Once upon a time (April 2014) I submitted a 3000-word something to a proposed femme anthology, Queer Feminine Affinities. That has now appeared as issue #7 of Feral Feminisms. The final version has an overtly gender studies/queer studies slant, which is fine, if a bit dry.
But where are the editors' own words? An introduction? An overview?
As it stands, QFA is little more than a collection of academic articles on the theme of femme, plus some poetry. Individually interesting to varying degrees and certainly worth publishing (and reading) but hardly living up to the project's initial ambitions: to “contribute to, challenge and expand on the established legacies of” earlier femme (and butch) anthologies. Nor does it particularly “engage queer feminine voices and communities existing and emerging in the UK”, since over half the authors are, as usual, from North America. It seems that the original editors themselves had, for whatever reason, pretty much given up on it all.
And my piece didn't make it in. That wasn't really a surprise seeing as I'd heard nothing about it since March 2015. I guess it was just quietly shelved. *Sigh*. It'd've been nice to know that, say, one, two, or three years ago. But no. In the four years (today) since I sent it off, Lynn Jones is the only other person to have read it.
Well, okay, it might have been misplaced amongst all the scholarly stuff. And as I've already said, it's “like something from the past anyway”. Almost an historical piece. How I understood myself and certain aspects of gender at a certain time. Neither “straight” nor “male” feels quite right to me anymore, or even back then in truth. All the same, I still believe in the basic premise: that femme (as an identity) may be more applicable to some of us AMAB people than trans.
So here it is. At last. See what you think. The title is as above.
Re-envisaging heterosexual MTF transvestism as a femme identity.
I am a transvestite; a male-to-female (MTF) cross-dresser; a man who wears clothes from the "other" side of the store. I also identify as femme.
Femme is notoriously difficult to define, but I like these:
— badass, rogue, illegitimate femininity. It's the femininity of those who aren't supposed to be feminine, who aren't allowed to be, but are anyway.1
— femme might be described as "femininity gone wrong" (...) femme is the danger of a body read (...) inappropriately feminine.2
Femme provides the best model I've found for explaining who I am, what I'm about, what I'm doing.
— Butch and femme have opened up (...) a self-awareness of how I work, and a context in which I make so much more sense.3
Femme fits. As Brenda Barnes put it (for butch):
— Butch is the only word I've ever found that describes how I feel. It has been a long process to find and accept it as the right word. But butch is the word.4
Whereas "female" doesn't fit. I'm not female (either cis or trans). And "feminine" comes with all kinds of cultural baggage, not least its incumbency upon being female. Femme offers a way past: a gender (and erotic) identity independent of binary correlations.
— Released from the strictures of binary models of sexual orientation and gender and sex.5
— femme (...) answered questions I'd been grappling with both politically and personally.6
This is critical given my feminist-derived understanding of gender – in particular, that the constant gendering of aspects of human existence is false, arbitrary and oppressive.
— I do not consider any behavior, trait, or mannerism to be inherently "male" or "female", and (...) my operating assumption is that cultures assign behaviors to one or another gender category and then attribute gendered significance to various behaviors.7
But it's more than theoretical. Femme and butch lives and experiences – as related by femmes and butches themselves – have many parallels with my own. To try and show how, I've been rereading my books, noting passages which resonate with me as a transvestite.
I prefer the term "transvestite" to "cross-dresser". The latter denotes behaviour, the former an identity (albeit a misunderstood one). It's important because this is not just behaviour. It's not just something I do, it's something I am. Or rather, the things I do are an expression of who I am, of a crucial part of myself. Femmes have said the same thing many times.
— I feel it is a deep identity, not a 'role' that I 'put on'.8
— I don't just do femme, like a part read from a script or scored for a movie, I am femme.9
— As a femme, I did what was natural for me, what felt right. I did not learn a part.10
How we come to be how we are is of little interest to me. Presumably from a combination of things, inherent, experiential, cultural. It doesn't matter.
— However we've gotten there, erotic identity is not simply a specific activity or "lifestyle", a set of heels or ties that dress up the quirk.11
— Over the years women have asked why I dress so mannish. My response has been that I like wearing man-tailored clothing; it's the way I choose to express myself. It is becoming more apparent every day that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be, and I am doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing.12
— The feelings themselves (...) and the tendency to express oneself in a feminine way are not things that I would consider to be chosen, although they may well be, at least partially, learned.13
— Queers are not immune from the effects of being socialized in a patriarchal world.14
Whatever the roots, our need to claim something definite, not easily discarded, comes from a similar place: The assertion of a deeply felt identity in a world or community that regards it as aberrant. Out of this need come many scenarios I recognize.
