Sunday, April 26, 2009

Visible: A Femmethology, Volumes One and Two

This is probably as close to a book review as you're going to ever find in this space. I can write a lot of stuff, but book reviews have never been high on my list. Too stuffy and presumptuous for me. You're expected to read symbolism into shit. I don't do that. I read stuff and tell you if I like and why. Here goes.

Title: Visible: A Femmethology, Volumes One and Two
Edited by Jennifer Clare Burke
Published by Homofactus Press
ISBN: 978-0-9785973-4-4

Somehow, this great gal named Maria who works for the publishing company (I think) found me and asked if I would review a couple volumes of collected writings by and about femmes and what makes them femme.

What this butch girl can say about femmes is really pretty limited. I have dated one or two, slept with a couple, and ogled my fair share. This latter bit probably marks me as a tool of the patriarchy, but oh well. I like the way women look. And some of them happen to be femme. Is it wrong for me to ogle the cute butch with the swagger and brush cut? God, I hope not.

I also have to confess my own ignorance of femme politics. Only in recent years have I opened my eyes to the concept that a femme identity might be something more than passing for straight. Only in recent months have I begun to try to learn more about femme identity politics and what it means for me, for our culture, and for the queer liberation movement.

For a very long time - indeed my whole life - the mysterious art of make-up, hair, nails and fashion have been foreign to me. Much like I view people who have amazing technical skills with computers or the visual arts, I have tended to view femmes, high femmes in particular, with a certain degree of suspicion. Their art is beyond my comprehension. It was something to be feared, or perhaps ridiculed. Girly girls. Feh. Who could take them seriously?

My internal sexism was stronger than I had ever imagined. It took me over 40 years to recognize it. I am now working on that. Perhaps the fates saw fit to put me here to read this collection to help in that effort. Wise and witty women, those fates.

So anyway, there is the two-volume TOME of writing edited by Jennifer Clare Burke and published by Homofactus Press, LLC. It contains the thoughts and musings of something like 50 writers. They are femmes and not-femmes, old and young, some schooled in the language and dogma of feminist theory, some radical and outrageous. Their brilliance and wordcraft are impressive.

As I paged through the volumes, a couple pieces jumped out at me as instantly attractive to my butch bottom sensibilities. Femme Fuck Revolution by Hadassah Hill was one that really appealed to me. Hill flings a stiletto in the face of old-school, Dworkin-style feminism and keeps marching. Damn. Gives me shivers.

The piece that moved me the most, that kept my eyes riveted to the page, that wrenched my heart and made me think harder about what it means to have an identity of any kind, butch or femme, was A Decade Later - Still Femme? by Sharon Wachsler. This piece is a revision of an original essay by Wachsler called Still, Femme, first published in the 1990s. Wachsler has a chronic and debilitating illness that has changed her life enormously from her early, carefree, younger years. She describes her life as a young "power femme," dressed to the nines in skirts and heels, makeup just so, hair perfect, striding with confidence and attitude everywhere she went. Then disease struck, something called Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) laid her low. Confined indoors, safe from the chemicals of nature (pollen, dust, mold) and the chemicals of man (pollution, smog), she had to vastly adjust her behaviors, her daily rituals.

The makeup and lipstick that had once been her war paint, that wonderful empowering battle-garb now became her undoing. A day wearing makeup meant a week of increased medicine and rest. Her body could no longer do the things she used to enjoy. Muscles lost tone. Movement of any kind is an exhausting effort. One of the paragraphs that gripped me most was this:
I realized that most of my femme identity was bound up in those narrow social contexts - getting dressed up, going out, being among other queer women - and in the "props" of those contexts. Now that I could no longer enter those surroundings or wear the clothing, makeup, and accessories that went with them, was I still femme? Where is the meaning in being femme if I am absent from the queer women's community? My hair tangled, my body limp and sore, my skin splotchy, I wondered if I would ever look good again. Was there any point in being femme if I were unattractive and inert?
What point, indeed? How much of our identity is what we show the world? If suddenly I were incapacitated in such a way and could no longer do the things that I do that make me feel butch - fixing my truck, building things, wearing jeans and work boots - the things that make me feel powerful and competent, for indeed that is how she described her "power femme" identity, what would that mean to my identity as butch?

Wachsler describes how she has transformed the power femme she once offered into something softer, gentler, something she once held in low regard. She now asks for assistance when she needs it. But not in a plaintive way - she asks with grace and dignity, much like a lady of a certain era might be expected to ask for assistance.

