“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.
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.