Meditation for Queer Femmes: Be Very Queer

It is astounding to me how many of the artists and writers I was exposed to as a child were queer or had queer sensibilities. Tove Jansson; Louise Fitzhugh; William Sleator (I just found out he was raised in the St. Louis suburb where I grew up!); Harper Lee; Thomas M. Disch; Samuel L. Delany; Queen; David Bowie; Buffy Sainte-Marie; the Smothers Brothers; Christopher Isherwood; Joanna Russ; Susie Orbach; George Takei; Maurice Sendac; Mr. Rogers. Many more that I’m not remembering.

These were the authors and artists from whom I was receiving information about creativity, imagination, how to live a good life. I was deriving intense enjoyment from them, grappling, in their company, with increasingly urgent questions about what it means to be human and female. Some of them were out, I learn now, a hundred and two years later, but then, as a child and teen and young adult and even into my 30s, I did not have access to that information, nor did I know that an artist or author could be queer and also be trusted with the big questions addressed by art and literature. I didn’t know this because the importance of queerness in art had been discounted and/or hidden from me by the straight conspiracy to predate on queer creativity without acknowledging queer lives. It didn’t help that my father, who adored science fiction and good literature, art and poetry, and who was my creative role model, enjoyed this art by queers despite the fact they were queer, rather than being able to have an expansive enough understanding of the intertwining of creativity and personhood to actually hold up the art as being wonderful in large part because of the artist’s queerness.

At the time, there just wasn’t the language for bringing queerness into the conversation, or enough incentive to try and find ways to talk about art created by non-straights. Tove Jannson’s books about the Moomintrolls were a touchstone of my growing up and my entire family read them over and over, referred to them constantly (as in, “Oh, don’t be such a fillyjonk!” and “Nake no totice!”) and basically absorbed them into the very fiber of our beings. I don’t suppose I knew Tove was a dyke until my 30s, and when I found out I was both utterly delighted and completely furious that this information had been withheld from me. I wish I had known as a child that so many of the reasons my quirky family loved the books were because they were written by a lesbian, and a lesbian has different ideas about gender and sexuality than a straight woman. This is freeing for everybody, not just baby queers. There is a central heterosexual couple in the Moomintrolls – Moominpapa and Moominmama – but none of the other characters or couples are particularly gender conforming, expect perhaps the Snork Maiden, who might also be read as femme, come to think of it. And there’s a totally fabulous butch, fyi: Too-ticky, who lives on her own out in the boathouse and who wears a fetching striped jersey and tam-o’-shanter and who was modeled after Tove’s partner, Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, and don’t you think this butch-lovin’ femme would have benefitted from knowing that as a wee sprite? Don’t you think seeing this picture might have had a positive effect, even then? (Scroll down, after you’ve admired the handsom Too-Ticky!)

Because it’s not just teens who need to be able to see fully out adult queers engaged in making queer art, who need models of grown queers so that they can imagine themselves as adults. It’s children and even toddlers, who benefit from knowing that there are more ways of loving each other than the straight model which is rammed down their throats the minute they appear on earth and get the pink or the blue, the teasing about boyfriends and girlfriends, and yes, this begins immediately, just take a look at pictures of newborns and listen to parents talking about their infants.

Just as butches must answer truthfully and with love the innocent questions about their gender from young children, so must we femmes be open about our sexuality and our non-straight lives. I know it can be easier not to say anything, to let it slide – it can be really embarrassing talking to kids about sexuality and sexual behavior — but it is a particular queer femme responsibility to find ways to talk about our queer femme lives to children because many of us are so easily read as straight. To step up and give children language they can use, as well. The way I explained butch/femme to my kids when I began to date butches was something like: I’m a girl who looks like a girl and I like girls who look like boys. It was a start, anyway. The language got more complex as the kids got older, but the bottom line was that we began to have ways of talking about non-straight sexuality, which, thank goodness! huzzah! is so much more complicated than “some boys like boys and some girls like girls”.

The queer sensibility I intuited from queer artists as a child has been and is deeply meaningful to my queer life, but I do mourn that I had to work so hard at it. Even now, although there has been progress, queer artists are not at all out from under the “despite of” mentality in the creative world. Or they’re magical unicorns, one of a kind, genre or one-note-Sallys (because who needs more than a couple of works about queers – been there, done that!), strident, boring, didactic, limited, unnecessary.

