Posts Tagged ‘identity’
Two of my favorite butches on the planet – and the fabulous addition of femme Anna Camilleri – have collaborated in a queer performance collective. This clip from earlier this year is fucking rad.
SweLL featuring Anna Camilleri, Ivan E Coyote, & Lyndell Montgomery
SWELL—the new incarnation of Taste This, notorious Vancouver-based queer performance collective. In 1994, four young East Vancouver artists—Ivan E. Coyote, Anna Camilleri, Lyndell Montgomery, and Zoë T. Eakle—came together to conduct an experiment. All four had been performing solo on small stages, and they wanted more than a ten-minute spot sandwiched between the fire breather and the sound poet. They founded queer performance troupe Taste This, and premiered their first full-length project at the Edison Electric Gallery. 100+ people were turned away at the door. Artistically emboldened by the response, they took the show on the road to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and then continued to create and tour a total of four stage works in Canada and the US, until disbanding in 2000. Notably, Taste This released Boys Like Her: Transfictions (Press Gang Publishers, 1998) to critical and public acclaim, including a 1999 Book of the Year Award from Forward Magazine, an American Library of Congress Award nomination, a Community Service Award for Achievement in the Arts by Xtra West, and in 2008, Boys Like Her was included in the Queer Canadian Literature Collection at the University of Toronto. With over a decade of artistic experience to their individual credit, Camilleri, Coyote, and Montgomery recently started talking about resurrecting the kind of magical collaboration that Taste This was. A lot has changed, but the issues that the early collective inhabited are still relevant in the contemporary artistic and political landscape. Questions of gender, class, sexuality, rural versus city life, and family dynamics continue to attract the attentions of the three artists. For the premiere of “So The Story Goes”—an original, full-length inter-discipline performance work—they’ll be joined by acclaimed artist Leslie Peters.
- Swiped from myspace.com/swetlltastethis
Back in April, for Sugarbutch’s third anniversary, I offered up an “ask me anything” thread where readers could ask any burning questions that they’d like for me to answer.
is it a transgender characteristic to wear a cock (with anatomically accurate balls) and feel more complete or like yourself when you are a biological female? you self ID with a lot of labels, but trans isn’t one of them. have you explored this idea? – reader
There’s two parts of this question I’d like to explore: first, my personal identity, and my relationship to “trans”; second, gender’s relationship to cocks, and my personal thoughts on that, too.
I do identify with the term “trans,” to some degree. That’s complicated, because I am not transitioning, and I do not identify as male. I feel strongly that it’s important for me to be female, a woman, lesbian-identified, and to behave and look the way I do (i.e., masculine). But insofar as people with my biological sex most often have a feminine gender presentation (setting aside the societal compulsory prescription of the feminine gender presentation), and I do not, I feel as though I am transgressing gender boundaries by my claim to masculinity and by presenting in a way that is seemingly in conflict with the (societally prescribed) sex/gender assumption. I – me personally, my identity, my work, my discussions – defy rigid, polarizing gender norms, and queer gender. I believe in taking this and that from any sorts of presentations around us and re-creating onesself in ways that make us feel good, empowered, strong, sexy, expressive, and authentic. I think we can all transcend our prescribed roles – no matter what they are, gender or familial or societal – and become ourselves in larger ways.
I don’t usually include “trans” in my list of identity descriptors. When I refer to myself as trans, it’s usually very couched in other things, like “my particular kind of genderqueer masculine-identified trans-ness.” I guess I feel like my use of trans and my inclusion in the trans communities is a bit controversial, as there are plenty of people who will jump (and have jumped) in to correct my use of this term, saying that my use of it invalidates the experiences of “real” trans people who are FTM or MTF and who are transsexual, transitioning fully from one gender to another.
So I tend to claim butch, whole-heartedly and fairly simply, really, and leave it at that. Because that’s what I am (right now, anyway, not that I anticipate that changing, but who knows, it could), and though I do think that the identity of butch includes a sort of trans-ness or a genderqueer-ness of occupying more than one gendered space at once, ‘butch’ accurately describes me much better than the term trans.
Now: about cocks.
