changing the context

February 11, 2007

A warm welcome to visitors from Fetch Me My Axe and especially to visitors from the Carnival of Feminists. I am especially honored to be featured on the carnival among so many fabulous feminist bloggers. After the flood of visitors to my post about femininity, I felt compelled to return to my femme roots, at least the literary ones. Joan Nestle is a hero of mine, and her article about femme identity in the Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (published 1992, edited by Nestle, and out of print, unbelievable – you can buy it used though) has been a source of learning and growth for me for as long as I have known the word femme. I don’t know why I was so shocked to learn that I learned so many of my notions (not to mention my confidence) about femme identity and femininity from Nestle.

Nestle writes at length about femme identity in relation to butch – and she pulls this off in a way that does not take away from either identity existing and resisting on its own. Regarding the subversion vs. rejection discussion, which I mentioned in that post, Nestle writes:

Colonization and the battle against it always pose a contradiction between appearances and deeper survivals. There is a need to reflect the colonizer’s image back at hi yet at the same time to keep alive what is a deep part of one’s culture, even if it can be misunderstood by the oppressor, who omnipotently thinks he knows what he is seeing. Butch-femme carries all this cultural warfare with it. It appears to incorporate elements of the heterosexual culture in power; it is disowned by some who want to make a statement against the pervasiveness of this power; yet it is a valid style, matured in years of struggle and harboring some of our bravest women. (emphasis mine)

It’s kind of an amazing thing to be able to trace own’s own thought process to a particular article or school of thought. I trace mine to the article from which the above is quoted – “The Femme Question.” Nestle explains that not only are we subverting the ‘colonizing’ power, (and here she is speaking about pervasive heterosexuality and hetero gender norms) she is bravely stating that we are socialized in this pervasive culture, yet we can use the very tools that it has given us to resist it.

More on resistance and on reading the nuance of queer feminine gender:

Femmes are women who have made choices, but we need to be able to read between the cultural lines to appreciate their strength. Lesbians should be mistresses of discrepancies, knowing that resistance lies in the change of context. (emphasis mine)

As a femme, I strive to be a mistress of discrepancy. This begs the question though, how do we do that? If “resistance lies in the change of context,” how do we change the context? I believe Nestle would respond that we change the context by subverting the mainstream (what she writes about in the first paragraph I quoted). For Nestle, the struggle for sexual freedom was and is inherently tied to other resistance movements: racial, economic, religious. (for more on this see my favorite Joan Nestle book, A Restricted Country). Our conversations about gender representation and queer identity are incomplete unless they include the racial, economic, and religious contexts in which they exist.

I think that is precisely what is seriously lacking in all these hypothetical conversations about “the end of gender,” as if our gender identities existed in some kind of bubble. “Changing the context,” then, is about figuring out how gender resistance is inextricably linked those other resistance movements. This, for me, is queer identity. It’s what pushes me to hold on to femme, to butch/femme lesbian history: learning resistance and figuring out how to resist in this violence-ridden, xenophobic culture of ours. Change the context.



  1. I’m always curious as to why femme-butch doesn’t really happen among gay men, as such. the closest i can think of to “femme,” i mean that’s widely considered desirable, is “twink,” but it’s not really…hm.

  2. I’m sure there must be some kind of parallel, bd, at least in sexual boundaries/preferences, if not so much in presentation. Ever noticed how much more clear and explicit gay male personal ads are than lesbian ones? Gay males don’t expect to be challenged or judged over these things the way lesbians do. Maybe this has changed for lesbians in recent times, I don’t know – but the difference used to be glaring when I was last looking. I know I’d describe myself much more clearly on the net or anywhere now than I ever felt able to on the two or three occasions I placed or answered ads in print in the quite distant (now) past. I used to employ a kind of code, hoping it would be understood, but actually it never was! Now I’d be as bold as brass.

    Hi salty femme! I’m over from fetch me my axe…Joan Nestle is a hero of mine as well. A Restricted Country was one of the most important and affirming books I’ve ever read at a time when I needed one. A friend and I had a fantasy about somehow sponsoring Joan to our city in Oz to counteract a visit from Sarah Hoagland, promoting her book, ‘Lesbian Ethics’, back in about 90,91.

    Being working class, socialist leaning, a feminist and a self-identified low maintenance – so mainly sexually – femme lesbian ( pretty much as Lyndall MacCowan describes herself in her essay in ‘The Persistent Desire’), I really would have loved to be able to pull that one off.

