Posts Tagged ‘femme invisibility’
I haven’t written as much, here, as I have in the past. I’m kind of sad about that, but that’s just the way 2012 was. My year was shaping up to be the Best Year Ever in January & February when Kristen and I were navigating the brand new openness of our relationship and I was falling in love with Rife, but in March when my dad died, everything got thrown off. I threw myself into traveling for my erotica anthology, Say Please, from April through August, and by the time I got back in August, Kristen had lost her job and I was a wreck. I’ve been working to pick up the pieces since then. Though I’ve continued to see Rife every other month or so, I haven’t written a lot about him here.
The combination of personal crises and traveling this year has meant that I have spent a whole lot more time in my inbox, and processing my fucking feelings, than I have spent writing.
Still, there were some notable posts in 2012.
It’s interesting to actually put the non-monogamy into practice. In some ways it feels like the most secure a relationship could be, that we both know to the core so deeply that our relationship is so good and solid that it’s totally okay for us to explore with other people. At our good moments that’s how it feels, anyway. In our harder moments, it’s a lot of reassurance—for both of us—that what we’re doing isn’t going to fuck up what we have. That is so, so important to me, to keep us safe and to not do anything that might jeopardize the foundation we’re building and the intensity between us and our sexual spark and all of those things, and if ever you feel like I am doing something that jeopardizes that, I want to know and I want to fix it as immediately as possible. I trust that, deeply; I have faith in us and I think we can figure this out. It’s hard, it continues to be hard, but I’m excited about the possibilities this is opening up and I’m glad we are exploring together.
I came out about opening up our relationship, and dating Rife, and how Kristen and I were dealing with that, in March 2012 with On Opening Up My Relationship With Kristen
I love you (I told her) and I don’t think this has to or does or will take away from that, from us. … Beyond that, I started asking myself and her: How can I love you well? How can I love you better than I do? How can I continue to make you feel special in our relationship, in ways other than exclusive sex? That is only one way, one fairly arbitrary way. What are the things we both need? How do we ensure that happens well?
We came up with some agreements about what I would or wouldn’t do with him, how we’d see each other, what kind of contact we’d have, and how my relationship and sexual connection with Kristen would be kept as the highest priority. It took a long time to negotiate that, to try some things and then try other things, and it’s a working document that keeps changing.
It’s still hard—there is still jealousy and insecurity and uncertainty, but the fighting has basically ceased. There are still complications, and we talk through it. We’ve been negotiating—fairly well, I would say—ever since.
I also wrote a few posts about Rife, like our adventures at IMsL, in Like a Faggot, published in June 2012:
“I like your cock in my ass. I like it. Please, Sir, fuck my ass. Please please please.” His pleading cries became whimpers and I groaned, my hips jerking hard against his in response.
“Good boy,” I muttered as my cock slid in and out. I wrapped my arms around him, held us together, breathing hard, and brought my hand between his legs to his clit again, thrumming it gently, sensitive now. “Mmm, fuck, you feel good. Your ass is nice and tight, feels good on my cock. I like to fill you up. Squeeze me harder, let me feel how tight you are, that’s it, yeah.” He came again, squirting, I could see it darken the blanket as his body thrust forward in contractions.
“Just a little more. Then I’m going to beat you.” I slid in and he moaned deep. He whimpered and shook, straightening his body upright until I pushed him back onto the table.
“Take it,” I growled. “Just a little more. Take it like a faggot. You can do it. Come on, dirty boy, I know you like it.” He didn’t stop shaking, barely holding himself up on his legs, and I thrust in again, and again. I rambled on as I worked up a slick sweat. I wanted to wear him out, warm him up before I started beating him. “Do it for me again, faggot. Come on, boy, come on my cock while I fuck you. Do it. Do it for me.”
Kristen and I had some really good scenes this year, too. The Three Minute Game, June 2012
“For my pleasure …” I swallowed. “I would like you to kiss my feet.” We’ve played with this a little. It is only recently that I have admitted how much I like it—to myself and others—enough to actually experiment with the sensation. It makes me nervous to ask for. But that is partly what this game is for, and it’s only three minutes. I can do just about anything for three minutes.
She nodded, looked at me a little coyly, chin down eyes up lips parted, and said, “And suck your toes?”
My breath caught. “Yes,” I think I managed to say. I think it was audible. So nervous. And it’s something that I wanted to feel, so much.
I set the timer again and she slid down the bed on her belly to take my right foot in her hands and deliver a sprinkling of kisses along the top of it. She ran her tongue along the instep, the most sensitive part, and sucked gently with her lips. She tongued the crease between my big toe and second toe before sliding the larger into her mouth.