Specifically, about cocks with anatomically accurate balls, about realistic cocks, about flesh-colored cocks and really feeling it and claiming it as MY cock, about having a cock as someone whose body doesn’t quite have one, not in the same way that other bodies have one.
I want to disrupt this idea that cocks specifically and penetration in general is a male, masculine, or man’s trait. I mean I get it: when considering human genitalia, the man is the one with the penis, the woman is the one with the vulva. But men have holes that feel good when penetrated, too, and women have fingers and tongues and sometimes clits big enough to penetrate, and a long history of dildoes, and then of course there’s the strap on cock, for when we really want to feel what it’s like to swing from the hips.
I was at a sex blogger tea party here in New York City maybe two years ago, discussing cock-centricty, when I believe Chris of Carnal Nation said (something like): “I know I’m a guy and all, but I’m not as cock-centric as you are. When I fuck, it’s with my hands, or my mouth. I don’t identify with it the same way you do, and it’s not my central sex act.”
This seems like a rather rare perspective for cis men, especially given that our entire (American, white, dominant) sexual culture is pretty much built around penises and penetration and the male erection, etc, but I think it’s more common than we’d expect.
Likewise, I have known some femmes who have been some of the most cock-centric people I’ve ever met. They drive a mean strap-on, as they say. And I’ve known some butches and trans men who are not cock-centric at all, despite that it would seemingly align with their masculine gender to be so.
Maybe this perspective of mine is also partly as a result of coming out as queer into a lesbian community which questioned cocks constantly. I have absolutely heard girls say, “If I wanted to get fucked with a cock, I’d date a man!” (Who I, duh, didn’t sleep with. More than once.) So coming to my own desire for using a cock and my own cock-centricty, while at the same time coming to a butch identity though not transitioning to male, I claimed cocks as a certain sex act that I separated from any particular identity.
Because anything two lesbians do in bed is lesbian by nature of the definition, no matter what act it is.
Unless, you know, it’s not – I certainly don’t want to devalue the experience of being in lesbian relationships and doing a whole lot of cock-centric activities, and for one of them to later come to a male identity. Perhaps for folks who go through that, the act was not exclusively lesbian, but was also male in a way. My point is, I want to squelch the fear that lesbians can’t use cocks in their sex play because it’s “not lesbian.”
That is not to say that strapping on or identifying with a cock is genderless. It interrelates to gender identity, presentation, and celebration – but which ways it interrelates depends on the individual. For me, it absolutely plays on my gender fetish and the way I see myself as embodying a masculine gender, and I LOVE to play with that during sex (as, uh, the entire Internet knows). And femmes who strap on cocks and play with them have told me that they see cocks as part of their gender, too – that part of the turn-on awesomeness of the whole experience is that it supposedly misaligns with their gender, that their sparkly pink harness and dick is all the more sexy to them because it’s femme.
I suppose there are a few kinds of cock-centricty, right – because I’d say Kristin is fairly cock-centric, but she isn’t into wearing one and fucking with one the way I am. For the most part I’m referring to folks who want to be the wearers here, who identify with it as a part of them.
If you’re cock-centric, you’re cock-centric; I don’t think that necessarily should dictate your gender identity. Cock-centricity is not necessarily a masculine or male trait. Gender identity may be totally related, somewhat related, or not related at all – I think that just depends. For me, the interplay of gender and my cock is important, and I love the way it feels to use it, the way I feel when I’m packing, the way it feels to get off while fucking with a cock, the turn-on of dirty talking about my hard dick, the ways it drives me wild to get a blow job. It is part of my masculine sexuality, but I have many other parts of masculinity that are not necessarily sexual, and I’ve explored the line between butch and trans enough that, for now, I know I’m pretty firm where I’m at. I still struggle with some descriptors like “girl,” “woman,” and “daughter,” but the other options of “son,” “man,” and “boy,” don’t fit either. So, for now, I’m sticking with butch.
I’d love to hear what some cock-centric (or non-cock-centric) gay boys have to say about this, I’m not sure how it translates (though I have some guesses). I will have to ask around.
Way back in April, for Sugarbutch’s third anniversary, I offered up an “ask me anything” thread where readers could ask any burning questions that they’d like for me to answer. Given that I’m writing so much these days my pencils are worn down to nubs, and that this summer has been a challenge, I’m behind on answering many of those questions.