    You’ve reminded me too about Joan Nestle’s chapter in A Restricted Country about lesbians and prostitutes. I’d forgotten it was there when I was writing elsewhere about a group of my lesbian friends who used to do sex work casually, picking up clients in particular bars (no pimps) and how I actually admired their confidence, autonomy and skill. I just used to mind their coats. Anyway, I’m going to read the chapter again tomorrow – it’s been years!

  3. I have to be honest, I know very little about gay male gender roles. I know pretty much, well, nothing. So I have no comment on that one.

    I’ve picked up the Butch-Femme reader again this week too, rereading the MacCowan piece at present. It’s amazing how every time I reread something from the BF reader I learn something new, depending on where I am in my life. I guess that’s a good way to tell when a book is really fantastic.

    I’m troubled, though, by MacCowan’s assertion that androgynous lesbian feminist is to politics as butch/femme is to sex. She argues that lesbian-feminists de-sexualized sex and made it completely about politics. I don’t know that I agree with that clear-cut dichotomy. I think B/F is political, just in a completely different way than lesbian- feminists. I’m only halfway through so maybe there’s more that I’m forgetting about. Anyone have thoughts on that?

  4. This comment is only really peripherally related to your post, but I came across this last night and will enjoy venting: my partner was re-reading GenderQueer (edited by rikki wilchins and joan nestle, published in, I think, about 2001)… There is an essay by, I think, Robin Molitz, titled (I think) “Femme Invisibility.”

    In the essay she argues that trans men make femmes invisible (to attempt a quote that is probably a little bit of of a paraphrase, “trans men are freaks trying to be read as normal men; femmes are normal-looking women trying to be read as freaks. there are bound to be problems.”)

    She argues that what femmes “do” is to create maleness for butches through creative interaction and play, and that this is very special, and that trans men take the imagination, play, subversiveness, etc. out of this interaction, thereby stealing from femmes their queerness. or something. That trans men, by transforming their bodies, collapse all of the intricate elements of “butch woman” into a one-dimensional “trans man” who no longer possesses a queer body and interacts sexually only with straight women.

    I thought it was interesting both for the author’s conclusive statements about what a femme “is”, and for her completely reductive statements about trans men’s gender/body/being. but I did really enjoy the femmes wanting to be read as freaks statement. so. just venting. if you’ve read this and have had other thoughts, I’d like to read/hear them.

  5. Emily,

    I will have to go back and revisit GenderQueer, specifically that article, so I can read in context, but based on the piece that you quoted (and paraphrased), I’d say that the author’s definition of transman sounds pretty off-the-mark.

    First of all, to say that any one person can define the identity of another is kind of weird.

    Second of all, not all transmen are queer, they’re not all interested in being gender-benders, fucking with the binary, etc., so I disagree that all transmen are “freaks pretending to be normal.”

    Third of all, yay for femmes being freaks. But can’t we define ourselves?

  6. yeah, that all sounds pretty convoluted. i mean just as described, that article–well, hello, boundaries. you define yourself and we’ll each define ourselves, how’s that?

  7. I’m troubled, though, by MacCowan’s assertion that androgynous lesbian feminist is to politics as butch/femme is to sex. She argues that lesbian-feminists de-sexualized sex and made it completely about politics. I don’t know that I agree with that clear-cut dichotomy. I think B/F is political, just in a completely different way than lesbian- feminists. I’m only halfway through so maybe there’s more that I’m forgetting about. Anyone have thoughts on that?

    I don’t think she set up a clear dichotomy, as in – suggested it’s not possible to be political ‘about’ butch-femme. (Maybe you don’t either if you’ve re-read to the end of the essay by now.) She does finish too with the statement about reclaiming the right to fuck around with gender.

    What she struggled to do though, with that class she was taking for example, but no doubt in plenty of other places in her life too – was even get beyond justifying herself (though I don’t think the class knew it was personal for her at the time…) in the face of that powerful resistance. She was in survival mode because being femme isn’t primarily political for her.
    I don’t imagine all lesbian-feminists felt directly and negatively impacted on by lesbian-feminist sexual politics either. Those who easily, dare I say ‘naturally’ didn’t transgress (not b/f, not into BDSM or any great degree of d/s relating, whatever) would be wondering what others were going on about re de-sexualising lesbianism, probably.