Another good Kristen story got really dirty: Dirty Filthy Nasty, September 2012:
I bring the bottle of lube, twist my legs up onto the bed and get on my knees, grab her thighs with my hands and pull her hips toward me so she’s at an angle. I pump the lube twice—once over the lips of her cunt, once on the head of my dick. I rub it slowly with my hand, showing off a little because I know she likes to watch me jerk off. Her legs are open on either side of my knees. Her cunt is mostly bare, her lips are pink and swollen.
I grip her inner thighs in my hands and poise my cock with my hips. Taking the cock in my fist, I use the head of my cock to rub the lube along her slit, rubbing it on her cunt, slick and smooth, and then smack her with it a few times, before I slide in. I reach up to her wrists and my hands fit so easily around them, she feels so small. She struggles against me, just a little, pushing back, but I have gravity and more than fifty pounds on her—we both know it’s for show. A request to hold her harder, a request to keep her down. We both shudder as I slide in deeper and put more of my weight down onto her, and she wraps her legs around me, her arms around my shoulders.
I vow to go slow, I keep repeating in my head, go slow go slow slow down go slow, but she feels so fucking good and she’s so wet and slick and pulsing around me so tight, and I’m so hard and deep, my hips start bucking and I don’t restrain them. She moans. I fuck her harder, reaching down with my right hand to lop my elbow around her calf and pull her knee up, her legs apart.
“Baby, baby, baby …”
I wish it was a given that I would fuck her like this until I shoot. I wish it was more consistent, to come inside her, to get off while she writhes.
There was a femme conference in August, and I wrote some about policing the femme identity and what it’s like to go to an identity-based conference: Are You Femme Enough for the Femme Conference? July 2012
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.
Though by far, the most viewed post was this one: Sugarbutch Star: blckndblue: The Pink Dress, January 2012, which is fiction.
“Was there something that you wanted? Sir?” She adds the last word in a low, sweet voice and my cock pulses. I drop my hand holding the glass to my side. Extending her arms around my neck, she draws closer to me. I can smell the sticky sweet of her lipstick. I lick my lips. Swallow again. My mouth is dry. I lift my arm, take a swig of the whiskey, and it goes down like a knife. She offers me her lips when I drop the glass again, whispering right up next to mine but not touching. She waits. I kiss her and her mouth is like candy, like being enveloped in silk. My knees go weak again and I lean against the wall to hold myself up. Her lipstick is a smear on my mouth and I don’t care. She leaves a trail of lip prints along my jaw and to the curve of my neck and I don’t care. She is devouring me one kiss at a time and I don’t care. My whole body shudders between her and the wall, held up by both.
She pulls on my earlobe between her lips before she whispers in my ear, “I would like to suck your cock now.” It’s almost a question, almost asking for permission, she knows that’s usually how it works, but this time it is more of a statement of intent. I notice she doesn’t say “sir” but I don’t care. She’s calling the shots now. She drags her body down mine and her skirt fans out around her legs as she kneels in front of me. She looks up, hands on her thighs, and waits, lips parted a little, lipstick smeared and thick which makes her mouth look even more swollen. I breathe deep, trying to focus. I’m supposed to do something. I manage to set the glass of whiskey down on the side table nearby and unbuckle my belt, unzip my pants, pull out my cock. She sits up on her knees to get it lined up with her mouth.
She holds the tip of my cock right outside of her lips, breathing, looking up at me, before dropping her eyes and extending her tongue, flat and soft, to lap the underside, and brings her lips forward to circle just the head and suck. She lifts her eyes again. I swoon, my head swirling, the bowl of my pelvis full and trying not to spill over. Her tongue plays down the shaft and leisurely flicks every little ridge. Her lips are soft and warm and I can feel every contour, every smooth curve.
I spent most of the last six months trying to untangle myself from grief. I wrote a little bit about that, like in Grief. Also, Trying to Find My Awesome Place:
Grief is not singular, it is not linear, it usually doesn’t even feel particularly knowable. It’s a mess, (or as I keep saying) a fog. Something engulfing that chokes and invades my lungs.
Grief it is not just about this one loss, either: it is about all losses, everywhere, ever, especially the ones I have felt. People keep reminding me of this, and yet I keep feeling surprised when I turn a corner and get sucker-punched by a memory of Cheryl, of an ex, of my fucking dog when I was seven, of every goddamn time I have to say goodbye to Rife, of those looks Kristen gives me when she’s angry and hurt and it’s my fault.