Here’s one that I’ve thought about since I read it.
What are your working definitions of “butch” and “femme”?
I know that’s a tricky and possibly annoying question; I ask because I’m currently moving into the recovery phase of a recent gender panic/gender identity crisis. I’m in the process of moving to a more masculine gender presentation and (hopefully?) social role (thank God), and my girlfriend is femme (and I pretty much only like femmes), but then I don’t feel like my gender issues and vibes are very similar to those of the butches I know, and… I’m just really confused.
I do have somewhat of a working definition of these terms: usually I say, in the broadest sense, butch and femme are intentional reclamations and recreations of gender. There’s more to it than that, of course, and these identities are policed by all sorts of social and gender forces. But that’s a start.
But that’s just my brief two cents. I want to know: what are your interpretations of these butch and femme? What are your working definitions?
Say you run into someone who has no knowledge of what being part of butch/femme culture and what identifying as butch or femme means (which, I don’t know about you but, is very frequent for me). Or someone who has only come across these terms as pejorative? What do you tell them?
Or, think about it this way: living in New York City has taught me the strong value of the elevator pitch. Everybody’s busy, everybody’s got somewhere else to be, someone else to talk to, which is more interesting than you. So you’ve got to hook them in with something strong and solid.
So what’s your butch/femme elevator pitch? How do you explain the basics in one sentence?
I’ll have to keep thinking about mine. I’ll chime in in the comments.
An identity alignment assumption is the assumption that one's identity categories align with what is either a stereotype or a dominant compulsory cultural norm.Read More
This is what I learned at the Femme Conference.
Oh, the Femme Conference. I have so much to say about what happened there, both personally and in relation to this gender work. Oh yeah, and I have some hot stories to tell y’all, too.
First: THANK YOU, everyone who donated money to help me attend. I was able to go because of this website. I may not have gone otherwise because I really can’t afford to travel. Thank you.
The theme of the conference was The Architecture of Femme, and as such many of the panels explored the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of femme identity. As my background is in social theory and social constructionism, I tend to come from the place that says femme is constructed primarily physically, on the body, that all gender is performative. This means through symbols of femininity – shaving, long hair, skirts/dresses, heels, jewelry, makeup, etc.
One of the major themes I’ve come across in running Sugarbutch is femmes who feel invisible – that they are not read as queer because lesbians are not feminine, femininity is a constructed gender role within the heteronormative paradigm, and the perceived notion that a femme is really either bi or straight.
This misconception has to do with physical symbols of gender, and required alignment of sexual orientation and gender.
The first keynote speaker at the conference, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, said: femmes are not invisible, you don’t know how to look.
And this is point number one that I want to make. I’ll pause here to let that sink in for you.
Femmes are not invisible, the lesbian community just doesn’t know how to look.
That deeply resonated with me. I feel I’ve been trying to say that to femme friends and lovers for some time now – “well, I found you, didn’t I? Do you not go to the clubs, do you not get dates? Of course you’re queer.”
I know it’s not this simple, really – I know there is much difficulty when someone is not recognized by their own community because they are being true to their own sense of gender. That’s not an easy contrast to reconcile, and I don’t move through the world that way so I can’t really speak to the daily experience of what that’s like.
Before the conference, I started a conversation about femme eye candy – remember this? I’ll get back to that in another post more fully, but the relevance is that Muse & I were discussing requesting photos along with some text about how the femme in the photo queers femininity – how her femme-ness is coming through in any particular way that indicates that she’s femme, not straight.
[TO BE CLEAR: this is NOT be about proving queerness whatsoever. I am working on the details of how to write this up, and will explore this much more in-depth in another post soon.]
The point is to use the femme eye candy as a visual lexicon of physical symbols, as an attempt to notice any emerging patterns and begin to record the physical markers of femme identity.
DEFINE: Markers: physical details which indicate that the person is using their fashion and style to construct a queer identity. Examples of usage: Femme markers, butch markers, queer markers, hippie markers …
I have some ideas about what these markers might be – vintage and pinup clothes, hyper-femininity, high contrast, for example – and I must thank Sam and Maggie from Toronto who did a wonderful workshop at the conference on the construction of femme identity through fashion and style, where many of my thoughts on this were refined.