Fuck that. Queer culture and art is lifesaving. We queer adults — writers, readers, artists, lovers of art — must never forget it.

Every Monday, I offer a Meditation for Queer Femmes, in the spirit of my maternal grandmother, Mimi, who was a fabulous straight femme, and from whom I inherited her Meditations for Women.

For the Love of a Fag

I have been reading My Guru and His Disciple by Christopher Isherwood, and in it, he’s just met Don Bachardy. Because I’ve read Christopher and His Kind and also seen the dear dear movie “Chris and Don” and read other stuff by and about Isherwood, I am incredibly moved reading about their early years, knowing that they stayed with each other until Isherwood’s death. This morning, as I was on the way to my pilates class, I was thinking about their age difference – 30 years – and how that could have posed such an obstacle but it didn’t. Then I said to myself, “Thank goodness they found each other!” at which point I completely teared up and had to blink furiously and take a deep breath in order to keep driving safely.
Isherwood is an inspiration to me for so many reasons – his honesty as a writer, his refusal to compromise himself or hide his sexuality, his spiritual quest, his love for his friends, his sense of humor (dry!), the way he engaged intellectually with friends and colleagues, and his generosity and devotion to Don. That Isherwood’s books exist, that Don is still painting, that there is a documentary about them – what a gift to me as I face the challenges of being queer and married and a writer. What a gift to the world!
Other fag stories that have touched and inspired me deeply include writing by Mark Merliss (I wrote him a mash note! He wrote back such a nice thank you!), Robert Rodi, David Valdez Greenwood, E.M. Forster, John Preston, mommywithapenis, David Henry Hwang, James Baldwin, Richard Rodriguez, Mark Doty, Michael Bronski, J.R. Ackerley, W.H. Auden, Quentin Crisp, Mattilda – and doesn’t the list go on? Yes, yes.
On my shelf is a book edited by Joan Nestle and John Preston called Sister and Brother: Lesbians & Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together. In the introduction, Joan Nestle talks about exchanging long letters with her gay friend, Carl, “giving each other the courage to explore queerness,” and John Preston talks about “the connections that seemed to linger just below consciousness”. John’s agent, Peter Ginsberg, and an editor, Susan Fox Rogers, had had a conversation, writes John, about “why the recent burst in lesbian and gay publishing didn’t reflect the reality of their lives; that most gay men and lesbians had, in fact, warm and often powerful relationships with one another”.
Rereading the introduction – read it yourselves, it’s pure gold! – I am in tears for the second time today. How I love John Preston for talking so forthrightly about how sexy he found Joan, and other lesbians in his past! As if lesbians don’t reciprocate in finding gay men totally hot! Our queer sexualities unite us, even if we don’t always want to fuck each other (although sometimes we do). How I love Joan Nestle for her courage and warmth and her truth speaking – and for her love of John, for cradling his head to her generous femme bosom in the book jacket photo. This book is a love story between them, paying homage to other love stories between other fags and dykes. Obviously it’s time for me to reread this book, and I will, I will, but I wonder: where is the conversation today? Where is my fag brother who weeps over the doomed love of Aimee and Jaguar and the long love of Del and Phyllis, rereads The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is inspired by May Sarton and Audre Lord, loves Jackie Kay and Nalo Hopkinson and Isabel Miller, gets off on the erotica and smarts of Carol Queen and Laura Antoniou, cheers on the pioneering efforts of Tristan Taormino, Amber Hollibaugh, and Minnie Bruce Pratt and finds the strength to go on in a harsh and imperfect world after reading the novels of Sarah Waters where our queer history is so lovingly and thoroughly brought to life?
Joan and John edited their book in 1994. 17 years later, what twists and turns has the conversation taken? What are we saying — fags to dykes, dykes to fags — and how are we encouraging each other to be our own unique, queer, evolving selves in a very fast-moving, confusing, jittery, juddery world?
Where does our love stand now?

Published in: on November 2, 2011 at 12:48 PM  Comments (1)  
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