Meditations for Queer Femmes and Femme Friday Combo!

“starting from fem” notes

June 8th, 2017 Maggie Cee

This weekend I was honored to premiere a section of “Starting from Fem”, a work-in-progress exploring the construction of femme identity US working class bars of the 40s-50s. The piece will eventually become a full length solo performance.  I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me on the 2+ year journey to this piece.

In the introduction to the landmark butch-fem anthology The Persistent Desire, fem* author and activist Joan Nestle dedicates the book to Jeanie Meurer, a fem friend who passed away in 1991 before ever sitting down to record an oral history for Joan’s Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Joan laments “I realized that I had spent many long hours listening to butch women tell their stories, but I had put off listening to Jeanie. My own femme self-hatred had made me a careless listener.”

If even Fem Superstar Joan Nestle admits to overlooking fem history and stories, imagine all the many ways in which misogyny and self-hatred affect the stories we know and tell.  I love studying history to help my understand my queer community. But I suspect we are not getting the full story of fems in this community, just as I know we are often not hearing the full story when it comes to the stories of people of color, enslaved people, transgender people and Native people.

Much of my research for this piece relies on The Buffalo Women’s Oral History project and Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, a history of butch-fem community from the 1930s-1960s in Buffalo, New York.  Despite the efforts of authors Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis to interview fems, the narrative is skewed decidedly towards the butch side. Fems are referred to as “not around any more” or as having “gone off and gotten married.”

I’ve spent over a decade in the queer community talking, writing, and performing about fem. I believe that some of the roots of fem-phobia in the queer community can be traced back to the beginning of modern LGBT history.

This section of “Starting from Fem” is a coming-out and coming-of-age story about a fictional young woman finding a lesbian community in the 1940’s. Because the voices of fems are so obscured by history, I have created a story based on facts while using fiction to explore the emotional landscape of a fem’s journey.  I know there are anachronisms, that my character might be articulating thoughts and feelings that would be foreign to someone at the time.  But I’m not trying to create a perfectly accurate portrait.

I invite you to imagine with me a fem-friendlier world, one where fems were able and welcome to articulate their feelings, needs and desires, where they valued themselves as a central part of their communities.

A note on music – All three songs with lyrics I chose for this piece were popular songs prized by gay women at the time for their double meanings. The word “gay” had long been used to mean same-gender loving. “Secret Love” comes from Calamity Jane, a movie with a very butchy-seeming main character and some decidedly Sapphic overtones.

*I’ve recently decided to reclaim the older spelling of fem after seeing use of “femme” by straight cisgendered people explode in the past year.  I am all about an expansive definition of femme/fem across all kinds of people and bodies,  but I am not here for straight women appropriating a term with very specific queer meanings.

Deep gratitude to Maggie for her brilliance and dedication, and for providing both meditation and fem this week! It’s been a time over here at the Total Femmedom…back up and running next week, Goddesses willing and the crick don’t rise!

Femme Friday – In Praise of Joan Nestle

For taking John Preston to your bosom;

For the sexy shoes;

For writing femme-butch erotica;

For giving words and form to femme;

For your generosity;

For writing about your mother’s sexuality;

For Herstory Archives;

For your cleavage;

For focusing on class issues;

For being pro-sex;

For surviving;

For breaking boundaries;

For never stopping talking.

Deep gratitude to Joan Nestle, across the generations and all the way from here to Australia.

 My woman poppa

 You work at a job that makes your back rock-hard strong; you work with men in a cavernous warehouse loading trucks while others sleep. Sometimes when you come to me while I work at home, you fall asleep in my bed on your stomach, the sheet wrapped around your waist, the flaming unicorn on your right shoulder catching the afternoon sun.

            I just stand back and look at you, at your sleeping face and kind hands, my desire growing for you, for my woman poppa who plays the drums and knows all the words to “Lady in Red,’ who calls me sassafras mama, even when I am sometimes too far from the earth, who is not frightened off by my years or my illness.

            My woman poppa who knows how to take me in her arms and lay me down, knows how to spread my thighs and then my lips, who knows how to catch the wetness and use it and then knows how to enter me so women waves rock us both.

            My woman poppa who is not afraid of my moans or my nails but takes me and takes me until she reaches far beyond the place of entry into the core of tears. Then as I come to her strength and woman fullness, she kisses away my legacy of pain. My cunt and heart and head are healed.

            My woman poppa who does not want to be a man, but who does travel in “unwomanly” places and who does “unwomanly” work. Late into the New Jersey night, she maneuvers the forklift to load the thousands of pounds of aluminum into the hungry trucks that stand waiting for her. Dressed in the shiny tiredness of warehouse blue, with her company’s name white-stitched across her pocket, she endures the bitter humor of her fellow workers, who are men. They laugh at Jews, at women, and, when the black workers are not present, at blacks. All the angers of their lives, all their dreams gone dead, bounce off the warehouse walls. My woman grits her teeth, and says when the rape jokes come: “Don’t talk that shit around me.”

