No Pink Paper Bag Test: Taking a Look at Femme Privilege #lgbt

Skylar Cooper
Skylar Cooper

As a child I had always heard comments about the illusive brown paper bag test. For those who don’t know the brown paper bag test was the practice of only allowing people with complexions lighter than a paper bag entrance to certain African-American social groups and events. Even though by “my time” it was more a casual reference than an actual practice, it was always something that stuck with me. Well that and the FACT (per my grandma) that coffee made you black. All I knew was light was right, and that I would never drink coffee (that didn’t last).

As a sociology major at the University of Florida (Go Gators!) I read countless essays, and books about the environment we live in. It was there that I first studied in depth the privilege that one group has over another, be it the color of their skin, their gender or the zeros in their bank account.

I started to think more on the luxury of being “light skinned” since I wasn’t and how easy white people had it, because I wasn’t one of those either. Even as an adult, I can very easily spot the privilege of being in Hispanic in Miami. Why? Because I am not Hispanic. Yet when it came to the femme/butch dichotomy, I was oblivious (with a side of disinterested). Why? Because I am on the winning end. It wasn’t until a recent conversation with two of my readers, AJ and BK on another post regarding black lesbians obsessions with labels, that I decided to tackle this head on.

Much in the same vein that Peggy McIntosh confronted white privilege, I will attempt to identify some daily effects of femme privilege in my life. I too, will attempt to choose conditions solely related to me being a femme, withstanding my race or gender in general. I look forward to hearing from you all on things that I should add or subtract.

  1. In most cases my sexuality won’t be in question on first meeting someone, unless I specifically bring it up.
  2. I won’t have to have a plan for the first time someone asks my child why their Mommy looks like a boy.
  3. I will not be barred participation in any of my social/fraternal organization’s
    events because I refuse to wear the required dress/skirt ensemble.
  4. I will never be given an evil eye, or worse confronted, when I enter the women’s public restroom.

    The-BCC-shoot-11-300x208
    The Butch Clothing Company UK
  5. I will never be called young man or “sir”.
  6. If I don’t desire to be penetrated sexually, it won’t be regarded as me forgetting I’m a woman.
  7. I will never have to explain how I have children.
  8. I can play contact sports, or dress in athletic clothing, without having people attribute these choices to my attempt to emulate men.
  9. If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my sexuality.
  10. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring women of feminine appearance.
  11. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
  12. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person that dresses as I do would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  13. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my gender identity will not work against me.
  14. I can shop for clothes and shoes without having to go into another gender’s section.
  15. I can wear personal garments that make me feel comfortable without having to alter them or create substitutes.
  16. I can travel alone or with another femme without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  17. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
  18. I will not be expected to financially support my mate because of my appearance.
  19. If I am ever physically attacked, my appearance will never be given as an excuse by my attacker.
  20. I will never be rebuked by a lover for being too feminine.

Any to add? Comment below or tweet me @kristiweb

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26 thoughts on “No Pink Paper Bag Test: Taking a Look at Femme Privilege #lgbt”

    1. I wonder if butch women have to deal with the unwanted advances from men part. I wonder if men are equally as forward with butch women and even more aggressive in their reproach. I have no clue.

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      1. I’ve dealt with the unwanted advances from men, ugh talk about a pain! I think for some men it’s a challenge to see if they can turn the gay girl straight. I tend to give off a “I can kick your a$$” vibe so maybe they aren’t as aggressive with me as they would be with someone else, who knows. Sometimes I think they are oblivious and just think it’s kismet that they’ve met a woman who likes all the stuff that they do and who just happens to shop in the men’s department too *side eye*…

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    1. It makes me have to take a step back and think about what if I were white, or male. Can I really judge them for not seeing it, when I didn’t really see it in the small context that I have it?

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      1. This is a game changing idea for me. As a femme, I’ve noticed I spend less time worrying about my appearance and how people perceive me on a daily basis in professional and social situations. Realizing my stud, butch, and boi friends experience a much less friendly world than I do makes me more forgiving of people ignorant to my own struggles as a black lesbian woman.

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      2. Thank you for commenting. The idea of privilege is starting to remind me of an onion. In our patriarchal society it starts with straight white males (we can go as far as to add wealthy, fit, intelligent) and as we peel away layers of the identity so do we peel layers of the privilege. We just don’t see it how many layers are still within as long as we are the top one.

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  1. I am femme, but I do not feel some of these privileges, because I do not pass as cis. I have 3, 8, 14, 15, 18, but not the others. Though I have privilege as white and educated, physically able and intelligent, middle-class, I do not feel the confidence of privilege.

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    1. Clare, thank you very much for your comment. It alone speaks to a privilege that I didn’t even consider. When I used the term femme I was talking about cis lesbians. I didn’t even realize (to my total fault) that transgender women use the term as well. I used a very narrow definition, I apologize.

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      1. Well, I consider myself lesbian. I am a woman. I am attracted to women. We did come up with the word “transbian” in case anyone wanted to deny that we are women, but I do not like the word. It is anticipating trouble where there often is none.

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  2. A lady who likes ladies, you are team lesbian to me! 🙂 Why do you think as the lgbt community we come up with so many labels? I was talking about this in an earlier post. It feels like there are so many more terms now then there were 10/15 years ago.

    Oh and forgive my topic divergence. I just love getting different points of view.

