Kristen’s Friday Femme Conference outfit
Jessica Halem hosts FemmeSpeak, the spoken word night
Fran Fucking Varian reads at FemmeSpeak
my outfit for Saturday
Kristen + Liz from Rhino Girl Media + B
Maggie (of the Femme Show) & Dora, both organizers with MadFemmePride in Boston
Shilo McCabe’s hanky flowers for flagging at the vendor room
Bulldagger caucus, organized by Sasha T. Goldberg
butch butts after post-bulldagger meetup coffee
Kristen + Jessica Halem in lace at the FemmeWerq performance night
wait, how’d that photo get in here? our hotel bed was comfortable …
So I got my hair cut at Tomcats, Kristen painted her nails with black-white-and-blue stripes and a red heart (wonder what that means?) on her fourth finger, the car is full of gas, I’ve perused the schedule, I’ve got a list of folks I want to make sure to connect with, the catsitter is booked—I think this might mean I’m ready for the Femme Conference tomorrow.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my goals in attending, or my purpose in going. I’m not presenting anything, not doing any official workshops or meetups or events near the conference. So aside from going with the intention of having fun (which I definitely am), and supporting my femme girlfriend by both showing up, participating, and learning things about identity (which I am eager to do), what do I want to get out of it?
I adore identity theory. I love the way we construct ourselves. I love these labels, despite the fact that labels seem oh-so-gauche right now. I love the history of butch and femme (and butch/femme) and I love how the queer communities are exploding gender in all 360* directions right now.
The first Femme Conference I went to in 2008 was themed “the architecture of identity” and I wrote up just about everything I learned about that when I got back. I am still so curious about what constructs femme identity. Earlier this year, in New York, as preparation for the Femme Conference, there was a femme event here called Beyond Visibility, and I am really curious about that, too—about what femme identity issues there are beyond the ever constant issue of being recognized and visually categorized as queer.
I’ve written On Femme Invisibility & Femme Invisibility & Beyond—I don’t want to give the impression I’m not sympathetic to that issue, I get that it is a huge hurdle. And I also know, from femmes in my own life who have been exploring femme identity for a while, that they get bored with that issue and want to move on.
So what are the other issues around femme identity? What is beyond visibility? What else gets discussed at a Femme Conference, anyway? I know plenty of that stuff isn’t exactly for me, as an ally and someone not femme identified, but as someone who loves the construction of identity and how these identities in particular work in this current culture in this current era, what else is going on?
I suspect the Mean Girls topic is a big one, considering some of the conversations I’ve had leading up to the conference. I know there are some topics like cultural and racial diversity, sex positivity, and parenting that have come up, but those seem fairly universal and not necessarily femme specific—then again, what is the take on those through a femme lens? I’m sure there will be many, many other interesting things. I have been kicking around a theory about the connection between masculine privilege and femme invisibility, maybe I can see if I can hash that out any further. Autostraddle has a great write up today called Beyond Lipstick that I want to read over again and think through. And I’m sure there will be dozens more things to ponder and chew on, once I get there.
My goal is to have fun, first and foremost. To support my girlfriend. To connect with the people that I know and adore and don’t get to see very often. To hopefully attend some good sessions and have some good conversations, to meet some new folks with interesting things to say. And to continue being curious about identity building theory in general, and about femme identity construction in particular; I’ll do my best to take copious notes and write up some thoughts about what happened and what I learned when I get back. (You can always follow my twitter feed @mrsexsmith to hear my immediate thoughts.)
And, oh yeah: to appreciate the brilliant firecracker amazingness that is femmes.
See you at the Femme Conference!
I’m in Chicago this week, I return back to New York City tomorrow, and I keep talking up the Femme Conference that is coming up in Baltimore in just a couple of weeks—August 17-19.
I’m not sure why it keeps coming up—maybe because it was an all-femme lineup at the Dirty Queer Sex Tour: Chicago Say Please reading last night, and so all three of the femmes who read with me came out with their various friends and posses last night? Maybe because the friends I have here are primarily femmes, so naturally the conversation rolls around to femme identity? Maybe because I think these folks are cool and I am curious if I’m going to run into them again at the Femme Conference? Or maybe because my only experience of attending the Femme Conference, until this one upcoming that is, was the 2006 Femme Conference which was held in Chicago?
Whatever the reason, it keeps coming up.
And while some folks are well aware of it and (usually) have strong reactions to it, either “Hell yes! See you there!” or “No, uh uh, absolutely not,” there seems to be an even bigger group of folks in the middle who are obviously intrigued by the idea of attending, but are skeptical.
“I don’t know,” they say, hesitating, but sparkling a little bit at the mention of an entire conference devoted to this complex femme identity. “I mean, would I fit in there? Is it going to be a big judge-fest? Would they even recognize me as femme?”
These questions are so common. I mean, I remember hearing some of that around the BUTCH Voices conferences too, but the fear around one’s identity being policed didn’t feel quite so … panicked.
I think the bottom line is that it’s incredibly complicated to occupy a socially-recognized identity like butch or femme, because while we have stereotypical versions of what those things “should” look like in our minds, we don’t necessarily have the complex deconstructions (and reconstructions) necessary to be able to see that person as butch or femme and all their other pieces of self too. Or, if the person doesn’t quite look like the stereotype, we don’t recognize them as “legitimate.” These queer cultures still see someone, recognizes them as butch or femme or neither, and draws all sorts of conclusions based on that.