When our gender is considered suspect, it often produces shame and "giving up" (purging).
— it was so necessary, so important to belong, that I was willing to do anything, including getting rid of the female accoutrements that made me feel good, that made me feel pretty, that made me feel sexually attractive, and that made me feel connected with my real self.15
— intimidated by the stigmas attaching to femme (...) I threw my make-up away and resigned myself to short hair; I shoved my "straight girl's" clothes far back in a bottom drawer and costumed myself in tennies, shorts, a tee-shirt and baseball cap.16
— I had this mad hope that if I didn't think about these things I could somehow change, be someone I wasn't. That resolve lasted less than a week.17
Secrecy and fear are common.
— It's when you push boundaries of gender that people freak out. Could I ever be brave enough to look as butch as I sometimes feel?18
— And I was scared. I was scared of being identified. By everyone. It was a terrible secret I had to hide. (...) I thought everything I said might have hidden meanings that would be obvious to other people, so I was very dampened. My biggest priority was keeping people from seeing me.19
Ultimately, these are useless feelings, because the suppressed aspects of ourselves never go away.
— she can hold her breath longer than anyone I know, this other me. (...) Just when I think she's gone for good she comes back with a vengeance, and each time reasserts herself with a little more self-assurance. Looking me in the eye and saying, "I'm not going to put up with your being disgusted with me and embarrassed by me. You might as well love me, because I'm not going to leave you."20
Even if we're not closeted, social considerations affect how we (choose to) act.
— Arlette, a black fem, remembers how studs who lived at home would change their clothes in the car so that they would not offend their parents but could look the way they wanted when they were out.21
— I'm enjoying the cool swish of my skirt, the small oval of shade cast by my straw hat. I've missed my body's sensuality I dared not show (...) Now I've decided to dress as I please.22
I make my own concessions. My clothes are off the women's racks, but not obviously so. I hardly ever wear skirts or dresses. Or attempt a "female" shape or appearance – except occasionally; femininity has more cultural resonance in a female form, and it enhances your feelings when it's done that way, whether or not your femaleness is real.
If all this seems rather depressing, it doesn't have to be.
— I like being feminine. I enjoy the clothes and the accessories, the makeup, the shoes. I like recreating myself (...) as I "put on my face" in the mirror. I love the feel of just-shaven legs against crisp cotton sheets.23
— I grew to love the sensation of soft, swirling material brushing over my calves and thighs as I walked. I reveled in the spiraling arc of color and fabric that spun around me as I danced in late-night bars.24
— Femmes possess a certain type of energy. I like to swish around in my skirts. I even like to swish around in my jeans. (...) I love to wear earrings that catch others' attention.25
— When a high femme glides through space, everything halts as the experience is absorbed. Traffic stops, breaths are held, conversations falter. In our multitasking world, future and past fall away until there is only one moment, and that moment is her.26
The last quote comes from Shar Rednour's Femme's Guide which contains some very pertinent passages. She also mentions underdressing (a familiar transvestite strategy):
— Wearing sensual next-to-you things can also remind you that you are a Queen no matter what you have to be wearing on the outside. (...) Try wearing a velvet or embroidered bra under your McDonald's uniform. Or a PVC G-string under a power suit. No matter what costume we have to don to face the world, our lingerie is our armor (...) keeping us sane with reminders of our true nature.27
Even as a closeted boy (and adult), I used to do that much. We have similar experiences growing up too.
— I would go into my mother's closet when she was out and try on her clothes. She had a strapless long-line bra with a dozen tiny hooks and eyes down the back. The cups were so stiff they stood up by themselves. I didn't need tits to fill them. Hooking myself into the bra was my favourite part of the dress-up, slowly, painstakingly fixing the look onto my body, becoming the woman to be looked at, clasping myself into my own vision of desire.28
— I stole a pair of my father's socks. (...) That was my big first step in crossdressing. I was about fifteen. I don't remember if my date even knew I had on my father's socks. I knew I had on my father's socks, and it was tremendously exciting. I mean it was sexually arousing as well as being emotionally satisfying, an itch I didn't know I had.29
Part of the difficulty is that we have no language for who we are, what we're feeling.
— To grow up butch is to have no words or images for that way of being a woman. You have no gender-appropriate sense of self, though you know you're supposed to have one. And you can't tell anyone that you don't. (...) Living like this teaches you how to keep who you are to yourself, to keep your true nature under wraps.30
I didn't have the words either. I just wanted – needed – to dress in girls' clothes. Later, I found one word – transvestite – to repeat to myself.
