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Femme men don’t have an easy time at life, even within the gay community. They often face misogyny, shaming and sometimes even violence for proudly and unapologetically challenging machismo and heteronormativity.
So, as part of Hornet‘s own #MyFemmeSelf campaign, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the famous individuals who exemplify the sentiment of fearless individuality. These nine contemporary femme men overcame societal disapproval, homophobia and discrimination to be themselves — and they’ve changed the world because of it.
These nine femme men changed history by being themselves:
1. Quentin Crisp
Reportedly effeminate since birth, this celebrated English writer and actor changed his name in his 20s to Quentin Crisp because his birth name, Denis Pratt, was super dull. Throughout his life he wore his hair long and dyed it with bright colors, wore makeup, painted his fingernails and toenails and wore rakish hats and scarves. Those things reportedly attracted hostility from strangers on the street, and even the British military medical board deemed him to be ”suffering from sexual perversion” when he tried to join the World War II troops.
In 1975, after achieving national notoriety when his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant was adapted for TV, he famously told British LGBTQ rights activist Peter Tatchell, “I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals.” His irreverent wit made him both celebrated and controversial. He once called HIV “a fad” and considered Princess Diana “vulgar.”
Nevertheless, Crisp remains a witty style icon (especially among femme men), and he inspired androgynous musician Boy George, played Queen Elizabeth I in the 1992 gender-bent film Orlando and even had a cameo in 1995’s To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar as a drag pageant judge.
The name of this accomplished American virtuoso pianist has become synonymous with flamboyant excess, over-the-top elegance and the epitome of femme men. He began practicing the piano at 4 and was mocked by schoolmates during his teen years for generally being effeminate, bad at sports and fond of cooking. By age 15 he had begun playing piano in Depression-era cabarets and strip clubs. By the 1940s he had become famous for mixing classical and pop music in his live shows while also bantering with the audience, taking requests and paying special attention to lighting and his costume.
Liberace eventually began performing with his trademark candelabra set atop golden pianos encrusted with rhinestones and mirrors. By the height of his fame in the ‘50s and ‘60s he was appearing onstage in ostrich feathers, minks and capes and sporting huge rings, coming onstage in a Rolls-Royce, dropping in on a wire from the ceiling like a floating angel and even incorporating showgirls and wild animals into his fact. (He famously said, “I don’t give concerts, I put on a show.”)
Despite Liberace’s pop fame, massive financial success and being a sex idol among women (yep), his flamboyance and notoriety as one of the most femme men of the time made him the butt of late-night talk show jokes. He remained closeted until after his death, even successfully suing the British tabloid Confidential in 1959 for its 1956 article implying that Liberace was gay. After the trial, he reportedly telegrammed the newspaper, stating, “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.”
3. Little Richard
He’s an American musician who helped lay the foundation for modern day rock ‘n’ roll through his flamboyant performances, and he’s a god among femme men. Getting his stage name from being small and skinny as a kid, at age 6 his dad savagely beat him for wearing his mom’s clothes and makeup. By age 15 his father had kicked him out of the house for being gay.
He grew up in the church, singing gospels, often screaming during songs and changing their keys to a higher register. He eventually moved onto rhythm and blues (a genre his father called “devil music”) and learned how to play boogie-woogie piano. At age 23, he had his breakthrough hit, “Tutti Frutti,” which was originally a song about gay sex including the lines, “Tutti Frutti, good booty / And if it’s greasy, it makes it easy.” The song was eventually cleaned up and made “heterosexual” for mainstream release.
Beloved for his wild, unpredictable and uninhibited vocal stylings, Little Richard brought racially segregated audiences together, often performing in makeup, brightly colored capes, blouse shirts, makeup and suits covered in sequins and rhinestones while wearing his pencil mustache (later adopted by our favorite subversive queer director, John Waters). He also had a habit of lifting one leg and jumping onto the piano bench while playing, making audiences go wild, partly because they had rarely seen (and still rarely do see) femme men as musical stars.
4. Eddie Izzard
If you’ve ever seen his Emmy-award winning 2009 comedy special Dressed to Kill, then you already know what makes this self-professed “straight transvestite and male lesbian“ so great and iconic among femme men. His rambling monologues poke fun at social conventions while incorporating silly impressions and bits of mime — and he does it all (effortlessly, it seems) while wearing a skirt suit, nail polish and makeup.
Born to a midwife and an accountant, Izzard says he knew he was a trans person at age 4, after seeing his sisters forcibly dress another boy in their clothes. (Though he was assigned male at birth, he identifies as a mix of male and female, calling himself “a complete boy plus half girl.”) He says he regularly gets insulted on the street for going out in dresses, scarves and makeup. Many femme men face similar harassment on a daily basis.