Far from the shrinking violet that her physical body has become, Wachsler's mind and words are as intense and concentrated as they were in the early version of the essay. Carefully, she argues not to get disability politics mixed up with butch/femme stuff. She thoughtfully discusses the recent re-emergence of butch/femme identities in queer culture and the ongoing invisibility of femmes at queer events unless they tend to be on the arm of a butch or androgynous lesbian.

She writes passionately about ableism and her struggle to maintain her femme identity even as her body fails her. She has assistants do the grooming things that once were so much a part of her presentation to the world. Her identity has had to become more internalized. Her speaking voice is difficult to use and similarly difficult to understand. She must draw very clear lines around what kind of helping she allows her lover to do and what she allows her personal care assistants to do in order to be able to maintain some kind of autonomy of her sexual presence.

Her disability has required Wachsler to turn inward, to contemplate the meaning of identity and to consider its implications and expressions. Through that looking within, she seems to have come to a comfortable realization about who and what she is and how she relates to her now restricted world.
I'm in awe of the true power and beauty of my femme spirit's ability - when the rising tide of debility and loss threaten to engulf me - to keep my psyche afloat ... physically, I might be unable to swim, but psychologicaly, my femme nature has kept my head above water. In ways I never could have expected - in ways I couldn't understand, myself, until I started writing this essay - my inner femme has been reaching toward drifting water lilies within my grasp, and I've grabbed ahold, usually without knowing why. Often I shiver. I keep looking for a boat that hasn't yet come. Sometimes I think about just letting go and slipping below the surface. But femmes are fighters. Every once in a while, when I'm truly lucky, the light glints off the water, and I feel the sun on my face.
May I have half that kind of presence and poise as time moves on.


The rest of the two volumes is filled with more stuff than my brain could absorb. Much of it is very dense stuff the likes of which I have not read since leaving college and giving up on the quarterlies of intense papers that every academic seemed to want to get into. There was a lot of talk about how invisible femmes are, and I get that. No, I really do. Femmes are largely invisible in and out of the queer world UNLESS they are on the arm of a more-obvious lesbian.

There was a lot of writing that involved highly academic terms and footnotes and references. Those tended to feel like I was back in school doing research. There was a lot of talk about how being femme is part personal identity stuff and part performing for the world.

Then there were pieces like This Femme's User Guide by Alex Holding. It's in Volume 2. Turned my head and set me down upon it. The line that got me?
Femme isn't always intentionally performative. When I roll out of bed and down to the coffee pot after not enough sleep to find myself leaning against the kitchen counter, eye makeup smeared all over hell and slip askew, I can guarantee that I am not performing for even myself in that moment, but still, I feel femme as fuck.
Uh- huh. That's the femme I can understand and appreciate. The Queen Latifah kind of I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass-and-you're-gonna-love-it kind of femme. But then, I am attracted to those kinds of girls.

Sinclalir Sexsmith also has a beautiful piece in Volume 2, called Love Letter. Damn, but I wish I could write like that. Damn.


I haven't got the first clue if this is the kind of review anyone wanted for this project. I know that there was an awful lot of writing, and it was all excellent. There were as many styles as there were authors, and I don't think I know anyone who could not benefit or enjoy reading these volumes. I found myself curiously contemplative as I read, sometimes taking one paragraph at a time, closing my eyes to absorb it, making a note in the margin, and then reading on. Good stuff. Jennifer Clare Burke did a hell of a job compiling and editing these volumes. Very nice indeed.


dolphyngyrl said...

And this I get to follow?


You're such a friggin' jerk.

(LOVED this! Totally awesome, insightful, powerful. You're amazing, and I'm totally jealous. Ass.)

Dusty said...

You m'dear are a wonderful gave me a good insight to these pieces.

Sharon Wachsler's really speaks to me. As you know, I think, I blew three discs out three years ago this month. Its been hell to go from vibrant and active to half dead and...whatever.

These pieces speak to all women, not just butch or femme.

At least that's my story and I am sticking to it. ;)

Jen Burke said...

What a wonderful post!

Thank you for reading Femmethology.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks so much for your post. It means a lot to me. Although it's not in the essay, the more recent disability stuff (loss of speech, inability to bathe or dress myself, etc.), are from Lyme and associated infections. That hadn't been definitively diagnosed at the time I wrote the essay. I encourage everyone on the planet to see a really fantastic documentary called Under Our Skin about chronic Lyme and the politics behind it.
Sharon Wachsler

Waiting For It said...

Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed Femmethology.

Hadassah Hill