Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Architecture of Femme: femme identity, drag, and the bois















[Image Description: on the left is Mik Danger with the Dazzling Diamond. This image is a close-up of only our faces. Both have black bangs hanging over heavily made-up eyes, the Dazzling Diamond has a dyed blond streak in her hair. The Dazzling Diamond is Korean American, Mik is white. Both are pouting at the camera with sparkly lips. On the right there is a snapshot of the TransFormers performing. A handful of audience heads can be seen in the foreground. The three of us are in various poses. On the far left is Dickie Van Dyke in a blue skirt and neon blue tights making cat-like motions at the audience. In the center is Mik Danger in black with neon pink tights throwing her hands up, and on the far right is the Dazzling Diamond also throwing her hands up at the audience wearing red neon tights and a red and black ensemble. It is a simple community-theatre like stage, very bare. There are red lights. ]
I returned two Sundays ago from the Femme Collective’s “The Architecture of Femme” where my troupe and I performed on Saturday night. For a non-femme identified person the conference was an amazing opportunity to discuss femininity and the way I ally to it all while in the presence of learning and listening from members of various femme communities. I submitted my drag troupe, the TransFormers, (drag is primarily how I publicly discuss identity issues) in the hopes that one of our pieces could meet the mark required for the Saturday Night Cabaret performance. Luckily, we were accepted and despite some concern over the expense of travel and the inability of one of our members to come, my fellow dragsters (minus one) and I made it to Chicago in time to see some of the conference and perform.

Our piece was “I Don’t Need a Man” is a PussyCat Dolls song which can be interpreted many ways with lyrics as amorphous as “Let me break it down/I can get off when you ain’t around” and “I don’t need a ring around my finger/to make me feel complete”. We could be talking about sex, or we could be talking about seeing women as complete human beings. Our pieces tend to have some level of minor choreography to them, but this one is unique in being completely choreographed. Like a good collective, we switch off on who lip synchs which parts and where we stand on the stage. We perform “I Don’t Need a Man” in miniskirts and sexy tops with knee-high neon stockings, and we make liberal use of folding chairs. I add a wig and a tucked away penis to my outfit and pad my bra. By doing this I both conform to fit the typical image of a drag queen (as many people still assume all drag queens are cisgender men), but I also diversify the women we represent by being read as a potential no-surgeries transwoman. What is critical for me on a personal level is that I know no one will mistake me for someone with a stable female gender identity once they take in all the various gender clues I am presenting.

Despite my belief that our piece is a strong affirmation of sexy femininity, I felt incredibly nervous as the time for our performance rolled closer. Here I was, a decidedly not femme-identified man about to take the stage in front of a group of femme women wearing a wig, a slightly bulging mini skirt, and a sports bra that had been noticeably padded. The questions that Drag Queens pose about femininity and female identity were overflowing and I became sincerely concerned that my fellow Queens and I would be seen as mocking femininity, instead of celebrating it. To my great and immense relief, we temporarily stole the show (we were followed by Glenn Marla, who simply can not be beat).

Having only one member of the TransFormers being femme-identified I was also nervous that my presence as an ally might be misread. I can’t give someone my entire gender identity history in one night - in any night - and while I know that participants at the Femme Conference would be less likely to judge a person’s gender identity, the possibility of such judgment can be confusing and paralyzing. In the workshops and keynotes we attended the discussions were so closely focused on femmes that allies often were relegated to sitting and listening: which is exactly what allies should be doing 80% of the time. However, there are always times when workshops or lectures are really meant for the self-identifying members of the audience and not for allies or family members/significant others. I don’t believe in “safe space” but I strongly believe in “safer space”, and it can be hard to tell when a lecture or workshop might be more easily received and understood if the attendees all belonged to that one identity group.

