should get married, want to procreate/have kids, be monogamous, and follow a coupled narrative dictated by society. Again, HIGHLY problematic.
Part of my discomfort with passing as straight and as a cisgender femme woman is that in a way I am reiterating and approving of these problematic gender expectations, rather than resisting and undoing them. This is part of where the overwhelming guilt comes from. I know that I do not agree with them. I struggle with being a queer woman who resists normative tendencies, who is also concerned about her safety in a homophobic and heteronormative culture (both here in Serbia AND in the U.S.)
How do I as a queer feminist subvert these heteronormative expectations and stay safe? How do I push against my femme privilege and call into question heteronormativity? It is not enough to feel guilty or uncomfortable. I have to talk about it and mark myself as a femme dyke who wants to tear down patriarchy, cissexism, racism, and homophobia. I need to call into question my own feelings of security and comfort, all the while recognizing that we who do not fit have to take care of ourselves and be mindful of our safety.
Here in Belgrade, though, femme performance, combined with my very pale skin, helps me feel safe and secure. It gives me a certain sort of mobility and privilege that allows me to move easily in and out of spaces where I may not belong.
I hate this. I hate it because I feel guilty for doing this gender performance. I hate it because I am feeding into the heteronormative hegemonic ideals of gender expectations. I hate it because even though I think it is totally feminist for a woman to do whatever she wants with her body, I also feel like I am reiterating certain forms of sexist bullshit, and it pisses me off.
I hate the perpetual contradictions that come with me putting my body in public in a society that looks at my body as available for public consumption.
I am also leery of prescribing this phenomenon as unique to Belgrade or Serbia or Eastern Europe. In Columbus, Ohio, where I normally live, I also find that presenting a femme performance comes with many privileges as well. I will explore femme and gender-conforming privileges in my next post on queerness and gender in the U.S.
In the meantime, I will continue to rock my bowl cut, my Docs, and my full face of makeup here in Belgrade.