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  3. Great post babe, yes it’s me and my response is long lol here we go:
    I guess you would consider me a tomboy/butch (I don’t do labels myself), I’m definitely no femme, but I don’t think I’m a 100% stud either. My sexuality has yet to be brought up that I can remember, though when it has been discovered or whatnot, I usually get the whole “yeah I figured” or something along those lines. I refuse to wear dresses or skirts, heels or revealing clothing, I’ve often been told that I should “show off my body” mainly by women, even though they know that’s not my style. Part of me wonders if it’s part of some weird straight girl crush or if they think that all lesbians look a certain way and are intrigued when they meet one that doesn’t conform to their idea of what a butch lesbian looks like. I’ve been nearly kicked out of dressing rooms and restrooms because I was mistaken for male, twice because of the way I look and once because of my voice (it’s on the deep end naturally). I was speaking over the dressing room stall to a friend and an employee walked in and stated that no men were allowed in the women’s dressing room (my friend and I were the only two in the dressing room). I spoke through my stall door and stated that I’m a female, she knocked on my stall door and told me I had to leave, no men were allowed. I was pissed, embarrassed and hurt, when I emerged from the room and told her that I was a woman, she apologized and groveled for forgiveness, but nothing she did could make me feel better. I live in NE Florida and I’m called sir on pretty much a weekly basis. I wear clothes that fit, I have a sizeable chest, but people look past that and see someone tall with a deep voice, hair pulled back and automatically assume I am a male. I used to be hesitant about telling my doctors that I am a lesbian, because I used to fear that I would receive unequal treatment. I am extremely selective when choosing my medical professionals in hopes to avoid such prejudice. Clothes shopping is definitely my Achilles heel, I hate the fact that I have to do my shopping in the men’s department just to get the look I desire, styles and colors I want. Women’s clothes are too “frilly” for me, I don’t like pastels, I like dark colors: black, navy blue, grey, crimson, etc., I have yet to be able to find clothes in the women’s department as easily as I find them in the men’s. The thing that stinks the most is that it’s hard to find clothes that fit, I prefer a masculine look, but I still have a woman’s body so jeans almost always fit slightly “off” and shirts as well. Underclothes are a joke. Hanes used to make women’s boxer briefs that were the perfect blend of comfort and masculinity that I like in my undergarments; they no longer make them and I’ve resorted to purchasing men’s boxer briefs a few times. While comfortable, the fit is horrible and I’m not much of a seamstress so how do you feel like you look good, sexy, decent, or whatever by wearing jeans that have a built in “package area”, underwear that have the same and shirts that sometimes fit and sometimes don’t? That’s all I have for now…you know me so, well yeah.

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  4. Loooooong Sigh…..

    Y’all, femme privilege…mercy. Let me start by saying I am considered a stud. I personally don’t care for the term, but oh well-I tell people I prefer boi and they look like I’ve grown another head. I don’t wear women’s clothes-I wore a woman’s cut suit for my last job interview and felt so WEIRD and uncomfortable the entire time, like I was putting on a front I knew I couldn’t maintain. Number 3 rubs so raw right now, because I JUST went through it this past weekend. Honestly, being a masculine woman means that your sexuality is pretty much a given-which means that you get the raw, honest reactions from everybody, no matter if you want it or not. Im talking little old church ladies on down to outspoken preschoolers. And people will let you know their opinions whether you ask for em or not. And in answer to an earlier statement, I get hit on by dudes ALL THE TIME. I think its hilarious. Lets not act like there aren’t bois out here with multiple kids, so it must work on somebody!!! Anyway, because I’ve never been feminine, its perfectly natural for me to shop in men’s departments-hell, I don’t even know what my sizes are in women’s clothing. I’ve never run into discrimination on that level, besides the occasional ‘is this for you, or for someone else’. Now I will admit that my appearance gives me a certain level of insulation-I’m above average height, and I’m a big girl-people aren’t as willing to talk crazy to me, simply because I carry myself with a certain amount of ‘leave me the f**k alone’. However, I am also hyper aware of others and how they view me. I think I’m more careful than femmes have to be in unknown situations for the mere fact that I don’t blend in; everyday that I step out of my door in looking as I do and sounding as I sound, it invites people who consider me as ‘other’ to single me out. Femmes get to be a little more undercover.

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  5. Great read and great dialogue happening here! I find it interesting that after this exercise in identifying your ” femme privilege” you resolved with an understanding of why some are ignorant to their white or male privilege. Do you think this exercise would be less effective in those demographics? Are we as a culture progressing so much that affirmative action may no longer be necessary? So many different ways to take this discussion!

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    1. Hi Najja. Thank you for commenting. I was actually thought you and your clothing line for some parts of this post. The concept of white privilege is definitely one that is/ has been studied. Check out Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Her list is considerably more exhaustive than mine.

      Now as far as my awareness and its effect on my wider view. I think for me to completely equate my femme privilege to white or male privilege would be a bit pushing it. The level to which white privilege is indoctrinated into law, politics and education are way more complex than this. Again is it because I am at the top of the proverbial heap? I don’t know… Maybe

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  6. I wouldn’t be sure about number 20 if I was you. Well not everyone does want a femme. I want a woman who doesn’t need to conform to femininity to know she is a woman. And for the record, being femme doesn’t make you anymore of a woman. Get over your identity politics. Women are raped, assulted and disrespected because of their sex. If you think butch privilege exists too, then try the look your self and find out the truth. Femmes get benevolent sexism, butches get malevolent sexism.

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    1. I am not “so sure” about any of them BUT in reading the rest of your comment it looks like you are missing the point of the post.

      I never said all women want a femme. Of this I am very sure since I personally don’t date femmes. I never said anything about being femme making anyone more of a woman. Of this I am very sure because that would be stupid. About me going butch for a day, I am sure there are women far better than I to examine butch privilege. It is not how I live my life so I wouldn’t feel comfortable pretending just to see how it goes…

      If I am missing the mark of your original comment please let me know.

      Best, K

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