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Internalizing Values of Femme Competition

Image result for bitchy womenI curse like a sailor.

Whenever a new person joins my team at work, I always ask whether they’re offended or bothered by cursing, because without censoring myself I have trouble keeping “fuck” out of my vocabulary. Especially as I become friends with my coworkers, it’s just likely to happen. But one word that’s always gotten to me, that I use far less frequently, is “bitch.”

I think “bitch” is uncomfortable to me mainly because of misogyny–it’s a word used mostly for women, or is supposed to be emasculating when used for men. It has a really ugly sound in my ears when used as a quick insult. But I’ve also noticed that I do sometimes use it in certain phrases, i.e. “bitch please.” In that context other words don’t have quite the same impact.

When I do use “bitch” in phrases like this, I’ve realized that the common element is a certain kind of competition or cattiness. This variety of competition is coded as intra-femme or woman-on woman, and I’ve internalized it in such a way that it can actually make me feel better to put a woman or femme down through such language. Think of the triumphant femme archetype in a movie getting into an argument with a femme villain who’s done something particularly vile. “Bitch, you just made it personal.” I have the urge to cheer on my fellow femme, crow with the heroine’s scrappy resilience, but at the same time this triumph is actually about putting another femme down. What does that say about the values I’ve internalized?

Pitting oppressed folks against each other is a tale as old as time. Using media and culture to encourage poor white racism against people of color in the same economic position was an easy tactic for elite white folks to consolidate power. Similarly, I wonder how media that glorifies femme competition might encourage us to frame personal success as being cooler, more fashionable, or wittier than other femmes, rather than working together in collective action. After all, part of the whole point of femme community is to challenge narratives of female competition, but acting in solidarity and avoiding societal messages requires continuous struggle.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Queer Femme

picture of the author with shaved head, looking contemplative and wearing a shirt that says "my gender is infinite"I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.

Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.

To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.

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Birth Assignment and Being Seen

art by alphabonesoup, a femme-presenting person being called male and neutral termsA few things have come up recently that have me mulling over this particular topic:

  1. Some discussions a couple of months ago on Tumblr and Twitter challenging the emphasis on birth assignment in discussion of trans experience
  2. Philly Trans Health being super bro-y, and my own experience of feeling really terrible about myself at a trans conference that’s supposed to be about affirmation
  3. I’ve personally been getting “Sir”-ed a lot lately, and have been experiencing more intense dysphoria than usual.

In recent years, I’ve pretty much stopped referencing my birth assignment, except in private with close friends. What medical transition steps I have or have not taken are basically none of your g-damned business. Sometimes I’m not 100% sure about this, because there are some spheres where birth assignment could potentially matter (what I feel dysphoric about is sometimes related, and also the fact that trans women are far more likely than men to experience violence and other negative outcomes of being trans probably also applies in some cases to AMAB genderqueer folks—the recent discussions by Merritt Kopas, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and others around how “gender weirdness” is policed when AMAB are particularly chilling). But generally speaking, it’s often possible to talk about trans experience while focusing on actual gender, rather than birth assignment, and often better to do so.

What I find interesting is that as a non-binary femme trans person, I default to taking “Sir” as a compliment. I then feel kind of unsettled about it, but gendering me male, as a person who presents femme, is pretty much the only mainstream way to acknowledge my queerness in public—and being acknowledged as queer in public is very important to me. While “Sir” and masculine language doesn’t fit me at all, when I’m presenting femme, I have a sense that it acknowledges at least some difference, however backwards that is.

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A different take on femme power

I’ve been trying to think since I attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in June how to write about some of what came up in a particular femme discussion. We talked a lot about power, which is a concept I’ve struggled with. After turning it over in my head, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am powerful, but not in the ways that are most commonly described. My power comes from my enthusiasm. Whether I’m rocking out to some silly pop song while kicking the ass of a tricky database, squeeing over the next Doctor Who episode, or kneeling for a lover, I’m seriously fucking enthusiastic. And there’s power in that–in the ability to be unabashedly joyful, to throw yourself into something without reservation or shame. But it’s not a kind of power you hear much about, even in queer and trans communities.