— I stood in the bathroom (...) saying the word "lesbian" over and over to the mirror just to feel it, to see if it would stick.31
Butch/femme provides the words.
— This femme language that says, "Go on, try it. See what happens. And fuck the rest of them if they don't like it."32
— It's not the clothes, although the courage to wear them is femme. It's not the make-up, although the look is femme. Femme is intrinsic power and comfort in your own body.33
So far, I've concentrated on gender and gender expression, but there's another facet to this: sexuality. That's another reason butch/femme is such an accurate model for me, because it incorporates gender and sexuality and regards these as intertwined. (Heteronormativity does this only to the extent of assuming everything will line up in a certain way.)
— With the reawakening of my sexual energy came the reawakening of my femme identity, and the recognition that the two are inseparable.34
— I think of butch as much as an erotic identity as a gender identity.35
— Femme is the self-asserted silhouette of not only our femininity, but our sexual desire and natural understanding of the seditious spirit of gender.36
I think this has general application.
— the real message of butch-femme identities is an acknowledgement of the full range of female, and lesbian, sexuality – actually the full range of human sexuality, because the truth is that regardless of their sexual identity, both women and men can experience either or both ends of this continuum (...) Butch-femme is the tip of the iceberg of issues that call into question matters of sexual and gender identity.37
Most male transvestites are woman-desiring, as most men are; equally, some of us aren't. Transvestism may be partly about sexuality, but sexual object choice is independent. Personally, I'm attracted to non-normative gender, preferably on women (I like my boys to be girls38, as one lesbian femme famously said), though I'm not averse to men.
— I love the contradiction between gender identification and biological sex. I love having the simultaneity, the both/and.39
— All of my attractions crossed gender borders. Tough women and soft men turned my head.40
The problem can be in finding reciprocal desire.
— If you're a butch, I think it's necessary to pick a woman who on some level can validate your masculinity, and feel comfortable with it, and like it.41
— We admitted to our fantasies: Kris's wanting to make love to a woman while she was fully dressed (in men's clothing, of course), and mine of being made love to by a woman in a suit.42
I want to wear women's clothing, and our prevailing culture doesn't recognize this as desirable, which makes things tricky. In relationships, my femininity has been tolerated and accepted (and rejected), but never desired. That's relevant here because a lot of butch/femme writing is explicitly about partnered sex, of which I don't have enough experience to compare. Nevertheless, while there are clear differences between transvestites and femmes – our lives are not the same – there are definite parallels, as some women have already noted.
— I have come to feel that femmes share more with drag queens and MTF transgendered people than we do with straight women.43
— Who else but Femme identifies with heterosexual men who are (...) crossdressers? Who else fervently nods with recognition when hearing descriptions of the first feeling of silk against skin, the first stretched arch in never-before-worn high heels and the first revelation of the power of blush against cheekbone?44
There are parallels with my own sexuality too.
— For me and many other femmes, the core of femme sexuality lies in femme hunger, in a particularly femme strength of sexual openness, vulnerability, and need.45
— I call that balance between butch and femme as butch power and femme hunger. I'm talking about sexuality specifically. Not general life presentations.46
— Femme is active, not passive. It's saying to my partner, "Love me enough to let me go where I need to go, and take me there."47
— that hunger, that desperate need, that desire to be "fucked senseless".48
Femme hunger – yes. But the decisive extract comes from Shar Rednour again:
— The phrase "object of desire" (...) usually refers to a person being the subject or object of another person's lust, obsession, and desire. I have determined that "object of desire" is its own class of sexual orientation (...) Being an OoD means our levels of arousal rise when someone gets excited by being with us or looking at us.49
An "object of desire" – damn, yes. Rednour goes on:
— To understand what I'm talking about, try this: Set up a mirror so you can see your body but not your face while you assume your favorite masturbation position. Now talk dirty while you have sex (with yourself). Call yourself a slut or princess, whatever words are charged for you. (...) Someone is watching you. Feel the heat of her passion. You may be surprised to find that your arousal rises, even though that someone is only you.50
I can't remember any transvestite writing about the mirror, about being turned on by yourself, by your own reflection, feeling desirable and desired, and then (maybe) doing something about it. Eddie Izzard's “two lesbians in a man's body” is vaguely in this territory, but his words have to be untangled to appreciate what he only might be alluding to. We really don't talk about this stuff.
