Posts Tagged ‘outsider complex’

On Being Left Out of Butch & Femme

August 13, 2010  |  advice, essays  |  9 Comments

From the Ask Me Anything questions from Sugarbutch’s 4th anniversary:

a) I often find myself at a loss when trying to slot myself into the femme-butch dichotomy – I don’t feel like I can identify with either. Yet I can’t really pass for androgynous (come on, boobs). so much of what I see in the queer world, in person and online, frames itself around being butch or femme and I feel left out. Is there a movement of queer people who *don’t* align themselves with butch or femme?

b) Some practical advice now…so there’s this girl. :D She’s a friend of a friend and there’s possibly something brewing there. (She knows I’m interested in her, she’s intrigued, hasn’t promised anything yet but would like to get to know me better). She’s overseas at the moment and won’t be back in my neighbourhood till August, baaaaaah. We’ve been chatting over Facebook and I’d like to send her some subtly flirty messages. Nothing too obvious or creepy, but what can I say that won’t either lose the flirtiness (I found that even when I explicitly say something meant to be flirtatious it gets read as normal!) or freak her out? Any ideas?—Tiara the Merch Girl from themerchgirl.net

There is a huge movement of queer people who don’t align themselves with butch or femme, and who don’t identify with androgyny, either. In fact, I think folks who do not identify as butch or femme make up the majority of the dyke/queer communitites.

It’s funny, because especially from the outside, it seems like that’s all lesbian or queer women’s culture is: butch or femme. Both for folks who aren’t a part of these communities and for dykes who are just coming out, that is a really common feeling. But once inside of it, there is tremendous pressure to present more androgynously—lots of pressure for more feminine folks to cut their hair very short, for example. An above-the-ears haircut is practically a rite of passage for queer women. And the tomboy often gets pressured toward body adornment, or comments such as, “If I wanted a penis / a man / a suit, I’d be dating men,” after a particularly short haircut, or a fancy dress-up night, or presenting a new strap on cock. (Not that that’s happened to me or anything. Not that I’m bitter.)

It depends on your geographic location, too. In some cities, queer scenes are dominated by butches and femmes. In others, the norm is more toward androgyny or practicality—I’ve been chatting about gender with a femme who grew up from Alaska and noticed that I did, too, and we both have some similar observations about what it’s like to grow up in a landscape that requires very particular tools to face the weather (like xtra tufs), so the edge of femininity as adornment is seen as very superfluous. And butch as adornment, too—I wore my city boots up there one of the last times I was there for the winter holidays, and complained about how the gravel and salt they constantly spray the streets with were really ruining my boots. Cufflinks, sportcoats, silk scarves—none of that is useful. You need flannel button downs, those very functional paisley handkerchiefs, fleece jackets, thick wool hats. This is the region (well, broadly—the Pacific Northwest) where grunge started, remember?

Point being, some cities are more butch/femme oriented than others. San Francisco’s queer scene is different than Seattle’s, which is different than Chicago’s and than New York’s (and Manhattan’s is different than Brooklyn’s). And the butches and the femmes are often very visible queers, especially since we seem to be the ones who are much more into deconstructing gender than the androgynous dykes. Not always, of course, but often: the current discourse in butch/femme communities tends to focus on why these genders work, why they don’t work, how to break apart identity alignment assumptions, what we’re doing to align with the trans movements, those kinds of things.

(Which is exactly why I am so drawn to this world of butch and femme … was I butch first, and the gender deconstruction came after? Or am I butch because I love gender deconstruction so much? Chicken or egg, who knows.)

And when we talk about a lesbian who is “visibly lesbian,” what do we mean? A lesbian who is butch-ish, or androgynous, leaning toward masculine. Someone not feminine, anyway. But those things aren’t actually the same: lesbian is a sexual orientation, not a gender identity. And until those things are more separated, we’re still going to have the butches (as the most visible queers) and femmes (as the most vocal queers, since if they do not define their sexuality with their words they get mistaken as straight) as some of the most obvious folks in the dyke worlds.

But that’s not to say that the other folks aren’t there. From my own experience, it seems that dykes and lesbians and queers who do not align with butch and femme are much more prevalent and many more than those who do. I’m trying to think if I have any support for this, some statistics I can cite or study I can link to, but I can’t think of anything (anybody else?). I wonder if it only seems like there are more non-butches & femmes than there are butches and femmes because that’s what I align with, so of course I presume that I am an outsider to the dominant lesbian culture. But I don’t think that’s only my perception—I’ve certainly talked to many, many other butches and femmes who feel similarly left out of the larger lesbian culture. Look at some of the big lesbian cultural reflections: AfterEllen, Curve magazine, Go! Magazine, Girlfriends magazine, The L Word, Dinah Shore. None of those reflect butch and femme identity regularly.