My power is not a masculine or macho power. It’s not the kind of power that comes from leading others or from defeating the enemy or from standing up in front of a room full of people and being right. Nor is it the femme action hero kind of power of a Lucy Liu character who kicks all sorts of booty without ever messing up her eye makeup. I’ve tried that, and I do admire those femmes who strut their stuff, make cutting remarks, show their power by negotiating for salaries or starting a business or leading their communities. But that’s not me. I’m more likely to think of a comeback five minutes later, and I approach conflict with “can’t we all just get along?” I’m a pacifist. I do public speaking but I don’t feel like I’m showing my best self on a stage. As a geeky introvert, showing power in an extroverted way is something I can do, but not something I love doing.

My power comes not from these typical sources but from making mistakes, from giggling at what a fucking nerd I am, from throwing myself into something I love without shame. It isn’t a dominant kind of power or the power of a leader, but it’s no less valuable. And while we’ve gotten to the point of recognizing femme power, I think we could take a next step in recognizing power that doesn’t focus on leadership or winning or getting things right. Sometimes power is shy or submissive, is geeky and obscure, is less than obvious.

So getting back to the topic of femme power, I want to recognize that some of us are uncomfortable in a tight, killer-hot action hero ensemble. Some of us want to wear floofy yellow dresses or femmey sweatpants and be powerful even when we’re dressed in what one conference attendee called “blah femme.” Some of us feel more comfortable and authentic in a different kind of presentation, and it’s that comfort and authenticity where I find my power most firmly resonates.

Rethinking Transfemininity

When I was in high school I learned about the difference between sex and gender.  I was lucky to even have that much education at the time, where I lived, but what we learned was rather basic.  Sex is your body and your chromosomes; gender is your identity.  This simple definition assumes that gender is a relatively simple, coherent thing.  It’s the idea that’s behind “real life experience,” the idea that assumes trans people fit into a fairly narrow range of expressions and traits based on gender identity.  Of course, we don’t.

Being female doesn’t mean that you’re feminine, nor does being male mean that you’re masculine.  Perhaps this would be easier for some people.  People do like to be able to identify and name gender.  I’ve said before that my gender is more about how I’m read or named than how I experience myself.  My gender comes out of how I’m perceived.  When I disclose that I’m trans, I sometimes am asked, based on my femme appearance, whether I’m a trans woman or a trans man who hasn’t yet transitioned.  When I explain that I’m genderqueer, I’ve been asked a couple of times what sex I was assumed to be at birth.  I no longer am willing to respond to that question, because it’s so irrelevant.

Asher Bauer wrote a post a while back that I need to find where he explained that he’s not transmasculine.  As a femme transman, “masculine” is not part of his gender as he experiences it.  I think this would confuse a lot of people, but it makes sense to me.  Coming into femme has  been the biggest part of my transition, and my history isn’t relevant to that.  Whether I was assumed male or female at birth rarely matters; what does matter is the kinds of privilege I have based on how I’m perceived.  In spaces where I don’t mention my transness, I’m usually perceived as female because of how I look, which gives me a certain privilege.  I also have a lot of privilege because I’m white and college educated, and a whole host of other things.  I don’t want to appropriate anyone else’s experience, and I want to recognize that it is a privileged thing to be able to experience gender in the way I do.

One thing I don’t have, paraphrasing from my friend Stephen, is legible identity privilege.  My gender is never going to be very obvious, and no one is ever going to see me walking down the street and think “oh, cool, a non-binary trans femme!”  I’m also not sure how many other non-binary trans femmes are out there, and whether there’s enough similarity in our experiences to form community and camraderie around that.  But I’m very grateful to the trans men and women in my life who do offer that community and camraderie, and who accept that my gender is not something that is visible, though my femme-ness–and through that, my transness–is.

Radical Reading: Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?

When I started to read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s newest collection, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (AK Press), I had an idea of what to expect.  There are plenty of examples in the trans/queer blogosphere and Twittersphere of queer, trans, and/or non-binary individuals critiquing femme erasure and femme invisibility.  Usually these individuals are young, white, college-educated, and politically radical.  They (we) critique a mainstream gay culture that attacks or erases femme expressions of gender, is bothered or even disgusted by trans queers, and deifies masculinity.