The discussion at the workshop quickly went from “what are some of the femme markers” to “what are ways that femmes construct identity besides through physical markers?”
I kept thinking about these things throughout the weekend at the conference: the markers, and the ways femme is constructed besides markers.
Five things stand out greatly from the discussions as ways to construct femme:
- In contrast to butch – the classic in some ways, the stereotype in others. We all talk about how butches lend visibility and how different a femme is perceived and treated alone verses with a butch. The conference brought up the issue of femme history, too, and how hard it is to find femmes, and one of the ways to do so is to find the butches’ visible queerness and search for their partners.I think this is an incomplete, problematic, and outdated construction of femme identity generally, but it is relevant historically and it still applies at moments. Plus, for some of us our own sense of identity is so greatly magnified when in contrast to our particular desire orientation – I am not just a butch, for example, but I am a butch who loves, desires, and partners with femmes, and that is also a key component to my identity.
- In community – Maggie, the beautiful dancer and wicked smart femme behind the Femme Show (who has a wonderful girlfriend, I was disappointed to hear, as I developed quite the crush on her over the conference) spoke of how when she is in queer spaces, she expects that she should be read as queer. It should just simply be a given. It is not a given that the feminine girl at dyke night is queer, because the lesbian community is still closed off to the ideas that feminine girls are lesbians. I mean, in some ways that is being shattered – maybe that’s one good thing the L-Word has done for the lesbian communities – but in practice, many many queer women still don’t recognize femmes.(I could also speak to how this is probably engrained in butches especially, in butches who are attracted to femininity, from a young age, because we do tend to go for the straight girl or the L.U.G.s and end up getting our hopes up and our hearts broken when she, inevitably, leaves us for a guy, because, well, she’s straight. I still watch butches go through the realization that femmes exist – that femininity exists in a queer context – and wow that sure can be a revolutionary realization. But this is another topic to discuss later, too.)
- Through language - Someone commented to say she has no particular physically queer markers, and in fact she prides herself on that, and would rather constantly construct her queer identity by constantly coming out verbally. But even if a femme does see herself as using many queer fashion and style markers, there is still always an element of constructing identities verbally and through language.This brings up one other idea, which is that I think all of these ways of constructing femme identity happen for everyone, that it isn’t just one or another, that some are stronger for some femmes than others, that there are many different combinations of them that make up each unique femme expression of each person.
- Through fashion and style and through markers. There are hundreds – thousands probably – of ways to construct femme through physical feminine presentation. The conference was amazing that way, to see as many different representations of femme as there were femmes in attendance. I loved seeing the similarities, the differences. There was such an amazing array from the fanciest drag-queen femme to the pencil-skirt-and-glasses femme to the pinup girl femme to the punk rock femme to the tomboy femme to the sundress-and-cardigan femme.And the SHOES! Oh good lord, I could write an entire post on the shoes at the femme conference. (Swoon.)Honestly, I never cared for fashion until I began discovering, uncovering, and creating conscious and intentional butch/femme gender understandings. I wish I had a better grasp on fashion and the history of fashion sometimes, some folks were saying very interesting things about the evolution of women’s clothing options during the conference.
- Through theory – feminist theory, gender theory, power theory, BDSM and kink theory, postmodern theory, historical contextual theory. The intellectualizing of my own gender has been a key component to constructing my own gender identity, and this resonated strongly at the conference.
I’m going to have to work on the butch version of this idea, the ways butch identity is constructed, though I imagine it is in many ways similar: in contrast to femmes, in community, through language, through markers, through theory. But perhaps there’s more to add, perhaps butch and femme are constructed differently? Ill keep thinking on that; please do add your two cents if you’ve got ideas on this topic.
Two specific questions for you, at the end of this looooong summary of what I learned at the Femme Conference about the architecture of femme:
- What are some other tools with which you construct your identity, femme or otherwise?
- And what do your markers look like?
