Posts Tagged ‘activism’
On October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, beaten, and left for dead – because he was gay. He was taken to a nearby trauma hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and died on October 12th.
I lived in Fort Collins at the time. I was not out, I was living with my high school boyfriend of five years. Nobody I knew was talking about it, aside from the brief acknowledgment in order to look away. There were protesters at the hospital. The Denver newspaper announced that he had died before he actually died.
I remember crying. I remember being so confused as to how this could’ve happened. I remember being terrified to come out in that environment, so I stayed in the closet for two more years.
Years later, after I was living in Seattle and came out and was building an amazing queer community, I saw Matthew’s mom Judy Shepard speak at my college. I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember a few things she said so deeply: “I’m just a mom,” she said. “I’m not an activist, I’m not a historian, I’m just a mom of a really great kid who died because he was gay. People ask me all the time, what can I do, and I always tell them: Come out. Come out everywhere, all the time. People discriminate because they don’t think they know any gay people. They don’t know that the guy they go bowling with is gay, that their office neighbor is gay, that their dry cleaner is gay. They think gay happens “over there” in big coastal cities. Until everyone starts realizing that gay people are just like them, discrimination will keep happening.”
I tell that to people a lot, especially baby dykes (or baby fags or baby queers) who are struggling with coming out. It’s our number one place of activism: to be who we are. To let the soft animal of our bodies love what it loves. It is not easy for any of us, but for some more than others, as there are still very real consequences to coming out and being out, not just with our families and parents (especially) but in our daily lives.
I was searching for some Judy Shepard direct quotes and came across this article from 2001, which relays more of the thoughts I’m trying to articulate:
Matthew came out to her at the age of 18, three years before he died. He decided in his own time and space when to tell his parents about his feelings on his sexuality and how that was important to him. After explaining how she and her husband dealt with Matthew’s coming out, Judy believes that “Your goal in life is to be the best and happiest you can be. Be who you are. Share who you are with the rest of the world.” Come out. Come out to yourself. Come out to your family. Come out to your friends. Be who you are and don’t hide in the closet of fear. Take pride in who you are through and through. [...] In closing, Judy illustrated her thoughts that if the corporate world of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals would come out and be true to themselves, their lives, and the world we live in would be a better place. Maybe Matthew would still be here today. ‘It’s fear and ignorance that killed Matthew. If fear is shed, the violence will go with it.’ Acceptance of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals would not allow fear and ignorance to exist as hate.
- Erie Gay News report on Judy Shepard at Mercyhurst April 3 2001.
Years after I left Colorado, when I was in Seattle and studying writing, especially formal poetic forms, I wrote an acrostic poem about Shepard. The acrostic is a form you’ve probably played with as a kid, at least – you take a word and make each letter in the word the first letter of the line of the poem. In this case, the assignment was to write an acrostic about a place, capturing both the essence of the geographical space and an event that occurred there. The title is a reference to the date he was attacked.
- MATTHEW 10:6 (Acrostic)
Framed in thick oak trees, equidistant, streets
Open to fields marching toward undisturbed horizons
Regulation-height lawns burn with summer’s oppression
Tearing boys from youth, from breath. Behind
Cinnamon foothills, anger and ignorance sprinkle
Obstructions in the north winds. An easy tragedy
Laughs. Tail lights disappear, tangled in this inevitable
Last night – train whistles whisper, keeping company
Infused with ghosts. Plucked from a fence,
No one blinks – hospital doors swing shut.
Shepard boy releases. The world watches the moon set.
I am not noticed much in New York City. My recent trip to Washington State’s Olympic Penninsula reminded me of this and I’ve been more observant of it ever since.
Honestly, to most subway commuters, shoppers, service industry employees, I just don’t register on their freak radar. I dress quite conservatively, usually, for one. I’m often in slacks and button-downs, kakhis and a polo, with a gadget bag and an iPod when I am commuting to and from Manhattan, and I just don’t account for as much attention as someone soliciting for money, someone homeless sleeping on the train, someone with a boa constrictor, someone in a wedding dress.
[Maybe it's a class thing - upper class and working class are noticed, middle class is generally anonymous and neutral?]
I have often noticed that I pass as male here – that people, service employees especially, call me “sir.” But in watching this a little closer I have noticed that it’s not that I’m passing necessarily, I think people are just not paying close enough attention to me – it’s quite obvious I’m female upon just the slightest attentive glance, and I don’t think most people are consciencious enough of genderqueer-ness to call me “sir” by default.
