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When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.
— Adrienne Rich
A lot of people with the privilege to never have to think about how they identify (in terms of gender and sexuality) because they are the default like to complain about other people being “obsessed with labels”. Usually, they are the ones imposing labels on other people that align with their own experiences of the world instead of just listening to what someone actually says about themselves. I’ve had people ask me what gender I am, get a response from me, and then disagree with me because it wasn’t a response that fit with their expectations. That’s right; disagree with me about my own gender. It never fails to astonish me.
– from the mind behind In Praise of Shame, who was recently so kind as to link here.
My friend Jack posted this on Facebook:
Discussing patterns of attraction with wife:
Her: I’ve historically been attracted either to prettyboys or to bears, and you’re not really either. *looks at me* Hmm…I suppose you’re–
Me: a weird mutant hybrid of the two? 😄
Her: …remember YOU said that, not me.
♥ ♥ ♥ Somuchlove.
And his friend Stuart Lorimer said:
AND I SQUEED.
I’ve complained about body issues in the past, and specifically one of the things I’ve always regretted is that, despite being hairy and kind of, you know, convex, I’ve never felt much access to bear-type spaces as a femme guy.
The way it was always explained to me, bear was about breaking away from the tyrannical non-masculine hegemony that governs all of gaydom and finally getting to be properly masculine. Bears are butch, trying to be a bear while femme is Doing It Rong, and I would be unwelcome. Period.
Maybe I’m wrong; maybe this is all some bullshit I’ve been fed. Heaven knows it wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe there’s lots of room for a hyperfaggy cub who wears fedoras and brocade scarves, can use the phrase “accent wall” without stammering, and is doggedly trying to educate himself about “product.” I would love to know that.
But in the meantime I love the idea of noticing that furry, non-tiny guys can be not just bluff and handsome but flamey and flirty and, well, pretty. So “prettybear” gives me a happy, and I’m sharing it with you.
[On his reason for writing:] “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'”
– Kurt Vonnegut
While in Ottawa on other business, I recently had the distinct pleasure of hanging out with my friend Ariel and the ladies of Femme Family Ottawa, a wonderful example of the communities that femmes build for ourselves. These femmes (all genders of femme are welcome, though all the other attendees at this particular meeting were women) meet every month for an informal chat at a cute café in Chinatown. I was a bit of a novelty, both as a boy and as a Montrealer, and I enjoyed the cross-pollination that went on.
One of the women brought up femme invisibility, a concept that comes up repeatedly in femme queer women’s thought. If I am characterizing it accurately, it is basically that femme queer women often feel that they are not being read as queer, owing to stereotypes of what queer women look like and do. They may feel not embraced, whether in queer women’s spaces or in the world in general, if they are read as ‘traditionally feminine’ and therefore as straight women. It’s a frustrating place to be, and not just because it makes it difficult to get laid.
A constant refrain over my journey to accepting, living, and celebrating my femmeness has been, “Why do you feel the need to” do whatever femme thing happens to be striking the person’s irritation at the time. The subtext is that it’s not possible I should just want to do these things, that they should just make me happy or agree with me. Since I’m a boy, I have to have some reason, I have to be able to account for them.
And the question itself is so odd, anyway; “need” suggests compulsion, that I must not have a choice in the matter, but the very question “why” suggests that I have some sort of ulterior motive, that I’m doing it just to be perverse and annoying.
This isn’t restricted to me, of course. There is a constant theme in our culture and kyriarchy that things considered to be feminine gender traits are regarded as fake, artificial, performed, or histrionic, and things coded as masculine are normal, natural, rational, artless, sincere, or direct. And those viewed as men are regarded as especially artificial when they behave femininely because they are disrupting gender assumptions.
Happy equinox, gendernauts!
The new post I’m gestating (it’ll be about how femininity is equated with artificiality) has been delayed for a bit (ETA: Here it is!); I’ve just gotten a sweet new job without giving up the old one, so I think it’ll be a little while before I work up the mental energy to finish it, and I really should give Julia Serano a reread first.
