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Femme Invisibility and Butch Marginality


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#1
zami

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Ok. So this is stemming from another post which (I think) was trying to get at femme invisibility. As someone who does NOT identify as femme, this is probably not my place to write about this (the experiences of femmes), so folks can step up and tell me to go away and I totally understand.

So what about femme invisibility in queer communities? Is this of concern to folks who ID as femme? Do you think your gender expression gets appropriated by the mainstream? How about passing privilege?

And how do non-femme identified folks feel about this? Maybe we can also talk about butch marginality (which I could definitely add to) especially since many butches have their sexuality (or assumed sexuality) read off of their bodies in non-queer spaces, and don't necessarily have the passing privilege that femmes could have. But perhpas this is one of those double edged sword privileges for queer femmes, as they may 'pass' in the straight community which therefore translates into being invisible in the queer community (i.e. you are not really queer as you are supposedly falling into patriarchy's trap and ascribing to mainstream notions of femininity <-- just for the record, I don't believe this). Not to mention all the assumed sexual stereotypes which go with gender presentation....

Of course, all this is mediated by gender identity, class, race, age, ability and also geographic location. I realize that femme and butch in Toronto, Canada may not be femme and butch in Sydney, Australia etc.
"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive" ~ Audre Lorde

#2
Fat Ephiny

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Cool. I don't know how I missed this thread before. This are really great inquiries.
I agree that there is femme invisibility and butch marginality as I have experienced both to some degree. I kinda fall in the middle I think. I don't like people assuming that I am straight and similarly I don't like people questionning my female-ness because I'm gay. With my limited POV I would submit that it definitely is a double-edged sword. It's a gay thing, and it's a woman thing (and certainly the other mediating factors).

I'm anxious to see what others have to say about this specific issue.

#3
garbage7

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Hmm...since I am new at least to the gay scene I am not really sure I know what you mean. However I do enjoy not being assumed as a lesbian by the masses...maybe that is because I am not yet comfortable with it enough myself. I am on the femme side, a sporty femme of sorts is what I have been told and I don't think I would strike anyone as a lesbian, but I also don't think it would surprise anyone either. I went through the butch phase when I was younger, but now I embrace my femminity and enjoy makeup and my curling iron. When around other lesbians I don't feel invisible at all, but when I am at a gay bar people usually ask me if I am a lesbian before too deep in conversation, so maybe that is what you mean.

#4
Troublemaker

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Quote

So what about femme invisibility in queer communities? Is this of concern to folks who ID as femme?


Good question. Can't speak from personal experience, but my partner definitely wrestles with this. Just from hearing her stories, it definitely seems to me that this is a very different question for people coming out today (she's 29 and has been out for about a year) than for people who came out even 10 years ago (as I did).

In the communities i participate in, i feel like we're at the crossroads of "lesbian mainstreamification" and "transgender oblivion"... which means, progressive mainstream (read: straight) communities seem to be taking a sort of "sexual-orientation-blind" approach that mirrors the false "peace" of "colour-blindness". meanwhile, tranny issues haven't taken hold enough to really shake people up and start the community asking hard questions again.

and i think that that denial of difference really depends on queers not pushing the envelope too far (especially around gender ambiguity). as someone who is usually read pretty clearly as "not female", i definitely feel that i make some people (even in the queer community) pretty uncomfortable (don't rock the boat -- especially now when we've almost got gay marriage in the bag!). but i suspect it also puts a lot of pressure on women who are assumed to "look straight" (at least relatively), to represent queerness as palatable.


of course, on top of all this, none of the historical issues around gender presentation ever seemed to get resolved... so there's still lots of "you should dress better to prove that not all lesbians are mannish truck drivers!" to go around *grin* not to mention that whole "butches are buying into the patriarchy, you macho asshole!" stuff. it feels like an archeological dig -- layers upon layers of contradictory orthodoxies.

anyway, too tired to conclude anything useful right now, but this seems really interesting.