My freak is not in my display of clothing, my costuming, my visible markers – my freak is that my clothing is on this body, that my gender presentation breaks the sex/gender assumption of my societally-instructed gender role. And honestly, the survival skills of New York mean that you don’t – you can’t – pay too much attention to the average Pats and Jamies around you, because you will either: a) get completely overwhelmed by the input, or b) miss observing the dangerous freak and find yourself in harm’s way. It is a skill that, as an empath, observer, and writer, I have had much struggle learning, as I want to be able to observe and notice the things going on around me, and indeed that is one of the best things about New York City, this huge, constant swirl of energy and life. But while it is energizing in small doses, to live inside of it constantly we must develop thick, massive boundaries as to not take in all of the constant comedy and tragedy around us.
When I dress up for a date or for a photo shoot, New York’s reaction to me is slightly different. This is when my masculinity becomes deviant and subversive, even aside from the body it is performed upon, because I start looking like a fag, I add elements of flair and sissy and dress-up and vaudeville, and that is not quite the same conservative masculinity that gets scanned over and does not set off anyone’s freak radar.
So my masculine gender is only “freaky” when it starts to be more feminine, more faggy, more queer. This makes sense now that I’m thinking of it – I just never thought about it like that.
My identity is largely marked by the construction of clothes, costuming, and physical appearance, as I think many butches are, as that’s the most obvious adaptation of the non-normative and subversive gender, and of rejecting the compulsory gender. But strangely I’ve gotten to the point where my construction of this notion of my identity is so “natural” that it doesn’t set off freak radar anymore. It’s only when I take my adopted gender role to more queer places – camping it up, making it more feminine with traditionally feminine colors, adding bold accessories and high contrast – that I start standing out in this city.
It’s hard to admit, but I’m terrified about the upcoming election. I know, many of us are, especially the liberals who so desperately want Bush out of office, who want the democrats to regain power and attempt to undo some of the changes that are eroding our civil rights.
It is no small thing to write about politics on a public forum like this one – it is probably safe to say that my readership is primarily progressive liberals, but certainly not 100%. It is not impossible to get death threats.
Though I was raised by parents who are registered independents and who vote Green, who say the democrats are too conservative for them, who have been activists for decades, who believe in grassroots organizing and social change and that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, I have been often disillusioned with the political process in this country.
I grew up in Alaska, where the polls close last and we have three electoral votes. This means that as the polls closed around the country, my parents would watch the results roll in and would wait to vote, often until the president had already been announced.
Clearly, our votes really mattered.
I understand now that it was a political strategy – that they would be certain Alaska would not be any sort of swing state or tiebreaker so they could comfortably go vote for the third party. But at the time, it was confusing. I believed that voting was a key important part of a democratic process, that by not voting you’re showing apathy and disinterest, and the only way to contribute is to make your position known.
This is how I witnessed voting until I was 18 and began voting in my own presidential elections – two so far – 2000 and 2004. Which, as certainly you remember, were a disaster. 2000 did not help to restore my faith in the political process of this country. Hanging chads? Seriously? And what happened to all those missing ballots? Oh, they were found in the dumpster out back? Really? Why did all those people get turned away from the polls? They were voting democrat … I see. And someone could win the popular vote but not the electoral vote? Isn’t there something wrong with that? And 2004 … I was kind of excited about Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich for a minute there, but who’d we end up with? A cardboard cut-out. I don’t remember a single thing the guy said, he was so flat and boring. I could for a while quote some of the things Dean and Kucinich had said, but nothing memorable ever came out of Kerry’s mouth.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. I did support Kerry simply because he was the democratic party candidate. Although I resent that part of this system, too – that the political parties to which I am closest aligned do not have serious candidates, or, if they do, they are blamed for the democratic loss of the election, having “stolen” votes away. (This is another can o’worms entirely that I’m not willing to open – debate whether or not the third parties are valid or detrimental somewhere else, please.)
My point is, ever since I was old enough to vote, I’ve lived in George Bush’s America. And even since I was a kid, though I had a brief babyhood with Carter, I’ve grown up in Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush America. Capitalism rules – votes are for sale, influence is for sale, lawmaking is for sale. It’s depressing!
I grew up in the shadow of the civil rights legacy – social change through grassroots activism that clearly worked, that stopped the Vietnam war, that changed women’s gender roles, that shattered segregation, that united queers around the country. Parents and teachers who taught the political movements of the 1960s and ’70s like scripture, and I was – we all were – the next generation, the new movement, those who would pick up the torch and carry on.
