Monday, December 16, 2013

This Girl is on Fire: Queer Misogyny and the Consumable Queer Femme Body


Because I am a poet  it will probably serve me to start with the facts  since I am bound to get lyrical up in here eventually.  I am a white cisgender working class crip queer femme woman.  I have been a writer, performer and activist for twenty years.  I love my community very, very much though every time I critique the tremendous and rampant misogyny and transmisogny embedded within my community I am accused of the opposite.  

 I will not begin to pretend that what I am about to write is true for all femmes or that my experience can really speak for anyone but myself.  But I like to think of the act of writing as similar to getting a plane off the ground.  You pull up and back long enough and suddenly the entire world is within view.  My great hope in crafting this is that other femmes might read it and be encouraged to write their own truths down or dance their own truths out or find one of the many gazillion ways of expression and use it to hold a light to their own lives which I  would like to know more about.  I write because I am ever-weary of femmes being written about by folks who do not live our lives or honor our lives.   I write this because I love my community very, very much and I know for a fact that we can do better.}
"Nobody told us: The path divides, and divides again, in many directions....How many ways can gender expression multiply - between home and work, at the computer and when you kiss someone, in your dreams and when you walk down the street? No one asked us: What is your dream of who you want to be?"  -Minnie Bruce Pratt

*It's the early 2000s and I am sitting in a darkened audience assembled for a night of performance to cap off a conference for FtM  and masculine identified queer folks.  I'm sitting there at the request of a  femme friend  of mine who had been asked to perform that evening by her partner who is the organizer of the event.   It is no secret in my community that the organizer has a history of beating his femme partners.  He has publicly admitted it, in fact.  I know as I sit there waiting for the show to start that my friend, a classically trained singer,  had wanted to sing that night but she had been told it would be better if she stripped.  As the music starts - My Heart Belongs to Daddy, of course - and she starts to work her tease I can tell that she's high.  Her beautiful dead, dead perfectly made up eyes.  I know that her back has not been  the same ever since he picked her up and threw her against that wall - something for which he apologized to the community.  I recognize her awful, hollow smile as guys all around me start whistling and yelling at her.  She is beautiful and she is taking off her clothes.  Yes, they say, hungry for the sight of her body and oblivious to her pain.   I watch the conference's keynote speaker, Patrick Califia, stand up and walk slowly to the front of the stage where he makes sure everyone can see him staring directly up her skirt  before he throws $1 at her.  Afterward, in the lobby, I watch as people jostle to get up closer to her and touch her without permission.  All the while her perfectly made up eyes were dead. No one cared that she wanted to sing - no one was curious about her voice. No one asks the hot femme what she thinks or feels or dreams of - she is here to serve and arouse.  This is not the first or last time she and I will be on the receiving end of this message.

*It is 2006 and I am living in San Francisco.  Rumors start to fly that photographer Kael T. Block has raped a femme and was beaten up for it by one of her friends.  Block, who photographs some of the most well known trans*men and masculine identified queers in our community, is about to have a show.  The gallery is besieged with calls and they revoke that show from him.  Block is publicly defended by some of the most famous queers in the city.   They say what will become an enduring refrain for well known masculine identified queers who are called out on vicious acts of misogyny and transmisogyny:  You are just jealous.  We are popular.  We are significant.  You are haters and you are trying to tear apart "our" community.  Why can't we support each other? Why are you so hurtful?  So hateful?  It is so much easier to tear something down than to build something and we are the builders.  Why can't we support him and his artwork while we figure out if this charge has any merit?  Block is a French citizen.  He promptly flees the country before legal charges can be brought against him.  In the ensuing months and years it comes to light that he has viciously and sadistically raped and assaulted many femmes on both sides of the Atlantic.  Not long after he flees the country Block makes a "Top 100 Butches" list.   This is not the first or last time the sexual assault of a femme will be deemed far less important than the reputation of her rapist.  I personally know dozens of femmes who have been raped, assaulted and/or abused by butches and FtMs and not one of them feels safe enough to report or even ask "the community" for help and support.  Many of their perpetrators use this fact to continue to torment and stalk them.

