(I was invited by the Femme Guild http://www.femmeguild.com to be a keynote speaker at their Unpacking Femme Conference in Sydney, Oz Feb 8-9. Below is more or less the text of the proceedings, bar the odd ad lib or excision. Thanx to everyone who was there for making this such a memorable, groundbreaking experience...)
You Can Never be Too Femme or Too Smart
I was asked to make a keynote at this Femme Guild Conference and my first thought was, oh noooo, am I Femme enuf?
Of course I didn’t say that to our esteemed Femme conf organisers because right after that I knew I wanted to be here, whoever I was.
I was still pondering the extent of my Femme status as I moved house just after accepting to speak here and unpacked my stuff in mid January. I found 6 texts on femme-ness among only 30 books and realised that whoever and however I am, I am fascinated by femmeness. Wherever it is, I want to watch. And learn.
This keynote is interspersed by desire, by text creations of mine on femmeness and butchness… inspired by otherness, diversity and difference as well… So there will be different voices, reading the non-fiction and fictional materials…
Though and as a warning, all of my material draws on real life.
I am proposing that You Can Never be Too Femme or Too Smart…
Ode to Butch
Ruff trade butches
With your knowing eyes
You know it doesn’t matter how smart I think I am
How many degrees I hold
You know I am a fool for your touches
Your blunt fingers
Your pants creased at the exact sexiest angles
Zipped until you say so.
Your neat heads all clipped with
The stubble of your skulls
Presses like fur under my fingertips,
A dog’s pelt. I want to press my lips
On your necks to melt you
Is there anywhere soft and willing
On your bodies? There between your legs
If you choose to open them
I might find something not quite soft not quite hard
if you let me
Your pants stay
On bold fingers
Control is your game.
The power and the grace
more than those words can tell
more than I can say
even if I used
every word I could
I could not contain your magic
I don’t know your name yet or who you’re with
But im already fucking you
My mum hates bois like you
These scruffs her poor daughter picks up
She searches for the faintest trace of the bourgeoisie
Shows shock where she finds any
But doesn’t stop trying. Disapproval
Is her bread
Nice rising fluffy bread
And there you are
With your swagger and your leathers
Strong n tuff
Burning holes, carpets, bedspreads, boots, roads, tyres
Hearts, bodies and cunts
You’re not in a suit
Unless it’s a man’s with bizarre touches
Of your own
You’re looking like you’re slouching
There against the wall in your jeans
Hiding your face under your carefully cut floppy fringe
But you are a tensile coil, shocks in your veins.
You return to this pose
if you knew
how much I wanted you
and what I would do for you
you would be
Let’s talk about smartness. I have friends with learning and neurological and cognitive differences so I’m not talking about some sort of medicalised hierarchy of smartness. I’m talking about smartness as:
Working out what you want;
asking for what you want, and
not stopping till you get it.
We all come to fem from different places. Some of us have more barriers than others in arriving here. My crip colleague Stella Young (ABC Ramp up editor http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/) says, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it…
With our Femme Guild missions here being Visibility Solidarity Celebration, I I believe it is all our responsibility to be as loud and proud as possible, not just for us in the room but for those to come. To be guiding lights for any fem to develop their own smartness, and that you can never be too smart. And Femme to me is all about Smart.
Has anyone else here wondered if they were fem enough?
Why is it so?
We hold the notion that’s almost a sexist stereotype ideal of Femmeness as high heeled, made up, curled, bouffanted, strapped in to a skirt and tight top oozing charm and wits and fuck-me power, and we imagine this glorious Being as exclusionary, but is it? I say not.
We all actually know that we attain our own version of Femme every day and those special nights out, sex nights, movie nights, every night, whatever. Femme is like a frequency that’s always there for those of us who hunger for her siren song, the desire to perform Femme, to have her Smarts and her Wits, her Honour and her Courage, that’s for all of us. You simply can’t be too Femme. There is no such thing as Not Femme Enough. As Femme Mystique editor Leslea Newman says, each femme has her own mystique. Find yours and never let anyone take it away from you.
What can a freak like me express about femmeness? I’m limited in some ways in terms of accessories: High heels for instance… I cant wear heels in public, can’t walk in them, never have been able to, never will, my body and my prosthetic leg and my other leg are just not made that way. So I can wear one. In bed. It’s fun.
How do I tune into Femme Frequency and make her sing for me?
Kimberly Dark: …my first femme mentor who comes to mind is Mae West… What I mean by “femme” in the case of Mae West is that she was a feminine creature of her own creation – an exaggeration of flesh molded by others into something vulgar; she made of herself something extravagant, funny and smart. She was fully aware of her erotic power and wielded it with humor.