People are probably always going to do this. I don’t mean that in an I-give-up kind of way, just in a this-is-probably-true-and-I-will-have-less-strife-in-my-life-if-I-accept-that kind of way.
And y’know, fuck that. I mean, I completely understand that that is a challenge and hard and sometimes makes me return home defeated after a night and just kinda cry and whine for a while, I also think part of the work of having these identities is recognizing that we are trying to rise them above stereotypes, and that the cultures we’re in still largely use big fat markers to draw pictures of these identities, not slim exact-shaded pencils. And part of our work, I believe, part of the work of occupying these identities, is uncoupling them from the heteronormative gender roles, and making them big enough and accessible to anyone who feels a resonance with them. They can be liberational, and the benefits of identifying with a gender lineage, a gender heritage, feels so important to me, putting me in a historical context with people who came before me, so I feel less alone in my forging forward. I’m not doing it exactly as they did it, I’m doing it my own way and in the context of my own communities and time and culture, but I am able to remake it and make more room for freedom and consciousness and liberation within it because I am on their shoulders, using the tools they left for me—us—to pick up.
That is all to say, you are femme enough to attend the femme conference. Or, you know, if you don’t identify as femme but you have some interest in learning more about femme identity and being around femmes and folks who are puzzling through femme identity, you can come too.
I’m not going to promise that nobody is going to give you shit about your identity, about being femme enough, about whether or not you belong there, or about what you wear (because as much as I’d like to say it’s not true, there is a particular focus on aesthetics in femme communities). I don’t know if they will or not. But I’ll also say this: By the end of the conference, you probably will not care as much.
That, more than anything else, has been such a key piece of learning around these identity conferences, the Femme Conference and BUTCH Voices.
And I’ll be honest with you: there will probably be drama. There almost always is at small, incestuous community conferences, and this is definitely one of those. There are not that many people who self-identify as femme. There are not that many people who date and are into and fall in love with and are fascinated by people who identify as femme. There will probably be people there that I don’t want to run into. There will probably be people there who have particularly bad opinions of me, even. I don’t anticipate that being easy. But I care more about the philosophies of this identity, the many folks in my life who identify this way now, and the forward movement of radical genders in this era than I do about being worried that someone will talk shit. I’m bored with that. I’m sick of letting that affect what public spaces I’m involved in.
I submitted a workshop proposal to the Femme Conference—so did Kristen. Neither of us were accepted. I could let my mind roam and draw conclusions about why, but who knows what the actual reasons were. I chose instead to brush it off as not fitting with the conference, for whatever reasons, and I’m still planning to go and have a great time. So many amazing people I know are planning to be in attendance, so many more than I knew when I attended in 2008 (can’t believe it was that long ago!), and I am so looking forward to seeking out the ones that I think have amazing philosophies, meeting new folks, talking about new ideas, and enhancing the ideas I’m already chewing on.
I don’t really know how to explain all of that to people who say, “Would I fit in there? Am I femme enough?” Maybe you would feel like you found your people. Maybe you would be super excited to be around all of the talking about femme identity, but only really connect with one or two other people. Just because we’re all talking about femmes doesn’t mean we’ll get along! But maybe you’ll find a sense of self, in between all of that, that you didn’t know you were seeking, that missing piece that caused you to ask would I fit in there in the first place. And maybe, after attending the conference, you wouldn’t ask that again, because somewhere, deep down, in a soothed and solid place, you’d know.
Registration is still open: The Femme Conference happens August 17-19 in Baltimore, MD.
Here’s another question from the Ask Me Anything inbox, and I hope y’all might be able to help me out.
Dear Mr. Sexsmith,
As a new Femme, your blog has been VERY helpful. I am frustrated by, although I completely understand, the focus on femme invisibility. While it’s absolutely true, I need a more empowering story for myself.
As I spend more time with butches and listen to Ivan Coyote’s “To all the kick ass, beautiful, fierce femmes out there,” I have begun to think of femmes as modern day Robin Hoods. We femmes take power (given freely) from those who have it and help to redistribute it to those who have been denied it … sometimes by changing the way the world sees queer, sometimes by simply being changing/challenging how the world sees the person we are with, always by being purposeful about the way we see ourselves and how we accept and carry and use the power and privileges that are granted to us as we walk in, between, and among worlds.
Are there other empowering femme stories out there that I should know about?
I humbly submit my own piece, A Love Letter To Femmes, to possibly add to your arsenal, which was published in Visible: A Femmethology Volume II.
I thought I published the whole thing on Sugarbutch but can’t seem to find it; if you follow this link you can download the mp3 of me reading it (thanks Dacia for recording it all those years ago, remember that?).
There are many femme books that I recommend, mostly ones that I have in my Amazon a-store, the classics of the femme canon. Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, A Persistent Desire, Brazen Femmes, Femmes of Power, Visible: A Femmethology Volumes I & II, The Femme’s Guide to the Universe, The Femme’s Mystique (that I mentioned in that Femme Invisibility & Beyond post) and more I’m sure.
