This post is responding to the Femme’s Guide prompt for August:
Thinking about the role models (friends, family, celebrities etc. ) for your femme identity, who inspires you? Who have you modeled your gender expression or style after? Who did you look to as inspiration when you were coming out as femme? Who do you look to now?
I came out as femme (I suppose) in the spring of 2008, in what I would call my queer re-birth. Make no mistake, I was always queer. I just didn’t know it. My pervasive feeling of malaise when I would try to fit into straight culture, the alienation from mainstream everything, the deep desire for queer sex — these were clues to my true identity, but I didn’t have any words for it. I was cut off from queer culture for many reasons, partly the homophobia that was embedded in my relationship (and society at large), partly the fact that I was in only one relationship and had been since I was a teenager, and partly the real problem that queer culture is hard to find, and was a lot harder to find for someone who didn’t know anyone, or anything, back in the late 90s.
My gender, however, has always been femme. I had some role models growing up whose brands of femininity inspired me; aside from fairy-tale princesses, such as Cinderella and Rapunzel, there were real-life women in my life whose gender I felt that I could aspire to.
My godmother was a big influence on me — she was always a proper lady, and she clearly thought that I could be one too. She went to tea at the Ritz and wore high heels every day and had lots and lots of dresses and skirts. But she also had an MBA and lived on her own and made lots of money. She smoked and burped and drank scotch and wore her hair short. She was a real study in the contrast between ultra-feminine and I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude.
My grandmother on my father’s side was another feminine role model. She was old-school in just about everything (she was born in 1909) and she kept a proper household that hadn’t really changed since the updates she made to her 1930s ethos in the 1960s. Then time froze, and she just didn’t modernize much beyond that. Her model of femininity was to keep a perfect house, to pursue cultural and artistic diversions, to better oneself through the making of music (the only pure art according to her), and to rule the household with an iron fist. I don’t think there was a velvet glove involved.
For some reason I had absolutely no interest in my mother’s brand of femininity. She just didn’t seem like a role model, and in fact I felt like she was the opposite. Her gender never seemed intentional, or to ring true somehow. She didn’t have a great sense of aesthetics in either dress or decoration, and she didn’t have her own career (or much of one) and often didn’t finish what she started. What I learned from her was gardening and preserving, and though I feel like those are integral pieces of my life I don’t label them particularly femme.
M.’s grandmother became another important role model, especially after M. and I moved in together. M. wanted me to cook like her (with good reason, she is an excellent if unadventurous cook) and I bonded very much with her. I learned a great deal about cooking and cleaning and presiding over a dinner table from her. Also I learned a great deal about decorating a house from her.
There’s one problem with these examples: with the exception of my godmother, whom I saw maybe once every year or two years, the models I looked to as a young person finding her way in the world were terribly abusive and repressed. This fact certainly didn’t help me find queer culture, because I absorbed their values of repression and control. Both grandmothers disapproved of my weight, but didn’t really say so. Both of them left legacies of horror in their children that wreaked havoc on them, and me, becoming adults.
There are certainly good things that I learned from each of them. My cooking skills improved dramatically under the tutelage of M.’s grandmother. I have a magnificent set of table manners that I can drag out if necessary that comes from my father’s mother, a southern belle back when that truly meant something. I can walk with a book on my head. I can order off of the most complex of menus with aplomb. (and I can use the word ‘aplomb’ in a sentence.) But I definitely didn’t avoid absorbing some of the bad things as well.
Then in 2008, it felt like I woke up and looked around me and saw that I had been playing a part in someone else’s movie. I had friendships with straight women that were limping along, succeeding mostly because I was willing not to say what I thought in front of their boyfriends. I had been out and gay since age 19, yet had zero gay friends, and couldn’t even manage to talk to my gay coworkers because I felt we had nothing in common.
So when M. left on a research trip in february of 2008, she had pleaded with me to read a blog she followed called Lesbian Dad. I was uninterested in this because I felt like it was one more attempt to make parenting seem appealing to me, which it emphatically was and is not. But I was really, really bored, and I didn’t have any English friends, so I read Lesbian Dad, and found my way to Sugarbutch and the wonderful community I’m now part of.
And I started to read what people were saying about femme identity.
And it felt like it made my life make sense for the first time.
But just as quickly, I realized I had been going it alone the whole time.
I started doing research, reading the classic femme manifestos, learning about butch/femme (and once again realizing that it perfectly described what M. and I had been doing by instinct the whole time), and claiming femme as an identity. I started this blog, and began a conversation with other people who identify as femme.
And I gained so many role models, I don’t feel like I have or want to choose among them. Every femme I meet is a role model in some way. I admire greg’s fashion sense, and her unapologetically sexy style of dressing inspires me. If I’m dressing for a night out, sometimes I push myself by thinking, what would greg wear? I admire Tina’s tenacity, her courage in facing adversity and overcoming obstacles. I admire Kristen’s biscuit recipe, and am desperate for her to teach me how she does it. I admire Sassafras’ honesty and courage in writing and in telling the truth of hir life.
There are femmes who I know off-line, and each one of them also has something to teach me. Sometimes it’s a confirmation of something I don’t want to do or be like. I’ve met femmes who are happy to be stay-at-home moms. That’s wonderful for them, but it’s not an aspect of potential femme identity I want to aspire to. Another femme friend is a business manager on top of working full time — her time management skills are impressive. Some femmes I’ve met are activists and organizers and I learn how to be one myself from them. Some femmes I’ve met do burlesque, and I try to learn confidence in my body and my sexiness from them.
I feel like once I found my community, I had role models everywhere I looked. I learn courage and grace and style and confidence in my own voice from them. I learn that femininity doesn’t have to accompany weakness, that women are not always considering the erotic needs of men/others when they put on a pair of fishnets and heels. I learn from older femmes, like Dorothy Allison and Joan Nestle and Amber Hollibaugh, about what it was like when our existence was even more marginalized and vulnerable. I learn about femme from people who find it problematic to label oneself. I learn more about why it is important to me to identify this way; I learn about why I don’t think labels are evil cages, but can be liberating. I learn about why I identify as femme from people who disapprove of femme, because I can see myself in their reflection. And I learn from myself as I gain confidence in myself that my definition of femme is valid and important. I create the space for my own existence, and I make my existence make sense. I am surrounded by role models, and I serve as a role model for myself, as I attempt to live up to the best pieces of myself every day.