If ‘female’ is in itself a performance, then femme is definitely performative. As Chandra Mayor says in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, One is not born a woman, says Simone de Beauvoir. One becomes one. I was born a femme in a long line of angry, fucked up femmes. I just never really got the hang of being a woman… She goes on to say, Femme is the indomitable will in me, in my mother, in my grandmothers and in my daughter. Femme is knowing (and knowing that you know) that you can hurt me but you can’t break me. Femme is the deepest part of me, the softest and fiercest, all at once.
I am as interested in the internal strategies of this performance as I am in the external trappings. I especially enjoy the edges where femme gets blurry and intermittent and dirty. And I think in the heart of Femmeness is the love of performance and a performative life, whether in text, in electronic media, in the self as living art.
Femme Goddess Joan Nestle wrote in the introduction to Persistence, 2011: My fem body scarred in ways I had not imagined then, looks upon its younger self with gratitude for the kindness of that 1992 gay publisher who did not flinch at such an image (of herself semi-naked, exposed, as queer porn pic for the femme butch Bible, The Persistent Desire). Even one’s thighs are historical documents. Time has shifted not just the contours of my body but the streets I walk, the skies I see.
I really like this opening line from ‘Reflections of a Young Femme Dyke’ by Jan E Bevilacqua, out of 1995’s The Femme Mystique:
Being a femme has its drawbacks; I have spilled face powder on my combat boots and it ate up my morning… I wonder sometimes if I’m really a femme. If all this hasn’t been an illusion perpetrated by her biceps and the knife in her belt… I wear makeup it’s true, but not much. And somehow putting on a dress over my unshaven legs and lipstick rather than aftershave makes me feel more like a dyke… And I wear, day by day, little that would bring the impression that it is I who lie vulnerable to her leather-butch whims. My men’s jeans are the same as hers, my flannels alike. My hair is shorter and my boots make the same solid sound on the floors of the places we go to show each other off.
If pressed I describe myself as a bisexual queer femme top, but this is a movable feast. I like labels and flagging and as much identity politic shenanigans as I can grab but for me my sexual identity is flexible and change-able. For instance, sometimes I bottom, but only for love…
I’m madly in love with a cis male at the moment tho he certainly likes me to do queer things to him… But my point being, I happen to feel that nothing is fixed in my life, not even my body. It all changes and flows, all the time. I respect however ppls choices to have defined sexual orientation, body politics, gender, dress code or whatever it is.
And I get it. For me too no matter who I’m fucking or how I’m fucking or if I’m not fucking anyone, Femme holds me. Femme contours my secret and shifting identity landscapes…
I refer to myself half jokingly as lo femme, the sort of femme who doesn’t dress like a girl unless I want to. Who spends money on travel and drugs and adventure, not clothing and make-up. I love op shopping and even more, I love a butch who op shops for me…
Femme is also a place you reach, a place where you can breathe easier, relax, be the woman of your dreams. I think Femme gets its happiest expression when we find belonging places, both inside and outside of ourselves… But these journeys are complicated and hazardous:
From ‘Bandit Queen of Manchester’ Jaheda Choudhury, in Femmes of Power:
My bloodline is from Bangladesh, specifically Sylhet. I’m connected to it through the stories my parents and other elders told me growing up: Islamic stories of kindness, stories of independence and three fights for freedom – from Empire, from India and from Pakistan. Despite all that, my life’s in danger when I express my love for my girlfriend. My sexuality puts me in the LGBTIQ community, which has also had to fight to exist. Yet, when I wear my sari or my kameez to a queer event/night, I’m told I’m in the wrong country. The artists community sometimes feeds my ego, yet artists are killed and persecuted too because of how they tell a story. My arrogance and self-belief keep me writing and feeding audiences’ hunger to learn and be entertained.
Disabled women have also felt excluded from queer cultures, and that it is dangerous for them to go there. It’s noteworthy how straight, dull and rigidly conventional some disabled groups are. The pressure is on, especially if you grew up disabled, to be straighter than straight, more decent than decent, and stiflingly ‘normal’ – perhaps so that your disabilities seem less than they are, I don’t know, why exactly but believe me, there are lots of disabled ppl suffering in the closet out of fear of their community’s reactions, their families’ reactions, their employers’ reactions, their funding body’s reactions, their friends’, their care workers’. Seriously.
I have a disabled friend who hides all her dyke books and art from her home care workers because she has had to answer to reports from higher up in the home care food chain that her home is not straight enough for the delicate sensibilities of her workers.
