(hey, you guys, with the HUGE questions relegated to parenthetical comments!)
In a comment on my post “The Butch-Femme (public) Embarrassment, past and present” d asked:
The reductive part of my query is: what makes a femme if it’s not the performance (I mean that in the linguistic and not the theatrical sense) of a set of culturally intelligible feminine behaviors/appearances/responses/demeanors?*
And so I’ll answer it, now. But I want to be clear that I understand and value a broad range of queer identity, expression, and relationships. I am not anti-butch/butch or femme/femme. Nor am I AT ALL advocating against alternative identifications. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: people should self-categorize (or not). What I am writing about is my self-categorization as femme within a butch/femme model.
Femme is not just a performance of culturally intelligible feminine behaviors in the World. To me, at least, it is also:
1. A performance within broader queer social contexts and within butch/femme communities. (Even when a femme isn’t actively in a butch/femme context she still has butch/femme in mind in orienting her performance in the world)
2. A certain kind of active and sincere love and camaraderie between butches and femmes. And a history of that love (if not for the individual, at least within queer history) which assures both butch and femme that they can be recognized, desired, and loved without compromising. I think it is important to recognize that butch and femme are not purely performance. I have rarely met a butch or femme who has had the safety and wealth required to perform gender solely as a radical political act. The butches and femmes I know (those I recognize as my family and my people) have always been Queer in the most strictly denotative sense of the word– and have regularly been endangered and hurt because of that Queerness. But acting differently isn’t an option. Among the other things it does for butches, butch/femme may create a space where the butch body can be ideally imagined. A femme respects the butch’s radical misplacement in the world- her enclosure in a body that imperfectly (and traumatically) represents her. Butch/femme becomes a place where the butch body is perfectly at home.
If and when butches and femmes first encounter gay communities they often feel alienated by them. In part because butch/femme has a history of embarrassing lesbian communities and in part because gay communities often organize in order to achieve seemingly superfluous things. Why do we care about a mixer or advocating for gays in the military if our queer lives have always about surviving our queerness? Why would we advocate for gay marriage when we are still being denied entrance to unions, denied access to proper healthy care, and spending so much time hungry and homeless, without family. These are all basic elements of survival and shouldn’t require heterosexist legitimation through marriage to access (for queers or anyone). So butch/femme becomes a double retreat.
3. A specific way of navigating the problem of unsolicited sexual desire for the femme through both the solicitation of desire and the refusal of desire. A commitment to a navigation intelligible differently to the world-at-large and within a butch/femme context. Butch and femme bodies are both public property in different ways. For femmes, as for all women, there is first the fact of having a sexualized body. There is the additional problem that since men know you are gay they 1) believe they understand and can “see” your sex acts 2) believe your sex exists purely for their consumption 3) want to prove that you’re actually straight (and, charmingly, expect that they are the first man who’s tried to teach you the ways of the world.) I lived with these day traders in NY with NC and one of the first questions one of them asked me when I told them I was gay was “does that mean you’re a virgin?” These are problems for all dyke-identified women, of course. It gets more complicated for femmes because we perform femininity and solicit desire. After all, one of the most toxic aspects of gender hierarchies is the way that women’s sex becomes the culprit for men’s desire. Because it is one of the most toxic aspects this blame desperately requires a femme’s performance, constant critique, and perpetual ambivalence (if she is to survive the world).
I think the problem gets even more complex when you start to consider what kind of obligations and challenges might be added by involving oneself in sex work. And historically many femmes have been involved in sex work. When the femme’s body is ACTUALLY being consumed for money men begin to believe she owes it to anyone who can pay. And when being desirable and delivering pays the bills, what happens to other desire? All of the sex worker’s acts are called into question– particularly her sincerity and her desire for her partner. The invited-desirer (here I mean the (potential) lover as opposed to the voyeur, the john, men, the public) can feel guilty about her own lust for the femme. Sex work, of course, also complicates the veritable mine-ridden landscape of sex, pleasure, fear, memory, and pain that already exists for the femme and the butch.
For the butch, butch/femme can be a place where historical community makes a butch’s bodily homelessness, her stoneness, more immediately legible– for the femme it might provide a space to meet people versed and willing to work with the political and emotional realities of sex work.
4. A coming together of all of these elements whereby the existing butch/femme frameworks are both challenged, fulfilled, and challenging and fulfilling to the femme. That is, whether the soothing comes from a butch, a femme, or herself, a femme finds/makes a livable space for herself in butch/femme. The femme structures/defines personal soothing within the context of butch/femme and then goes to butch/femme to find/make a recognizable haven where she is read and understood.
I realize that I haven’t even begun to answer the question you’ve asked. And, because I write specifically about desire in almost every facet of my work, I’ll try to address that part of the question in the future. But for now I hope this clears some things up.
*Please do read the comment in full! I even linked you, for godsake.