Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

femme pres 2

Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…

Loving the Straight Girl

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I found the relationship between Frances and Sophie heartbreaking

I recently watched two movies – Frances Ha and Mean Girls (re-watched that is)  – which seemed to me tales of unrequited or unrealised queer love. Admittedly I often have this problem, upon finishing a book or movie I’ll talk to my friends about “how gay all the characters were” or the “gay storyline” and appear quite mad (often because these stories end in heterosexual marriage). When I first meet people I also tend to implicitly assume that they are gay – which people pick up on and then “come out” to me as straight at some point. I enjoy this queer imagining of the world. This is perhaps an unfairly comfortable universe for me, from my privileged position as someone who “passes” as straight and therefore doesn’t have to face the daily reality of harassment based on sexuality (though I do definitely face street harassment  based on my gender presentation…that’s another story).

But there’s another downside to this queer outlook: when the story line is your life and not just a movie, it can be sad if not downright heartbreaking when you find yourself pining for the straight girl. For me, this love of the unattainable woman has come in two major forms: the popular girl and the best friend.

Veronica: to die for

Veronica: to die for

The popular girl
There are popular leaders and then there are the popular sidekicks – in high school I found myself loving the latter. The ones who I thought why are you in that group, you’re so much better than that. The Veronicas of the world. Sure, sometimes these popular sidekick girls would be just as mean to me as their powerful counterparts, but I could forgive them with my imagining that they would one day break the shackles of their hetero crew. Because often these girls would be way more spunky than those they followed – tough enough to put up with the sh*t of their girl clan and generally sidelined because they weren’t as generic looking or acting as the top dogs. And you’d see them in PE class, with their awesome athletic skills (while you sat on the bench, pretending to feel sick with a note from your mum) and think damn girl, you don’t even know I exist… Years later you friend them on Facebook and find that they are just as hetero as ever, still lusting after the football-types and barely remembering who you are. *Sigh*.

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something  I'LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

Why Calamity Jane and Katie Brown were not in a relationship is something I’LL NEVER UNDERSTAND

The best friend
This one is the kicker. It’s a horrible cliche that queer people must be in love with their best friend of the same sex, but at least in my case I’ve often found it to be true. When you get so close to someone that you can practically finish their sentences and they’re the only person you want to spend all your time with, it seems strange that you don’t just shack up and live in a little cottage growing flowers and raising beautiful babies. Even when you constantly propose such ventures (e.g. text message “I want to have your babies”), if your best friend identifies as straight I’ve found there’s not much hope – just slow heartbreak.

It’s perfectly reasonable that perhaps for the popular girls and best friends I just wasn’t the right person for them. Nevertheless, you’ll still find me crying into my pillow about why Frances and Sophie never got together and why all Cady ever cared about was Aaron Samuels.

ABC of Marriage Equality

IMG_0354Today in my hometown of Canberra, a “Marriage Equality” bill was passed in the ACT Legislative Assembly (the local government). Though it made it through, the bill faces a big challenge as it comes up against our federal government, who it is fair to say, are a bit conservative. With the expectation of a High Court challenge, the ACT government made a few amendments to the bill yesterday, which limits recognition to “same-sex” identifying couples, excluding those who identify as “X”, that is, neither male nor female. So, while emotions of joy and pride are riding high for some, there is still a concerning question of exclusion. Plus there is always the old conundrum…Of course we should have marriage equality! But should we have marriage? So, as we consider the alphabet soup of love, sex and gender, here’s an ABC of my thoughts on this issue…

A is for Abbott: such a conservative twat3tjgzm

B is for bride + bride: what’s so wrong with that?

C is for Canberra: hooray for taking a stand

D is for danger: but who counts in this demand?

E is for equality: for most, thereabout

F is for fighting: some wins, but some doubt…

G is for good times: gay marriage for all!

H is for hang on: we have some amendments y’alltumblr_luat2i2iP01qahipuo1_500

I is for ignored: who’s left outside this debate?

J is for justice: the law will determine your fate

K is for kinky: no wacky weddings my dear!

L is for love: as long as it’s “normal”, not queer

M is for meaning: life-time commitment, a ring

cat

N is for no thanks: marriage is not everyone’s thing

O is for option: limiting marriage? – A blunder

P is for poly: if I have more than one love, I wonder?

Q is for queer: reject all the norms!

R is for romance: sometimes undone by forms

sad-cat-S is for “same-sex”: choose one, or no access?

T is for trans*: no recognition? Call this progress?

U is for undecided: I do believe in love and Cupid

V is for votes: I fear it’s the economy, stupid!

W is for wedding: rainbow cake fo sho

X is for X gender: Canberra says no

Y is for yay: I’m really pleased, every step bit by bit!

Z is for zilch: big flaws for sure, which is just a bit shit

Foucault Explained with Hipsters

A comic I made for a second year gender studies course I tutored for in 2012, to help students understand some of the themes from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol.1:f1

f2All page references from Foucault, M. (1976 [2008; trans 1978]), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1., R. Hurley, [trans], Victoria: Penguin Group

Stay tuned for Judith Butler explained with cats!

 

Great Expectations: Holding Hands and Heterosexual Privilege

Privilege FlowerAs someone who has for the most part been involved in “straight” relationships (despite identifying as bisexual/pansexual), the question of heterosexual privilege is something that troubles me often. When I’ve been in relationships with women, I have without a doubt felt more “legitimate” in identifying as queer, even though I realise the problem inherent in this thought process. The pressing political need for recognition has also been more salient during these times. Turns out walking through the mall holding hands with your girlfriend garners a lot of gawking. I never experienced any danger of any kind but I have many friends who recount feeling unsafe because of their queerness in public spaces.

polyamorous quintet or just friends?

polyamorous quintet or just friends?