Disabled UK academic Carol Thomas quotes Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch in her Female forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability ‘women with disabilities have traditionally been ignored not only by those concerned about disability but also by those examining women’s experiences. Even the feminist scholars to whom we owe great intellectual and political debts have perpetuated this neglect. The popular view of women with disabilities has been one mixed with repugnance. Perceiving disabled women as childlike, helpless and victimised, non-disabled feminists have severed them from the sisterhood in an effort to advance more powerful, competent and appealing female icons. As one feminist academic said to the non-disabled co-author of this essay: Why study women with disabilities? They reinforce traditional stereotypes of women being dependent, passive and needy.’
In my experience the intersections of femme and disability are contradictory, complementary and fascinating.
On the one hand, the stereotype of femmeness and the stereotype of the disabled woman work together neatly, meeting in notions of passivity and display; on the other hand, disabled women are pretty much assumed to be either asexual or up for anything they can get, and I mean anything, and so our efforts to fem up crip, or crip up fem, can be misread.
Here however in this environment here at the Femme Guild’s Unpacking Femme Conference and happily, Femme is powerful; disability is generally perceived not to be powerful, although for me it is. I believe I am yet to convince the world that disability is powerful… but I feel the potential here like nowhere else… As Madeline Davis says in her essay, ‘Forever Femme’ in Femme: Lesbians Feminists and Bad Girls, ‘A femme who recognises her erotic power and resolves to live within it fully is formidable indeed.’
Decades ago I was invited to join a Sydney group called Access Plus which was an activist group for queer disabled people. Attending their conference was a landmark time for me feeling as though all my identities could be present and happy. These days I curate and perform with a group of ppl in Melbourne who identify as Deaf or disabled, and queer and queer friendly. We put on shows we call Quippings and we just got local government funding for four shows this year. We are creating culture, we are making it fun to express all that you can be, in company, safely, with an audience and some cash as reward for all that public boldness. We are outlaws. And successful.
I have a different body from most women. I was born with one full length right arm and left leg (with little bits missing) and half my left arm and right leg. I stand out everywhere I go and don’t always feel comfortable in public space. So why does Femme feel like my belonging place?
I believe that Femme is my natural home as a femmy disabled woman also because of our collective Femme championing of bodily diversity. From Femmes of Power again, Kentucky Fried Woman Krista Smith:
I was not born with all of the hyper-feminine clothing, accoutrements, and movements that help identify me to the queer eye as a hi femme. I intentionally put these things on to perform femininity. This performance is closely tied to my body, and part of the subversive nature of femme identity is to value bodies in all of their varied contexts. If femme identity is constantly engaging with femininity and one accepts that femme identity is not merely an essentialised identity but also a performative one, then we must engage with what it means to perform this identity…
Femme is forged in resistance to multiple norms at once, says Ulrika Dahl, co-editor of Femmes of Power.
The last time I was here I felt I belonged, an unusual feeling for me. It is because we are all fighting norms. Even the norms that suggest Femmes should only look a certain way and only wear certain things. It’s obvious here that the rules are ours to be made, resisted, broken.
Let us shift our gaze upwards from my absent high heels to my undies.. I love it all from corsets to strap-ons from one high heel to Docs, ya, flimsies and boxers.. BUT I don’t wear women’s undies comfortably, they just don’t work with my leg. I can wear them for moments, like false eyelashes. So I love boy leg undies and guys’ jocks. I mean, LOVE them. And am no less Femme.
Our surfaces are open to interpretation, and for me Femme is deeply performative. I am yet to meet a femme who does not adore public performance, whether they’re doing it or not. It’s something powerful, fun, smart and feisty.
I haven’t talked much about Butchness have I?
I really want to open up Femme-ness as I and others experience it, but my interactions with Butch form a vital part of my erotic text output. And here is some more…
Sometimes, despite the power of Femme, the power of performance and some magic in the air, you just don’t land your prize. Who else finds that Femmes make the moves? If we waited for Butches and others to hit on us we would not get enough action… We are intent focussed risk-takers.
This is a poem about an unrequited lust, my desire for a Butch who wasn’t into me on this occasion. I tried to seduce her but failed. One day I will have her because she is so gorgeous and talented and desirable that my life will be incomplete without having her…
I didn’t think you had breasts!
You have a broad fine chest, lightly dappled
Your nipples are large and flat,
Umberish dull brown
With bumpy edges.
All the days I saw you I didn’t look beyond
Your surface tension until
Under the glow of a lightbulb gently fogged
By a silver-edged shade
You are in your pyjamas.
