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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “masculine” and “feminine” since the Women + Power conference, and about “aggressive” versus “emotional.” I’m just reading Vanessa Veselka’s essay, “The Collapsible Woman,” and she offers an interesting alternative to the strong/weak dichotomy in discussing what society expects of rape survivors. “We need to articulate a new vision that equates feminine strength not with repression and bravado, but with compassion and grit.”
Compassion and grit.
I love that. I think it’s a good workaround for my own insecurities about just how “emotional” I want to be, and what it might represent. I want a way to be a generous and loving friend, someone who cares about people, sometimes has a lover or two, can act as a mentor, sometimes needs to cry, likes doing “girly” stuff from time to time, but at the same time is proudly queer, child-free, and entirely career-oriented. I’m someone who thrives on relationships with friends and lovers, but doesn’t want a life revolving around “family,” with the implicit meaning of husband or wife + brood of children. I am happy to lead a life directed by ambition, but sometimes suffer from depression when I use that purpose to isolate myself or make being alone my cry of pride. Oh, the little white lies we tell ourselves. But I’m not prepared to say that what I truly need is the opposite of what I’ve been preaching, to “confess,” because it isn’t. I do need to be alone. I need to pursue projects, and I need to forge my path through life independently. At the same time, I need the support and love of others, holding my hands but not holding me up.
Compassion and grit. Amen, sister.
First, just a couple of administrative notes. For some reason, comment notification e-mails were not coming to me, and I missed a number of older comments in the moderation queue. If you’re one of those people, I apologize for not approving your comment sooner! Those of you who asked specific questions in comments on the About page, I did see your questions and I’ll be responding soon. Thanks for your patience 🙂 Also, I want to thank everyone who’s kept me on your blog reading list despite a few months of mostly dead time. This is a transition point for me in blogging, and the workshop at Omega on blogging reinforced something I knew already–that I need to post consistently and keep to a set schedule if I want readership to come and stick around. So from this point forward, I’m setting a minimum goal of three posts per week. I hope you enjoy the content and pass the word on about this blog.
That said, I just want to post a wrap-up about the conference in Rhinebeck. As you may have gathered, I was liveblogging and Tweeting from a mobile device, specifically an iPod Touch, and so the one-fingered typing has some limitations! Some of my favorite quotes from the weekend are on Twitter (peachy_penumbra), but I wanted to say overall how much I enjoyed the conference and how inspiring, funny, and yes, powerful, many of the women who shared the stage were. I also made some great friendships over a very short period of time, and got to meet a lot of cool young women who may not have been able to speak on the stage, but had a lot to say off of it.
For me, the conference was a mixture of feeling empowered and refreshed, and on the flip side, feeling a little bit angry and frustrated. On the one hand, there were these great organic conversations going on, the empowerment of being in what really felt like a safe space (so safe that yoga and naked sauna-ing were involved!), and fabulous speakers that made me feel like I could achieve a lot more than what I’m doing right now. Women like Gloria Steinem, Isabel Allende, Helen Thomas, Lateefah Simon, Jensine Larsen (etc., etc., etc.) are a great inspiration, even if some of the younger activists make me feel downright lazy! On the other hand, there were some negative aspects to the conference.
There was a lot of emphasis on nurturing, caring, embracing the “feminine” instead of only focusing on power and aggression. I have an instinctive clench-up reaction to that. Part of it is a psychological struggle that I’m going through personally and won’t get into at the moment, but another part is that this masculine/feminine dichotomy is so frustrating. I felt that a lot of women, especially older women, were saying things like embrace your feminine side, we’re learning these values to pass on to our children, let’s think about our husbands and men in our lives, etc. In other words, there was a fairly heteronormative, dichotomous gender-based structure to this whole thing. Lesbians and transgendered people were mentioned from time to time, but I think that there was a deeper structural issue at play. I noticed it in the insistence on labeling everyone’s “two sides” masculine and feminine in our intergenerational discussion, even when a woman was trying to say that these things don’t really have to do with gender. Why do we always have to think in twos?
Hopefully our generation is moving in the right direction on this, though, and I think we are. Overall, it was a great experience–inspiring, thought-provoking, and challenging. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to attend more events like this in the future.
I’ve been using the Livemocha community for language learning, which is wonderful and I can’t believe I never knew about it before, but I noticed one annoying thing. The pictures for young/old and fat/thin are all women, and the pictures for rich/poor and tall/short are men. Coincidence? Methinks not.
I’ve been a great admirer of Virginia Woolf since high school, but this is my first time reading this particular work, and I’m quite struck by it. She has a way of communicating that is hard to match, and I would recommend A Room of One’s Own before any denser modern material in a basic women’s studies class. I think that in the time we live in, it’s very easy to get accustomed and complacent and forget just how monumental the steps are that have been made in recent years for equality. Women and men are not equal, that’s for sure, but it’s just amazing to think that I was so lucky as to be born in this shimmer of time where I can forget the long years of oppression and hopelessness for women and have not only a room of my own, but three, and on top of that not one degree but two, and one of those in law no less. I’m sure Woolf would be very pleased indeed to learn that such things would be possible so soon after she wrote. We haven’t conquered the realms of men, but we have entered them, and that’s saying a lot.
I was just in the shower, thinking (like you do) about lesbian stereotypes. I think that there’s at least some assumption that if you’re a gay girl, you might have been a tomboy growing up, or you really get along with “the guys.” And for some lesbians, I know this is true, but I never fit into that mold. I didn’t have any really close guy friends as a kid – sure, I had a few male friends, but I never connected with them in any significant way. I had fairly “girly” interests, and I’ve always been touchy feely and liked long conversations. Not that there aren’t men like that, but not so many in elementary and middle school. My best friends were always girls, and I got along well with girls. But when I young and assumed that I was straight, and when I was a bit older and identified as bisexual, I always figured that once I was in a serious relationship with a guy, he would be my best friend. That was what I was looking for, and it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t just… happen.
