Meditations for Queer Femmes – Your Family Heirloom

We queers have such complicated relationships with our families. There’s full-on rejection, full-on idealization and “I’ll do anything to keep the love” and everything in-between. I’m talking about families across the board here, of origin and chosen. How many of us queer femmes dated boys and men because our families of origin expected it? How many of us queer femmes de-girlied ourselves when we (finally) came out because our new queer family expected it? Then one day, if we’re lucky, another dyke tells us she likes it when we wear lipstick. Maybe we have enough courage to tell her we like it when she wears lipstick, too, or we buy her a tie for her birthday “just for fun” and shit gets way more real all of a sudden. Or we might realize our single aunt, the one who moved away to a big city or to a remote farm and who has always been spoken of with scorn or pity or both, is actually twice family and has a rich and rewarding life. Information about her real life may have been unavailable to us as children, but it is waiting for us now if we just reach out.

Humans love knowing where we come from, where certain traits, tendencies, gifts and hurdles might have their origin. Who in our families (all our families) might have worked out a thing or two concerning life’s great questions.

I started thinking about family heirlooms after reading a passage by Chögyam Trungpa in his book, Crazy Wisdom. The passage is about hopelessness, which I think ends up actually being about hope, or anyway, about accepting that life can be really hard right at the same time that it is full of sweetness and wonder. In Al-Anon, they talk about “the gift of desperation” that brings someone to this under-the-radar (at least it was for me) spiritual program. And it’s true, because as much as I hate alcoholism and addiction and how they’ve hurt so many people I love including myself, I’m incredibly grateful that I’m learning to stop spending all my time drilling down on the negatives and being miserable. Instead, I’m finding the strength, support and love to be able recalibrate and refocus. Human experience is big. There are so many ways of being in the world.

Our family heirlooms – because there are so many once we direct our attention there – are solid reminders of our humanity in all its rainbow glory. I remember and draw sustenance from the way my Gramps took care of kids in his rural school district during the Depression, feeding them from his garden, buying one young man a suit so he could graduate high school with dignity; from the cheerful example of Grandmimi, who lit up her small Iowa town organizing and including and fully participating in just about everything; how my parents quietly reached out to neighbors and taught me that one little act of kindness and community ripples outward; how John Preston and Joan Nestle got together to edit Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together and model deep queer community by linking their disparate queer worlds; by the way Lee Lynch lovingly wrote and wrote and wrote and continues to write about butches and femmes; how so many queers over the ages managed to leave us their priceless stories – a few who have touched my life over the years (there are so many!): Miss Ann Lister, Quentin Crisp, Anonymous, Amber Hollibaugh, Audre Lourde, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslie Feinberg, Richard Rodriguez, Felice Picano, Chrystos, Mary Renault, Tove Jansson, Becky Birtha, Mark Merlis, Samuel Steward, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, James Baldwin, and I could go on for pages…

I am bolstered and inspired in who I am and who I strive to by these many, many family heirlooms.

Dear queer femme sisters, spend a moment today in gratitude for your families and what they have bequeathed to you.


The passage that inspired this Meditation:

Student: When you talk about hopelessness, the whole thing seems totally depressing. And it seems you could very well be overwhelmed by that depression to the point where you just retreat into a shell or insanity.

 Trungpa Rinpoche: It’s up to you. It’s completely up to you. That’s the whole point.

 S: Is there anything –

 TR: You see, the whole point is that I’m not manufacturing an absolute model of hopelessness with complete and delicately worked-out patterns of all kinds, presenting it to you, and asking you to work on that. Your goodness, your hopelessness, is the only model there is. If I manufactured something, it would be just a trick, unrealistic. Rather, it’s your hopelessness, it’s your world, your family heirloom, your inheritance. That hopelessness comes in your existence, your psychology. It’s a matter of bringing it out as it is. But it’s still hopeless. As hopeful as you might try to make it, it’s still hopeless, and I can’t reshape it, remodel it, or refinish it at all. It’s not like a political candidate going on television, where people powder his face and put lipstick on his mouth to make him presentable. One cannot do that. In this case it’s hopeless; it’s absolutely hopeless. You have to do it in your own way.

–Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala, 2001

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

At the Total Femme, my intention is to post three times a week: Meditations for Queer Femmes on Monday, Pingy-Dingy Wednesday on Wednesday and Femme Friday on Friday. Rather than play catch-up in a stressful fashion on those weeks when life prevents posting, I have decided to just move gaily forward: if I miss a Monday, the next post will be on Wednesday, and so on. Thank you, little bottle of antibiotics for inspiring me in this! (“…if it’s almost time for the next dose, skip the missed dose and continue your regular dosing schedule. Don’t take a double dose to make up for a missed one.”)



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.