I’d love some help here: What femme sources do y’all recommend? What was instrumental in coming to your femme identity or feeling a part of the femme world? What was part of your femme history? What should every new femme read?
I’m still receiving questions in the Ask Me Anything form; most of the time I am turning them into pieces for my advice column over on SexIs Magazine, but sometimes they are things I’d rather tackle here at Sugarbutch. So here’s one of those.
As a very feminine femme, I pass for straight more often than not, and I’d like to know your thoughts on femme invisibility, and why every time I smile/greet/nod at butches I am largely ignored. Even when I am out with my (butch) lover, a polite nod of recognition, or “Nice tie …” coming from me is not acknowledged. What gives?
Oh, femme invisibility. This is a big, constant topic, and I have lots of thoughts about it. Probably mostly I’ll say the same things that I said in 2009 when I wrote this piece, “On Femme Invisibility,”, but I have a few new things to say, too.
Femme Invisibility Is Real
Femme invisibility is a real thing. It happens all the time. Queer women who are feminine get seen as straight—by straight folks, other queer folks, and sometimes even queer femmes themselves—because this culture expects dykes to reject gender roles automatically when rejecting a heterosexual orientation. As if those two things go together inseparably.
For many people, they do go together. But for other folks, they do not.
Assuming that they do go together—that a rejection of heterosexuality also includes a rejection of masculine/feminine culturally-defined gender roles—assumes that the only purpose of those gender roles is for heterosexual gain (attraction, stimulation, and reinforcing patriarchal dominance). One of the things I particularly love about the butch/femme dynamic is that it disproves this. It fractures the concepts of “gender roles” into multiple things, including archetypes and perhaps some sort of “inner gender” (a concept trans theories have been flirting with, but I haven’t seen articulated perfectly, yet). Meaning: yes, these gender roles are societally dictated, but they are also more than that, bigger than that, and if we can strip down the societal restrictions that keep us oppressed and marginalized and compartmentalized (for example, break our identity alignment assumptions and separate gender roles from our hobbies, interests, and personality traits), we can come to some understanding that gender is fun and more than just a way to keep wives subordinate to husbands or to keep men in power (over, among other things, the awe-inspiring phenomenon that is women’s ability to bear children).
Masculinity, femininity, genderqueerness, or any sort of gender presentation is not inherent to a sexual identity. Femininity is not just for straight women. We’ve accepted that masculinity is for dykes and femininity is for fags because, well, this culture is homophobic and sexist, and we assume that a rejection of heterosexuality is also a rejection of gender roles. But many combinations of gender and sexuality exist—probably more than I could even name, probably more than I comprehend. (This is one of the reasons why, when people look at a guy who is even slightly feminine and declare him a closet fag, I think: that’s sexist. He certainly might be a closet fag, but there are also many straight men who have feminine gender performances, and that does not mean he’s gay. Ditto for slightly masculine women—I mean, how many of us have said, how many dozens of times, that Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica must be gay? But why is that? Well, it’s because she has some swagger, never because she has displayed any sexual or romantic interest toward other women.)
Stop Arguing With Reality & Find Some Radical Acceptance
This culture tells us all these things, and this culture is wrong. It is not correct that feminine dykes are really straight girls. It just isn’t. In fact, it’s rooted in sexism and homophobia, and a little bit ignorant.
But also? It’s just real. It’s not right, and I channel all sorts of righteous indignation when I come across something that is just wrong and nobody seems to get, so I’m not trying to discount that it sucks. But if you expect it to be another way, you are simply arguing with reality, and you can (and, dare I say, should!) do some radical acceptance around this issue. That doesn’t mean you just passively accept that this is how things are and move on, it can certainly mean that you do your own work to make this issue less painful for the many people involved.
But it’s just true. In this culture, physical markers of queerness are accepted as certain things (like short hair, baggy androgynous or slightly masculine clothes, comfortable shoes—i.e., not femininity). Your struggle to be accepted as a queer person by visual sight alone is probably going to continue, as long as the culture continues to have those same queer markers.
Since Your Queer Identity Isn’t Portrayed Visually, You Have To Portray It In Other Ways
Since many femmes don’t have those same visual queer markers, since your identity isn’t constructed in a way that portrays your sexuality (according to the culture) visually, you will have to find other ways to construct and communicate your queer identity.
I don’t know how, exactly. Seems like many femmes do this in different ways. After the 2008 Femme Conference, which was called The Architecture of Identity, I compiled my notes and identified a few different ways of constructing identity, such as in contrast to butch, in community, through language, through fashion and style, and through theory, and I think those still hold true.
Language is a big one for me. I would much prefer to befriend and sleep with someone who doesn’t “look gay” but who can talk about queer history, culture, or theory to someone who you would visually peg as a dyke immediately but doesn’t have any context for her identity any day.
There’s constant talk about making some sort of universal femme marker—a tattoo, or a hanky flower, or some way that the pin-up look is queered so that everybody knows it’s not heterosexual, but as far as I can tell, there’s almost no way to universalize one singular symbol. At least, not yet.
And I’m not sure we really need one (though I’m not the one going through the struggles of this, I recognize). Because, let’s be honest: I see femmes everywhere. Whatever you’re doing with your visual markers, it’s working, when you know how to look.