*It's February 2011 and I am opening for two well known trans*men who are on tour.  I am a poet.  An essayist.  A performer.  I have been reading and performing in my community since 1999.  I have never been a burlesque dancer.  Not once.  It's winter and the guys I am opening for are wearing jeans, t-shirts, flannels, work boots.  I am wearing a thin satin mermaid skirt and a cloth embroidered corset.  I open for them.  They do not bother to introduce me.  Later I make a joke to one of them that I am probably getting too old to read in bars - that I grow weary of trying to shout out words to audiences who care more about drinking and flirting.  He reaches out and puts his hand on the top hooks my front-hook corset.  He rubs them and says: "Maybe if you undid a few of these people would listen to you more."

I have so many examples of misogyny and femmephobia at my disposal that it is almost difficult to sort through them and figure out which ones might help illuminate the nature of this epidemic in my community.  I've been trying to write this for days and, honestly, it makes me feel like puking.  I know from experience that some femmes will read this and feel appreciative but that challenging dominant misogynistic institutions rarely encourages the people who most benefit from those institutions to divest themselves of any privilege or unfairly acquired power.  One of the more insidious ways that dominance asserts itself is by proclaiming the feelings of the dominant group to be far more important than the physical, emotional and societal well-being of everyone else.   It does not matter that we have lovingly explained, gently asked and downright pleaded for years and years to be listened to or that we have been repeatedly ignored.  What matters is that we respond to inexcusable behavior with anger - and that anger makes people who participate in that behavior feel badly for a little while;  and that is not ok.

It does not matter that femmes are constantly made invisible inside of our communities as punishment for our femininity.  It does not matter that the fact of refusing to publicly acknowledge the existence of femmes to the point where we cannot even be served in dyke bars we have frequented for years without a butch by our side amounts to nothing less than emotionally abusive gaslighting.   It does not matter even when they know we have been here fighting since Stonewall and before.    It does not matter that femmes have been writing about femmephobia and misogyny and transmisogyny for years and years and years - when a new femme asks to see herself reflected in our world she is almost always directed to one of a handful of masculine identified queers who have written marginally-positively to positively about femmes and have been praised and rewarded significantly (both financially and in terms of social status)  in the community for doing so.

So here's the most honest and loving and vulnerable thing I can say at this stage of my journey as a femme:

My Beloved Community,

A. Your lack of commitment to ending femmephobia causes femmes harm.  Even if you are not actively one of the people who say and do horrible things to us your lack of standing up beside us publicly when that happens causes us harm.

B.  Wearing leggings for a day and noticing, for a few hours, the brutal emotional/societal abuse that is the public shunning of femininity by queers toward queers does not actually give you insight into my life.  At best, it only provides insight into how little you have ever had to notice this  in your own life.

C. Please stop telling me that I experience "femme privilege" because as a cisgender woman I can use public bathrooms more safely than you.  Femme is a gender and it is most certainly not limited to cisgender women.  Lots and lots of femmes also face danger when they use the rest room.  What I have in those situations is cisgender privilege and I am actively working toward alleviating myself of that privilege.  Femme privilege does not exist.  If it did butches who wore leggings for a few hours would not feel compelled to write whole essays about how hard it was for them.  If it did femmes who were assaulted and abused by their masculine identified partners would have resources for help that were community supported and driven.  If femme privilege existed it would not be my job as a writer to explain to the countless people who ask me to take my clothes off for "community" fund raisers that that is not what I do.  Femme Privilege does not exist.  Period. The following quotations introduce Maura Ryan's essay: "The Femme Movement: Why We're Here, Why We're (So Damn and Beautifully) Queer, and Why You're Gonna Get Used To It" in Visible: a femmethology Vol 2.  Please read and consider them the next time you wish to embark on a treatise about femme privilege.