    Have you ever looked up lesbian feminism in Wikipedia? It’s quite a useful and succint introduction, I thought, even writing as someone who’s lived amongst it and then fought/argued against it since the late 80’s._

  8. Cicely,

    Now that I’ve finished the article, I agree with you that the dichotomy isn’t clear. It’s not black and white. I think that the way MacCowan explains why the lesbian-feminist understanding of women’s oppression is incomplete and problematic is one of the best parts of this essay and explains the way that butch-femme is a political identity even when she does not use those words. Does that make sense? She writes:

    It is time to explicitly say that the lesbian-feminist analysis inking women’s oppression with gender, sex roles, sexuality, and sexual orientation is both simplistic and inaccurate, and has long outlived its ability to fuel a movement for women’s – let alone lesbians’ – liberation (306).

    She goes on but I should end there. The rejection of butch-femme roles by lesbian-feminists (as an “imitation” of heterosexuality) was part of rejecting everything having remotely to do with heterosexuality – MacCowan is asserting that heterosexuality was not, in fact, the culprit of our oppression. That’s where the next generation of feminists come in – feminists whose message now includes discussions of race and class.

    You wrote – I don’t imagine all lesbian-feminists felt directly and negatively impacted on by lesbian-feminist sexual politics either. I don’t know that I’m understanding you – if they were lesbian-feminists, why would they be negatively impacted by l/f politics? You mean subconsciously their own rhetoric was negatively impacting them? I guess I agree to some extent, but I also prefer to keep that history in context. I think lesbian-feminism was a necessary step in feminist history, we needed that time to reject men and everything they represented – even if lesbian-feminists were mostly white and middle class and many, many women felt aliened by the movement. It’s still a part of feminist history, even if we’ve expanded that discourse.

    I know I’m certainly lacking in experience with I talk about lesbian-feminism, as I was not alive during the 1970’s, but I did take a course in lesbian history and literature so I hope that would be a better introduction to lesbian feminism than Wikipedia. But I’ll check it out.

    I think that my initial confusion stemmed from the fact that, to me, any public display of sexual difference is political. I guess it’s more a matter of how one sees oneself. The “political” that MacCowan is referring to when she writes about lesbian-feminists is a sexual identity whose sole purpose is to make a political statement. This is how she talks about lesbian-feminists. And in that light, the way that B/F is political is certainly a different kind of political than L/F.

  9. You wrote – ‘I don’t imagine all lesbian-feminists felt directly and negatively impacted on by lesbian-feminist sexual politics either.’ I don’t know that I’m understanding you – if they were lesbian-feminists, why would they be negatively impacted by l/f politics? You mean subconsciously their own rhetoric was negatively impacting them?

    I wasn’t at all clear here – sorry about that – I’ll try again…

    When I first connected with feminism in the mid 70’s, being a young lesbian and without a really sophisticated understanding of lesbian feminist ideology, I think I probably thought of myself as kind of ‘automatically’ a lesbian-feminist, myself. It wasn’t until I began to see and, more particularly – experience – how the ideology around sexuality impacted on my own life that I looked a lot more closely into it. That really occurred around 1987/88 in New Zealand. I have no arguement with the reality of positive actual achievements of lesbian-feminist thought and activism, noting that all that’s been achieved overall has involved contributions from other forms of feminism as well, and that there also must have been many early contributing feminists like myself who didn’t understand as clearly as we do now where the different forms digress from each other. Things felt pretty harmonious at street level for quite a while, before there was even such a thing as institutionalised Women’s Studies classes – as in – we all had the same common enemy – the patriarchy – and we were learning about it and each others lives, and doing activism together. We read works from all kinds of different ideological bases and put it all together and just did what felt right and would be good for women and for lesbians. It was pretty heady stuff and often very joyful. From the time of the original sex wars though, that mainly harmonious atmosphere changed.