            When she comes home to me, I must caress the parts of her that have been worn thin, trying to do her work in a man’s world. She likes her work, likes the challenge of the machines and the quietness of the night, likes her body moving into power. When we go to women’s parties, I watch amused at the stares she gets when she answers the traditional question “What do you do?” with her nontraditional answer “I load trucks in a warehouse.” When the teachers and social workers no longer address their comments to her, I want to shout at them, Where is your curiosity about women’s lives, where is your wonder at boundaries broken?

The Persistent Desire; A Femme-Butch Reader, edited by Joan Nestle, Alyson Publications, Inc., Boston, 1992

Every Friday, The Total Femme showcases a queer femme goddess. Suggestions welcome!

Femme Friday: Femme Klatsch! with Liz

Femme Klatsch is a new feature, where queer femmes chat with one another on all themes femme. Sweet femme sisters – chime in!

 What does femme mean to you?

Who are your femme role models?

How did you find your femme?

and today’s question:

Can you talk about how your understanding of “femme” has evolved over the years?

Deep gratitude to Liz for this gorgeous and generous queer femme reflection!

Plenty Queer Enough

“Lez!” It’s 1972 and I’m in junior high. As most of us know from experience, when bullies taunt you, they fuck with your name. With a name like Liz, getting “Lez!” hissed at you in the halls is surely cliché standard. Especially when it’s 1972 and you’re a baby femme who passes. I didn’t know the word; but I could tell it was something really bad.

It’s 1975: I’m in high school and someone snarls “Lez” at me in the halls. I read the thrilling new Ms. Magazine, I know what “feminist” means, I know what “lez” means, and I no longer think it’s something bad. But I wonder, do they know something I don’t? Am I one? I decide to look into it. I have, after all, met one “self-avowed” lesbian. She’s older, out of high school, and we volunteer at a hotline on weekends. I scrutinize her. She’s assertive, androgynous and seems to know a lot. Not like me at all, offbeat girly girl that I am. In fact, she’s the total opposite. Guess I’m not one.

Also, if I was a lesbian, wouldn’t I most likely be in love with my best friend? Isn’t that what “women loving women” is all about? It sounds lovely. Sweet. I almost wish I was one. I try to picture falling in love with my best girlfriend and draw a blank. Nothing. I know I’m not a lesbian.

1982: I’ve graduated art school, I’m working, and I’m in an all-girl punk band. By now, I’ve met more lesbians. In fact, nearly all my friends are lesbians. It seems natural. It is natural. I come out! But not as a lesbian after all. I’m a newly-minted bisexual. I quickly seek and find my first girlfriend, and she’s assertive, androgynous, and seems to know a lot. As I model my new vintage black leather jacket for her, she sadly informs me that it’s a “femme” jacket. “Femme”: I don’t know the word, but I can tell it’s something bad. I’m embarrassed. I wear it anyway. I do like it a lot. (After a long night of clubbing with a friend, I lose the femme jacket and replace it the very next day with a standard issue motorcycle jacket, which I own to this day.)

1989: I fall head over combat boots in love with a strikingly handsome, tall, dark-haired dyke who is assertive, tough, artlessly sincere, and is so far beyond androgynous that “masculine” can’t begin to describe her. When I bravely show up in a modest black vintage dress for our formal date, she gasps in awe. I’m speechless, gazing at her in her crisp black tux, the first time I’ve ever seen such a bold statement of serious female masculinity. She nearly trips over herself to open the door of her freshly-washed, robin’s egg blue truck for me. I’m over the moon, discombobulated, and on entirely unfamiliar terrain.

Neither of us knows much about the terms “butch” and “femme”, but we dance the steps as if we are born to it. Which, of course, we are. I never look at a man again. (A cis-guy, that is.)

1993: This butch and I have broken up. I’m wrecked. I’m thoroughly devastated. I drag myself through life for a year. I remind myself we had so little in common; we communicated so differently; we wanted completely different things. So why was I so crazy in love with her? Why did I want her so much? Was there anything for me to learn from all this misery? Stunningly, mercifully, Joan Nestle explains me to myself in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, published that year. Still grieving my lost love, I begin to understand.

Joan Nestle shows me who I am: a femme. A queer femme, plenty queer enough, descended from a long line of proud strong femmes. I discover I have fore-queers! And I learn that my lost love was a big ol’ Butch with a capital B. I discover I’m a femme who needs, requires, must have a butch. A femme with a voracious appetite for butch. Reading Joan Nestle, I feel the awe I had experienced when I put on my first pair of eyeglasses: the world became jarringly clear in a way I could never have imagined.