Lots of People See You!
At the Femme Conference in 2008, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said in her keynote address, “Femme invisibility is bullshit. You just don’t know how to look.”
Don’t forget: Lots of people see you. I feel like I can spot a femme on a crowded subway car even when there are three dozen people between us. It’s not just that she gives me an extra-long stare and big smile (though that happens, sometimes), but it’s also something energetically, something I can’t quite even put my finger on, that says to me, “Whoa, there is something special about her.”
There are lots of femmes out there. There are lots of butches and genderqueer folks and trans folks and other masculine of center identified people and femmes who love to date femmes, and who see the one femme in the dyke bar not as a straight impostor, but as our crush for the evening, our next girlfriend, our fantasy.
It is a real problem. And I know it causes mass frustration. But there are many people who get it, and who don’t question a femme’s identity as queer. And there are big movements adding on to the many, many conversations about femme invisibility that are already out there.
Know Your Femme History
Read up. Read blogs, read books. I suggest, to start: Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, A Persistent Desire, Brazen Femmes, Femmes of Power, Visible: A Femmethology Volumes I & II, The Femme’s Guide to the Universe, The Femme’s Mystique … and oh probably two dozen others. Take strength and pleasure from knowing others have come before you, and have struggled too: that you are not the only one who has had difficulties with this.
Find some femme friends. Seek out femme community. There is tons of this happening online these days, for example, so even if you live somewhere kinda small or in a city that doesn’t particularly value the butch/femme dynamic, you can still talk to people about this.
If you don’t have a big community in your city, travel. No seriously, I mean that. Come to New York City. And for fuck’s sake, attend the Femme Conference in Baltimore this August. This is exactly what a femme conference is for: to make friends, to come together, to give voice to the common struggles and to start seeing our own experiences as valid and real.
This Is Your Struggle, But Remember: It’s Not Your Problem. It’s Theirs
Just as the main conflict in a butch’s identity—in my opinion—is sexism, misogyny, and masculine privilege (yes, I just said that), this is one of the main conflicts in a femme identity (others big things, from my perspective, being the mean girls thing, and escaping the beauty myth).
But if you really know and understand why other queers don’t see you, and why you pass as straight, and how to start constructing your identity in ways that aren’t reliant upon physical markers, you may just start to realize that it isn’t your problem. It isn’t something you are or aren’t doing right or wrong. It isn’t that if you just tried a little harder, smiled a little bigger, wore a different dress, that you would be recognize and validated as queer. It’s a cultural problem, a problem in our queer communities that is replicating gender norms and assumptions from the larger culture. It isn’t your fault, and it isn’t your problem. It’s theirs.
If someone doesn’t accept that you’re queer when you are a) in a queer space, b) with a visibly queer partner, or c) telling them that you are queer, well, then, fuck them, or rather don’t, because they don’t deserve to keep talking to you. Find somebody who does accept your combination of femininity and queerness. And keep working, yourself, on the reconciliation and supposed cultural conflict between the two.
Because that is your struggle.
How are you going to deal with it? How are you going to own your history, understand the sexist, misogynistic ways that this culture sees femininity, and overcome? How are you going to reconcile that not every visible queer you see will see you? How are you going to learn to communicate with a look and a smile, which, six times out of ten, might work? How are you going to articulate your own identity to others when they question it? What are the words you are going to say? How are you going to build a group of people around you that you know you can turn to when all you want to do is go, “ARGHHHHH!” and be angry that the world doesn’t see you as queer enough? How are you going to help build your femme friends up when they go through this? What can butches do (aside from learn how to recognize you, I know that’s a big one) to support you? How will we all reassure each other? What can we learn, here? What alliances can we make?
And perhaps most importantly, how can we move beyond this?
Strive to Move Us Beyond Visibility
There is more to femme identity than being visible. There is nurturance and caretaking, there is internalized homophobia, there is the mean girls complex that pits femmes against each other, there is the pervasive understanding that femme is nothing more than lipstick and heels (um, wrong!), there is some sort of hierarchy in the femme world as indicated simply by the still widespread use of the phrase “high femme,” there is the identity alignment assumption that all femmes are submissive bottoms and whoa is that incorrect, there is transmisogyny and the still troubled dialogue between cis and trans queer women, there is racism, there is a classist element that says that femmes have to or should buy their gender, there are dozens of other gender stereotypes that still pressure femmes to drink girly drinks and be homemakers and bear the children and stay at home and bake cookies, and oh there are probably two dozen other things I could list if I kept going.
There is more to femme identity than visibility. In fact, today in New York City there is a big day-long event going on right now called Beyond Visibility: Illuminating and Aligning Femmes in NYC, featuring a skillshare, roundtable discussion, and caucuses, all of which are femme-only, and then later an ally-invited reading and dance party (and you bet your beatle boots I will be attending that).
Being and becoming visible as a queer femme is a real thing that, it seems to me, almost all femmes struggle with. But as I’ve known more and more femmes for more and more years, I’m also starting to see that many femmes don’t struggle with it after years of working on it. Many have some radical acceptance and some understandings of how the queer world works, and are working on fighting other things.