I know that what I’m feeling isn’t about that, except that it is. I know that what I’m feeling won’t last, except that it is seeping into every pore of me and I know that I am forever changed. (Fuck that sounds so dramatic. Forgive me the drama. It’s what drama was made for: loss, grief, feeling.) But it’s also true: Nothing is the same. It’s taken me months to feel that really sink in. March to August, I might argue. In August, I lost it. Since August, I’ve been trying to get it back. I don’t know how. Kristen doesn’t know how. We are both unsure what to do now, but it’s clear that we can’t quite keep going the way we’ve been going, spiraling down into something awful, me lashing out and angry, so angry. Why am I so angry? I know why I’m so angry. I probably need a punching bag daily.
We don’t know what to do, but also we kind of do. Or I guess I am starting to.
When I look back at the year, clearly the things that get the most visitors are the dirty stories. I’d like to write more of those in 2013. I like writing smut. It’s deeply pleasurable. I’d like to write more about Rife and the deep D/s that that relationship is developing. I’d like to write more about power and relationships and codependency and the ways that things can go so wrong. Mostly, I’ve just been waiting to get through these crisis months.
In this, the darkest time of year, the solstice, the time when we burn the Yule log, I keep thinking about the things I want to leave in the dark, the seeds I want to plant that will start to pop open under the surface in the next few months before pushing through the topsoil, the things that I want to grow.
I want more emotional resilience.
I want more self-confidence, less insecurity. To let go and be less controlling.
I want more radical acceptance of what is in front of me.
I want to date Kristen again.
I want to spend more time loving and less time fighting.
I want more sex. Goddamnit.
I want less railing, clinging, obsession, torture.
I want to leave the black hole of depression and grief here in the deep dark.
I want more love. More lovers. More exploration. More pleasure.
More pleasure. Yes—if I had to sum up my intentions for 2013, that would be it. More pleasure. Less grief.
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 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’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?
G at “Can I Help You, Sir?” asked about femme invisibility recently, and the topic has gone around the gender/queer blogs a bit, with some great posts and thoughts.
First, and probably most obviously: I am not femme. So I am writing from a perspective of having dated and known many femmes in my life, but I do not experience visibility directed at me, but through stories and my witnessing. I am only an indirect, at best, expert on this. But these are my thoughts on femme invisibility, i.e. femmes not being recognized as queer because of their gender presentation.
This is a real thing. Femmes everywhere and from all parts of my life have told me this. One of my first femme mentors, Tara Hardy, has multiple poems about femme identity, one of which quotes: “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?”
And early on, I knew I was attracted to femininity, knew I wanted to date femmes (though I wasn’t quite sure how). The revelation that there are gay women who like to be feminine, and that I don’t have to chase straight women who will, probably, by definition, leave me to date men, was a relief. But I know that that’s not so easy to grasp for many people.
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.” And I wanted to stand up and scream FUCK YEAH, because sometimes when femmes say “I feel so invisible” I want to say, but I SEE YOU! But I know I don’t always, not every single time, and I know I don’t make up for the other thousands of people who don’t see you, or for the discrimination and rejection from the queer communities that seems to continue, despite that femmes are a very significant part of queer communities.
One of the bottom-line issues about femme in/visibility, for me, is that it is a form of gender discrimination. When someone refuses to recognize a femme as queer, that person is saying, straight women are feminine, dykes are not, therefore your gender presentation trumps anything that might come out of your mouth about how you identify or who you are, and I am more right than you are about your identity. The sex-gender assumption is too strong and too fundamental for many people to be allowed to be overridden.
And gawd if that doesn’t get my boxers in a twist.
Especially since, let’s be honest, I fetishize the theorization of gender a little bit (or, um, maybe a lot), so the verbal explanation of gender and sexuality that femmes are pretty much required to do (because the sex-gender assumption is so strong) is all the more hot to me, and even sometimes MORE valid than the androgynous or rejection of femininity presentation of many other dykes and queers. Because, I mean, your strappy sandals are really hot, don’t get me wrong, but if you can’t use words to talk about femininity and sexuality and dykeness and a claim to queer culture and an acknowledgment of the complications of living in a culture which heteronormatizes femininity, are you going to get my blood pumping? Probably not. The femininity without the intention behind it is less appealing – to me, personally – than the ability to explain it.
From what I can tell, the issue of femme invisibility is at least threefold: visibility to straight folks, visibility to queer folks, and visibility to femmes themselves.