    On to the confused bit…I self identified as femme, as I wrote before, in a similar way to MacCowan. No-one looking at me would identify me as such – unless I was out and about with an obvious butch. It was purely about my erotic identity and sexual tastes and boundaries. I am naturally, not politically, comfortable with an only slightly more feminine than androgynous presentation. Low maintenance Stonefemme lesbian would best describe me overall I guess. Or ‘butchy-femme’ perhaps. (And politically – a sex-positive radical feminist, I think, but that’s still evolving too…)The Stone bit is important too – and it wasn’t until I discovered the butch-femme.com community – within the last couple of years – that I made contact with many others like myself in that particular. There are still lesbians and feminists who think of stone-ness as some kind of sexual or ‘self-rejecting of womanhood’ dysfunction, or as per lesbian-feminism – unacceptable dominant/submissive hetero – copy ‘roleplaying’ thingy but I no longer buy into that at any level. I imagine that although only lesbians, as our own erotic language has developed, use the word ‘stone’ – people with all sexual orientations would include those with particular sexual tastes and boundaries. (They haven’t had a political spotlight shone on them though.) There’s no ‘right’ sexuality.

    The point is – I fit the lesbian-feminist ideal – originally, and naturally – except for my actual erotic nature. That is, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had this nature, I wouldn’t have come into conflict with lesbian-feminist sexual ideals. What I’m saying is that, for others, if they didn’t actually themselves *have* sexual desires that were in conflict with the ideology, it would obviously be easier to remain a committed lesbian-feminist at all levels. On the other hand, I know personally many lesbians who were committed feminists and had great difficulty reconciling their sexual identities and desires with their own feminist or with lesbian- feminist politics. Amber Hollibaugh would be the woman, along with Lyndall MacCowan, who might be most widely known of. Only last year I read Ambers book ‘My Dangerous Desires.’ Her struggle with this exact issue culminated in an actual suicide attempt.

    I can’t say I’ve yet come to regard my own sexuality as ‘political’ in and of itself – it’s just what it is and always has been, and all I feel obliged to do with it is live it and communicate it to potential partners should I be in that position. A stone butch is compatible, or a polyamorous relationship, where my partner, if not I (because I can only fancy one woman at a time!) could have other needs met elsewhere. Both of these options have worked well for me over my lifetime.

  10. I realised I should add a postscript to my previous comment – which is that heterosexual feminists were also challenged by lesbian-feminism and seperatism about their sexual and otherwise attachment to men. I just tend to leave that unspoken in these conversations because the perspective I’m coming from is that lesbians were the far more vulnerable group of women. It was our already marginalised community – marginalised precisely *because* of our sexuality – that felt the brunt of this political re-definition of our ‘meaning’, and the imperatives that this meaning contained. First we were the ‘Lavender Menace’, unwelcome in NOW because we might bring it into disrepute – then our lives went from ‘dirty secret’ to ‘righteous path’, provided we lived them according to the ideology that re-defined our history (as political resistance to heterosexuality) and according to our current ‘purpose’ which meant androgynous presentation, no d/s relating, no sexual penetration (some went that far), no butch-femme, no BDSM, anti-pornography, anti-prostitution and anti-transexuality. On top of this was the denial of the ‘innateness’ of lesbianism (because if a woman could be naturally lesbian, she could be naturally heterosexual). This flies in the face of the lived experience of so many of us – the vast majority of us even now, I suspect – and certainly historically. Our ‘choice’ has been to live as the lesbians we are in a homophobic world – or not.

    I’m not opposed to other actual paths to or understandings of the degree of choice re lesbianism, but I’ve always objected to having my own experience challenged, minimised or sidelined by so called feminist ‘allies’ (social constructivists). It doesn’t feel all that much different from the homophobic/religious insistence that I’ve chosen a ‘lifestyle’ for which I should properly suffer marginalisation. So, (and maybe this should be in your more recent thread) I agree with you that people *should* be able to choose their significant others for any reason at all – it’s nobody elses business – but where a woman understands her own lesbianism to be innate, she should be taken at her word.

    Well, when you put all the above l/f stuff together – it doesn’t leave much for someone like me. Which is why not only am I *not* a lesbian feminist, but I am vigorously opposed to that ideology re sexuality and gender.

    In terms of your question – ‘how do we change the context of femme?’, I think we do this largely by the living of and talking about our whole lives, having come to understand that a thing is not necessarily what it looks like in a narrow hetero-patriarchal context. We need to teach people to ‘assume nothing’. I think this is already beginning to happen and the less intimidated we feel about speaking fully and honestly about our lives, the more effective we will be in spreading that message. Also, this gives us more space and energy to tackle the other oppressive ‘isms’ that you mention.

  11. Hi.
    Good design, who make it?

  12. It’s a wordpress template (called ‘neat’), with a photo my friend took as the banner at the top. Her photos are at http://flickr.com/photos/pics-by-miya/.

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