Izzard began practicing comedy with a friend at university and has since become a film actor, appearing in the very gay Bowie-based rock musical Velvet Goldmine and committing himself to political activism. With only five weeks to train, having never run a marathon in his life, in 2009 Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days to raise money for the poor. He has since started learning Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and French so he can perform his whimsical comedy routines to cultures around the world.
Izzard says to femme men and queer people everywhere, “It doesn’t matter what sex or sexuality, how you identify or who you fancy — it matters not one whit. What do you do in life? What do you create? What do you add to the human existence, that is what matters.”
A Los Angeles-born choir boy in a Pentecostal church, this flamboyant, androgynous male-identified “Queen of Disco” slept with an older man in his church at the age of 8 (something he claims was consensual and not molestation). He later walked away from his church and family’s homophobic ways after his disapproving mother learned he was gay following a doctor’s appointment for anal injuries he sustained during sex.
Effectively homeless, Sylvester eventually became friends with Black cross-dressers and trans women who were also sex workers (though he claims never to have engaged in sex work himself). Throughout the ’60s and ’70s he regularly wore women’s clothing in public, even though it was illegal. When graduating from high school at the age of 21 he wore a blue chiffon prom dress and beehive hairstyle in his graduation photos. He also married a man in 1970, even though it of course wasn’t legal then. Sylvester remains known as a trailblazer for femme men everywhere.
In the early ‘70s, Sylvester moved to San Francisco and joined the Cockettes, an influential avant-garde drag group. As the group’s stand-out member, he soon left its madcap absurdist stage performances to begin performing solo in a classier style, influenced by Black singers Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. Later on he’d appear with Black drag queen backup singers and work with two large-bodied women he called “Two Tons O’ Fun” but who later became The Weather Girls, the women behind the thirsty iconic track “It’s Raining Men.”
Sylvester continued to perform at gay bars across America. He became friends with gay civil rights pioneer Harvey Milk, even singing at his 48th birthday party. That same year Sylvester wrote his breakthrough hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” a track that has been called “a cornerstone of gay disco” and an anthem for femme men and other gender-nonconformists.
While other gay figures sometimes hid from the spotlight after contracting HIV, Sylvester became an activist, campaigning against the spread of the disease. When he died in 1988 his will demanded that all future royalties of his work go to San Francisco-based HIV charities.
6. Dennis Rodman
This award-winning, cross-dressing “bad boy of basketball” (and short lived pro-wrestler) tried to commit suicide in 1993 at the age of 32 amid a rocky divorce and a lousy basketball season with the Detroit Pistons. But instead of killing himself in his car with a rifle like he’d planned, Rodman says in his 1996 autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be, “I decided … I was gonna kill the impostor that was leading Dennis Rodman to a place he didn’t want to go … I killed the person I didn’t want to be. … At that moment I [turned] my whole life around.”
The oldest of 28 siblings sired by his military father, Rodman grew up amongst a predominantly female family in Dallas, Texas, and was regularly teased and overwhelmed by his two older sisters, who were far better at basketball than he. As an overweight teen he worked as a janitor at DFW airport before a growth spurt led him to return to basketball.
Feeling awkward in his new body, he flunked out of college but began playing for the NBA in 1986. Shortly after contemplating suicide, he took on an entirely new persona, appearing on the basketball court with his hair dyed bright colors. He unabashedly showed off his multiple piercings and tattoos in semi-nude photo shoots, occasionally appearing in female drag and feather boas during public press conferences, flaunting his brief affair with pop icon Madonna and arguing with opposing players and referees on the basketball court.
Rodman wore a wedding dress to promote his autobiography, saying he was bisexual and marrying himself. Though he has since toned down the gender play in his public appearances, becoming less notable as an icon of femme men, he has recently become more well-known for his struggles with alcoholism, occasional domestic abuse of his female lovers and befriending brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Nevertheless, Rodman says:
I just took the chance to be my own man … I just said: “If you don’t like it, kiss my ass.” … Most people around the country, or around the world, are basically working people who want to be free, who want to be themselves. They look at me and see someone trying to do that … I’m the guy who’s showing people, hey, it’s all right to be different. And I think they feel: “Let’s go and see this guy entertain us.”
Perhaps you’ve never heard of exóticos, the gender-bending drag lucha libres of Mexican pro-wrestling. Well, grab your feather boa, pink headdress and sequined leotard, because Cassandro is probably the most famous exótico of all time, wrestling against machismo Latino culture and becoming a fierce icon for femme men, especially Latinx ones.