Tara Hardy, one of my major mentors and a queer femme poet, has this line in one of her pieces: “I no longer get sad if they ask me at the door if I know it’s dyke night: I get mad. I mean, how much pussy do I have to eat before you let me in the club?” It’s a subtle shift, perhaps, from sad to mad, but it matters. It is the shift from internalizing the culture’s sexist bullshit to fighting back against it.
How do we overcome this issue and begin to elevate the discussion? I don’t know, but I’m curious to do that. And it seems that we, as a community, are beginning to, if only by the title of today’s event. I’m really excited for the Femme Conference in Baltimore this year, I think and hope that will continue to elevate the discussion.
Last, But Not Least
Also, let me say: I’m sorry. I’m sorry you are not acknowledged by the butches you are reaching out to, making bids that go unseen or unacknowledged. I don’t know why you are largely ignored. Could be many things: many butches are kind of used to straight girls hitting on us and using us for attention, and if you are being misread as straight, these butches could be resisting that. Perhaps when you’re out with your butch girlfriend and attempting to be acknowledged, they see you with your partner and don’t want to step on any toes or get into some sort of “hey man, you looking at my girl?” confrontation. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible. Maybe they fear that acknowledgment of your “nice tie” or big smile would be seen as flirting (I don’t think that would be a bad thing, but other people seem to).
Maybe they are just in their own world and just aren’t registering their surroundings. I mean, I’ve had friends of mine show up on a subway platform and try to get my attention while I was commuting, and I just had all my surroundings blocked out until they were literally waving a hand in my face. If you’re doing this in a big city, they could just be in their own world and not very observant.
I don’t know why, exactly. That’s kind of just the way it is, I think. For all those reasons I yammered on about above. That’s not okay and it’s not right, and I’m doing my own part to encourage femme visibility and work on our sexism in queer communities.
Butches, transmasculine folks, genderqueers, and all you other visible queers out there: listen the fuck up: LEARN TO RECOGNIZE FEMMES, even if you don’t date them, because they recognize you.
It’s the least we can do.
I caught sight that the 2012 Femme Conference dates and location have been announced—it’ll be in Baltimore, MD, August 17-19, 2012. I’m looking forward to attending and I think I can make it, at least for now I don’t have anything scheduled, so I’m adding it to the calendar. I haven’t been since 2008 so it’s time to go again.
The Femme Conference “provides a weekend by, for, and about queer femme-identified people and our allies. Every other year the Femme Collective co-creates a femme-centered space and brings you workshops, brilliant keynotes, glittering performances, resource sharing, community building and much more. Our 2012 event aims to explore how we grow, build, nurture, and align the many pieces of our communities and identities while building femme community and power,” according to femmeconference.com, which has (or will have) more details on the conference going forward.
I first saw this announced on the fuckyeahfemmes tumblr, which is brilliant in case you don’t follow it, and of course in true Tumblr style, some ignorant commentary got quickly added to the thread. Fuckyeahfemmes alerted me to that as well.
“… really? is this an actual thing? what is even DISCUSSED at a “femme conference”…? how to continue reinforcing stereotypes and relegating people to specific, pre-determined categories based on SUPER out-dated notions on what it means to be a gay woman? laaaame.” —juliaperchance
Probably anyone who would attend a femme conference wouldn’t feel that they were “relegated” to that category, they would self-identify as femme (asserting their own sense of agency around their sexuality and gender identity) and they would probably want to discuss issues such as stereotypes about queerness and femininity, thus proving that “femme” is something that is constantly being redefined and redetermined, not something that is simply forced upon them. Not everyone who identifies as femme is gay or a woman either. The fact that people have such negative associations with femme identification, (even and especially within the queer community) is the reason that this annual event happens- providing a space to think through such issues in a non-threatening environment.
And of course lots of other folks on tumblr jumped in as well, including myself. I wrote back:
What is discussed? Femme invisibility, creating femme identity in radical & responsible ways, community, queer markers …and tons of other stuff.
And by the way, femme identity is not “outdated.” There are thousands of people creating and re-creating femininity in queer contexts which are liberating and celebratory, not full of restriction or judgement, and which are created for the person to feel good in their body and with their gender expression. To lump femme identity in with some notion of the binary gender roles reproduced on “gay women” is to seriously miss the gender revolution that is happening right now.
yikes. it’s so seriously sad to me that some queer women don’t undertand that no one is asking them to identify as femme. but me? i AM femme. i know it in my bones. so please don’t be so myopic to assume that this is an outdated notion, because femme, to me, feels right. i’m so glad this conference exists, so that we CAN play with and celebrate that identity, so that we CAN recognize each other in the absence of a heteronormative lens.
I’m so sick of anti-femme bullshit. Shaming women for stuff like this is fucking counterproductive. Also “lame”? Nice ableism there.
I am really sick of anti-femme bullshit too, though my response is more “ugh, sigh,” than “omg !#$(@!&*.” It’s clear that most people really just do not understand how femme identity can be radical. It’s also clear that a lot of feminine-of-center queer women (and people who don’t identify as women, but very commonly women, I think) end up with a lot of flack, baggage, and bullshit around their femininity and the ways that this culture commodifies, consumes, degrades, and devalues women, queer women, femininity, and femme. And it’s even more potent when they are all in combination.