And yet … and yet. The Right has been incredibly well-organized and effective. This country is divided on issues vs values. I find it so goddamn hard to believe that the election is so tightly close – I mean really? There are really just as many people voting for Obama as are voting for McCain? How can that be possible? It’s so hard to believe. Just like it’s so hard to believe that Bush Jr. was elected – twice – and took office – twice – and we didn’t stop him – twice.
However much those elections were fixed or rigged or fairly won or a systematic corruption of our voting system, we didn’t do enough to make it stop, did we?
I’m not a political scientist, I hesitate to even write about this because I feel like so many other people are so much more well informed than I am. That was one of the things I loved so much about The Ex, actually, was that she was a political scientist and could engage with me about political issues in ways that really helped me understand. So I know enough to know that I don’t know very much. (Which is why I’m linking like crazy, not only to source myself, but to encourage information gathering from other places. And to put all the links and resources I’ve been collecting in one spot.)
Oh jeez, and then there’s Sarah Palin. And the nonsense about Palin vs Hillary Clinton, which I don’t even want to speak to.
I do have some information about Palin, being that the Alaska Governor’s mansion is down the street from my mom’s house and my aunt works for the legislature. But if you’re paying any attention to the email forwards that are going around about Palin, then you probably already know what I know: basically, she’s vindictive. You’ve probably seen the Kilkenny email, the commentary by Gloria Steinem, and Women Against Sarah Palin. I probably don’t need to tell you about Palin’s anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-LGBT, anti-freedom philosophies: pro-gun. Anti-abortion. Against same sex marriage. Bans books. Anti-evolution and pro-creationism in public schools. Against sex education in schools. The list goes on.
This stuff depresses me. About now I start thinking, wtf can I do?
Check out the Action Center on barackobama.com for more ideas about what you can do to get involved.
Donate to the Obama campaign.
Encourage everyone to register & vote – voteforchange.com has registration, absentee & early vote info.
If you want Obama buttons for your own site, they’re at /downloads – took me a bit of poking around to find them. I even downloaded an Obama wallpaper for my work computer, which is going to be slightly controversial in my conservative office, but I don’t care.
Meanwhile, fivethirtyeight.com‘s electoral projections are keeping my hopes up.
Seems like I kinda stepped in it with this entire intentional gender thing! Lots of comments and emails about that one.
(Almost as bad as I stepped in it when I suggested something like “I noticed your gender from across the room” as a pickup line. Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But there’s just no other way to say that without a) objectifying, and potentially offending or b) assuming a person’s gender and potentially offending. Though perhaps that’s speaking more to my underlying Issue of not wanting to offend people than it is speaking to getting someone’s attention by using gender as a flirtation device. Maybe the more appropriate line for most folks is just, “hey, I think you’re hot.”)
I think the mention of “unconscious” vs “conscious” gender are more accurate descriptors than “intentional” vs “natural” gender. I’ve already mentioned this, but: modern gender theory does not believe gender is “natural” at all, it says gender is socially constructed. It can be constructed consciously, or it can be constructed unconsciously.
But there are ways that I can be more conscious about the ways I carry myself. There are ways that I can study and understand how gender works in this highly, highly gendered society, and figure out and choose the ways I operate within it.
So, here’s a bit of a story about what that process looked like for me:
I was raised in a very feminist household. The rejection of traditional gender roles was instilled in me from very young, by my mother especially, who didn’t take my father’s name, never shaves, never wears makeup or dresses or skirts or heels, was primarily the one to mow the lawn and help me with my math homework, etc.
Though this was deep within my family values, I was particularly susceptible to cultural standards as a teenager (I think we all are, and I have some ideas about why I was in particular, but I won’t go into that here), and I ended up fairly gender-conformist, nearly married – to a cisgendered guy – for five years. I think I had to prove that for me, the model of grown-up relationships really wouldn’t work, that all that society says is actually untrue. Of course, for some people it works just fine to be female-bodied, feminine, and attracted to men – clearly, not so much for me. I think it was precisely because I suspected that this wasn’t true that I had to really prove it for myself.
I’m also firmly based in second wave feminism insofar as I believe every person’s unique life experience is valid and important. I believe each of us is already an expert on our own gender, our own lives. I believe we all have valuable, thoughtful things to add to the conversation of gender (or sexuality, or relationships) regardless of our supposed credentials or expertise or level of study.
That’s the thing about gender – we all have it, we all live in a particularly gendered society, we all have been raised with its influence.