But here a lesbian femme is writing about it unashamedly, suggesting using the mirror as a sex toy and masturbating in front of it as an instructive exercise. Goddamn. Okay, my favourite position is with a long mirror raised about 18 inches off the floor and me lying beneath it. Am I the object of desire? Fuck yes.
Other women have written about the mirror as well, if less concretely.
— Becoming the object of my own gaze, I'd slip my mother's black low-cut cocktail dress on over the bra, or her sleeveless gold lamé jumpsuit. Posing for the mirror, constructing the look that spelled sex to me.51
— I stood in front of the mirror that usually reflected my cock, and dressed myself in a lacy camisole, garter belt, and nylons. I put makeup on my face (...) I put femmy earrings in my ears. I put on the femme's mask and danced the femme's dance and watched myself in the mirror. And when I danced this femme's dance, I danced the butch's dance too, somewhere in my own head. I became a whore for myself and wanted to straddle my own thighs, lower myself onto my own cock, and fall in love with myself.52
That fantasy aspect has subsided for me somewhat. Maybe there isn't the same urgency now I wear "women's" clothes full time. When we keep a major part of ourselves confined, subject to only periodic excursions, we often need to release it in an all-at-once kind of way. Or maybe it's just that I'm getting older.
— You do change over time. The things that you considered fundamental to the way you constructed your femme identity when you were twenty don't seem really important after a while. It is intriguing to be in your own life when you're not scared of it. That has taken me fifty years to get to.53
Fifty years – yes, me too.
Anyway, those are just some examples of how butch/femme works for me. Would I conclude that many MTF transvestites are really femmes? I want to say “yes” but can only manage “maybe”. Because I think femme has to be claimed, it has to be a conscious identity.
— Femme is knowing what you're doing.54
I believe my understanding of myself as femme has wider currency, but whether it actually does for any individual is only for them to say.
— My words are not the only ones. This is not the only truth. This is my truth, at this moment, as I understand thangs. For some I hope this will sound familiar. For them I hope my meaning will be clear. That it will resonate like a rare and sweet groove. Touching them down deep inside. Signifying the possibility of alternate readings. As for those who envisage things differently ... no worries.55
As it stands, my community doesn't seem to know much about femme. (For us "femme" has a different meaning, referring to our "female" side.) Without that knowledge, I don't think anyone can meaningfully claim femme – especially as our femininity is generally learned from feminine straight women (or iconography), and they mostly don't know about, or claim to be, femme either.
— my non-queer female coworkers are just female, just women, though they look like femme women I know.56
As for me:
— I have earned "femme", and I am keeping it. You can't have it back.57
1. Elizabeth Marston, Rogue Femininity; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (p206)
2. Chloë Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri, A Brazen Posture; Brazen Femme (p13)
3. Sinclair Sexsmith, With Both Fists; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (p187)
4. Brenda Barnes, Butch is How I Feel; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (p107)
5. Chloë Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri, A Brazen Posture; Brazen Femme (p12)
6. Josephine Wilson, TransFemme Theory with Miss File; Femmes of Power (p40)
7. Gayle Rubin, Of catamites and kings; The Persistent Desire (p479, n6)
8. JoAnn Loulan, Denial of Butch/Femme; The Lesbian Erotic Dance (p24); quoting Deborah Edel
9. Kathryn Chiesa Crema, Feeling Feminine: Femmedyke; The Femme Mystique (p248)
10. Joan Nestle, Butch-Femme Relationships; A Restricted Country (p95)
11. Amber Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires; My Dangerous Desires (p258)
12. Ira Jeffries, My mother's daughter; The Persistent Desire (p61)
13. Ann Tweedy, Subverting Normalcy: Living a Femme Identity; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p66, n2)
14. Amy André & Sand Chang, There and Back Again; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p97); Amy André
15. JoAnn Loulan, Passing and Hiding; The Lesbian Erotic Dance (p94/95)
16. Katherine Millersdaughter, A Coincidence of Lipstick and Self-Revelation; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (p120)
17. Debbie Bender & Linnea Due, Coming Up Butch; Dagger: On Butch Women (p101); Linnea Due
18. Ellen Grabiner, Plain or Peanut?; The Femme Mystique (p177)
19. Debbie Bender & Linnea Due, Coming Up Butch; Dagger: On Butch Women (p98); Linnea Due
