This is the conference paper which I was scheduled to present at the Femme Guild conference in Sydney this weekend. As those who attended the conference would be aware, my paper was summarily cancelled before I finished the first paragraph. Those who have questions about the sudden change of scheduling should contact the Femme Guild, but for anyone who is interested in what I was going to say, here it is in its original form.
I presented at this event last time it was held, which I think was about two years ago. Afterwards I was talking to Lillian, one of the organisers. She said, “Really liked what you had to say. It was really good to have a butch speak, and I think we got the balance of butch and femme presenters about right.” And I said, ‘But there was just me. I was the only butch who presented’. And she said, ‘Yes.’
I felt like the token butch, which I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I could understand why the organisers wanted it that way, and if they only wanted one butch, then I was proud and flattered that they would choose me. On the other hand, it made me a bit uncomfortable. I support visibility and empowerment for femmes, but I don’t want butches to be seen as ‘the problem’. I think that’s too easy an answer to the issues that femmes face, and I think it’s too easy for that to happen when butches aren’t part of the conversation. What I’d like to see is a constructive conversation between butches and femmes, which is what I was trying to do with the paper I presented then. Today, though, I’ll be talking mostly about butches. That’s not meant to be provocative: it’s just that I know more about butches, and hopefully femmes will also find what I have to say interesting and relevant.
One of the good things that has happened in the last two years, and I think it happened partly as a result of the last femme conference, is that some butches decided to get together. Butch is not really my thing, but I am into community, so I went along. The turn-out was quite strong and there was some talk about how the group might work and what, as a group, we were interested in doing. My suggestion of a poetry reading didn’t get a lot of support, but there were a range of ideas such as playing paintball or kicking a football around. One woman piped up and said, ‘seeing as we’re into femmes, maybe we could do something with the femmes.’ I think cooler heads prevailed, but the thing that struck me was not the suggestion that butches are motivated by sex, but the assumption that everyone present wanted to have sex with femmes.
The woman who made this remark didn’t seem to think twice about it and it went unchallenged, which says something about what is considered ok for butches to say in public, and what’s not. There was a lot of different women there and I’m guessing that most of them were into femmes, but if they weren’t, I doubt they would have been game to say so. This assumption that butches are into femmes - and vice versa - is pervasive, at least in queer circles. So much so, that I recently read a thread on fetlife in which a butch posted, ‘is it wrong for a butch to want other butches?’
Wrong? Unusual, maybe. But wrong? How could that be wrong? Paedophilia is wrong. Rape is wrong. Those things hurt people. But how can sex between two consenting adults ever be wrong? That’s the kind of language that the Christian Right use about us. No. What’s wrong is rather that someone would even get that impression, and feel the need to use that kind of language about her own desire.
This kind of attitude has a long history in butch-femme community. In the talk I gave two years ago I spoke about Leslie Feinberg’s novel, ‘Stone Butch Blues’, and I’ll do so again today, though I’m more interested in its silences than in the lionisation of butch identity or butch-femme relationships that the book is known for. When the hero Jess finds that her friend Frankie is sleeping with another butch, she goes into what looks very much like a homophobic flip-out, and rejects her long-time friend. But it doesn’t stop there. ‘The more I thought about the two of them being lovers, the more it upset me,' she says. 'I couldn’t stop thinking about them kissing each other. It was like two guys. Well, two gay guys would be alright. But two butches?’
Dear oh dear. Needless to say, the prospect of two femmes together doesn’t rate a mention, though if it did, I suspect it would also keep Jess awake at night, probably wondering what they do in bed. Is this homophobia? Is that the right word in this context? Jess says, 'two gay guys would be alright, but two butches?' Technically, homo-gender-phobia might be a more correct term, which is not very helpful. I can’t see that term really catching on. For example, when I was telling someone that my paper was called 'the taboo on homogendered love', she said, 'What does that mean?' When I said 'homophobia toward butch/butch relationships,' she was like, ‘yeah, good idea’. But if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, does that make it a duck? By this I mean: is it really fair to equate this kind of prejudice with the kind of mainstream, institutionalised homophobia that we are all familiar with? They might look the same, but I am not sure they are the same thing.
The hero of Stone Butch Blues repents of her intolerance, following her own transition and relationship with a transwoman. ‘I wanted all of us who were different to be the same,' she realises. Transformed by the liberating power of queer consciousness, she seeks out her former friend, to try and make amends. Instead of telling her to fuck off, Frankie embraces her before they engage in a little fraternal wrestling match. All's well that ends well.
Feinberg was writing about a working class butch-femme community that existed in the US more than fifty years ago, and it is an understatement to say that much has changed since then. But the more things change, the more they also stay the same.
Here's a contemporary example, from that great repository of lesbian wisdom, the pink sofa. I am a member on that site and I have been for years, though I don't get a lot of traffic. But recently I got a message from a woman who said, ‘I’m butch so I’m not into butches but I’m new in town and I’m looking for friends to hang with and I wondered if you might want to get together for a drink?’ There’s one word in that message that I found particularly revealing: so. She didn’t say, “I’m butch but I’m into femmes” or “I’m butch and I’m into femmes”. It’s “I’m butch so I’m into femmes.” As if one necessarily follows the other. Indeed, one causes the other. This heterosexuality, or heterogender, or heternormativity, or whatever you want to call it, is actually constitutive of butch identity, in much the same way as it was for the hero of Stone Butch Blues, all those years ago. ‘I’m a butch because I love femmes,’ she says.