Consciousness-raising groups (in my understanding) started for because there was no formal study of women or the female experience. (I can’t really even imagine a culture that assumed that women’s experiences were included in the male norm, a culture that had no feminist cannon, such a lack of sources to study and know and experience. Thanks, foremothers, for women studies, for feminist studies, for all the work you did!)
So C-R groups created their own sources, using the experiences of the women in the group themselves, treating each like a text, a source, from which they could learn, from which understanding could arise and blossom and grow.
This is how I see this writing project, this community, and all of you who participate and who engage with me – as part of a large consciousness-raising group, where we are all sharing ideas, resources, and experiences to gain greater understanding of our selves, our communities, and the world as a whole.
This too is where my love for narrative fiction overlaps, where reading someone else’s story enhances my understanding of the world, where I feel less separate and more connected and, ultimately, where every story has value, especially the voices to marginalized communities, experiences, bodies, and lives.
So: growing up in a feminist household with rejection of gender roles, then going out into the world and living in a hetero relationship where we were playing out very stereotypical gender roles, then coming out as queer – all this lead me to start studying feminist, queer, and gender theory, seeking out language, concepts, and similar stories to help me explain my own experiences. And within gender theory and studies, I finally found places to get some of my questions – gender roles, gender compulsivity, gender norms, gender within relationships, the intersection of sex & gender – articulated, and then answered.
What is gender?
How does it work?
Why are we confined to a binary? Why don’t we have three or eight or fifteen genders?
How does the sex/gender binary function?
What purpose does it serve?
Who benefits? Why, how?
How does it get enforced?
How has it changed over the years?
How is it connected with race, class, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc etc?
And once I started getting ideas about how to answer these questions, I started asking more personal questions of myself, and where I fit in to this huge, permeating, practically invisible system of hierarchy, power, and value.
How do I feel comfortable?
What makes me feel powerful?
How do I want my hair?
What looks good on my particular body?
What fits with the way I carry myself, how I treat others, how I see myself?
What type of gender am I attracted to?
How does this relate to my sexuality?
I was simultaneously starting to come into my own as butch, partly because of the lesbian initiation process of rejecting femininity and cutting off your hair (which worked for me, though certainly doesn’t work for all lesbians who go through this), and partly because I started immediately liking femmes who dated butches and who recognized a sort of masculine ‘energy’ in me.
Actually claiming the label and identity category of butch was a more difficult quest for me, one I’ve written about a few times, specifically in terms of masculine posturing and rejecting – as a feminist and lesbian – the things that I see are so problematic with compulsory masculinity in both cisgendered men and in masculine-identified women. (More on that another time.)
Regardless of my questions and hesitations about butch/femme roles and labels, the process was definitely underway. And as it has unfolded deeper and deeper, in more and more aspects of my life, I have found such a home in it, in ways that have been seriously transformative to the ways that I operate in the world.
The basic feminist principles of inherent equality, the wide range of human experience, and celebrating the self as it is are applicable to many, many aspects of gender exploration. But I’ve found that these principles aren’t quite so active in most of the lesbian communities. Yes, there are people doing this work, but we are not the majority – compulsory gender in lesbian communities is usually a sort of gender rejection, an androgyny.
And that works for many people – which is excellent! I will always say you should go with what feels good to you, what makes you feel sexy, powerful, beautiful. For many of us, it is not androgyny that makes us feel good about ourselves, it’s another type of gender expression. There’s a huge gender galaxy out there, a huge range of expression and celebration, and so much to play with.
I don’t pretend that I have all the answers to questions or issues on gender. I have concepts, ideas, and resources, and I have reached some understandings, about both the world and system at large (macro) and my own personal place within it (micro).
I also don’t think my answers will necessarily be your answers.
I encourage you to find your own answers. To ask these questions, to decide consciously where you want to be within this pervasive system.
There have been many of you who have emailed me or commented about my recent writings about conscious vs unconscious gender, and here’s the part where I start to actually take an opinion on this: I think it’s very important to discover, stumble upon, find, or create a conscious gender. Doesn’t matter how you come to it, really, but it does matter to me that we do.
What that conscious gender might look like, of course, is highly varied – perhaps all it’ll take is a moment’s consideration, and a recognition that yeah, I’m where I want to be, that’s enough for me. Maybe it’ll take years of deep exploration and personal omphaloskepsis and meditation and therapy. Maybe it’ll take reading lots of books about the subject, or lots of blogs. Maybe not.
