Monday 27 January 2014

Queer Feminine Affinities.

In April of last year, Alexa Athelstan and Vikki Chalklin sent out the following ‘Call for Submissions’:

Queer Feminine Affinities aspires to become the first collaborative book that collects a diverse variety of written and visual materials by, on and for femme, queer, alternative and subversive feminine voices and communities emerging from within the UK.

Inspired by collections like Joan Nestle’s (1992) The Persistent Desire: A Femme Butch Reader, ChloĆ« Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri’s (2003) Brazen Femme, Ulrika Dahl and Del LaGrace Volcano’s (2008) Femmes of Power, Jennifer Clare Burke’s (2009) Visible: A Femmethology, and Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman’s (2011) Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, amongst other engagements with femme and queer femininities, Queer Feminine Affinities warmly invites written and visual materials that reflect on femme, queer and alternative femininities as an embodied lived experience, identity and imagined community. The collection is particularly interested in reflections that can contribute to, challenge and expand on the established legacies of these wonderfully rich anthologies.

Whilst the aforementioned collections originate from and discuss femme and queer feminine identities within a largely American context (aside from Ulrika Dahl and Del LaGrace Volcano’s Femmes of Power, which covers both American and European spaces), Queer Feminine Affinities aims to engage queer feminine voices and communities existing and emerging in the UK. The collection asks to what extent conceptualisations and lived realities of femme, queer, alternative and subversive femininities have travelled and translated along transnational lines of queer inheritances, and where our paths have diverged and our figurations have been reinvented to take fresh forms. Most of all, however, the collection simply aims to provide a printed space in which a diverse variety of feminine identified voices and perspectives can mingle in creative dialogue, discussing topics that are close to our queer fem(me)inine hearts!

The deadline was subsequently extended to 17th January 2014, by which date I submitted the following proposal:

Straight male femme: Re-envisaging heterosexual MTF transvestism as a femme identity.

After briefly outlining a few basic ideas which lie behind (my interpretation of) femme, in particular as a non-binary-specific gender and erotic identity, I propose to examine femme literature and explain how selected quotes parallel my own experience as an MTF transvestite. This is significant both to me personally and (perhaps) more generally. In the first instance, femme has enabled me to reach an understanding (extrapolated from a traditional lesbian butch/femme paradigm) of my own "feminine" identity, without reference to (for me, false) notions of femaleness. In the second, it follows the line of enquiry posited by ChloĆ« Brushwood Rose & Anna Camilleri in their introduction to Brazen Femme: “Both of us had begun to sense the need to articulate femme as a gender experience that is never tied to biological sex. (...) What would it mean to be a femme and not a woman? What would it mean to be femme outside of a lesbian framework? What is it that femmes have in common? What makes femme different from femininity?” Given that femme is famously difficult to define (“we cannot begin with a definition; we cannot offer assurances of any kind” – Duggan & McHugh), perhaps the most meaningful response to those questions is a personal one. In that spirit, I will try to portray aspects of my own femme, as neither a woman, nor a lesbian – and, at the same time, indicate (if indirectly) how femme offers a critical theoretical model for understanding MTF transvestism.

Possible word count: 3000 (if that's the maximum)

Brief biog: Jonathan (...) is a mainly straight, queer, femme, white, English, fifty-something, male cross-dresser, who paradoxically believes that the idea of discretely gendered clothing is nonsense. He blogs about transvestism, (trans)gender and femme at

In this blog I've written about femme in both personal and general terms, but I've come to suspect that the idea of femme doesn't really resonate with people; that is, with my own (TV/CD) community. The trouble is, I think, that femme (and butch/femme) is not a very familiar concept there. Although the word "femme" itself is part of our language, it's not used in the same way. To us it just means "female" or "as female", as in the expression “en femme”. So while people may get what I've written about gender, even relate to (parts of) my own experience with gender, they don't get why this is actually femme or what this idea of femme means. And that's because MTF transvestites don't tend to go looking for ideas about gender (etc) – or an understanding of their own gender – in queer female and lesbian literature. Why would they? What do queer women's real lives have to do with straight men's lives anyway?

Quite a lot, in my opinion. The sort of books the two editors list above (as inspirations) offer critical perspectives on gender, sexuality and desire which are widely applicable. I'd recommend people to read all those books and a lot more besides. But it's unlikely they're going to, so I thought I'd make it a bit easier. Reread all the books myself. Note passages where something a writer has said is directly applicable. And then point it out, so readers can see their own experiences and feelings reflected back at them. Recognize this? Yes? Well, a lesbian femme wrote that. This is femme. This is you. Perhaps.

The reason this is important to me is because I think femme (and butch) provides the best model for understanding these aspects of gender and sexuality; separate from notions of sex, of maleness and femaleness, even of transness – although transness cannot be discounted either. To paraphrase Jack Halberstam (in ‘Female Masculinity’): Because of its reliance on notions of authenticity and the real, the category of (male) femme realness is situated on the sometimes vague boundary between transgender and femme definition. The realness of fem(me)ininity can easily tip, in other words, into the desire for a more sustained realness in a recognizably female body.

Of course the editors of Queer Feminine Affinities are under no obligation to accept my proposed piece. But I shall continue working on it and just post it here if it's not to appear elsewhere.

Whether the lesbian authors I intend to quote will appreciate their words being associated with – being appropriated by – (shall we say) straight men in frocks is another question.