(Later, I learn that not all femmes want butches. That’s fine too, though I admit it surprises me, and to this day I don’t understand how any femme can resist a hot butch.)

It’s 1995. 1999. 2008. The years go by, and though I can appreciate being femme, I often wish I could de-program the part of me that lights up for butches only. If there were only a potion, a program, a partial lobotomy! Everything is so much easier with my feminine friends. As a femme, it seems I find little in common with most of the butches I’ve met, besides being queer. I try dating a wonderful femme, and I’m ashamed of myself for not responding one iota to her beauty. I feel like a bad queer. I tone down my femme. I lower my expectations. But I need butches.

And frankly, if you’re single, it really sucks if you’re only attracted to about 1/10 of 1% of the population. So I specialize in settling for the Fine For Now girlfriend, because a good butch, or any butch, is hard to find. I have lots of fun, and lots of heartache. When I fall off the horse, I get right back on again. It’s ok, I tell myself; I never wanted to get married anyway. But breaking up is hard to do. Miserable, actually! And I seem to do it every 2 or 3 years. For 20 years. Until……

2012: It’s a summer evening, and I’m wearing a pretty dress and shiny red shoes. I’ve grown out my curly hair. I’m no longer playing neutral. I look up to see the most dashingly handsome butch; or guy? No, she’s butch. She stands before me, sharply trimmed salt and pepper-hair, sporting an orange plaid shirt, and she breaks into the shiniest grin I’ve ever seen. I will soon discover she’s brilliant and funny, and she’s so masculine that she will soon go by “transbutch”. She will adore my femmeness and require it like I’ll need her butchness. But more that that, we will fit together in all the other ways I had only recently dared hope for. This lifelong semi-single femme meets her butch match at last! I can’t make her my husbutch fast enough.

My femme identity blossoms wildly. I revel in it, no longer seeing my butch-loving orientation as a curse, and I rarely try to fit in with the gender neutral queer majority. Being femme is way more fun than ever.

How did this happen? If I had read this when I was younger and single, I’d probably be thinking sourly, “Well, aren’t you just the lucky one! What a cliché ending!” But sister femmes, I’m living proof that it can happen, not “when you least expect it” as I’ve been smugly told: but when you most expect it. I made a decision to expect the best; the best one for me. I found great power in discovering, then embracing, and finally expressing my full femme identity, and all of my Liz-ness, and then I expected someone else to “get” me, too. I felt relief in quitting the well-worn path of dumbing down my particular brand of femmeness in exchange for maximum social approval. Suddenly, luck happens! Dearest femme sisters, the femme journey is never dull, is it?

Liz Bailey

PS: I love the auto-correct for “femmeness”: famines; fameless; feminisms; feminists; filminess! It’s a found poem!

Every Friday, The Total Femme showcases a queer femme goddess. Suggestions welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation for Queer Femmes

Later … a small group of us squeezed in a trip to the park…so that a photographer could take publicity photos of John and me. Huddled against the November wind, John and I positioned ourselves on a bench, trying to find poses with which we both felt comfortable. Finally I gave up trying to find the pose that would not call up stereotypical male-female images and just let my body find its own position. I knew I wanted to hold John, for my own self, and so I raised myself up, and held his head against my breast.

 –Joan Nestle in the introduction to Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together, which she edited with John Preston

Generosity. We femmes are so generous. We love so deeply and we see, we always see, how we can help make things better. We can’t help putting on little get-togethers, making soup or cookies for someone, spreading humor and healing and keeping an eye on things. How many of us are or know a femme who is everywhere at once, salving wounds and doling out hugs to the whole world? You know, the femme version of the butch Mr. Fix-It, a femme who is wired to comfort, listen, sympathize, organize, make art and drive people places. We work so hard to give and give some more, and oh, the world is a better place for our queer bounty!

When does that impulse for generosity carry us too far into overwork, where we stop listening to our heart and find ourselves driven by “shoulds” or ego or the voices of the status quo? When we are tired, bone-weary, depleted. When we have given so much to others that we stop being able to distinguish what is really giving and what is just going through the paces. A gift from an exhausted and distracted giver may turn out to be a burden for the receiver, and no gift at all.

Femme sisters, be generous to yourself first. Rest! Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of all. Rest does not mean numbing – one more piece/glass/episode, oh, what the heck, I’ll just finish the whole thing, I deserve it! – nor does it mean complete withdrawal from your complicated and demanding life. “Make the better choice,” advised my chiropractor as we talked about how to stick to an anti-inflammatory diet. We can make the better choice as we cherish ourselves, as well. A quick walk around the block instead of cookies; 15 minutes playing an instrument, singing or drawing instead of more wine; a book instead of a binge watch.

Not because you’re fat, lazy, unhealthy, a lush or a tv-head, my sweet darlings, but because you are precious.

Every Monday, I will 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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