til next time,
troublemaker

#5
Troublemaker

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ugh. just reread my last post and realized it was pretty unclear... "my communities" means Halifax, Canada... tiny city on the east coast, no large queer community for 1000 km in any direction. Also when i mentioend "passing" i meant passing as straight, not genderqueer (probably obvious from the context, but anyway).


in the meantime, it's occurred to me that the conversations in this forum so far strike me as really ironic... that whole "androgynous", "i don't do roles - i'm a feminist" birkenstock-overalls-haircut #2 look that represented such a rejection of butch-femme culture in the 70's seems to now be read (by young women at least) as... "butch". *laugh*

i'd be interested to know what people think about historical continuity, how and whether queer stories/experience are getting caried forward. women's history has been so erased/ignored, and i wonder if we're seeing another wave of that, especially around butch-femme issues. i mean, these conversations (especially disrespect of butches) are, as zami said in another thread, "way old". are butch marginality and femme invisibility being worsened by historical illiteracy, instead of alleviated through alliance-building and education?

the world is a strange place.
troublemaker

#6
Venus

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sometimes i really just wonder if i should get *queer* tattooed on my forehead...
*{Instant Karma Button}*

#7
zami

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Quote

i'd be interested to know what people think about historical continuity, how and whether queer stories/experience are getting caried forward. women's history has been so erased/ignored, and i wonder if we're seeing another wave of that, especially around butch-femme issues. i mean, these conversations (especially disrespect of butches) are, as zami said in another thread, "way old". are butch marginality and femme invisibility being worsened by historical illiteracy, instead of alleviated through alliance-building and education?

Word...I wonder myself and I must also say that my knowledge of butch/femme culture came from reading tons of stuff and listening to my lesbian 'elders' so to speak. For me, listening to the experiences of black butches and femmes (mainly in Toronto where I live and also reading stuff from the US) and hearing about their history really has made the difference in understanding and critiquing Lesbian/Radical "it's all about the patriarchy" feminists of the 70s...and now on to the present day....

I find it interesting that 'butch' is dissapearing in the eyes of many and being replaced by "boy". When I say 'in the eyes of many' I'm NOT talking here about folks who self identify as FTM, genderqueer, gendervariant, genderquestioning and their allies, but those who ID usually as femme who are interested in mainly femmes (as per the conversation in the other thread). I'm concerned mainly because of the border wars (as you probably know a lot about Troublemaker). I'm concerned because many many butch lesbians don't ID as men and many many FTMs don't ID as butch OR lesbian. It is the automatic equation that doesn't work for me. And then of course, there are many who just have no idea that there is a difference at all, therefore marginalizing the masculinities of transmen by seeing them as "some kind of" butch woman...(but this is a tangent).

It feels as if dogging the butch presence in the community is a new age lesbian thing - as per the reasoning, "why would I want to be with a guy? I want to be with someone who looks like a woman". I've seen the younger crowds at clubs/bars essentially *push out* the older, usually butch identified folks (who, if we are talking historically, have also been mainly represented by working class and/or of colour folks). I mean, if those dykes are not around in my scene, I feel like something is off....

I remember a conversation online recently about the dearth of butch IDed folks - perhaps because of this historical illiteracy you speak of? In the other thread Troublemaker, you pointed out that perhaps the "butch=patriarchy has won" equation is more palatable to newly emerging lesbians (feminists)? To lesbians who ascribe to biologically based ideas of gender difference? And then I'm thinking about garbage and Fat Ephiny's statements - how garbage does NOT want to be read as a lesbian, and how Fat Ephiny does and does not like her femaleness questioned...

I'm rambling and have no point here, but maybe something will be useful. I guess I wonder about how we negotiate these spaces as trans identities are being more recognized (and I mean recognized by being talked about NOT that that transphobic oppression is being recognized) and butch identities are being forgotten? And of course, the ultimate question is...this binary is soooo false, right? We all don't "fit" in one or the other, you know, due to personal self-identification and those other mediating factors I keep adding on to the end.. (race, gender ID, class, ability...)
"If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive" ~ Audre Lorde

#8
Carrie

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Quote

sometimes i really just wonder if i should get *queer* tattooed on my forehead...