Some of the contributions in this volume come from this group, but the collection as a whole takes on a different tenor, one that is sorely needed in our communities.  Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? focuses on brown bodies, on AIDS, on colonialism and nationalism, and on the intersections between these themes.  These essays are about love and fear–the potential of queer creativity and the impact of a faggot-coded epidemic.

This volume asks us to question our fears–not only of femininity but of brown bodies, trans bodies, poverty, drugs, open sexuality, terrorism, and AIDS.  The essays engage explicitly with sex, linking queer desire to ideas of nationality, safety, and acceptability.  The authors ask us to build a political discourse around sex and desire and to see the potential in brown, femme, and/or diseased bodies that the collective mainstream gay imagination fears and has forgotten because of the terrifying possibility of death.

Some of the most controversial essays challenge the idea of “safe sex” and ask us to consider barebacking as a sexual practice.  How do we pose bodies and sex as dirty or clean?  The public health discourse around AIDS jibes well with a national rhetoric of individual responsibility–you are either safe/clean or you are not, you are a citizen or a terrorist, you are with us or against us–and if you cross the line, it is your fault.

“The ‘risk reduction’ we practiced often meant avoiding intimacy with the very people we needed in order to overcome generations of internalized shame; we ended up limiting the types of connections that had historically led to personal health and community well-being.” –Chris Bartlett, “Levity and Gravity”

Some of the authors in this volume suggest solutions to the status quo that are wrapped up in sex, desire, cruising culture, creativity, and femininity.  These solutions also challenge the white, middle class, masculine gay norm.  Ali Abbas, for example, tells the story of a white colleague accusing him of “playing into” his own Middle Eastern culture while simultaneously ignoring the queerness of some Middle Eastern cultures.  Masculinity here is linked to nationalism and citizenship, which in turn is linked to the mainstream gay American culture’s focus on marriage (a right linked to citizenship) rather than human rights, immigration, sexuality, or poverty.

Several essays challenge the assumption of norms, usually presented in a “good vs. bad” binary, around desireability and sexuality.  CA Conrad wants to know why fat men are assumed to be undesireable, while Philip Patston asks the same thing about disabled bodies.  Patston’s story of going to his therapist and initially assuming, when told that things would be different for him because of his disability, that gay men would see him as a rare and desireable potential partner, challenges the assumption that normal desire focuses on able bodies–or on white ones, thin ones, cis ones, or masculine ones.  Discussions of creativity in the early AIDS movement and of the good things about HIV-positive sex challenge readers to consider whether even an “infected body” is necessary less desireable.  The gay community is used to the idea of collective trauma (ie, AIDS) vs. collective Pride, but why does Pride have to be found principally in middle class white bodies?  Why not in a community of “Others”–brown, trans, pos, disabled, queer faggots?

I agree, at least in part, with the criticisms of the mainstream public health response to AIDS.  There are no “good gays” and “bad gays.”  The community, such as it is, would be a better place if we consciously engaged with disease, with sex, and with the creative potential of our fringes.  I agree with Patrick “Pato” Hebert that our power lies in sex and storytelling, and that these things are linked.  “We make ourselves through storytelling.  We reproduce the queer power of ourselves through our sex.”

The narratives in this collection are a first step in looking at ourselves as sexual, positive, worthy wholes and as a powerful potential community of activists and artists.  As Nick Clarkson explains in his story about a gay cis man who is unwilling to go home with him because of his trans body, we are not solely defined by our histories.  It is important to recognize queer people both collectively and individually as a whole–through our histories, our identities, our bodies, and our stories.

Genderqueer and Femme

For me, there is no outward presentation that “matches” genderqueer.  I don’t use the term genderqueer in a way that means “androgynous,” or “mixing male and female traits or symbols.”  There is no way for me to dress in a way that reflects my gender, but that’s okay.

There’s no reason that gender should be the thing that dress reflects.  In our society, clothing is a very gendered thing, but I don’t think it has to be.  For me, certain “femme” clothes reflect my personal preferences best.  It’s not about gender, it’s about what I like.  I feel sexy in clothes that are labelled “female.”

But wearing these clothes can be a traumatic experience for me.  Why?