I did not ever mean to attempt that there is some hierarchy in having an “intentional gender” verses a “natural gender.” Actually, I’m kind of mad that anything I wrote even sparked those two differentiating terms, I really don’t like that distinction.
Contemporary gender theory says that there is no such a thing as “natural” gender, that all gender is a performance of some sort of impression of what gender is, of what physical cues for mating, attraction, sex, and physical communication between people.
Some people spend time studying gender, some do not. One of these things is not better than the other. I am not better because I study gender than someone who does not. It’s just something that I do, something others do not do.
I find it to be a fascinating, near endless, relevant, and insightful pursuit. But others may disagree with me – others, still, say that flyfishing, or American football, or taxidermy, are fascinating, near endless, relevant, and insightful pursuits; I don’t necessarily find that any of those things resonate with me, so I don’t study them.
But in choosing a romantic partner, a sex partner, a (dare I say it) girlfriend, I have some requirements. Yes, I know my standards are probably ridiculously high. But what can I say; I haven’t been single all that long (Callie & I broke up just over a year ago – it continues to feel like it’s been five years, three years, two years at least!), and I am not in any hurry to get heavily involved (read: monogamous) with someone. One of the requirements that I have – at this point – is that someone I date have things to add about all of this gender stuff that I kick around on a near-daily basis. I’d like those conversations to be collaborative, or at least complimentary. A slow building of an understanding of how this specific language of physical codes and symbols works.
I’m going to say it again, here, just in case it wasn’t clear enough: there’s nothing wrong with not being “intentional” with one’s gender.
I mentioned Penny’s lack of intentional gender not with judgment but thinking that this is something that I require in my relationships, and that perhaps it is not an interest she wishes to spend her time on and explore. We are both interested in sex, my interest and expertise is gender, and her interest and expertise is in relationships (she wants to go into couple’s counseling). Actually, I probably know about as much about relationships as she does about gender – I know quite a bit, in some ways, I’ve read many books, I’ve taken classes, I’m even familiar with much of the psychological theory, but it’s less my field of focus. Ditto to her and gender. She’s read the books, taken the classes. But it’s not necessarily a tool she uses to see the world on a daily basis.
As a small footnote, I had that difficult conversation with her on Friday, and we spent a lovely weekend together. We talked openly, things deepened, we got closer. I was half-expecting things to end, but instead, they got much better.
I’m working on writing up some sex stories from the weekend. I’m increasingly impressed with Penny’s kink, eager exploration, drive, and sexy fucken mouth … as a friend of mine said tonight, not only is she keeping up with me, she’s giving me a run for my money.
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.
I haven’t been posting much of substance here since the heated discussion On Misperceiving Someone as Femme or Butch and the follow up post. This lack of posts has been intentional. I’ve been frustrated, dissuaded.
I feel like every time I attempt to go a little farther, get a little deeper into the nuances of these discussions on gender identities and gender self-labeling, I get pulled back to square one by a barrage of emails and comments saying, “But wait! I’m offended! What about this other thing? What about people who don’t identify? What about me? What about my expeirence?”
And I want to have individual communications with everybody, to go into each detail of what they’re asking and what I’m saying, to break down the moments where I’m being misperceived, to communicate in open discussions about these fascinating issues from various perspectives.
But I can’t – mostly, I just don’t have time.
This is one of the challenges of a blog format of writing, actually: it’s not linear, it’s not one chapter building on another, it is be more of a jump-in-anytime type of format. Unfortunately, with a subject as completely personal, as totally misperceived, as dangerously controversial, and as heated as gender identity in lesbian communities, it’s very difficult to jump right in without adequate explanation as to where I am coming from in my philosophies and explorations.
I’m working on an Official Disclaimer for my discussions of gender, to put some foundations in place to which I will point. There’s so much I want to say about it, and I barely even know where to start. I have began to write this post about why that discussion frustrated me ten times, and I still get overwhelmed and my head gets chaotic when I begin to sit down to write it.
Right now, I want to make a few things in particular abundantly clear:
I do not seek to encourage others to identify as butch or femme. It is not my intention to impose butch/femme gender identities on anyone else, ever.
