Sunday 9 October 2011

Reading my way into femme.

In her introduction (the title of which I've stolen) to the Persistence anthology, Zena Sharman writes:

I've read my way into everything that's ever mattered to me—feminism, social justice, queerness, femme. (...) I started going to the gay bar, took up go-go dancing for a queer punk band, and read everything I could get my hands on. It was in books like The Persistent Desire and Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity that I found words for who I was, and through these a lineage, a community, my heroes. Nearly ten years later, femme is more than just a word on a page. It's who I am.

Well, I don't go to gay bars (not specifically anyway) and I don't go go-go dancing, but I did read my way into femme...

My cross-dressing goes back to my earliest memories and for a very long time it was just something I did, with little care or thought for why. The label "transvestite" (when I even bothered with one) was sufficient. In my early 30s, for no obvious reason, that all changed – perhaps I was just at that stage in what Vicky Lee calls "The Tranny Journey" – and I started reading and thinking seriously about cross-dressing, sex and gender. Although I didn't formulate them so precisely back then, there were two important issues I needed to resolve:

1) The conflict between sex (in the erotic sense) and gender (in the male/female sense) – so that cross-dressing should not be reduced discretely (in the mathematical sense) either to sex (to be dismissed as male deviance) or to gender (to some notion of femaleness), but acknowledge both sexuality and gender as integral.

2) The conflict between male cross-dressing and the usual feminist critique thereof: that male CDs are, for whatever reason, merely acting out patriarchal stereotypes of womanhood – so that our own form of "femininity" might be justified theoretically and politically without reneging on a general feminist understanding of gender (which I largely accepted).

Trawling the bookshops – Mushroom, Silver Moon, Gay's The Word (of these only the last is still going) – and later the internet, I, too, "read everything I could get my hands on". Books such as: Gender Outlaw, Pomosexuals, Public Sex, Read My Lips, Sex Changes, S/he (my copy has a different cover), Skin, Stone Butch Blues, and Transgender Warriors.

Reading all this literature – which was written with such fierce honesty, intelligence, playfulness, poetry, pride – opened me up to new ideas, new feelings, new ways of thinking about gender; and about transgender and transsexuality; about lesbian, gay and queer sexuality; sex-positivity, radical sex, sexual politics. The list of books above comprises some of my favourites, but there were plenty more: Vicky Lee's Tranny Guides; numerous trans and drag autobiographies; texts on sexology, sociology, anthropology, the law – whatever I could get my hands on.

And I'd not yet gotten to femme. Although the authors I'd read included two feminist femmes in Dorothy Allison and Minnie Bruce Pratt, their femme was specifically lesbian and didn't speak to me directly. It was another book which resonated more: Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues. This is primarily a lesbian book too, but it's also about transgender and cross-dressing – and significantly, cross-dressing as part of a gendered and sexual identity (issue 1 resolved), and which did not feature straight male CDs at all (issue 2 circumvented). Relating immediately to the main character, Jess (who is fictional but based, I think, on Feinberg's own life), I naturally compared our differing identities and then began to consider whether my own cross-dressing might be conceived as a mirrored counterpart to hers. I started investigating lesbian butch in earnest, and as there wasn't much uniquely butch theory available at the time, this mostly meant reading about butch/femme.

Eventually it struck me: There was no need to figure out an upside-down male version (so to speak) of female butch and all the confusing geometry of reflections. Butch already had a reflective counterpart – femme. And if butch could be female, why couldn't femme be male? (Perhaps if I'd read about gay male femme I'd have gotten there sooner, but never mind.) From that realization everything fell into place:

Why is there a sexual component to our cross-dressing? Because femme is both a gendered and an erotic identity. Why are we drawn to overtly feminine clothing, of a type most women would never wear? (The type men buy for their wives at Christmas and is returned to the stores by the truckload in the New Year.) Because our real need is to express our femme natures – and femmes do wear such clothes. Why do male CDs (as Helen Boyd asked) "so rarely have any interest in the actual lives of women?" Because we're not women, we're femmes – and men. (Though this answer doesn't negate the question; in my opinion, the study of feminism should be compulsory for all male cross-dressers.) And as regards the conflict with feminism – lesbian femmes had already staked out that territory (see, for example, my femme and feminism post).

Nearly six years later (going back to Zena Sharman), femme is more than just a word on a page. It's who I am.

And now I've read a lot of books on femme as well: Brazen Femme, Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls, Femmes of Power, The Femme's Guide to the Universe, The Femme Mystique, Visible: A Femmethology (and Vol.2) – and books by femmes, and more by butches, and there's always more to read on the blogosphere.

But at the moment I'm mostly reading about male femininity from the perspective of feminine gay men – which is another topic for another time.


  1. If I may say, a very interesting post and lots of food for thought.

    My issue with some of the quotes - and that's not to say my issue with how you've used them - is that I feel the author (like most of us), speaks from their own experience and generalisations are used wildly.