You have a place in these queer communities, lesbian circles, dyke scenes. You are just as legitimately queer, regardless of whether you have one singular gender identity to pull on or not. Don’t worry. You do not have to identify as butch or femme, and there are hundreds of blogs out there by queers who do not, many magazines and films and reflections of ways to be queer without aligning with any sort of gender identity. Check out Genderfork if you need a reminder of how many different ways of expressing queer gender there are out there. Find your own gender presentation, whatever feels perfectly good to you, whatever makes you feel the most you that you can be, whatever attracts the kinds of girls or boys or grrrls or bois that you want to attract.

What say you, Sugarbutch readers? Are there more dykes in the butch/femme world or in the non-butch/femme world? Do you feel left out of these identities? Is there a place for folks who do not identify as butch or femme in the queer world? Or do you, as a butch or femme, feel left out of mainstream lesbian culture? Is there a place for you in the larger queer world?

Second …

This girl thing. Well, it looks like I waited a long time, too long, because now it’s August and she might be back. I’m really slow on these Ask Me Anything questions, unfortunately. So maybe you can give us an update! What’s happening now? Did your flirty Facebook chatting work?

Countdown to the Femme Conference: Three Weeks

July 30, 2010  |  essays  |  4 Comments

The Femme Conference 2010: No Restrictions is happening in Oakland, CA in just three short weeks. There’s still time to register!

I attended in 2008 in Chicago and it was a pretty amazing experience. I took away so many conversations about identity development and expression, about visible physical markers and femme fashion. I would love to attend again, maybe next time.

Recently, I was chatting with a femme friend who was in from out of town about being in leadership or facilitator positions within this gender world, and how many baby femmes and baby butches feel lost and alone when they’re coming to these identities. “I always tell them, read your history!” she said. There are lots of books out there, actually, that discuss the same things we are going through. Sure, they might be a little dated; sure, we might have a better sense of how to break identity alignment assumptions than those writing thirty years ago. But we do not have to reinvent the wheel: much of this work has already been done for us, and even has already been recorded and written about.

So, as a countdown to this fantastic conference, I’m going to feature a couple of different femme tomes that are really important in the heritage of the femme world—or that have been to me. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend it.

The first, and most recent publication about femme identity (as far as I know) is the two-volume set Visible: A Femmethology edited by Jennifer Clare Burke and published by Homofactus Press.

Visible: A Femmethology is a collection of personal essays from over fifty contributors who explore what it means to be a queer femme. Award winning authors, spoken-word artists, and totally new voices come together to challenge conventional ideas of how disability, class, nationality, race, aesthetics, sexual orientation, gender identity, and body type intersect with each contributor’s concrete notion of femmedom.

Though the book launched more than a year ago, the book’s website still has some very valuable stuff, including a large list of contributors, if you’d like to look up some inspiring writers, and mini-interviews with them about what it means to be femme.

The cover was a bit controversial, when it came out, but there are some male authors in this book who explore their femme identity, so I can understand that they intended to show that femme is not something that exclusively belongs to cis women.

I’ll admit, I’m a little biased with this book, because I have a piece in Volume II called A Love Letter to Femmes. Dacia recorded it for me last year, when the book was coming out, so there’s an audio recording of me reading it, if you’d like to hear it. But even if I didn’t have a piece in it, the collection is a great read and will I think inspire any femme to feel less alone. Most of the focus in this anthology, probably because of the title, Visible, is on the invisibility of femme identity and the ways that, particularly, straight folks assume femmes are also straight. I have my own thoughts about invisibility, mostly about sovereignty and the outsider complex that many of us feel, but regardless of my own opinions, I know visibility is something that pretty much all femmes feel at various times, so it’s an important thing to study and bring light to and discuss.

Order the two volumes directly from Homofactus Press (if you’d like the small indie press to get the most benefit), from your local independent queer feminist neighborhood bookstore, or, if you must, from Amazon.

Define: Outsider Complex

July 29, 2010  |  essays  |  14 Comments

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” —Hafiz

I haven’t found an official psychological definition of the Outsider Complex, but I think it does exist in those circles. Maybe the phrase seems common sense enough that nobody feels the need to define it somewhere. You can tell what I mean by it already, right? The occasionally overwhelming obsession of being an outsider, which sometimes means either putting oneself in a position of being an outsider (be that consciously or unconsciously) and often lamenting “not fitting in” or not being part of the status quo.