I seek to break down what it means to be “butch” or “femme.” I seek to apply the deconstruction of feminist methods of sexism, gender roles, and gender restrictions to lesbian gender identities, such as “butch” and “femme.”
I seek to broaden our ranges of experiences, with the underlying goal of encouraging people to be more comfortable in themselves, to come more fully alive, Yes, it’s a lofty goal. But I aim for it, and no less.
If it ever seems otherwise, if it seems like I am saying that someone should identify as butch/femme, or that it’s not okay to reject gender roles and identities, or anything along the lines of gender policing or gender enforcing or gender proselytizing, please do ask me about it. I will clarify, as well as I can.
But please keep in mind that I never operate from that space. Please consider giving me the benefit of the doubt, and come from a place of kindness – and perhaps not defensiveness – when you ask me to clarify things I’ve written.
The very foundation of my beliefs about gender is that our binary compulsive gender system is limiting to our full range of human experiences. I believe we should self-identify, should dress and act how we wish, how we most feel like ourselves, how we are most comfortable and most celebrated.
And, of course, all of these writings are my own personal experiences, observations, and studies of butch/femme and variations of gender expression. It was a long hard road through the gender police checkpoints to get where I am now; I learned a lot about myself, about queer theory, postmodern theory, and feminist theory on the way to where I’m at, and I seek to share my stories in hopes that they can be helpful.
A couple heated comments about my last post already, and I want to make a couple things clearer.
I believe it is absolutely okay to not identify with the labels of butch or femme – or any label, for that matter. I think identity categories should be chosen by ourselves, not by others, and if a label is not chosen, it should not ever be imposed.
(Sometimes I feel like that should be written at the top and bottom of every post, just to make it clear. I want to write it in all caps, in bold, in italics, underlined: I support your identity, whatever it may be, even if it isn’t mine. And I also expect you to support mine.)
I’m not trying to say that, when someone is called butch or femme and does not identify that way, that that is not a misperception of your own personal identity – of course it is. That’s why the post was called “on misperceiving someone.”
It is insulting and difficult to be misperceived, to be misrepresented. As Daisy put it: “the person saying that doesn’t understand me, and like I’ve failed at gender expression.” I totally understand that – I hate being misperceived (as Daisy also points out, I said it bugs me when people told me “you’re not really butch”), but ultimately, that too is about the other person, not about my own identity. And just because one person misperceives me does not mean that I am not butch, if that is what I am choosing to call myself.
This clarification is important to me because I see many, many folks around me, many readers of this site, many of my friends, who tell me that they deeply want to identify as butch or femme, but are holding back for whatever reasons. Are suspicious of the identities, and are making their way down those paths of understanding how it will play out for them, in their own unique ways. I want to encourage that, when I can, share my knowledge of this identity process, and make it easier for someone else.
Now, on a related sidenote – being misperceived as butch or femme, or as not butch or not femme, is about the social policing of gender. The ways we, as a society and culture, enforce standards of gender on each other, on our friends and communities and lovers and strangers.
Miss Molly commented: “As much as we’d like to say there aren’t different rules in the queer community for butches and femmes, there are many of the double standards that exist for straight men and women.” Sure – there are standards out there, but they’re the same perceived cultural standards that enforce heterosexism and homophobia.
What I find most interesting here is who is doing the enforcing of these double standards. For example, I was in my favorite dyke watering hole not long ago and ordered a vodka cranberry with my usual bartender (who, at this point, calls me “dude” affectionately and shakes my hand when I walk in), and she actually leaned in close to me and said, “Are you sure? That’s awfully … sweet, you know.”
I cringed. Yes, I usually order beer and whiskey. Yes, the drink I ordered was “girly,” and my gender was insulted there, underneath that comment. But: this is about her, not about me. As I joke, sometimes: “I’m man enough to wear pink” – I’m also man enough (ahem, “man” enough, I should say) to order a cosmo or a midori sour or a vanilla vodka cranberry with a cherry if I want one. Yes, I know it’s a sweet drink. I’m aware of what I ordered, and I wouldn’t have ordered the drink if I didn’t want it.
Ultimately, that comment was about the bartender, and her ideas about how gender framework operates, not about me or how I operate. It is not her – or anyone’s – responsibility to police what they perceive to be my gender performance, and I’m at a point in my gender process and identity won’t let anyone else do it for me.