Now I know there are exceptions, and there are plenty of lesbians who relate well with men but prefer women romantically, and plenty of straight women who don’t have any men friends but connect with their romantic partner. However, the example that comes to mind is my parents, who indeed were best friends throughout thirteen years of marriage and fifteen years and counting of divorce. My mom has always been heterosexual and she’s always had close male friends. It didn’t occur to me that the same wouldn’t happen for me, but in my only serious relationship with a man, it really was a “Men are from Mars” situation. We were just speaking different languages.
Since then, I’ve always thought that women are preferable as romantic partners because you can fall in love with your best friend. And I think there’s something to that – if your best friend is always a certain gender, and you’ve never been particularly close to the other gender, you’re probably at least somewhat unlikely to suddenly become best friends with someone of the other gender because you get into a romantic relationship with them. So maybe it’s not that unusual when a girly girl becomes a lesbian. After all, doesn’t it make a certain amount of sense?
Lesbian book club reminder: the poll is up now for round three and will be open until Sunday afternoon. Please vote! Also, feel free to start discussing for round two if you read the book.
I’ve been greatly surprised, the more I make contact with various parts of the lesbian community and lesbian pop culture, how much the “butch and femme” dichotomy is alive and well. I realise that despite all the changes and movements away from binary trends, we still tend to think in twos, but for some reason I thought this was an outmoded distinction. Then again, among the lesbians I know in real life, most don’t really talk about being butch or femme. I know some lesbians who are decidedly butch, but then I also know a lot like me, who I don’t think of as butch, but if I think about it I really can’t characterise them as “femme.”
As far as I can tell, femme is often more or less the default for “not butch.” It seems that butch has a more built-up set of characteristics, possibly because it implies masculinity and differentiating oneself from the norm, from the femininity default that women are born into. When I think of a butch woman, I think of her in terms of three areas: appearance, activities/mannerisms, and sexual “stuff.”
I think of “butch” as meaning very masculine, but also fitting a number of other stereotypes – often overweight or big boned and very muscular, often doesn’t pay a lot of attention to dress, etc. But there are other sorts of masculine women. I find myself very frequently attracted to androgynous women, what I suppose you would label “bois” – petite women with short haircuts who retain feminine features, so that they more or less look like a 12-year-old boy. There are also women who are very traditionally attractive but wear a lot of boyish clothing. I find that the more choices I make about my own appearance, the more I start to move away from the traditional feminine. Aside from my usual suit-and-tie combination, I’ve found that I really like how I look in more masculine casual clothes as well. Now that I’ve found a good way to style it, I love my extremely androgynous haircut. Yesterday, I was wearing a faded black tanktop that looks like a “wifebeater” essentially and I found myself flexing my muscles in the mirror and taking my glasses off to blur my feminine features. When I was a teenager, I used to wonder what my “boy self” would look like. I’ve been drawn to masculinity for a long time, and I absolutely love dressing in drag. I just feel really comfortable and really sexy when I’m androgynous. However, I try not to think too hard about it, because I really don’t want to be a man, or at least, not a heterosexual man. More on that later.
Something else that I think bolster’s someone’s “butch” image is the things she does. This ranges from activities – maybe owns a motorcycle, knows how to change her own oil, likes sports and having a beer with her buddies – to more simple things. These are an area, actually, where I think femmes affirmatively make themselves femmes – by spending time on makeup and hair, wearing lotion, shopping, etc etc. I also think this is a place where a lot of people end up falling in the middle. I don’t look like the stereotypical butch, but I know how to change the oil, I like (not US) football, I never wear makeup or “do” my hair, etc. It’s hard to think of me as really femme for that reason.
Here’s where my own heebie jeebies come out. Now of course, everything in this post is a generalisation, talking about stereotypes into which most lesbians probably don’t fit. But I’ve read a little about fantasies and lesbian sexuality and I have to say some of the butch/femme sexuality really throws me. The reason is that it seems, to me, to come really close to heterosexual sexuality and really close to the kind of “male oppression” stuff that has become more and more a turnoff to me since I stopped having sex with men. Of course, I’m sure there are lesbian women who fantasise about choking on a dildo, or being fucked painfully, or having sex with someone who identifies as male. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s just that for me, being on either side of that equation would be a major turn-off. Being with a man, especially sexually, turned me into a weak, meek person completely unlike myself. If I were on the “female” side of that equation in a lesbian relationship, there’s nothing to say the same thing wouldn’t happen. At the same time, if I were on the “male” side, I don’t want to be hurting someone or interjecting heterosexuality in the relationship. To me, the beautiful thing about lesbian sex is that it’s two women, exploring female sexuality. I do need to learn to mentally disconnect certain “heterosexual” acts that I actually enjoy from heterosexuality, so that I can enjoy them with a woman. I’ll admit that. But when actual roleplay starts up, I can’t see myself as a butch or a femme, because I don’t want that particular dichotomy in my bed. I want whatever power differential is set up (and believe me, I like power differentials) to be between two women, using our female energies. Man, I’m a hippie.
That wasn’t supposed to turn into a rant, but anyway, that’s my take on the butch/femme roles. If you really enjoy fitting into one or the other, more power to you! I’m just happy as an androgynous, outside-the-box lesbian who likes other androgynous, outside-of the box lesbians. There it is.