All of this is a good segue into a definition of “femme” – a definition one of my readers asked me for almost a year ago but which I have yet to give. I'm afraid I have to bow out a little and say that I don't fully know. However, the femmes I have met tend to be women - cigender, genderqueer, and transgender - who have struggled for a long time to embrace femininity. Their femininity may look like the prototypical 1950s housewife that some second wave feminists worked to diversify (baking, house-dresses, DIY projects, a love of caring for people, high heels, taking primary housekeeping responsibilities) but the difference is in an ability to choose these actions. Some femmes don't wear makeup, don't wear dresses, and don't cook. Some femmes focus more on a feminine spirituality or a butch-feminine identity. Some femmes are men - an identity I look at with some skepticism but with a widening acceptance. I think what ties femme communities together is a common struggle to have what is feminine be accepted and loved and valued. There is also a common tie of trying to find community when outside pressures (be they patriarchal, heteronormative, transphobic or white supremacist) continue to teach a devaluation of femme identity and encourage in-fighting. Femmes, like disability groups and transgender groups, stand at the cusp of redefining community in a way that is incredibly revolutionary and inclusive as many fringe identities can find a home within "femme". From Kate Bornstein's blog:
“Butches can be dominant or submissive, strong or weak, honorable, or complete rats. So can Femmes. Butch and Femme have nothing to do with who makes more money. And no one in real life is a hundred percent butch. No one is a hundred percent femme. Like everything else about our identities, butch and femme are all a matter of degree based on preference, comfort and choice. There’s no perfection in the dance, there’s only the totality of self-expression and how that self-expression dovetails with someone else’s self-expression. When people play with that consciously, it’s wonderful fun. At its best, Butch/Femme becomes an erotic expression of ‘This is how I’m femme, and it makes me really happy that I delight the butch in you.’ And, ‘This is how I’m butch, and it makes me really happy that I delight the femme in you.’”*

I wrote, early on, that my partner would “never be my femme” and a reader was confused about what I meant by the phrase. My comment was in response to a story on a transman where a photo was captioned as “so-n-so and his femme” – a caption that denied his partner her name, and with it any ability to self identify outside of her relationship to him. In “not being my femme” I meant that my partner would never be relegated to an identity that hinged upon mine. First and foremost she will always be the sum of her identities and talents, her accomplishments and aspirations. Moreover, though, my partner doesn’t currently identify as femme. Within queer communities, and outside of us as well, many people love to think and exist within a butch/femme paradigm where a masculine person partnered to a feminine person must be replicating a male and female relationship. My partner, while very feminine in dress and presentation, doesn’t draw her identity from these accoutrement. In fact, most femmes I know don’t draw their identity from how they dress and present themselves. This is confusing to lots of people as gender identities (such as femme and butch, fish, fairy etc) are often linked to the ways in which we present ourselves, and that includes clothing and accessories. Due to her presentation and body type my partner is often read as femme, and this is always very difficult for both of us. Despite being incredibly effeminate my transmale identity often precludes a decision that I must therefore be masculine-identified, and that my partner (ipso facto) is femme. Beyond the fact that y partner doesn’t identify as femme though is the connotation in the caption that femmes are identified by their presence to men or masculine people. Hopefully, our piece reaffirmed that no one needs "a man" to self-define, being that "man" could be anyone who expresses an unwanted and non-consensual dominance.

*Bornstein, Kate. “WALL•E: A Butch/Femme Love Story... or Silly Rabbit! Robots Have No Gender”. Kate Bornstein's Blog for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. July 9

4 comments:

Ali H said...

This is the only post of yours that I've read so far, referred to me by a friend, just leaving you a note to say that I really love it: your writing, the points you're making and the performance you're describing.

It is also interestingly timely, as I'm midway through writing an article for a local (Sydney) dyke magazine about bio-queen drag performers at the moment, and hyper-femininity performed by female-bodied people. There's a whole lot I'm not going to be able to cover in a 1400 word piece but I'm loving the opportunity to look deeper into queer performance and the analysis of gender that happens in our communities of performance.

/end rambling note.
-Ali

Sublimefemme said...

Great post, thank you!!

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