My point about that is this: Who is it that is making these “double standards?” Who enforces them? I read all sorts of things from all sorts of personal online diaries, articles, personal ads, queer media, books, gay culture – and everywhere I hear the same stories about butch and femme: those who don’t identify with butch and femme feel like they are being pushed to do so, and those who do feel like outcasts, like gender freaks who don’t fit in.
That’s a little heartbreaking to me, every time I get my Google alert with gender keywords in my inbox: yet another email full of “Femme women are noticeably less deviant and have a socially acceptable appearance,” and “a rigid and artificial dichotomy of male/butch/top/dominant and female/femme/bottom/submissive” and “the idea of ‘butch‘ and ‘femme’ is as frakked up as Albuquerque driving” and “all butches want to become men” and “I’m butch I suppose, but I’m no guy” and “all that boy/girl butch/femme crap – it’s not real!”
All over the lesbian/queer/dyke communities – my communities – I see people railing against this, from many perspectives. All I’m trying to do here is share my own stories and my own perceptions, illuminate the process a little bit, discuss it, open it up
I want to also echo Lady Brett’s comment: “If it does piss you off, it’s probably a matter of misperception. So, please, tell me. Give me the chance to fix it before you get offended.”
Yes. Please do tell me if I misperceive your identity. Tell anybody, when they misperceive any sort of identity of yours, not just in your gender identity. I’m not trying to blow off the misperception and to encourage you to just let them go on thinking you’re butch/femme/whatever – it is insulting! and, ultimately, inaccurate. Which makes us not feel seen, not feel acknowledged, not feel validated.
What I’m really getting at with that last post is the times when someone is misperceived, really in any way, and they are deeply insulted by it. There’s more to it than just “you don’t see me as I really am” – there’s this big set of implications because of those loaded words.
But again, I want to stress, I really believe that any misperception and insult is about the other person, not about me or my identity – and I do believe this goes both ways, being perceived as butch or not butch or femme or not femme or foreign or local or a hippie or a punk or bi or trans or anything that we don’t actually identify as.
Maybe I’m getting too Buddhist in my philosophies here. I was just reading Be the Person You Want to Find by Cheri Huber, and I’m feeling those philosophies seeping into my opinions on these subjects.
Identity categories are so personal, so intimate – and the theory around them is so slippery! I mean, if anyone can identify as anything, if social policing means nothing, then what is the real meaning of an identity label? Some theorists would say, ultimately, it’s all basically meaningless. I can get there, can understand those arguments – but I also know what it feels like to be inside of these identity categories, and to know precisely how it works for me, how it’s given me a beautiful structure in which to tinker and fuck around and play.
These topics are really difficult, and anytime I post something that gets heated and emotional, I always take the comments very seriously, and consider my points even harder. I am not claiming to speak for everyone here – man, that is one of the best things about blogs, is immediate discussion and feedback and comments like this. I’m only speaking from my own perspective about my own experience, with hopes that it occasionally is helpful to others. Speaking of the round-bellied-guy, I want to echo a quote from the Buddha that I’ve got hanging on my fridge, and was reminded of this week:
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
I often have conversations with folks who say that they have been perceived femme or butch, and they really don’t like it. That tweaks me a bit, for various reasons, not the least of which is that I spent years flat out telling people, “I identify as butch,” and I would still get the response, “oh, you’re not that butch,” or “you’re not really butch.”
These identities are deeply socially constructed and policed, on all sides – those of us who do claim them, those of us who don’t. They’re loaded, complex, and largely misperceived.
Calling someone femme or butch is not necessarily intended to be insulting – sometimes, it is meant with much love and praise. But if you don’t identify as such, it can feel insulting, regardless of the intention.
This happened again recently, and it got me thinking: here’s why it doesn’t have to feel insulting, regardless of the intention.
1. This is about them, not you
Maybe you don’t identify as “femme” or “butch” at all, maybe you see those labels as confining to who you are and how you want to express yourself. Great! Good for you. Celebrate your whole self, in any way you like, you betcha.