Passing: In/visibility to the Straight World
Not being seen as queer and recognized as radical by straight folks is a common complaint I hear from femmes. There is an added burden of constantly having to come out verbally, constantly having to remind the folks around you that you are queer, constantly having to deflect and defend yourselves against unwanted straight male attractions, since in this culture the display of femininity is presumed to be for the attraction of men, men’s gaze, men’s sexual advancement. It is seen as an invitation to being hit on, in fact. A girl out on the town and all dressed up in heels, dresses, lipstick, must be trying to “catch a man.” Of course, this isn’t true. Whoever this girl is, she could be wearing those things for all kinds of reasons, for her boyfriend, for her friends, for herself, for her wife.
And this is constant. Walking down the street, catching a cab, on the subway, at work, at a party, at a play, at a concert, in a bar – everywhere a femme goes, her femininity is assumed to be for men and to attract a man.
(This is also, in fact, one of the reasons femme-ness is subversive, and feminist: it re-creates femininity not as a tool to catch men, but as an authentic mode of expression for onesself and for queerness, disrupting this idea that femininity is “natural” for women.)
This is also called “passing,” and though I have had femmes tell me they like that they get to hear what people say when they don’t know someone gay is listening, I think generally passing carries with it a great burden, not privilege. The burden is that of constantly coming out, constantly having to argue with folks, constantly having to defend one’s orientation as gay when the sex-gender assumption does not line up.
There is also, as some femmes have mentioned to me, the problem that, after coming out verbally to someone (especially a man who is attempting to hit on you), you are sometimes in more danger than you were before, or than someone masculine- or androgynously-presenting is, because the person feels “tricked.” (I’ve written about this before, a little.) This defense is often cited in trans hate crimes, also – this notion that the trans person was presenting some other way than how they “really” are, therefore the hater was “duped” in some way.
Honestly, I don’t know what femmes can do about this particularly, aside from continue to come out. We – if I may speak for queer and gender and feminist activists – are trying to reach the straight world, we are trying to raise visibility and disrupt the idea that femininity is an invitation, but that is going to take some time. I hope there can be some assurance, regardless, that femme femininity is valid and not intended to be a tool of attraction for everyone, but for whomever it is you choose for it to be for. You can’t choose who sees you when you walk down the street – you put yourself out there in a semi-public domain and you can’t pick who you interact with on a daily basis. But you can choose what those interactions mean. And here, you just have a more advanced sense of this sex-gender assumption than they do. You are right. They are not.
Recognition: In/visibility to Queers
The second issue here is the visibility of femmes to queer communities. This, I think, is more personal and more of a vulnerable topic, since femininity (and expression of gender), to some degree, indicates desire and sexual signaling, and when those symbols of gender are not recognized as being symbols of attractiveness or attraction, that can be incredibly invalidating and disheartening.
It is a vulnerable process to put oneself out there, to make oneself available for rejection, to get dressed up for an event, to walk in and think, “my people!”, only to have them not recognize you as one of them. It hurts. It is a constant struggle.
It’s also frustrating to be hitting on people you are interested or attractive to and to have them not recognize what you’re doing as an invitation, or to resist or be skeptical of the validity of the invitation.
I understand the resistance, being on the other side of that equation, of a masculine-presenting person who has been taught over and over not to get caught up with straight women. I know a lot of butches and transmasculine folks who have a history of dating straight women, and the heartache of that inevitable loss is one we learn early. It is also dangerous – plenty of societal factors will jump in to police any attempts to “convert” a straight women to our lecherous queer ways, be it the girl’s boyfriend, friends, parents, or complete strangers, and because of the masculine presentation, the threat of violence is implicit or, sometimes, direct.
Not that this is an adequate excuse for the refusal to recognize femmes as queer, especially after a femme says “I’m queer” in some form or another.
I mean HELLO – butches and transmasculine folks and all of you queers and fucking everybody, while I’m on the subject – can we please just start to practice believing a feminine woman when she says she’s queer? Stop questioning her agency. Stop forcing her to defend herself. Stop being an ignorant idiot and realize that femmes exist and are real and valid queer identities. Any time you call a femme’s queerness into question, that is what you are doing.
Yeah so some of you might’ve had your heart smashed by a feminine straight girl in the past. I know. That sucks. You might be skeptical that you could get hurt again. Yep, okay, that’s valid. Entering into any relationship requires you to put yourself out there a little, and involves some risk. But regardless of her orientation, you might get hurt. Regardless of whether you marry this girl or date her for ten years or one year or just have a one night stand or just buy her a drink or walk away in one minute, she could hurt you. (No wait – she could reject you. You can choose whether or not that rejection is painful. But that’s a slightly different topic.)