Cassandro dropped out of high school in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 15 and began to practice wrestling. By age 18 he fought his first match as an exótico named Rosa Salvaje (Savage Rose). “For my entrance, I wore a butterfly blouse of my mother’s,” Cassandro told The New Yorker. “I wore the tail of my sister’s quinceañera dress. And then, to wrestle, a woman’s bathing suit.”
In lucha libre wrestling, most exóticos are exaggeratedly femme men who use effeminate presentation and gestures to irritate the audience and offend the macho sensibilities of their rough-and-tumble, masculine opponents. They’re villains (or heels, as they’re known in wrestling) often called “maricón” and “joto” (“faggot”) by Spanish-speaking wrestling fans. Though most exóticos don’t identify as gay in real life, Cassandro is one of the few who do.
After receiving negative public blowback for competing in the World Welterweight Championship as part of the Mexican Universal Wrestling Association (UWA), at age 21 Cassandro tried to slit his own wrists but was saved by his friend and fellow exótico Pimpinela Escarlata (the Scarlet Pimpernel). That next year he went on to win the UWA World Lightweight Championship, becoming the first exótico ever to win a UWA championship — a true victory for femme men in sports.
Though he struggled with drugs and alcoholism to the detriment of his professional career, Cassandro later became a trainer for other exóticos and eventually re-debuted with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) in 2009 as Satanico del Exotico (the Exotic Satanist). He reportedly left TNA over its homophobia, but he continued wrestling, eventually losing a “hair match” in 2013, which required him to shave his head in mock disgrace while the audience cheered. Nevertheless, he remains the iconic exótico and an inspiration for unapologetically fierce femme men.
The documentary Cassandro the Exotico!, directed by Marie Losier, recently premiered at Cannes.
8. Kim Chi
Kim Chi became a breakthrough star on RuPaul’s Drag Race in Season 8, finishing in the top three alongside Naomi Smalls and the season’s winner, Bob the Drag Queen. This South Korean-American drag queen left an indelible impression on the competition and drag fans worldwide by weaving Asian style and playful geek aesthetics into his runway looks and singing “Fat, Fem and Asian” as his competitive song entry in the show’s grand finale. The track is an unapologetic, bilingual challenge to gay racism, body shaming and misogyny against femme men.
Kim Chi began his drag career in 2012 in Chicago, envisioning himself as “a live-action anime character.” But despite being one of the many queens who has gone through the Drag Race gauntlet, he continually defied expectations through his notably clumsy and mannish runway walks, his failure to come out as a drag queen to his mother and his self-professed virginity. When asked which one of the show’s hunky Pit Crew members he wanted to bed, Kim Chi famously responded, “I’m not trying to catch anything, so I’m going to say none of them.”
He’s also a self-taught makeup master with a lipstick and eyeshadow marketed under his name. He’s one of the few femme men in history ever to have his name grace cosmetics.
By appearing on Drag Race, Kim Chi made TV history as the first Korean drag queen featured on American national television. Rather than resorting to corny Asian stereotypes, Kim Chi instead mixed K-pop, anime and his personal story of growing up with an immigrant mother to create a persona that felt intimate, playful yet not weighed down by racial expectations to be shy or mere comic relief. As an icon of modern drag and femme men, he has occasionally lectured at colleges and universities during Asian heritage and Pride weeks.
9. Tim Gunn
Raised in an intensely homophobic home that viewed gay people as sexual predators, Project Runway’s friendly fashion maven said he knew was gay from early on but stayed closeted until age 20. Nevertheless, he has since become known for revitalizing the fashion curriculum at the Parsons School of Design in New York City during his tenure there, encouraging aspiring fashion designers with his trademark catchphrase “Make it work” and for his impeccable style and characteristic poise.
Tim Gunn was raised in Washington by a father who considered him a disappointment and a “very attentive, very caring” mother who still never hugged him. With few gay role models, he tried to commit suicide at age 17 by swallowing a fistful of pills. He was hospitalized and his parents staged an intervention, something he says turned his life around.
But Gunn has since become a role model himself as well as a symbol for industrious femme men, appearing in several movies and shows, creating an LGBTQ anti-suicide video for the “It Gets Better” project and publishing a small collection of autobiographical books. On Project Runway Gunn comes off as friendly yet no-nonsense. He works as the show’s peacemaker, often resolving disputes between angry designers and those left wounded by the judge’s harsh critiques.
Gunn shows that you can be warm yet firm, refined yet opinionated, effeminate yet completely masculine. He’s also asexual, which he started identifying as when he began abstaining from sex during the start of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. Of his asexuality, he says, “Do I feel like less of a person for it? No … I’m a perfectly happy and fulfilled individual.”