[Hopefully you simultaneously realize that it's possible for others to find liberation and freedom inside of those categories, too, and that you don't force your philosophy of rejecting gender identities onto others. But that still never means that you have to work within that framework.]
This other person calling you these things may simply be working within the framework where they see everyone on the feminine side of the gender galaxy as femme, and everyone on the masculine side as butch.
But ultimately that is not about you – that’s about their framework. That doesn’t make your framework wrong, and that doesn’t make your perspective, presentation, or philosophies any less valid.
This is about them, and their worldview, not about you and yours.
2. Misconception of the terms
My gender-activisty self gets my boxers in a twist, because being called femme or butch is NOT AN INSULT.
These words are loaded – I get that. And sometimes, it can actually be intended as an insult – but we don’t have to take it that way.
But think about what we perceive someone else to be implying when they call us butch or femme. Where is that coming from? Who is filling that in?
It’s like someone calling you a dyke or a fag or a queer. The person slinging the insult could mean deviant, sinner, immoral, freak, but those of us who have reclaimed these words can look beyond that to laugh it off and say, “yep, that’s me. Gotta problem with that?” (Clearly, they do have a problem with that. But that’s not your problem, it’s theirs.)
Same with butch and femme: these words have deeper, personal meaning to some people, and it’s possible to take the time to go inside of the words and figure out what they hold, figure out their power and their detriments. If we knew more about the way these words worked from the inside, perhaps we would get to a place when calling someone – who doesn’t identify as one of these terms (more on that in a second) – femme or butch doesn’t make us bristle and cringe.
Because it doesn’t have to.
Here’s my basic thoughts on what we think it means when someone calls us femme or butch:
a) Femme does not mean whiny, controlling, manipulative, vulnerable, stupid, weak. Butch does not mean insensitive, thick-headed, macho, violent, emotionally stunted, controlling. Those are sexist misconceptions, and we don’t have to use those categories that way.
b) Just because you look one way one day, doesn’t mean you can’t look a different way another day. Gender is fluid, identity categories are fluid. Unless you’re chosing to identify as one of these categories, no one else can put you into these categories for you.
So, maybe this person calling you “femme” actually does mean that they think you’re weak, controlling, etc – well, then, so what? They are inaccurate on two accounts – i) that’s not what femme means, and ii) that’s not who you are (I am assuming).
They might be implying that they think you’re a high-maintenance bitch, or a thick-headed lug, but that doesn’t mean that you are. That’s just a downright insult couched in genderphobia, and you can call them on their ignorance, not take it so personally, and move on with your life.
3. Identity vs Adjective
We severely lack language to describe gender, and since we largely perceive gender to be a spectrum of masculine/feminine, butch/femme, male/female, calling someone femme or butch is simply an adjective – a way to describe which side of the binary gender scale they are perceived to fall on.
(I wish we had names for all the gender galaxy quadrants and solar systems and orbits and such, but they’re almost too big, too multi-faceted, to categorize and map. Goodness knows that won’t stop me from trying …)
In my opinion, identity categories can only be chosen by those they are describing. I think this applies in various socially charged identities – race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality.
The only time someone calls me butch and it is an identity, not an adjective, is when I myself have chosen butch as a way to describe me.
Again, the speaker here could actually mean it as an identity – but that’s about them, not about me.
Often, describing someone as femme or butch is a simple observation of their physical style – short hair vs long hair, slacks vs a skirt, heels vs boots. (Sometimes it’s much more suble, of course, as someone wearing short hair, slacks, and boots can be seen as femme.)
Usually, I’ve found the use of this word as an adjective is not entirely inaccurate (at least, not at that particular moment). The problem is that it is implying all these other things about behavior and gender performance that are then perceived to be ongoing and permanent within that person, and that’s just not true.
This is precisely the reason why I use the words to describe someone that they chose for themselves, and if I don’t know how they identify, I don’t assume.
So, in conclusion:
It really doesn’t have to be an insult, and using those terms as an insult is, in my opinion, a sexist misunderstanding.
Just because someone else doesn’t understand these categories, doesn’t mean that you don’t – even if you reject them. No need to take it personally, no need to educate them in their misconception – just let it go, don’t let it bother you, move on.