I don’t pretend to know what that process looks like for everybody, all I know is how it looks for me – and how important it has been for me to go through that process, which is, obviously, why I am encouraging it in others.
Look, I know not everybody has the interest in this that I do. And I don’t think everyone needs to start a blog (that becomes their part-time job) and dedicate a big portion of your free time to studying how gender works and what it means to you personally, but I really do think we would begin to move forward if we have some small moments of awareness about gender, about compulsive behavior and categories, about discriminating against butches or femmes or trans folks or androgyny.
When we understand (at least a little) how the system works so that we can begin to see how we fit inside it, and we can be empowered to make the choices that are in our own best interests, rather than in the best interests of those for whom this system is designed to benefit.
But it’s not just that. It’s also because when everybody does better, then everybody does better. It’s also because sometimes I’m lonely out here doing gendered work with a small handful of community. It’s also because, though some small circles of consciousness-raising activists are happening, most gender is still compulsory and not letting up anytime soon. It’s because this binary compulsory gendered system hurts us. It’s because trans and gay kids are getting beat up and murdered. It’s because boys who wear dresses are shamed. It’s because tomboys who want to run around shirtless are shamed. It’s because women are not safe walking alone on the streets of Manhattan at night. It’s because I am not safe walking alone on the streets of Manhattan at night. And we should be able to be safe, I want us to be safe, all of us.
And plus? Underneath some of the hard work here, it’s really fun. It’s dress-up, it’s activism, it’s subversion, it’s sexy. It’s a deep celebration of you, of me, of our interaction with the world, and with each other.
Hey, sounds like a pretty good idea, exploring negative lesbian stereotypes, yeah? Right away, I’m skeptical of her inclusion of “butch” in that title, but I’m curious. Let’s read.
[L]esbians and bisexual women are also guilty of holding stereotypical generalisations and assumptions about each other based on appearance and personality. The words ‘dyke’, ‘baby-dyke’, ‘lipstick lesbian’, ‘pretend lesbian’ and ‘political lezza’ are too often thrown about the lesbian community, at work, in the pub or even from a friend to a friend in a jokey and cheeky way.
So why is this still happening, in a supposedly very tolerant and gay friendly society? It’s quite straightforward for all involved – stereotypes[.] … [W]hy do lesbian and bisexual women also carelessly use the terms ‘butch’, ‘femme’, ‘dyke’[?] … Is it internalised homophobia? … most women don’t even realise they have it or are displaying it.
So, when words to describe lesbian identity categories – such as dyke, baby dyke, and lipstick lesbian – are used by heterosexual or gay men who are excluded from and based in ignorant assumptions about the group, it is because of stereotyping, but if lesbians actually use these terms, it is from a place of internalized homophobia.
The use of words such as ‘dyke’, ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ from a lesbian individual or group are almost always meant in a negative way. Often, the only positive times you will hear the words spoken will be from a lesbian who is referring to herself, such as ‘Yeah I’m a butch dyke, but so what? It’s who I am.’ For the individual and for onlookers this proud and defensive statement will seem a very noble and bold thing to say. This it is, but it could also encourage the use of such stereotypes by heterosexual and non-heterosexual people.
So here she’s saying, when I define myself and call myself what I want to be called, when I reclaim the words for myself, it appears to be “very noble and bold,” but really it’s encouraging stereotypes. Who cares if it’s empowering to me in a development of my own gender identity, in putting myself in a historical and cultural context where I recognize the gendered struggles of my foremothers and forefathers and and forebabas and forepapis, really it’s just an invitation to oppress me. Not buying it.
If we are using offensive terms to one another in our own community, then what chance is there that straight people and gay men will stop using them? Are we re-enforcing the terms? And if so why are we doing this to each other and to ourselves? … Possibly the thought that ‘stereotypical’ lesbians such as ‘butch dykes’ are re-enforcing people’s generalisations and giving lesbians a bad name. … Could it be that society on the whole has become addicted and accustomed to using labels or labelling[?]
So now this author claims that butch dykes are giving lesbians a bad name and reinforcing stereotypical lesbianism. Oh, I recognize this tune.
And also, a word about labels: where we are in our cultural identity history, right now, in the West in the early 21st century, we reject labels. Pretty much entirely. Constantly, people are saying “don’t box me in,” “don’t restrict me,” “I’m bigger than that box,” “I’m more than a label,” et cetera. We are not addicted and accustomed to labels. I absolutely think it’s true that labels can be restrictive and limiting when applied without any leniency, and I think it’s true that culturally, we used to have more of a sense of defining people by their gender, age, race, economic status, ethnicity, family history, class, social status, religious beliefs, et cetera – by all of the factors of social hierarchy. But this is precisely what the various activist movements of the 20th century have been working to change, and in many ways, it absolutely has changed. Labels are generally now seen as bad and restrictive.