I want to ask you
Where did they come from?
You look like you’re slinking across my gaze
With tightened shoulders, like you’ve done something wrong.
Who is this an issue for?
I want to comment but you’re scary.
You might explode;
You might have better breasts than mine –
On a footstool
Breast to breast
What would we feel like,
These giant rollicking
Breasts rubbering rubbing.
The time is ticking in your kitchen.
Despite your height, your power,
You are fragile with your breasts on,
Sheltering them in your baggy greeny-grey unknowable
This aching pause while I stare
At your breasts
And you look down at
On the floor.
There’s time tapping at the glass
Of your ground floor flat
You lock so
Fastidiously, scared of intruders and people with ladders.
And waterstains on teak
And disorder in the kitchen
And strangers in your writing sanctum
I join a special club of people you let in.
You say I observe you!
You are a fucking
And I cant
I almost get to ask you questions.
Your breasts are still there
Swinging in the air.
Our chairs creak.
I suck away at the passion
Fruit vodka cruiser
Like a farken pimply teenager.
I talk about shit –
(Im pretty sure if you could have brought yourself
To throw me in a cab
You would have done it)
– I choose the awkward dust of
Pot n booze.
To stop me staring at you,
To blur me out of my curiosity and desire
And pass me out
In your bed.
We hug for the night
A razor cut of light through your carefully parted
Curtains spills across your floor.
You can’t bear light to sleep by, you say,
Twitching at the cloth.
You flinch away from my suggestion
We share this broad bed
And throw me off a sheer Irish Liverpudlian rejection
Like a sailor turning down a whore
At the wharf
Cavalier and detached, not tonight, sweetheart.
And stomp off, leaving your height and your curves
Against the pale walls,
In the cool impersonal night air.
I cant sleep!
Thrashing around squeezing and harassing your pillows,
Sniffing your sheets for you,
I find you on the books beside the bed,
Your ruffled notes.
You are loitering there, text scent;
My impossible crush,
In the flutter and whisper of the paper.
The light spills over your words,
Your golden fur
Your graceful length
Your boy movements
Your shifting pyjamas.
Your voice is honey
Your lips a feast,
Your hands frenzied.
You stand over me on your bed, raw fullness.
I want every inch of you against
Everything of mine –
Have you been binding them all this time?
Your breasts are yours
And therefore divine.
Kate Bornstein in her review of Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme – hey, does anyone else have a twinge of annoyance about the way it’s always Butch first? Like Butch and Femme, it’s rarely – ever? – Femme and Butch…. I think we could address this here and play with the ordering of this binary… Anyway, Kate says, The butch/femme dynamic is a conscious loving binary of desire and trust; it’s a dance of love and outlawed romance. Butches and femmes share a sense of tribe, extended family and kinship – no matter what our genders may be…
Jewelle Gomez says in the same book, We (fems) are actually guerilla warriors, fighting undercover in the war to save women from the continuing campaigns to make us irrelevant fluff…
The power of the text. The power of those 6 books in my meager Melbourne library to make me rethink my Femme status…
Chandra Moury instructs her writing students, Think of the thing you are most afraid to say out loud. Then say it. Start there. See where you go…
Who else writes their experiences, or turns it into pictures, photos, multimedia, cakes, clothing, shoes, colors their walls, makes toys, quilts, crochets and so on…?
We will all suffer, pain, loss heartbreak, separation from our communities, upheavals, disappointments, grief. I can only suggest we use this intense Femme energy to create. Where would culture be without misery and aching hearts? I write about stuff that’s beautiful and stuff that’s horrible because I love the way Art transforms Experience. You feel it, you transform it, you share it. In the sharing the original impulse to release pain gets transformed into something everyone can use, can learn from, can pass on.
And so, in this rambling talk which I hope goes some way to suggesting you can never be too femme or too smart, I would like to end on the end of a Femme Butch Love Story. A true story because the personal is still political, bitches…
I have a box.
In it there are letters and jewellery, a witch doll, photos, 20 cards for special occasions, bracelets, a 10cm cast iron one armed Jesus, a scroll with a Dalai Lama text:
Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it..
I receive the box 3 days after we cremated its maker.
Its maker was once the love of my life, Tyren, who some of you have met, others you may have heard my sexy stories based on our adventures together over seven years…
To My Prince: As we approach our first anniversary together I want to tell you how blessed I feel to have you in my life. I have never been so in love. I have never been so attracted. You are my dream come true…
We broke up three years ago.
