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.