The well-known and common female stereotypes such as femme , butch and dyke are only there so other people and sometimes even ourselves use to categorise all the ‘types’ or ‘breeds’ of lesbians neatly away into a fileable drawer. [Emphasis added.]
Oh, now I’m just sad. The only reason butch exists is so others – or “sometimes even ourselves,” (implying, of course, how sad that is, that our internalized homophobia is so bad that we limit ourselves so awfully) – can categorize us?
Goddammit, this is just so inaccurate. There is a long history of butch, femme, and genderqueer WARRIORS who are changing laws, making strives, marching in protests, fighting for rights, being visible, working hard, raising kids, making families, contributing to thriving communities, loving, living, and being ourselves.
And now, this perspective of the author of this article becomes even more transparent: the things she is saying here are flat-out gender-phobic. Probably out of ignorance, rather than intentionally malicious, but still. This author clearly cannot imagine that any femme, butch, or dyke would ever be authentically empowered by these labels (as opposed to falsely empowered through internalized homophobia) or claiming them out of some sort of intentional, conscious, educated, contextualized narrative of queer culture, life, identity, and empowerment.
I haven’t even started about the power of reclaiming words, here, which this author completely discounts as even remotely possible. Yes, the word “dyke,” for example, has been used by outsiders to marginalize and oppress people within that group. But part of the process of legitimizing that identity is to take the words that have been used to oppress us and revision them to be valuable, which, by proxy, revisions the identity as valuable as well. This also deflates the potential of the insult: if the word no longer has any negative connotations, and someone shouts “dyke!” from across the street, we can recognize that he’s a) being blatantly and ridiculously homophobic, b) attempting to insult us, and c) stupid and ignorant if he thinks homophobia is acceptable. It’s much easier for this type of encounter not to sting, and not to be taken seriously, when we are used to throwing around the words that are attempted to be used as insults.
Aside from that, there’s the linguistics of it all: “lesbian” sounds like the technical term, like dentifrice instead of toothpaste. It sounds like something you could contract or pick up, it’s long – three syllables – and fairly awkward in the mouth. “Dyke,” however, is short, powerful, with strong, shit-kicking consonants that pops on the tongue. Stronger, tougher, thicker, more powerful.
The author of this article closes with this:
We should all join and work together to end other people’s preconceptions, generalisations and stereotypes by not doing it in and to our own community.
Yes, I agree in part – we should end preconceptions, generalizations, and stereotypes. But what this author is describing is not “doing it in and to our own community” necessarily. People – everyone, women and lesbians and yes, even dykes – have our own agency, our own ability to define for ourselves who we are and what we are doing with it. To speak from outside of a community who uses this language intentionally about the choice of using this language is belittling and offensive, implying that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing by using this language.
And I know some of you are thinking, “well, Sinclair, you’re a bit different than the average butch, after all,” but ya know what? I haven’t found that to be true. I have found that most butches I know are incredibly intentional about their identities, and have beautiful things to say about what it’s like to navigate the world as a butch-looking woman, often even if they don’t identify with the label, culture, or politics. Same with the femmes. Butch and femme are no longer default identities to which one gets shoved into the minute one comes out as a lesbian. Queer, dyke, butch, femme – those words are marginalized, othered, looked down upon in many ways. It takes work to come to them, work to claim them, and work to keep them functioning.
This author, like the majority of folks out there – lesbian communities notwithstanding, unfortunately – are missing some key elements and understandings of the history of gender radicalism, what it means to reclaim language, and what it means to adopt these identities. Articles like this really get my boxers in a twist because they appear to be a conscious, intentional analysis of what’s difficult or challenging within the lesbian communities, but in fact, they are reinforcing gender misunderstandings and further marginalizing those of us who do play with gender intentionally, celebrationally, and beautifully.
Cynthia Nixon has sent a message to us gay women: learn the facts & take control of your breast health.
Don’t forget those breast exams too – they say it’s so important to detect cancer early. (Doesn’t it feel sometimes like it’s not whether or not you will ever get cancer, but when, and how early you will find it? Sometimes I feel like we live in a scary time, when we’re so susceptible to such mutations of our bodies.) So don’t forget to do those breast exams, your own, your girlfriend’s, your lovers, your fuckbuddy, your booty call … I do find it’s best if you ask first. Just sayin’.