"There's nothing worse than a femme girl who's basically a straight girl in disguise-one of those girls who wants to settle down, be wifey, be a lazy-ass bottom, and then pretend that she gets some sort of queer credit for wearing red lipstick.  When it comes down to it-hell! I think I just described all femmes."
-A queer stranger's response to hearing about my dissertation topic.

"That's great! Can you figure out a way to get rid of them for good?"
-A queer stranger's reaction to hearing that I am researching femmes in queer communities

"Could you tell me why femmes are such selfish bitches?"
-A genderqueer-identified person who said he was in love with me.

"Femmes are always selling out lesbians."
-A genderqueer-identified friend of mine who dates femmes.

D. Please feel less comfortable talking and writing about femmes in essentialist ways, even when your intent is to flatter us.  When you are tempted to do so please take a beat and read or study the work of any or all of these critical and necessary femmes instead.  Encourage people to go to femmes to learn about what femme is.*: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Dorothy Allison, Amber Hollibaugh, Pratibha Parmar, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha, Tara Hardy, The Lady Ms. Vagina Jenkins, Jewelle Gomez, Joan Nestle, Peggy Munson, Alex Holding, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, Krista Smith, Ryka Aoki,  Ulrika Dahl, Courtney Trouble, Julia Serano,  Heather McAllister, Nomy Lamm,  Emi Koyama, Kate Bornstein, Michaela Grey,  Ms. Victoria Cruz, Amanda Piasecki, Sossity Chiricuzio, Tanisha Johnson, Chaia Milstein,  Jac Stringer, Shawna Virago, Evan Emerson, Dr. Carol Queen,  Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Cherry Galette, Jessica Halem,  Annalise Ophelian, Amber Dawn, Alex Cafarelli, Zoe Whittal, Debra Anderson, Cindy Emch,  Hanne Blank, Rosie Lugosi, Jen Cross, Meliza Banales, Dulce Garcia, Gina de Vries, Mia Mingus, Kathleen Delaney-Adams, Maggie Cee, Asha Leong, Kiki DeLovely, Damien Luxe.   These names are but a trickle in the bucket.  This is an infinitely expandable list.

E. Please stop asking me to respond to a world that does not see, value or center my life with vulnerability and love.  I wear armor because my world is not safe.  I use my tongue as a sword because I am a survivor and I have to fight to make my voice heard in every world I walk into.  I fight because I love myself.  I love femmes.   I am protective of young femmes and desperately want a better queer world for them than the one I inherited.  Prioritizing your feelings over the well-being of femmes is not what solidarity looks like.

F. Please stop equating my legitimate anger and frustration in the face of injustice with destroying the community I have devoted my life to.

Many years ago I wrote the following poem.  I tell you with all of the love and vulnerability I possess that I wish it did not withstand the test of time so well.

Stone Sculptor

They walk each other
past the end of the tether they

go out walking after
midnight                  it is a two-step love affair

then dawn comes on,
a sweet persistent cramping
of every muscle they have ever flexed

for one another

They are a dance in black and white
Fred and Ginger with a twist

look at the girl

swaying red nailed stone sculptor
she is a tone poem                call her by her name

call her land and set sail

Her badge of courage read as blood smeared
across lips

before lowered to his ears

she whispers into the granite
of his night

"go on home boy."

She is the house of cards that
mercy built

she is a harder stone
for sure

so hard he cuts his teeth on her
and when she drinks his blood
he is the body

She says:

Boy, if you were your charm
I would take these potato picking baby shelf
hips & turn tornado for you

I am hypnotized by the music of
your scent which I carry on my tongue


you damn the serpent who
sees you

as though she lost you paradise by
way of the fruit

we are a two-step love affair
we are a dance

I am no less for the lipstick
I am no less for the lipstick
I am no less

for holding the music
like I hold you

up in the granite of
the nights we tumble through together

and when I arch my back to the work
of you

you are the body you were
born to be

I am a house of cards
impossibly built to
shelter your fickle intentions


I may be charmed
and I may be dancing for you
but I've got a mouth full of venom
I am a hard thing to break

so look at the girl

swaying          red nailed        stone sculptor

she is part of the dance
whether you claim her  or not

call her by her name

call her            hard blood smeared thing

who cuts through the granite of your night
like a diamond

*This is not a complete or fully representational  list by any stretch of the imagination but it is one constructed with the help of many femmes I admire and respect when I asked them who their personal femme heroes are.  Their assistance and brilliance are infinitely and lovingly appreciated.