Also: I’d like to put out there that, when in a queer space, it is okay to assume that the people in attendance are queer. Now, this does not mean that everyone is there for your own personal pleasure, and that it’s okay to blindly hit on anyone and everyone, so the “don’t be an asshole” rule obviously still applies. But if there’s a feminine person over by the jukebox at the dyke bar, it is more likely that she is gay than not. She still might not be – but if she’s in a dyke bar, and you are nice and thoughtful and polite and reasonable and respectful, it isn’t a problem to assume that she’s gay and to ask her if you can buy her a drink or tell her that you like her shoes. If she’s not gay, okay, depending on your goals of the evening (to pick someone up vs to converse with interesting people vs something else), be polite. If she is gay, that still doesn’t mean she’ll sleep with you. You might not be her type. She might be taken. You might be her type and she might not be taken, but she still might not sleep with you because for whatever reason, she doesn’t want to. Oh well! If you can, don’t take it personally, and move on.
Proof: In/visibility to Oneself
In the post Alphafemme wrote about femme invisibility, she touched on something very interesting:
It starts with not being able to see myself. That must be at the very root of it. As a little girl … I loved tea parties and dollhouses and dresses and patent leather shoes, I loved American Girl dolls and dress-up and imagining my future wedding. I was obsessed with … figure skaters and ballerinas. I fit snugly into my gender box. No questions asked. … it took me quite a long time to come out to myself. … There was no way I was gay. It just didn’t make sense. I was a girl. I was supposed to like boys. That was that. … Understanding of sexuality is so, so so tied up with gender. That’s really what makes femmes so invisible. To ourselves as well as to others. There often aren’t any outward signs that we digress from the norm. They’re all inward. And society tells us (all of us, not just femmes) all the time that the inward things? Are figments of our imagination. … So unless you look different, unless there’s some physical proof of it (whatever it is), there’s plenty of room for people to doubt you. And judge you. And feel justified in doubting and judging.
What a complicated, heartbreaking, turning-ourselves-inside-out that coming to a new identity process is. And when it is not marked by physical proof, when someone looks the same, there is no particular indication that Something Big Has Changed, so how do we know? By speaking of it, by talking about it, by documenting it in some form. Still, so much of the data we take in is visual, so even when our minds take in that something is different, if we don’t see the physical proof, it might not register the same way. I think this is also partly why the process of coming out as a dyke often involves things like cutting one’s hair off – which is the rejection of femininity and the association that femininity is performed for the attraction of men, yes, but also a physical marker that something has changed.
These are just things that are “true,” according to our culture: femininity is a tool for the attraction of men; dykes reject this and therefore don’t have to perform femininity; if you are a dyke, you also come to a more androgynous gender identity as part of your dykeness. Sexual orientation and gender presentation are so tied together – that is the sex-gender assumption in a nutshell.
It is a radical and subversive thing to occupy an identity that disrupts these social “truths.” It is hard. It is a constant battle. I think it does change, though, in two ways: we come to a more accepting, understanding place about our own identities, with a lot more sovereignty, so we don’t have to constantly feel defensive and at war with the world; and culture is changing, too. Culture is not a static fixed thing. Queer culture is advancing like mad. We are pushing the edges of it, calling into question the sex-gender assumptions in big ways. I think society is getting more accepting and understanding, as time goes on, and we do come to more solid places within ourselves, and we do get to know more and more people who are like us the longer we explore these identities.
A few more things …
Femme invisibility is gender discrimination based on the sex-gender assumption. It is not about you, it is about a culture-wide unspoken societal rule that says femininity is for the attraction of men and feminine women are straight.
Don’t take it personally. I know that’s more easily said than done, but I still think it’s true. There is not some magic femme symbol that, if you were wearing it, or if you were more gay, or “really” gay, they would have recognized it. This is their problem, not yours. There are many, many of us who recognize femme as a completely legit queer identity, as one of the cutting edges of queer identity in fact, and who know how difficult it is and how deep it runs. Your experience is valid, your orientation is valid.
Of course, femmes don’t always go through the process of invisibility. Lady Brett wrote a piece about the relative newness of invisibility in her life, and growing up a tomboy. There are so many ways to experience femme-ness and queer community involvement and recognition, and while claims to overarching truths can be called into question, our own experiences are always valid and real.
Chime in on this conversation, if you like. What do you think about femme invisibility? What has your experience of it been? What’s it like for you? How do you transcend these frustrating moments of invisibility, both to other queers, the straight world, and yourself? What have you witnessed in your femme partners or lovers or friends? How do you give a secret nod or wink to other queers?