    If I had to pick a label, it would be common-or-garden tranny; yet I find womens' - nay peeoples' - lives interesting. I'll be honest and say if a mate starts chatting about football or cars, I'll tune out as I'd rather listen to other topics of conversation. That said, if female company start on the X Factor or Eastenders, I'll also tune out. ;-)

    I don't dig the comment about "overly feminine clothing", although I do love my heels. :-) Perhaps that statement is true of certain folk (women and trans ppl), but not all. Maybe it's more an exposure thing? I mean, if you've worn heels for a few hours and actually had to move around, they are not the most comfortable thing and I can completely understand why ballet pumps and 60s boots rule the working wardrobe. :-)

    Can you be trans and feminist? Maybe. What about trans and egalitarian?

  2. Hi Lynn. Many thanks for your comments.

    Yes, in the initial quote Zena Sharman is speaking personally. But all the later generalizations are mine. It's difficult... I could have used "I" (rather than "we") for the whole piece, but the point is that I was trying to theorize in a general way (partly in response to feminists' "they"), so "we" made more sense really (i.e. in the paragraph of whys). Perhaps I should write somewhere that, when I say we in this blog, I don't mean we all exactly. My inclusive we only includes you (the individual reader) if you say it does. I'm not trying to dismiss anyone's personal experience or self-knowledge, only to present a different view of the whole thing which they can take on board, or not. Yes, "tranny" is a perfectly good label – I use that one too.

    Regarding "overly feminine clothing": if you look more closely you'll notice I said "overtly", rather than "overly" ;). I guess overly might still apply to some of us, though it makes me think more of drag queens than trannies. Whereas overtly means – reaching for Chambers dictionary – "open to view, not concealed, public, evident". In other words: specifically and deliberately feminine, but not necessarily over the top – heels are not compulsory ;). Talking of which: I do actually have some very comfortable (4") heels. They were only a tenner and look totally naff, but they're remarkably painless even after prolonged use. Maybe they were purpose built for trannies, assuming that men wouldn't wear uncomfortable shoes, nor care what they look like.

    "Can you be trans and feminist?" – yes, I think so. Okay, if someone just wants to dress and not bother about what it all means, then fine. As I said in my post, that's all I did myself for years. But if we're going to talk about it properly, then we have to talk about sex and gender, and that's feminists' turf. So if we're going to contribute anything meaningful to the conversation, I think we need to do our own consciousness raising. Some of the stuff that some TVs come out with I just find embarrassing, frankly.

    "What about trans and egalitarian?" – well, yes, certainly :)


  3. My bad on the 'overly/overtly', I honestly can't remember if that was me misreading things or a typing error. [ Pay attention Bond! :-) ]

    IMO, communication is tricky at the best of times, and when you take away the non-verbal clues and just have raw text, I think a fair chunk disappears. Oh, another generalisation. :-D

    Please don't think that I was tarring you with the "this is the way it is" brush (available all good retailers). I think it's tough to write from your (ones?) own point of view, let alone make it wide enough to apply to a number of people.

    I would like to think that I'm laid back enough - if that's the right phrase - to not be too phased by our community. It can be tricky when you see overly provocative outfits on the web, but in the same breath: if someone wants to dress that way, who are we to judge?

  4. In relation to #2 (Protesting the stereotype presentation), why does it even matter? I never EVER understood this argument, even as a boot, jean, boxer short wearing feminist. It's how one presents themselves that matters, what makes them feel comfortable in their own skin. What bothers me about the stereotype is when it's expected. Because a person is female, they must wear these things, as opposed to having a choice. If that's what you choose, more power to you, I say. I know I sure as hell don't have it in me to wear 4 inch heals and a girdle!

  5. Hi again Lynn. "Why does it even matter?" Well, yes, indeed – and to most TVs it probably doesn't. But for me it was something I needed to sort out – and for the reasons you outline: "What bothers me about the stereotype is when it's expected. Because a person is female, they must wear these things, as opposed to having a choice."

    The point is (or was) that the type of clothes male TVs (often) wear, as indicative of "femaleness", is sometimes seen to imply that "feminine" presentation is natural and correct for women, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes (and denying choice). I needed to reach an understanding where that implication didn't automatically follow. Femme does that for me: "Refusing the fate of Girl-By-Nature, the fem(me) is Girl-By-Choice" – Duggan & McHugh. (Never mind that I'm not actually a girl.)

    So, yes, "choice" (or "choose") is the significant word. (Or perhaps informed choice: of course the notion of choice depends on other factors, such as the freedom to make it, or the knowledge that it even exists.) Anyway, the last thing I want to do through my own clothing choices is to deny (or be seen to deny) other people theirs. Especially as, from a personal viewpoint, I prefer gender non-conformity. The saturation of popular culture with stereotypically "beautiful" people makes me tired.

  6. "Though this answer doesn't negate the question; in my opinion, the study of feminism should be compulsory for all male cross-dressers."

    ^_^ It's how you come to quotes like this that really makes me enjoy reading your blog.

  7. Hi. I'm not sure quite what you mean, but thanks anyway :)


  8. A very slightly revised version has now gone up at the quaintly titled website ‘Prancing Through Life’ :)

    I also added the following content warning:

    First person plural pronouns herein are optionally inclusive; i.e. “we” only includes an individual “I” if that particular person says it does. The use of the t-word in the fourth and eighth paragraphs is context specific, referring solely to MTF transvestite culture in the UK.