One more thing:
To Belle, and to the femmes I’ve dated and fucked and longingly admired: Thank you.
Thank you for swooning over my neckties and collared shirts, my perfectly messy short hair, my heavy belt buckles and swagger and the way I order wine for you. Thank you for having my favorite whiskey at your house for me, just for me, thank you for dressing up and looking your best, celebrating the costume of femininity, for putting time into your hair and makeup and outfit and shaved legs and stockings and lingerie straps that bite into flesh and shin splints from high heels and freezing legs from short skirts and the eyelash batting and the way I feel like a million bucks when I’ve got you on my arm.
I appreciate your gender expression, deeply, because I make more sense when I’m next to you. To quote Cody: “Let’s be honest: we need femmes.” I didn’t get who I was until I started dating femmes. This identity does not exist in a vacuum, and, for me, requires the duo dynamic inherently.
I have so much reverence for the femme aesthetic. Am I occasionally jealous of your ability to pass? Yes. But I understand – at least a little – the burdon of it, too, and I want you to share that with me. Femininity is assumed to be for the benefit of straight men, and to subvert that can sometimes mean consequences.
Yeah, I get tired of being on the front lines of visibility sometimes. But when I have a femme on my arm, strutting down the street, freshly fucked and we’re melting into each other, everyone who sees us knows what we are, and I love the second glances we get. I love the tiny revolutions that happen in the faces of strangers passing by.
Passing is not always a privilege. Some femmes I know have even said to me that passing is never a privilege, in fact. (I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I understand the argument.) To force someone to admit that it is a privilege is to force a hierarchy, such a power play, such an insecure I’m-better-than-you kind of move.
I’ve joked occasionally that femmes and other passing queers get to hear what straight people say when they don’t know a queer is listening. My lovers have occasionally told me stories of what they heard at work or school and I’m shocked – especially in PC-Seattle where I used to live, I never heard people saying homophobic – or even homo-ignorant – remarks around me, because I am visibly queer, they knew I was listening. As a writer, as an activist, as an observer of human character, I am fascinated by those conversations and interested in access to those places where I cannot go. Likewise, I sometimes find I have access to intimate (bio-hetero-) male conversations, where they let me in as one-of-the-guys and bitch about their wives, tell sexist jokes, or fawn over girls at the bar. A straight girl – and probably femmes – would probably not have access to these conversations.
I’m remembering a conversation I had with my friend and femme spy once upon a time, where she strongly asserted that there is no privilege in passing as straight, especially because sometimes, when she is presumed straight and then outs herself, she actually finds herself in more danger than she was previously and, I believe she argued, she’d be in more danger than someone visibly queer – a butch – because of the perception that her passing was actually deception.
I definitely see her point there, and it makes me feel highly protective and posessive of femmes, to think of the occasional dangerous situations they may be in. I still think there is some privilege in the femme identity – as there is some in the butch identity, some in an androgynous or genderqueer or any other gender identity, isn’t there? If there was no benefit, what use would it be? I suppose “privilege” here though is not the same as “benefit;” one implies a hierarchical gain within social structures.
Maybe I need to back up here. What is privilege? How do we define it? How do we know when we have it, when we don’t? And what, if anything, do we do with it when we have it? What are our responsibilities with privilege, how do we meet them? How do we avoid abusing our privileges?
Uh, I’ll think about that and get back to you. Chime in your two cents if you feel inspired, please.
Ultimately, though, I really want to stress that comparing degrees of oppression is fruitless and purposeless. Who does it help? Do you really feel better after forcing someone to admit that they have privilege? It’s one thing to have a discussion about it, to acknowledge the intricate complexities within identity hierarchies – it’s another thing to play these I’m-better-than-you games.
In response to what Belle wrote about privilege, guilt, and butch/femme:
I can’t speak (write) for all butches, and I do get that some of us have awful things to say about femmes and passing and privilege. I don’t know what to tell you about all of that, except that I think that it’s bullshit. It comes from a misogynistic bullying place where the one who is bullied and oppressed turns around and bullies the femme who is littler than you.
This is male privilege. This is the heteronormative hierarchy.
I don’t feel “more oppressed” than any given femme, and I resent that game of who has more hardship than whom. Division and in-fighting are ways that our marginalized communities stay broken apart instead of banded together. C’mon, remember Lord of the Rings?