“Straight” hand-holding gleans no such double takes. In fact, people assume that you are coupled up even if you’re not holding hands. This is opposed to the girl-on-girl scenario wherein if you escape blatant discrimination it’s probably just because people think “hmmnn…maybe they’re just really close friends?”

The list of privileges for the straight hand-holders seems obvious (see this post from Queers United for the full gamut of heterosexual privileges to mull over). For one thing, there’s recognition of the relationship, but there’s also no real danger of encountering social-norm policing about said relationship manifesting as violence of any kind, physical or psychic.

However, the problem of the notion of heterosexual privilege is that it ascribes heterosexuality to heterosexual-seeming couples, thereby risking erasure of the queer complexities unknown about the relationship being judged. Unless you wear your kink, polyamory, bi-proclivities or otherwise on your sleeve, the man-and-woman-holding-hands scenario is going to be lumped into the category of normative heterosexuality. This point isn’t to deny that material and social privileges exist for the heterosexual-seemers, but it undoubtedly contributes to a problematic social notion that sexuality can easily be defined by the categories of straight and gay (with in-betweeners oscillating between the two poles).

The sea-monkey family: heteronormative, or queer as f***?

The sea-monkey family: heteronormative, or queer as f***?

Part of this problem is the assumed erasure of past experiences and desires in relation to the person you are currently holding hands with. How often do we hear the story of someone coming “out of the closet” after years of a “fake” heterosexual marriage? These kind of narratives reinforce the notion that desires should conform to one spectrum of the hetero-homo pole, in such a way that all temporality is reconfigured in light of one’s current sexual trajectory. That is not to say that the labels and identities that people align themselves with don’t matter – they should be respected. But next time I catch myself in some hetero-hand holding, I’ll try and remember who I was, am and might be… and in doing so resist the tempting oversimplification that happens when I see other possible dyads, triads, partners and complex kinship relations hanging out in public spaces.

Why being “born this way” shouldn’t matter

“If you don’t have any shadows, you’re not in the light” – LG

In 2011 Lady Gaga wrote a song that has become a bit on an anthem for the LGBT movement. Though Madonna would like to point out that she helped with the tune, Born This Way is a pretty amazing song for using and normalising terms like bisexual and transgender within a popular realm (plus just generally encouraging the listener to feel empowered). It seems that in this song Gaga is promoting the political line that people should be respected because their attributes are predetermined.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that this is a valuable sentiment and has certainly been a central argument for LGBT activists for some time now. There are already a number of people out there writing about how we aren’t “born” but rather “made” (i.e. socialised into being) and I’m not here to make that contention. My problem isn’t so much with the idea itself, but why we need to make it in the first place.

I just don’t think we should have to argue that someone was genetically pre-determined to be XYZ, in order to accept them as the human being that they are. It just seems silly. Plus this line of reasoning inevitably leads to lynch-mobbing as soon as one LGBT activist says, “well, actually I personally don’t feel I was born this way” (see the Cynthia Nixon debacle). Admittedly the biggest factor beind the born-this-way line of reasoning is probably that it is a reaction to the crazy bucketloads of homophobia and hatred based on the notion that being gay is “immoral” or “unnatural”. And who wouldn’t react to such violent exclusion with an argument that says, I can’t help it, it’s science.

But if we keep trying to win all of our arguments on the basis that it’s science, what happens if one day (some how) they “prove” that sexuality isn’t pre-determined? What then? Do we just chuck out all of our politics? If this ever happened, one way to turn it around would be to say… “so I guess being born ‘straight’ isn’t a thing either…?” And the whole question of the natural versus the unnatural would be turned on its head.

At the end of the day, people should be respected as the human beings that they are. Full stop.

Because life ends at marriage?

Everyone loves a good wedding (BBC’s Pride and Prejudice)

I went to the movies this evening and saw what was a funny but pretty middle of the road comedy. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it was your normal Hollywood light entertainment piece (*talking bear cough*). The film was actually quite enjoyable, but had the most predictable and un-funny ending ever. You guessed it, a wedding.

I left the theatre wondering why it is that we don’t seem to be able to get past this neat little plot device. Maybe it’s just the easiest way to spell out “all’s well that ends well”. After all, Shakespeare’s comedies always finished with giant group weddings and frivolity. But you’d think that in this era of increasing divorce rates, surely we’d be imagining some alternate models for spelling out happiness? Much like the beloved Bechdel test, I feel like we need a rating system for romantic comedies that don’t equate true love with a wedding fest.

But then, when I tried to think of romantic comedies that did (or didn’t) end in weddings, I could only think of the most obvious ones – The Wedding Singer, Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bridesmaids

From Miranda July’s ‘The Future’

Then I came across this excellent list of romcoms that are not your typical Hollywood fare but have done well nonetheless, and there’s not that much weddingery in sight. Films listed include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindVicki Cristina BarcelonaBefore Sunset… But what’s interesting about many of the pics on this list is that the “happy factor” at the end is debatable. Most of them have a sense of hope mixed with bittersweet realism and often just plain old sadness and loss.

In the end I say give me emotional realism over fantasy wedding bonanzas any day. I’d rather leave the cinema feeling a little heartbroken, than walk away and forget the film in much the same way that one passes apple juice- quickly and with little to digest.