The ableist bullshit came to my mind, too. “Lame” is a loaded word, let’s remove that from our vocabulary as much as we can, like “retarded” and “gay” (as a derogatory slur, I mean).
Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who understand, embrace, and celebrate the need for a femme conference. It still surprises me to come upon folks who don’t get it, who reduce it to “makeup and dresses,” who devalue femininity. (Sidenote: read Whipping Girl, folks who don’t understand why this is femme-phobic. And anyone who cares about femmes. And everyone else.)
But let’s also not let comments like juliaperchance’s keep us away from answering equally important questions, like this one from cybercarnet:
I’ve been wanting to go to the femme conference for a long time, but I’m worried I will just feel inadequate the whole time, not “femme” enough. Have any of you gone? Is there a lot of femme policing? Like, for example, I think makeup looks great and all, but unless I’m dressing up for a costume party, I never wear makeup. I hate wearing makeup. I rarely have the spoons to get all dolled up anymore. How is the disability and fat-positive representation here?
I have so many questions! If I’m going to fly across the country and spent beaucoup bucks, I need to know I’m not going to feel like shit the whole time, you know?
First: YOU ARE FEMME ENOUGH. If you feel aligned with this identity in any way, even if it is a complicated issue for you, you belong there. You don’t have to be a sing-it-from-the-rooftops femme to attend. You can go and be reluctant, and curious about what this building community might have to offer for your own understanding of your place in this world and your own gender identity.
I didn’t go in 2010, but my answer is: GO. There is space for disability and fat-positive representation. Even if it isn’t executed the best possible way it should (and what is), it is there, and people are trying. I have known some of the folks who have been on the Femme Conference board in the past and they are great. I support not wearing makeup if that’s what you like (and/or do because it is better for you). There is not a lot of femme policing, in my experience (and from what I’ve heard from femmes, too). Other folks want to weigh in on this? Have you been to a Femme Conference? Would you recommend it to this person?
Last but not least, as long as I’m on a femme+tumblr kick, let me present you with this little piece I found from delisubthefemmecub, a trans femme boy, who has this to say about femme, and I think perfectly illustrates why we need this conference, why we need to do this work, and why I love femmes:
For me, femme is about healing
it is about the rituals of adornment that I use to calm my anxiety, and quell my tears after days where transphobia slips under my skin like stubborn splinters
it is about reaching across time, bridging the distance between the man I am and the girl I was.
it is about finding that girl in the recesses of my heart, holding him in my arms, and saying “it will be okay, we made it out alive.”
it is about finding a way to be a boy that doesn’t hurt.
it is about nurturing all the femme parts of myself that I suffocated, just so the boy part of myself might be visible to other people.
For me, femme is about resistance
it is about refusing to believe that there is a right way to be a man
it is about glitter armor and gestural fierceness coating my spirit so that I might just be strong enough to survive
it is about reclaiming and flaunting all of the parts of my femininity that have been used to say that the sexual assaults were my fault
For me, femme is about healing, resistance, survival.
Somedays, femme is all I have.
Thank you delisubthefemmecub. Finding ways to be us, in whatever gender we are, whatever part of the gender galaxy, without being hurt by it, is one of the biggest missions and purposes behind this work that I do. I think it’s possible, and I want us each to do our own exploration and our own discovery, and be uniquely ourselves in whatever ways help us heal, resist, and survive.
I’m completely femme and work in a very straight environment. A few of my co-workers know that I’m gay, but I haven’t come out to all of them, and I’ve been at this work place for a year. I don’t usually hide my sexuality, but it’s been extremely hard for me to relax at this workplace. I hate that, and my partner is somewhat hurt that I haven’t been open about it and talked about her. I want to be able to do so, and I want to be strong in myself and come out with it. Any ideas on how to do it? The longer I wait the more awkward it is.—Tuesday, from tuesdayateleven.blogspot.com
It’s been months since you wrote this, so this might be an outdated question at this point—have you changed things? Did you start slipping your partner into conversation more frequently? Did you out-right come out? Did you let it leak to the office gossip?
Telling your co-workers things about your personal life can be tricky, especially since you’ve already been there for a year and you still haven’t said anything, because now, when the reveal happens, it will seem out of place. So how do you start bridging this gap between yourself and your co-workers, such that you can reveal more personal things? Maybe it’s time to have a happy hour after work, or host a weekend event, if you’re comfortable doing those things. Maybe it’s time to invite someone out to lunch and open up a little about your lives.
You don’t have to start with, “By the way, I’m gay,” you might want to start with the more impersonal. In The Art of Civilized Conversation, Margaret Shepherd says that conversations start with facts, then to opinions, then on to feelings. There are a lot of facts you can gather about each other that I bet you don’t have, if you’ve avoided any discussion of your partner so far. Where do you live? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? Why did you move to where you are now? What do you do in your spare time, what are your hobbies?
I think it’s also in that book that she says the way people deepen with each other is to start revealing little things about themselves in the conversation, and then guaging the reaction of the other to see if it’s safe to continue revealing.
My mom always used to say, “Find common ground, then elevate the discussion.” See if finding some common ground about other topics makes you feel more comfortable talking about more personal things. Ask questions of them, too—as you find out more about them, you might feel more safe revealing things about yourself.