  1. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! As a femme, you have really put words to a lot of feelings I have, but been mostly unable to express yet.

    1. Thank you for reading. It was written with the thoughts and work and ideas of many, many femmes in mind. It is from us for us. xo

  2. I really appreciate your willingness to share your experiences within the community. While I don't identify as femme or butch, I feel that everything you've shared is so powerful and an amazing reference point when we all need to check ourselves/community. Thanks fam, much love

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

  4. Strong and brilliant. Keep speaking your truth, mama. It's much appreciated ~

  5. this. is. my. heart.
    i am full of tears, rage, empathy, and empowerment reading through this.
    thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for reading it and for the comment. xoxoxo

  6. I am appalled at how insular my world has been which has left me ignorant of many of the issues you raise here. Thank you for writing this and for shedding some light. I am one of the organizers for a small conference this Spring called the Butch Event and we're definitely going to address misogyny in the community. Thank you!

    1. Wonderful news! I am very glad to hear it! xo

  7. So articulate and clear. Thank you. I am not a femme, and want to do all that I can to change the way things are. I have so much respect for you and what you have to say.

  8. Excellent article. Very happy this was shared on facebook otherwise I may never have found it. :) Thank you.

    1. I'm glad it made it's way! Thank you for reading it. :)

  9. Thank you. As an East Asian USian trans femme queer woman, I have fear and mistrust of cis people and masculinity carved into my flesh. This is the first time in a long time I'm receptive to relaxing that with cis femme queer women. Thank you. In solidarity.

  10. Alyssa - thank you for this comment. It means so much to me. In solidarity always. Always. xoxo

  11. my initial reaction to this piece is a profound sadness and disappointment in what is supposed to be community. i feel compelled to apologize for the callousness of others, and for my own unrealized poor behavior, especially of my youth. i honestly have no excuse for ever treating anyone poorly, unwittingly or not...nor does anyone else. i'm sorry these things have happened to you, and to countless other femmes. i want to help, in whatever ways i can.

  12. Thank Goddess for your courage in writing this! I've experienced the backlash spurred by publicly addressing queer misogyny that I'm certain you have also, and it can be enraging and painful. Keep speaking your truth!

  13. Thank you so much for writing this. You've just helped me to realize one of the major reasons why I'm so uncomfortable in queer spaces (other than being a trans woman). I feel like too that I've got a lot of internal femme-phobia that needs to be purged. Thanks for having the courage and strength to write this!

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  16. Thank you so much for writing this. It speaks to truths I have written about myself, and tells even more shocking tales than I have ever heard.

    I find especially powerful/useful/inspiring the list of creative femmes you name here. I think it speaks to the misogyny of our community that I recognize so few of these names and am constantly searching for other femmes who write about our experiences and misogyny. We are erased in every way. This is my new reading list.

  17. Thank you for writing this. I am trans and femme and have been lucky not to have experienced so much of the abuse you describe here but I have heard about it happening to others. I suppose I am lucky to be in a long-term relationship that is not abusive. Thank you for sharing this, I think femmes get a really bad deal and the queer community needs to take a long, hard look at itself

  18. Thank you so much for writing this. After reading your piece, I feel like a sigh was released from deep within me, tears waiting in the wings. Or as if the wind brought the words of an ancient femme goddess creature and whispered in my ear: "beautiful femme, you are okay. I know things are hard, but we are still here, we are still here." Thank you. <3