I started a reading project to get me going with this femme memoir. I’m taking the temperature of the butch-femme/femme lit field so I know where to go with my own creative nonfiction project. Perhaps you’ll have feedback.*
Before I start, I want to be clear that I am talking about butch/femme and butch and femme (right now, in this context) in reference to people who identify as butches and femmes invested and active in a relationship with butch/femme. I am absolutely not talking about femme-looking women or butch-looking dykes who do not identify as such but are unceremoniously grouped with them by the uncomfortable, the condensers, the anyone who will. I, I promise, will not.
Yesterday, I read Joan Nestle’s A Restricted Country and in her chapter, “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950’s,” she considered a compelling argument about why butch/femme is so publicly reviled. (Yes, I said reviled. Contemporary rhetoric might have you believe that butch/femme is the norm and that alternate identities/relationships are rare and so endangered by butch/femme overrun homogenization. But that argument comes from fear and eh-hem *hegemony* and not reality) Joan, writing in the 80’s, explains how butch/femme relationships embarrass lesbian communities (1950’s-80’s, with a nod to longer ago) but I’d like to reconsider her work as it pertains to younger, emergent queer communities and the dynamics within them.
Nestle says that butch/femme couples make sex unavoidably visible to the public, producing a shameful subculture that non-butch/femme-identified lesbians cannot (but are forced to) explain to their empathetic straight-friends. Butch/femme sex is obvious to the public because 1) the phallus is obvious 2) butches are, in part, butch because of their deft sexual expertise– something onlookers might experience as skill developed from doing sex to/practicing on(?) femmes 3) straight men and women and lesbian women identify the femme with a heterosexual, bottoming woman, and can envision her sexuality, giving it imaginative life.
Of course otherwise-identified lesbian women are sexual, too. I don’t mean to say here that butch/femme is an inherently more sexual relationship than others. Rather, their relationship, whether actually sexual or not, reads always as sexual. I am also not arguing that femmes are inexpertly sexual (HA!) or bottoms. But butch/femme sexuality is readily intelligible to the public in these ways.
Nestle has this sort of brilliant point when she re-evaluates the moment at which an onlooking man demands of a lesbian couple, “Who’s the man?” This question, Nestle explains, reveals more about the limitation of heterosexual sex and the anxiety surrounding that limitation. The man’s shout embarrasses his girlfriend and reveals his own lack of expertise instead of condemning perversion. I’m not going to talk about queer heterosexual people right now so let me continue before it comes to that.
Given the state of butch-femme (butch/femme-unfriendly “radical queers” needle us, dyke friends excuse my history of dating butches as a coincidence or fetish, I get more queer-ok points for having also slept with non-butches…**) I would like to extend and adapt Nestle’s argument into the present. A new sex of queers are ashamed: the ones who believe that the perfect, queer, gender-expression is an androgynous genderqueer one, and believe that the perfect queer desire is unfettered by appearance. They believe that the most hetero-patriarchy-smashing queerness is the sex-filled kind in which everyone sleeps with everyone else.
This produces a femme/butch-femme-hostile environment because it begs butches and femmes to queer themselves so they are visible as queer and radical to a dominating, young group. It also embarrasses genderqueers by upsetting their perfect model of desire. If the perfect queerness requires unbounded desire of every-body, then the perfect queer is politically mandated to want every other homo to wear the body that the desirer desires. While femmes still “look like femmes,” they might not be sexually attractive to andro-queers–making the requirement to fuck them more difficult.***
Ultimately, the embarrassing problem of butch/femme is still about the visibility of their sex. The perfect contemporary radical queer not only desires everyone and is desired by everyone in return but also produces and experiences boundless, perverse, desire. We could provisionally identify him as a kinky switch. But this kind of sex is not actually fulfilling to everyone (or anyone) and so the necessity for all-encompassing sex increases. If everyone is doing everything then everyone will be fulfilled, accidentally, at some point or another. Of course, this is not how sex, queer or what have you, actually operates. People do avow tastes and desires and then, we hope, practice them. I refer to these iconic, imaginary, ideal, figures because their presence in a young queer public consciousness determines the way queers treat each other.
Butch/femme relationships do not publicly share this genderqueer model of sexual desire. They embrace something specific, perverse, and extremely variable. But, to others, the sex might look circumscribed, limited (in the way it used to look old-fashioned and hegemonic.) So to the straight world we still look like sexual perverts (which is dangerous but, I think, worth it.) And to the queer world we look like a relic or just like a bunch of repressed lesbians (which hurts.)
*Some of you are butches and femmes. Some of you are my sister or Ladywife. For the rest of you– I’m not sure what we’re starting from so I’ll try to be clear.
** Because femme is a construct, I believe it cannot exist when I am not constructing it. Since my femme-identity is not constructed during sex with non-butches, I wouldn’t explain myself as a femme when I am sleeping with femme-looking women or non-butch identified dykes.
***The fact that they might not desire the andro-queers is not the pertinent question because so many people accept the pervasive andro-queer project as queer ideal. (Thanks Judith Halberstam!!)