Well, let me tell you something: the status is not quo. It seems like just about every marginalized group has their own sense of the Outsider Complex, but I think queers are susceptible to it in our own ways. Especially genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers. Especially kinky genderqueer queers who grew up in a place that insisted, over and over and over, that fitting in, climbing the social or corporate ladder, following along on the assembly line, is the only way to live one’s life.

And as usual, I believe that if we can name something, define it, study it’s parameters, that when it comes up in our own lives, it will feel easier to deal with, because we have some sort of Big Emotional Reaction and we can point our finger and say, “Outsider complex,” take a breath, and have some sort of context for what’s happening. I believe that making the process conscious will improve it.

I’ve been talking about the Outsider Complex a lot lately. Everybody’s got their own version of it, I think—even most straight white Christian republican cis guys, I would argue, still get their own healthy dose of it, perhaps it’s just an inevitable side-product of this individualist culture. But it’s been coming up for me because Kristen’s version of it and my version are very different. And sometimes, that has created some tension between us, because I just didn’t get where she was coming from.

See, I grew up in Southeast Alaska. If you’ve been following along with my column Mr. Sexsmith’s Other Girlfriend, you know all about it; I’ve been writing about my relationships with places a lot over there. Not only did I grow up very much outside of suburbia, American cities, and even American farmland, I also grew up with hippie parents who don’t buy much into pop culture, I grew up vegetarian, I grew up with a lot of pagan influences. Combine that with my particularly unique name, and just those factors alone gave me a sense that I was different from the time I was little. But instead of feeling like that was a problem, I saw it as a badge of uniqueness. I like being different. I like being outside of mainstream culture.

So yeah, I do have an outsider complex, but it acts a bit differently than other people’s—in particular, than Kristen’s—and different than what I observe in the queer communities as a whole. Generally, I think the outside complex works more as a badge of shame, thinking ourselves inferior because we don’t fit it.

For many of us, hitting puberty and discovering that there’s something “different” about ourselves, even if we don’t quite pinpoint our gayness or butchness or transness until later, was the turning point, the place of no return, before which we were “one of the gang” and just going along like all the “normal” kids, and perhaps we have this deep-set feeling that if we could just get back to that, everything would be alright.

Perhaps that too is partially a loss of innocence process, where we learn something new and we can’t ever go back to when we didn’t know it, even if we wish we could.

Some of this Outsider Complex can also be growing up queer without any sort of queer influence. No older queers, no peers, no mentors, nobody who even said words like lesbian or gay or queer or kinky or butch or femme or trans or whatever. I think that’s changing, more and more, what with that little revolutional technological thing called the Internet, and with the advances in the gay rights and gender movements in the recent years, so perhaps kids today (oh my god did I just say that? I’m old) are growing up with much less of a sense of the Outsider Complex, just by their very different exposure to queer culture.

I continue to see this manifested, though, in so many ways with queers who are adults now, who have been out for a decade or more, who do take part in some sort of queer community: there’s still this sense of isolation, of being different than, of being not fully accepted or not fully understood for who you are or what you love.

I even think it is sometimes used by us in martyr-type ways: oh look how much of an outsider I am, oh look how different I am than everyone else, you couldn’t possibly understand me, woe is me woe is me. In the worst case scenario, perhaps.

It’s something personally I haven’t quite struggled with. And I don’t say that with any sort of hierarchy or judgment attached to it, one is not better than the other, it is just the way it is. Certainly I have my own complexes and issues, regardless of whether I have this one.

So to witness it in others is curious. What’s going on there? I want to ask. And when I see it in others, it breaks my heart a little. How would I ever explain how deeply you do belong? How common it is, to feel this way? How many thousands and thousands of other queers and kinksters and butches and femmes and whatevers just like you there are out there?

Maybe it’s because I spent years reading Wild Geese every single day, memorizing it, reminding myself, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Maybe it’s because I was never indoctrinated into Christianity and have never believed in hating myself. Maybe I’m just really lucky, I don’t know.

So tell me, readers, Redhead Army Sugarbutch Fans, queers of all spots and stripes: Does this make sense? Do you witness this outsider complex in queer worlds? Is this something that you experience? How? Have you been able to address it and get past it? Or is it something you struggle with ongoing?