I want to make each day your birthday and love you and hold you and carry you lean against you
relish the opportunities you grow through
and swim beside you
give you joy
make you laugh
make you rage ….
I left her.
She took a lover I couldn’t stand and I left her, leaving 3 teenagers, our house, our community.
I ran away to Melbourne.
I feel I have become to understand something of the possibilities of love and honesty and devotion
Our bilious vituperative texts and emails and voicemails and diary entries to each other after we broke up… I can’t face them. Yet…
Happy 44th my love, you know I cant live without you…
I hold a love so intense and intent and full and deep and loathsome and vicious and fierce and huge and forever….
Kath my body has taken a turn for the worse.. I am nearing the end..
Half way through the time we had left together on the planet.
After the breakup.
Tyren gets a diagnosis.
Stage 4 advanced bowel tumor with 17 secondaries in the liver.
9 months before this she was in Richmond Psych after a suicide attempt. That was the weekend I discovered
I am going to have kind thoughts toward others. I am not going to get angry. I am going to benefit others as much as I can…
I so appreciate 4 years with the yummiest sexiest, woman I’ve ever known… I’m so thrilled that we are taking big risks together because I feel so ready to make a commitment to you…
About a year ago at St Kilda Beach, both of us on scooters for the day, over huge serves of perfect fish and chips, we forgave each other.
We could see we needed to.
The box holds her scent. I love it and I hate it, it is comfort and sex and the deepest filthiest tease.
Tyren has written my name there on the inside lid, in dolorous pencil colors crimson purple green, an opening, a hand crafted goodbye
The Jesus makes me laugh out loud.
I get my crucifix back.
I get a 1955 Playabout NSW Education Dept text about Aboriginal kids who explore for a day… I’m not sure why but I like it and yes I have searched it for hidden msgs.
There are hidden msgs.
It will it will just get better, trust me…
My darling – a lil token of my everlasting appreciation of your slavishness and eternal servitude – with all due esteem – The Mistress
Just making it clear – I was The Mistress, Tyren was the Butch Bottom of my dreams.
I riffle and sniff, and howl.
The box glows.
The box is just mine now.
She is right beside me.
Tyren is everywhere, in the rainbows and the rain, the grass and the dirt.
This isn’t necessarily… comfortable…
Facebook chat. Nov 27, 2012
Tyren: Is there anything you feel the need to talk with me about… To feel resolved on any level?
Kath: Babe, there is something… Do you blame me for being sick? I kind of blame myself… I blame myself for you being so sick. Thats the big thing…
Tyren: Not in any way. Absolutely. How do you blame yourself?
Kath: I should have noticed, I should have told you to get that gut of yours checked… I could have treated you better, have cared more, have noticed more. This is really important, its eating me alive.
Tyren: You maybe feel the need to blame someone. And by blaming yourself you have some control over it. I have at various stages blamed work chemical overload even god but never you. I want you to let go of this right now.
Kath: Me, I feel forgiven. I feel like you forgive me for everything. Now I just gotta forgive myself.
And in the box, the last letter….
Sealed. Weighty. Hand written…
Oct 12th 2012… Kath I know you find loss and death and grief very hard and my heart aches about that. I do however want you to know a few things and I hope they make a difference. I am prepared for my death, I have had the time to do so … I firmly and knowingly trust that life doesn’t end at death and so I know I am setting off on a whole new adventure in a different form. So don’t be sad for me…
Keep flying Kath and keep being the unique and gorgeous person you are, you will stay firmly in my heart and my soul loves you and recognizes you darling. Let’s let everything be clear as we let go together of this lifetime shared…
Have a fantastic conference, nurture each other, let’s build community and let’s be aware that together we are making history.
Coyote, Ivan E and Sharman, Zena (eds) (2011). Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver
Franson, Leanne (1999). Assume Nothing: The Evolution of a Bi Dyke, Slab-O-Concrete Publications, Hove, UK.
Harris, Laura & Crocker, Elizabeth (eds) (1997). Femme: Feminists, Lesbians and Bad Girls, Routledge, New York/London.
Newman, Leslea (ed) 1995. The Femme Mystique, Alyson Publications Inc, Boston.
Rubel, Robert J & Stassinopoulos, Angela (eds) 2007. Power Exchange Books: Playing with Disabilities, The Nazca Plains Corporation, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Thomas, Carol (1999). Female forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability, Open University Press, Buckingham, Philadelphia.
Volcano, Del LaGrace & Dahl, Ulrika (eds) 2007. Femmes of Power: Exploding Queer Femininities, Serpent’s Tail/Profile Books Ltd, London.