Now, to keep all of this in some sort of perspective, I thought it would be worth mentioning another conversation that I had recently, this time with a straight friend. My friend is highly intelligent and very supportive of gays and lesbians, so much so that she came along today to support me. I was telling her about this paper and she had no idea WHAT THE FUCK I WAS TALKING ABOUT. Her first response was a typically feminist one of, ‘what does it matter whether someone is butch or whatever? What difference does it make if you're both women?’ After some explanation, she observed that, ‘I think most heterosexual people would just assume that all lesbians are butch, and that for lesbians, relationships between butch women are the norm.’
My friend was referring to mainstream, heterosexual homophobia - the kind that typecasts all lesbians as butch and assumes that this is a bad thing, and produces the kind of internalised gender anxiety that makes women afraid to be butch, or to desire women who are. And I tried to explain to her that there is a difference between an adjective and an identity, and that while there are indeed lots of women who might look butch and are in relationships with other women who also look butch, they often think of themselves as lesbian but not as butch, whereas the women who do identify as butch wouldn’t be seen dead with another butch.
I think that this distinction between an adjective and an identity is an important one in this context because, while there might be a lot of butch women around, very few of them identify as such. I'm sure the same was true fifty years ago, but what is different now is that there are many more out lesbians around, and many more trans men and women.
I came out in the late 1980s, into a lesbian community that was heavily influenced by feminism. The hostility of feminism towards butch-femme relationships is well documented and indeed, forms a key theme of Feinberg's book. When I was a young dyke, the words 'butch' and 'femme' were rarely used except as adjectives, and they were never used to describe relationships. Indeed, even when I moved to Sydney in the late 1990s, I can remember a woman, who is actually a very prominent queer academic, rather sheepishly admitting, 'I'm attracted to you because you're….' She paused, obviously worried that she might offend me. I encouraged her to finish her sentence, and she said, 'butch'. It was considered an insult. It still is, to just about everyone except self-consciously identified butches and femmes, and to gay men, but only when they are talking about other gay men.
Now, I do not wish to blame feminism for this. I think there are a lot of factors that have contributed to the marginalisation of 'butch' within the lesbian community, and feminism is just one of them. And people have sought to reclaim butch and femme identities in a new context – books like Stone Butch Blues are an expression of that. But I think it's very disappointing that that this reclamation, for butches, seems to come with this weird homophobia. It's particularly ironic when you consider that this reclamation often takes place in the context of radical queerness. And it's even more ironic when you consider that so many transmen – who are often somehow blamed for the disappearance of butch women – 'all the butches are transitioning' - are gay or bisexual.
What about femmes? I am not the best person to speak about this because, as some of my ex-girlfriends will attest, I don’t really know much about femmes. But I can't be the only person to have noticed a certain suspicion sometimes directed towards femmes who are into other femmes. I think that discussion of femme-femme relationships often has a quite different tone to it – a mixture of the kind of prurience ('what do they do? Who wears the dildo?') and trivialisation (i.e. 'it's not really sex') that is often seen in the reactions of heterosexual men towards lesbians. I have been guilty of this myself.
More importantly, though, I think that femme identity, or the way that sexuality is implicated in femme identity, is in a very different place in relation to the lesbian community in general or to heterosexual culture. I say this because, while the growth of the lesbian community has coincided with a contraction in the category of 'butch', it has seen an expansion in the category of 'femme'. I am not the first person to notice that the increasing visibility of lesbians in mainstream culture seems to be accompanied by a sanitisation – I would say a feminisation – of lesbians, and I'm thinking of representations like 'The L Word', that are designed to assuage the homophobic anxieties of the heterosexual population that I was talking about earlier. See, it’s ok, lesbians aren’t really butch.
I think this trend goes beyond the imagination of television producers. A few months ago I went out to a nightclub and asked random strangers how they thought the lesbian community has changed in the last twenty years or so. I got some interesting answers, one of which was, ‘these days you see a lot more women embracing their femininity’. On one level, I agreed – that’s my impression too. I’m well aware of the irony of this situation, that those who are outside the lesbian community looking in see only masculinity, and those inside the community see lipstick everywhere. But the idea of femininity as something that you have, that you can either resist or embrace, is something that I find a lot more problematic, possibly because I don’t have it. For me, femininity is something that I can pretend to have, or not. I don’t like pretending, so I don’t have it. But I am getting off the track.
Anyway, the last woman that I was involved with was in her forties but had only recently come out, and was new to this whole butch/femme business. She was frequently labelled as 'femme' by other lesbians and this annoyed her. She protested that, 'I'm not a femme. I'm just a…'. She also paused, obviously worried that she might offend me. Again, I encouraged her to finish her sentence and she said, 'I am just a normal woman'. The implication was obvious and it was indeed offensive, as it should be, to all of us.
But she raises an interesting question, which is, what is the difference between a 'normal' woman and a 'femme' lesbian, when so many lesbians look like normal women? Is there any? Was there ever any? My understanding of femme identity is that it’s about more than just being a 'normal-looking' woman who happens to fuck other women, but who am I to say? My understanding is informed by the particular historical and cultural milieu that I've come from. Times change. 'Femme' should mean whatever the people who feel femme want it to mean. My concern, though, is that femme identity might come to mean 'woman attracted to butches,' just as butch identity is about being attracted to femmes. Because if we're serious about valuing things like inclusiveness and diversity and change, it has to mean more than that.