20. A.J. Potter, French Fries and Fingernail Polish; The Femme Mystique (p183)
21. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy & Madeline Davis, "They was no one to mess with"; The Persistent Desire (p68)
22. Minnie Bruce Pratt, Camouflage; S/he (p126)
23. Anna Svahn, Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove; The Femme Mystique (p87)
24. Ní Aódagaín, Skirting the Issue; The Femme Mystique (p264)
25. JoAnn Loulan, Femme Energy; The Lesbian Erotic Dance (p101)
26. Shar Rednour, The Shartopian Credo; The Femme's Guide to the Universe (p4)
27. Shar Rednour, Creating the Youtopian Collection: Fashion; The Femme's Guide to the Universe (p110/111)
28. Wendy Frost, Queen Femme; The Femme Mystique (p305)
29. Debbie Bender & Linnea Due, Coming Up Butch; Dagger: On Butch Women (p99); Debbie Bender
30. JoAnn Loulan, Butch Images; The Lesbian Erotic Dance (p131)
31. Kimberly Dark, My First Lover Was Not a Lesbian; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (p33)
32. Chandra Mayor, Me, Simone, and Dot; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (p164)
33. Lisa Ortiz, Dresses for My Round Brown Body; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (p91)
34. Sandra Chan, Femme '93; The Femme Mystique (p71)
35. Jewelle Gomez, Amber Hollibaugh & Gayle Rubin, Another Place to Breathe; My Dangerous Desires (p155); Amber Hollibaugh
36. Clairanne Browne, The Lament of the Dolly Lama; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p169)
37. Arlene Istar, Femme-dyke; The Persistent Desire (p381/382)
38. Judith Butler, Subversive Bodily Acts; Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (p123)
39. Minnie Bruce Pratt, Pronouns, Politics, and Femme Practice; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (p197)
40. Ryn Hodes, Seams; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.2 (p64)
41. Lily Burana & Jeanne Cordova, Conversation with a Gentleman Butch; Dagger: On Butch Women (p118); Jeanne Cordova
42. Debra Bercuvitz, Stand by Your Man; The Femme Mystique (p93)
43. Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, On Being a Bisexual Femme; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (p141)
44. Serena Mawulisa, Trouble in a Tutu: Who Else but Femme?; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.2 (p163)
45. Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, On Being a Bisexual Femme; Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (p143)
46. JoAnn Loulan, Denial of Butch/Femme; The Lesbian Erotic Dance (p98); quoting Deborah Edel
47. Amber Hollibaugh & Cherrié Moraga, What We're Rollin' around in Bed With; My Dangerous Desires (p74); Amber Hollibaugh
48. Madeline Davis, Roles? I don't know anyone who's "playing"; The Persistent Desire (p268)
49. Shar Rednour, The (Un)Common Denominator of Femmes; The Femme's Guide to the Universe (p13)
50. Shar Rednour, The (Un)Common Denominator of Femmes; The Femme's Guide to the Universe (p14)
51. Wendy Frost, Queen Femme; The Femme Mystique (p305)
52. Barbara Smith, The dance of masks; The Persistent Desire (p430)
53. Amber Hollibaugh & Leah Lilith Albrecht-Samarasinha, Gender Warriors; My Dangerous Desires (p240); Amber Hollibaugh
54. Tara Hardy, Femmiest of Femme Hobbies; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p173); quoting Airen Lydick
55. T.J. Bryan (aka Tenacious), It Takes Ballz; Brazen Femme (p147/148)
56. Joshua Bastian Cole, Some Femmes Don't Wear Heels; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p139)
57. Daphne Gottlieb, Diesel; Visible: A Femmethology, Vol.1 (p20)
Chloë Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri (editors), Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity (Arsenal Pulp Press 2002)
Lily Burana, Roxxie, & Linnea Due (editors), Dagger: On Butch Women (Cleis Press 1994)
Jennifer Clare Burke (editor), Visible: A Femmethology, Volume One and Volume Two (Homofactus Press 2009)
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge 1990)
Ivan E. Coyote & Zena Sharman (editors), Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (Arsenal Pulp Press 2011)
Laura Harris & Elizabeth Crocker (editors), Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls (Routledge 1997)
Amber Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home (Duke University Press 2000)
JoAnn Loulan, The Lesbian Erotic Dance: Butch, Femme, Androgyny, and Other Rhythms (Spinsters Book Company 1990)
Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country (Cleis Press 1987)
Joan Nestle (editor), The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (Alyson Books 1992)
Lesléa Newman (editor), The Femme Mystique (Alyson Books 1995)
Minnie Bruce Pratt, S/he (Firebrand Books 1995)
Shar Rednour, The Femme's Guide to the Universe (Alyson Books 2000)
Del LaGrace Volcano & Ulrika Dahl, Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities (Serpent's Tail 2008)