I kind of hate to say this, so I’ll tack it on at the end here, but it also could be that you are dealing with a little bit of internalized sexism, and some complicated feelings about your own femme in/visibility. I don’t know you, so this could be happening a teeny tiny bit or a ton or not at all, but I figured it’s worth throwing out there because I spent the last few paragraphs on one direction, but it might not have anything to do with that. You might be a very open, revealing person in the workplace, but have this particular snag when it comes to your own sexual orientation visibility. That’s a complicated thing to work with, as a femme who can, if she chooses, “pass” for a straight girl in the larger hetero world. There are many ways that femmes construct identity which are not strictly through visual markers, however, and articulating that identity—namely through speech and communication—is a big one. It might be a hurdle to examine and investigate in yourself a little more.
What say you all? Do you have more advice for this person in coming out at work? Are you out at work?
It’s happening right now! Well not quite right now, since it’s earlier in New York City than it is over in Oakland, on the other coast where the sun sets over the water just like it’s supposed to.
The hashtag for the conference is #femme2010 if you’d like to follow along on Twitter.
How do you like that collective noun, by the way? An extravagance of femmes? Not bad really. There’s a fascinating collective noun site connected to Twitter so that when you tweet your suggestion for the collective noun with the hashtag #collectivenoun it gets automatically updated and counted on the site. Plus, you can “like” other people’s suggestions (which also goes to Twitter). So what say you—what’s the best collective noun for femmes? Tweet it, or leave it in the comments. And check them out as they come in.
Okay, enough of that. You’re dying to know what the femme book is for today, right? Since we’ve got the Butch Voices regional conferences to count down to now, in NYC (September 25), Portland OR (October 1-3), and LA (October 8-10), I figured I’d do a butch/femme joint anthology.
- Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity edited by
Chloe Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri (Arsenal Pulp Press; 2003)
- Femme: Feminists, Lesbians and Bad Girls by Laura Harris and Elizabeth Crocker (Routledge; 1997)
- The Femme’s Guide to the Universe by Shar Rednour (Alyson Books; 2000) (And did you see? Shar has launched a blog How Great Sex Made Me a Good Mom and is now on Twitter as @SharRednour)
And there’s Glamour Girls: Femme/femme Erotica by Rachel Kramer Bussel (Harrington Park Press; 2006) and With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn by Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly if you’re into erotica. Which, you know, you might be.
So now that I’ve recited pretty much every femme book that I know of and think are worth knowing, let’s get back to today’s feature. The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader edited by Joan Nestle, published by Alyson Books in 1992. It looks like it’s out of print, but you can probably still get it used in various places, like Powell’s online or, of course, Amazon (but only if you have to. Don’t you want independent bookstores to stay in business?).
The description of The Persistent Desire from Library Journal is as follows:
This anthology of stories, poems, and nonfiction accounts pays homage to a host of femme and butch lesbian relationships that have flourished over four decades. The narrators recount their experiences, describing how they met, how they took care of one another, and how they tried–or defiantly tried not–to fit in. The selections themselves bubble with passion and pain. Some dive beneath the surface to explore the varied meanings of gender roles, but most describe highly ritualistic manners of dress, hairstyle, and gesture that at times left the protagonist open to ridicule. In collecting these pieces into one volume, Nestle has made sure that the integrity and diversity of femme-butch relationships will not be lost. She has included narratives from women of many backgrounds and ethnic groups and from outside the United States.
This book was for me, as it was for many people, eye-opening, validating, breathtaking. I found it while I was still trying to articulate my own butch identity, and come into my orientation of dating femmes, and it blew past most of my doubts as if doing 80 on a motorcycle. I wanted to be part of that, I felt so connected to it. It changed the way I thought about myself and the way I thought about femmes.
It’s dated now. It was published almost two decades ago, and it reflects a different era of thought about gender identity and alignment assumptions. And while the trans movements were alive by then, much has happened on that front in the past 18 years since it was published and much transgender theory has affected gender theory deeply in wonderfully deliciously complicated ways.
We’re really due for an update.
And how about that, one is just on the horizon! Partners and butch/femme couple Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman have been working on an anthology titled Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (see the connection to the first anthology’s title? Smart!) that is due out from Arsenal Pulp Press soon. Not sure what the exact date of publication is yet, but you can be certain I’ll be mentioning it here again. It looks like Ivan just picked up the postcards for the book from her publisher the other day, so it must be coming fairly soon! I will report back as I know.
There are more books, especially more butch/femme books, and more books just on butch identity by itself (look for more of those featured on the upcoming Fridays as we countdown to the Butch Voices NYC conference). I’ve made a new section in my Amazon Store exclusively for butch and femme books, so if you’re curious what else is out there, that’s a good place to start. And if you’ve got suggestions for what I missed, I’m glad to hear ‘em!
UPDATE! Persistence: All Ways Butch And Femme has a webpage on Arsenal Pulp Press, a description, and is due out in the spring of 2011. Isn’t that cover great? It’s done by Elisha Lim, who also has a book of her own newly out from Alyson, 100 Butches, Volume 1.
If you see Zena at the Femme Conference, she supposedly has postcards for Persistence, so that’ll give you an excuse to say hi. She’s aka “The Silver Fox” because (guess) of her hair, so that should narrow it down for ya.
