It's a bright September afternoon in 1981. I'm barely 21 and I'm climbing the five dank and shadowy flights of stairs that lead to The Body Politic's Duncan Street offices. I'm wearing what I consider appropriate for a professional meeting: my best black skirt, black patterned hose, black patent leather pumps and a creamy pink angora sweater that was well worth the many Campbell's tomato soup and cracker suppers its purchase demanded. My long hair is twisted into a French knot and my nails and cheeks are stained in Revlon's "Wine with Everything". Once inside, the editor I'm there to meet eyes me uneasily, almost incredulously. He stalls me with small talk. He was expecting a lesbian writer, someone serious, political, and most likely dressed in flannel¨not some tarted up debutante. Even though I've had women lovers since my teens and my politics are just a nod short of lesbian separatism, I don't look like a lesbian. At least not the kind of lesbian he's accustomed to seeing.
I didn't know it then, but I was, and am now, a femme. I didn't know that until I stumbled on the writings of femme lesbians like Joan Nestle or butch writers like Lee Lynch, writers who defied the androgyny of 1980s lesbian feminism and spoke freely and lovingly of lesbian genders, butch and femme. They gave me my first language for what I was and what I wanted. It's one I'm still learning. And Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, edited by Chlod Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri is most definitely required reading in my continuing education.
The words packed inside Brazen Femme are so powerful, so intense, they had better bind the cover extra tightly. Within these often angry, defiant, sexually brave, and at times, heartbreaking essays, stories, photographs, poems and outright manifestos, lies some essential truths about being both queer and feminine (whether you are a biological female or not) that even the diversity-loving gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community isn't terribly willing to deal with.
It's not that femme-ness hasn't been examined or written about before. But like early writings on feminism, in which women were defined as to how they differed biologically, psychologically, emotionally and sexually from men, femmes are most often defined in relation to what they are not. They have been seen only in the ways they differ from the masculine/athletic stereotype, the "butch" most of the straight world imagines when they hear the term "lesbian." Or worse, they are seen as bisexual or merely confused straight women taking, temporarily, a walk on the wild side. What is so vastly important about this collection is that it looks at femme not as other, not as the girlish foil that makes butch "masculinity" burn hotter and stronger, nor as kindred spirits with their heterosexual sisters. Instead Brazen Femme offers precious glances of the often nebulous, varied essences of femme. These writings demonstrate that femme means altering and reinventing femininity to fit being queer. They celebrate the constant shape-shifting contradictions that make femme so difficult to define and show how a femme's transformational power is as much a survival tactic as a source of identity. Reading Brazen Femme, one gets the sense that a femme is exactly what she decides she is, when and how she decides to be it. And all of this is subject to change. Without warning.
The magic of Brazen Femme lies in wisdom of editors Chlod Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri to know that any attempt to speak collectively of what femme means is as impossible as organizing anarchists. But there are common threads and the most common of all is the double bind of invisibility, both within the gay community and the world at large. A femme can't be a real lesbian; she looks too much like a straight girl and often a trashy one at that, because of the need to over-exaggerate her femininity, be "high femme", in order to keep her femme identity distinct. And despite a budding willingness to accept that gender may be more than binary and a nod of respect to a history in which butches and femmes have often fluctuated in and out of fashion, a femme is still suspect in the lesbian community. She can be "difficult." She makes up her own rules as she goes along. And cleaned up a bit, she could pass for straight, jump the fence and luxuriate in all that heterosexual privilege. It's OK to want her. Just don't ever trust her.
A number of the writings in Brazen Femme also examine the lack of respect afforded not only to femmes, but to femininity itself. It would appear that within the gay community, as in the rest of the world, "male" traits (in both men and women) are highly valued signs of strength and power. Being "femme" is equated with weakness, vulnerability, and submissiveness. Just ask a drag queen about how much respect he gets.
Truly, the danger of reviewing an anthology so packed with powerful writings is that something deserving will be left unmentioned. While each piece is worthy of discussion, some contributions simply stand out. Editor Anna Camilleri's "Cut from the Same Stone", is an explosive essay about her relationship with her mother, of the necessity of growing up both hard and soft and how high femme is a celebration of that hardness, a way of becoming stone and untouchable. "Gonna get my girl body back: this is a work in progress" by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, is a lush, painful rush of words that deal with sexual abuse and how femme bodies and faces become canvases for self-expression. "Whores and Bitches Who Sleep With Women" draws from femme history, the fact that many femmes in the 50s urban gay communities were prostitutes. She speaks of how these femmes were rendered invisible by a sanitized lesbian history that traces its lineage through Sappho and Gertrude Stein and sexless Boston marriages. Her accompanying sidebar story of working in the sex trade stares down feminism's refusal to deal with issues of female sexuality and vulnerability.
"Femme Fables", three brief tales that deal with class and opportunity, jealousy and the difficulty of femme aging, by well-known American femme writer and activist Amber Hollibaugh, positively smolders. Sky Gilbert's "Drag Queens and Feminine Women: The Same but Kinda Different" is a look at what femme feels like when you aren't born female. "Big Fat Femme: Squeezing a Lot of Identity into One Pair of Control Top Nylons", by Abi Stone and Allyson Mitchell is a so-truthful-it-hurts look at body image and the politics of the fat/femme image. And finally, "A Fem(me)inist Manifesto", by Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh is brilliant in its irreverance.
Brazen Femme is not an easy book to read, and certainly not for the faint at heart. It's highly sexual, raw and real and cleanly cuts through a lot of assumptions of both the lesbian/gay community and society in general. But it's a brave and necessary book, written with honor and longing and truth. And much like strutting around in a pair of stiletto pumps or lacing on a skin-tight merry-widow, it leaves the kind of impression that is well worth some minor discomfort. ˛