I think a lot of people dont know that I'm interested in women. This is probaby partially because I'm only out to my friends, not my family. But also I think my looks may have something to do with it. Apparently I dont put out the "gay vibe" I'd like to learn how to do it so I get approached by more women!

#9
Teoria

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I am a little confused as to the definitions of butch and femme. I am assumming that we are speaking in terms of physical appearance. I honestly could not tell you exactly where I fall. I guess you could say I look femme. People who don't know me are suprised to hear that I am gay, yet those who know me are not surprised. In reference to your invisible question, I suppose that I am invisible to some degree. I can blend into either gay or straight worlds. Although as soon as I open my mouth, I stand out in a crowd as being just me. I think every woman blends in to some degree. I mean there is a little butch and femme in all of us (unless you are a Barbie doll). I find that looking femme makes it easier for some people to accept that I am gay. I don't know why, but it does. Maybe it does have to do with the fact that I look like I fit into their little worlds. Then again, I have encountered criticism b/c of the way I look from other lesbians. Everyone wants to know "Butch or femme?" Does it matter? Will it change anything? I just don't see the point in the labels. Nor do I understand how identifying with and embracing the softer side of being a woman makes you a supporter of the patriarchy. I see this as embracing the beauty that is woman. I mean we are different from men (still equal (if not at a slight advantage), but different), so why do women feel they have to act and look like men to succeed. Why can't we embrace our natural strengths as women. What is wrong with looking femme? And if we have to have labels, can we devise more appropriate labels? Butch and femme leave out so many things.
"She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies and all that's best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" -Lord Byron

#10
Troublemaker

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Quote

In the other thread Troublemaker, you pointed out that perhaps the "butch=patriarchy has won" equation is more palatable to newly emerging lesbians (feminists)? To lesbians who ascribe to biologically based ideas of gender difference?

hm... not sure which quote you're referring to here... that does make me thing of something though: first of all, i want to say i have no problem with legitimate critique of butch/femme culture: i *don't* see it as
perfect and unproblematic, any more than i see any culture that way.

but butches have always ended up getting put down in some special way, and I don't think that's a coincidence. it used to be "you're automatically a sexist asshole." but i actually think i'm encountering less and less of that. the new way to put down butches seems to be "you're ugly"!!! it's the same fear, but repackaged in a newly apolitical way. significant?

whether the sexism charge is more common among younger or newly emerging lesbians /feminists than among older folks, i don't know... but my sense is that young lesbians are actually increasingly interested in the ideas of butch/femme. i remember starting to notice this about 3 years ago, and it seemed to be starting in the big cities and filtering out... like it was the new cool thing to try on for size. and now i find that women who are just coming out are extremely likely to at least try to fit themselves into one of the two.

maybe it's become a spectrum, instead of two incontrovertible opposites, but it's still saddled with all that old baggage about "you have to fit into this schema somehow." (note other threads on this board where amazing linguistic contortions actually distinguish "butchy-femme" from "femmy-butch"). yet only recently the whole idea was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned. some kind of retro trend, like bell-bottoms??? anyone else notice this, or am i totally out to lunch??

Quote

I remember a conversation online recently about the dearth of butch IDed folks - perhaps because of this historical illiteracy you speak of? ... [snip] ... I guess I wonder about how we negotiate these spaces as trans identities are being more recognized (and I mean recognized by being talked about NOT that that transphobic oppression is being recognized) and butch identities are being forgotten?

i think this is a really important point... butch/femme is understood less and less, even recognized less and less these days, while transsexualism and genderqueerness are gaining recognition (both in a restricted way, mostly in large urban areas... ). You wrote earlier about the worry that FTM transfolk would be read as "some kind of butch", and i think the opposite danger exists: that butch women are in some ways getting lumped in as "some kind of tranny." anyone else see this?

hope others will contribute -- one's perception is a tricky place in which to dwell.
Troublemaker





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