In the meantime, I will buy time by shamelessly recycling existing material. For those of you who enjoyed my post on body image and the effeminate guy — apparently it’s received the most hits of any of my posts to date — I felt I should highlight a really interesting comment that was left on it. Commenter enoch said [paragraph divisions added]:
As a transmasculine person, I have some trouble keeping my femme identity visible to people who do not understand the full range of femme possibility.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found the that more masculine I make my body appear, the easier it is to layer the trappings of male femininity on top of. Now, this may be because, as a female-assigned person, I will look like a small, youthful man for much longer than my male-assigned counterparts, but I don’t think I’m frequently read as a twink (there are a few creepy old men who sit around in the garden of my local LGBT center who certainly look at me that way, but pretty much no one else).
Still, I am presented with the challenge of making my body masculine enough that I will be interpreted as a femme guy rather than a butch woman. I think that people who understand that transfolk have as much variety of presentation as cisfolk generally recognize my femme identity quite quickly.
Perhaps instead of looking for cues among femme women, you can look for cues among femme transpeople, some of us have learned how to combine masculine appearance with femme identity in innovative ways you might not have considered.
This is a really interesting point, and one I’d never considered! Props to enoch for bringing it up.
My grown-up self could have written (backwards of course) what the wonderful Alison Bechdel of the indispensable lesbian comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For writes about herself as a kid:
I began carrying a pocket knife, begged to have my hair cut short, took up spitting. I had no illusion that I was a boy, though I liked being mistaken for one. But it was just as clear to me that I wasn’t really a “girl.” Oh, I continued using the girls’ bathroom and checked the female box on questionnaires. But in my head I occupied my own private Switzerland, where I spent the remainder of my childhood in splendid neutrality.
– The Indelible Alison Bechdel
From an early age, boys are fitted with emotional straightjackets tailored by a restricted code of behavior that falsely defines masculinity. In the context of “stop crying,” “stop those emotions,” and “don’t be a sissy,” we define what it means to “Be a Man!” Adherence to this “boy code” leaves many men dissociated from their feelings and incapable of accessing, naming, sharing, or accepting many of their emotions. When men don’t understand their own emotions it becomes impossible to understand the feelings of another. This creates an “empathy-deficit disorder” that is foundational to America’s epidemic of bullying, dating abuse and gender violence. Boys are taught to be tough, independent, distrusting of other males, and at all cost to avoid anything considered feminine for fear of being associated with women. This leads many men to renounce their common humanity with women so as to experience an emotional disconnect from them. Women often become objects, used to either validate masculine insecurity or satisfy physical needs. When the validation and satisfaction ends, or is infused with anger, control or alcohol, gender violence is often the result.
– Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, from “Men Can Stop Rape”
While I stress over a prolonged bout of underemployment, here’s another quote for you.
54. […] The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.
55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.
— Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp“
(Slight divagation here: I’ve been thinking about this for the last little while. Maybe a way to express this is that camp is to irony or mockery as teasing is to taunting. Taunting is done out of a feeling of superiority or out of revulsion for the possibility that the taunter could be associated with the thing taunted. Teasing is done out of love, and so is camp. You don’t enjoy your derision of the campy thing; you enjoy the campy thing itself, in all its atrocious glory, in a very honest and direct way, even if that’s not what the creator intended (although it might be). Not to get too woolly here, but maybe it’s that instead of feeling superior to the creator of the campy thing, you identify with them, you have a delicious feeling of common humanity. ‘This is ridiculous, and I am just ridiculous enough myself to appreciate it, and that delights me.’)
“To me the important question—the important test for the political underpinnings of a policy or a theory—is, ‘Does it place a value on the lives of people of varying sexualities, on their experiences, on their survival, on their rights to dignity and expression and thought?’ I don’t think that there’s any way to guarantee that from either minoritizing or universalizing, or either essentialist or antiessentialist points of view. Any of those can offer fuel for homophobic and queer-eradicating forces and energies. Any of them can also be useful for projects that do value the survival of these people and acts and cultures and possibilities.
So I’m uncomfortable seeing the question of survival, support, and so forth being collapsed with any version of the essentialist-constructionist question. I see those as basically different questions. It’s time that people asked, for instance, politicians, ‘Do you value the survival and possibilities of these people and these potentials?’ Not ‘Do you believe X or Y about the hypothalamus and what would that lead to?’ That can lead to a lot of different things. The question of the value of people’s lives and contributions seems to me a different one, and a nonnegotiable one.”
— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in: Williams, Jeffrey. “Sedgwick Unplugged: An interview with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.” Critics at work: interviews, 1993-2003. New York UP, 2004. p. 246.
Holy crap, I’ve been sick for the last three weeks and I come back here and suddenly people are reading my blog! Four hundred hits in a day! More than a thousand this month! Zomg! *sweatdrop*
I can only apologize abjectly to you (especially those of you who made the three weeks’ worth of comments I just approved all at once) and hope you’ll keep reading.
While I prepare some upcoming blockbusters on body image and other things, here’s a quote from a recent issue of Toronto’s Pink Play, timely given the hockey fever that has taken over this city:
“Sports enthusiasts are nerds too!” says Jaime Woo, writer/activist and co-creator of the videogame conference GamerCamp. “Look at all the stats they know and their fantasy pools with all their imaginary match-ups—‘What if the Pittsburgh team of ‘72 was up against the Atlanta team of ‘85?’”
When he says it like that, it does sound pretty geeky. “What are the big battle scenes in Lord of the Rings”, he insists, but “just a heightened version of football?”
But he’s playing with fire here—football is sacred in a way that Dungeons and Dragons is not. In a culture (straight and gay) that prizes a confident masculinity above all else, anyone feminine or introverted or unathletic or otherwise falling short of that ideal gets marginalized—even if the fantasies they love correspond with it.
“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that BEING A GIRL IS DEGRADING.”
– Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden (since quoted in a slightly more high-profile context)
[E]ffemimania affects everybody, including women. Effemimania encourages those who are socialized male to mystify femininity and to dehumanize those who are considered feminine, and thus forms the foundation of virtually all male expressions of misogyny. Effemimania also ensures that any male’s manhood or masculinity can be brought into question at any moment for even the slightest perceived expression of, or association with, femininity. I would argue that today, the biggest bottleneck in the movement toward gender equity is not so much women’s lack of access to what has been traditionally considered the “masculine realm,” but rather men’s insistence on defining themselves in opposition to women (i.e., their unwillingness to venture into the “feminine realm”).
– Julia Serano, Whipping Girl
I’m not sure whether she coined it, but in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (strongly recommended, BTW), author Julia Serano brings the word “transmisogyny” to greater attention. She defines transmisogyny separately from transphobia — hatred faced by any trans person as a result of their trans status — describing it as follows:
Transmisogyny: Sexism that specifically targets those on the trans female/trans feminine spectrums. It arises out of a synergetic interaction between oppositional and traditional sexism. It accounts for why MTF spectrum trans people tend to be more regularly demonized and ridiculed than their FTM spectrum counterparts, and why trans women face certain forms of sexualization and misogyny that are rarely (if ever) applied to non-trans women.
From one of the most important thinkers in gender studies today. Please read her book immediately:
[W]hile most reasonable people see women as men’s equals, few (if any) dare to claim that femininity is masculinity’s equal. Indeed, much of what has historically been called misogyny—a hatred of women—has clearly gone underground, disguising itself as the less reprehensible derision of femininity. This new version of misogyny, which focuses more on maligning femininity than femaleness, can be found everywhere. It can be seen in our political discourse, where advocates for the environment, gun control, and welfare are undermined via “guilt by association” with feminine imagery as seen in phrases such as “tree huggers,” “soft on crime,” and pro-”dependency”—where male politicians who exhibit anything other than a two-dimensional facade of hypermasculinity are invariably dismissed by political cartoonists who depict them donning dresses.
– Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity [my emphasis]
Here are some of the words I like to use for my gender, and why, and what they mean for me.
femme. I’ve recently gotten into some interesting discussions on this. After a radio show on femmes, a woman expressed surprise that I, as a cissexual male, identify in this way. At another time, a person called into question my use of the words “butch” and “femme.” What they were getting at was a belief that “butch” and “femme” are exclusively lesbian words. It’s true that they’ve been used in the queer women’s community for many decades, no doubt originated there, and denote well-developed systems of self-expression. However, queer men have been using the words “butch” and “femme” for ourselves and one another for decades, i.e. it’s not something I made up. I actually didn’t realize that my use of them could be surprising to others. (ETA: I go into more detail on this here.)
Anyway, I like the word “femme” in preference to “feminine” or “effeminate” for a couple of reasons (even though I sometimes use those words too). Read the rest of this entry »