(Don’t you just love the Internet? I do. Thanks, Arsenal, for answering those questions.)
“When I finally realized that I didn’t want to be a butch, I wanted to sleep with a butch, a whole new world opened up before my eyes.” —Lesléa Newman, from the Introduction: I Enjoy Being a Girl
The Femme Conference 2010: No Restrictions in Oakland is just one week away! And in honor, Sugarbutch is counting down to the Femme Conference, featuring some important femme books that I highly recommend if you haven’t read them already. Femme is part of an ever-evolving, big, knowable lineage, and if you love this identity in any way—if it’s yours, or if it is the gender to whom you are oriented, or if you appreciate it—you should know where it comes from, where it’s been.
News from the Femme Conference this week: the Femme Conference Schedule has been announced, and in addition to Kate Bornstein’s keynote, Moki Macías, a queer femme organizer and community planner in Atlanta, will also be doing a keynote.
And the Conference is only one week away!
It was the first book on femme identity that I came across, and I picked up a copy at Powell’s when I was in Portland in July. Re-reading parts of it is kind of like re-reading my own journals from ten years ago, so familiar are the words and perspectives. So I’m particularly fond of this book because of the nostalgia, because of how formative this collection was for me.
One description says, “A fascinating and insightful look at the world of femme identity within the lesbian community. Written by femmes, former femmes, future femmes, femme wanna-bes, femme admirers, and of course, femmes fatales, The femme Mystique explores what it means to be a femme and a lesbian in a society that often trivializes the feminine.”
Coming out into communities which were ruled by queer femmes (well, at least, they sure seemed to be from my perspective), I think I’ve been a little blind to the ways that the queer scenes can trivialize the feminine, but as a women studies student and as someone who is simply aware of sexism and misogyny in this world, obviously that is entirely true and relevant. It continues to surprise me. Like, the doctor at the queer health clinic gave you a pregnancy test, even after you told her you were gay? Really? That just doesn’t even make any sense. But hey, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
The more recent anthologies are much higher quality, I think, both in the choice and arrangement of the essays and the quality of writing, but every once in a while there is a serious gem. Some folks have criticized this as being repetitive, which I also do understand, but that also speaks to how common and communal these perspectives on queer femme identity are. You’re likely to recognize some of the authors—Chrystos, Tristan Taormino, Kitty Tsui—but there are plenty more I’m not familiar with. The book is peppered with photographs, many of them very clearly 1980s versions of femininity (press on nails, lace, extensive makeup) which is interesting, that femme can be so closely tied to female fashion trends. There is a lot of identity alignment assumptions in this collection—a lot of women talking about cooking, cleaning, “traditionally female” activities. It’s interesting how much we as a culture have broken that in the last fifteen years, even.
Even though the women in these photos are probably in their 20s and early 30s, which is my age, they seem so much older … probably because my brain automatically does the calculation: “If they are 25 in 1990, they are 12 years older than me and are now in the early 40s.” It takes some intentional undoing to think, these people in these essays, in these photographs, are my age, and were at that time figuring out the same things I am now figuring out.
Though it’s not my favorite collection, it is a classic, and was very important to me personally (and to many, I’m sure, since it was one of the first collections on femme identity). I also really recommend Lesléa Newman’s essay collection Out of the Closet and Nothing to Wear, which is a collection of the femme column she wrote for many years. More information about Lesléa Newman can be found over on her website, lesleanewman.com. (Did you know she also wrote Heather Has Two Mommies?)
Have you read this? What did you think?
And also … are you ready for the Femme Conference!? I can’t wait to hear all about it on Twitter and other blogs! Who’s going to be writing about it? Who’s going to be live-Tweeting? Keep me updated, please!
The Femme Conference 2010: No Restrictions in Oakland is two weeks away! And in honor, Sugarbutch is counting down to the Femme
Conference, featuring some important femme books that I highly recommend if you haven’t read them already. Femme is part of an ever-evolving, big, knowable lineage, and if you love this identity in any way—if it’s yours, or if it is the gender to whom you are oriented, or if you appreciate it—you should know where it comes from, where it’s been.
I met Ulrika Dahl at the Femme Conference in 2008, and was excited to get my hands on this lovely book when it came out. It features profiles and essays about femme identity, photographs of femmes with all sorts of varieties of presentation, and discussions of what femme is like in different contexts. It’s a beautiful book, almost a coffee table book, that you can flip through and stare at all the beautiful photographs of femmes. Or you can delve deeper into the text for complex depictions of queer gender identity.
From the synopsis:
What is femme? French for woman? A feminine lesbian? A queer girl who loves to dress up? Think again! Going beyond identity politics and the pleasures of plumage, “Femmes of Power” captures a diverse range of queerly feminine subjects whose powerful and intentional redress explodes the meaning of femme for the 21st century. “Femmes of Power” features both every-day heroines and many queer feminist icons, including Michelle Tea, Virginie Despentes, Amber Hollibaugh, Itziar Ziga, Lydia Lunch, Kate Bornstein and Valerie Mason-John. “Femmes of Power” unsettles the objectifying “male” gaze on femininity and presents femmes as speaking subjects and high heeled theorists.