Yes, butches are more visible, and therefore, in some situations, easier targets. But femmes are targets, too, and discriminated against. Hell, there are so few of us who even fall into this butch/femme dynamic – why make enemies of each other?
This past week I appeared as a guest on the Diana Cage Show on Sirius OutQ radio, and she’d had a whole segment of conversation before my part (where I performed some poetry and chatted about breakups, smut, and femmes, what else) where she was talking about “butch training,” I shit you not.
“Who trained you?” she asked me.
“I don’t think I was ‘trained’ … do all butches get trained?” I was confused.
“Oh yeah,” she answered.
“What about femmes?”
“Oh, no, they don’t need to be trained.”
Oh man, did my mind boggle. I don’t think she’s right about that, but let’s say, for a minute, that she is. In what do we need training? Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to be trained? Had I already been, and didn’t know it? Who had trained me?
“I’m not sure I was trained …” I said skeptically.
“Yeah, true, you’re a chivalrous butch. An old-school butch,” she said, as if this meant maybe I didn’t need ‘training’ after all?
“Yeah, I am. And a feminist, hardcore.” But I kept thinking. “Maybe my first big love trained me,” I said. She was the first femme I knew and she whispered in my ear, I think you’re butch, and I came a little and threw up at the same time. I watched how she wished her girlfriends would treat her and tried to be that.
And when I thought about it more later, I think it was my mother, my parents, who probably most deserve credit for “training” me in the ways that I take care of myself and others. Isn’t that what we’re speaking of? How we love, how we care, how we expect the partnership dynamic to work? And, fundamentally, if I may interpolate here, I think the “training” refers to those butches who often have grown up tomboys, one-of-the-guys, with a socialized masculinity. Those butches that treat femmes – and women – and, hell, people – with disrespect and dishonor, and I think it has everything to do with the “tough guise” of masculinity.
My point is, this is often the same type of butch (as much as I shudder to sub-categorize) I’ve heard this “femme privilege” argument come from, too. And I resent it, deeply. It saddens and angers me. I don’t know how to encourage a more wholistic, human range of experience in that type of butch (again, I shudder), wish I did.
But. This is what I have to say to Belle, or to any femme who endours that forced guilt about femme privilege:
Yes, passing is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Just like my visibility is sometimes a privilege, but not always. Tell me about times it was a privilege for you, and times it wasn’t, and then ask me about my stories, too. Tell me what it’s like to walk in your shoes. Let me learn from your experience. It’s hard sometimes to be a queer in this heterodominant society, and it’s hard to be a butch or femme in a lesbian community rooted in androgyny and which associates gender oppression with gender expression.
Fuck, can’t we share this burdon? Can’t we pass this weight around, let it be a little lighter between us? I mean, I know I’m a hippie-feminist-do-gooder-pacifist and all, but I believe in the power of community, deeply.
An acquaintance of mine sent this on to me, she is going to be playing Santa at Sylvia’s Place Homeless Youth Shelter again this year, and they need donated gifts for queer youth.
If you want to be a Gay Santa, they’ll send you a “dear santa” letter from one of the youth, and then you an drop off or mail the gift with their name on it back to the shelter. if you’ve got the means, it sounds like a really fun process to be a part of! I’m excited to participate.
More information about Sylvia’s Place: We provide emergency shelter to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. A 2006 report from the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force estimates that a third of homeless youth identify as LGBT. In New York City, this means that something like 8,000 to 10,000 youth are without shelter every night. This has led many to refer to this as an “epidemic” of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Find out more…
Gay Santa wrote:
Happy Holidays from Sylvia’s Place Homeless Youth Center! We are hoping you will consider being a ‘Gay Santa’ this year.
To participate, send us your postal mailing address and you will be sent a “Dear Santa” letter from a homeless young person asking for a gift. Wrapped gifts, labeled with the young person’s name, can be mailed or dropped off at the shelter: Metropolitan Community Church , 446 W 36th st, NYC NY 10018
Our goal is to make sure each of our young people receive a gift this Christmas. With your support, we know this goal will become a reality.
Many thanks and warm holiday wishes,
Kate Barnhart, Director
MCCNY/Homeless Youth Services
446 W 36th St, NYC NY 10018
Link: A particularly articulate rant about Trans Remembrance Day, “since everyone’s ga-ga for dead gender deviants this week:”
All we have are a bunch of self-congratulatory white people, like the fucking HRC, waving some lights and making some jokes, while the world keeps grinding away at those who lack the privilege to float above it all.