Editors' Note: Guest blogger Amanda Harris is an activist-artist-queer-southern-feminist-femme. She is currently a Clinton Fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Recently an organization that I am a part of in New York called the Femme Family NYC hosted a speaking event for femme-identified queer women. During the event, a friend of mine, Sassafras Lowrey, read a piece ze wrote, about desperately craving the voices, faces, and stories of femmes before hir. Ze talked of their faces in old photographs, the way ze would listen so intently if they were to sit at hir kitchen table while ze served them cold drinks. Sassafras struck a chord with me that night and put words to something that I haven't had the language for in quite some time. As a newly identified (but always fiercely) femme woman, I wanted to know "Where are all of my femme and butch mentors?"
Growing up in rural Arkansas, I'm not sure I even heard the word "lesbian," much less "femme" until I was 19 and in college. I do remember hearing the word "butch" but always in negative contexts. What's more is when I did discover my queerness, I flaunted it in beautiful, erotic ways. I wore fishnets and heels and taunted the bois (butch and masculine women) at the bars. Diving into a gender studies curriculum that focused solely on the ways patriarchy has oppressed women made me feel guilty for liking my seemingly gender normative performances.
I packed up the heels, fishnets, assorted belts and accessories and tucked them neatly away in plastic bins. I cut off all my hair. I refused to wear make up. I was crass and brazen. Hell no, I was not "ladylike" and I'll be damned if you were going to insinuate that I should be! My professors praised my commitment to feminism, my confidence, my intellect. I thought this is what a queer woman should be. And I continued to think I fit that model for about five years until I moved to New York and met out and proud, critically thinking, in-your-face queer, femme and butch folks.
Suddenly a whole forbidden world that I had purposefully tucked away was unabashedly wide open and accessible... without guilt. I pulled out the bins from under the bed and put on the heels again. Putting back on these metaphorical femme shoes helped me step back into a world of possibility, self-realization, and empowerment. I kept the crass, the sass, the rough-around-the-edges sharp tongue that Chloë Brushwood Rose and Anna Camilleri describe in their book Brazen Femme. I was finally able to see that I can be a queer woman in my upfront, unashamed femininity.
And now here I am, a young 24 erotic femme processing my journey to femmedom and wondering, Where are all of my femme and butch mentors? How might my journey look different if I had known a back-seamed stocking wearing, strong femme when I was 10? 16? 21? How might my views change now if I had these mentors in my life today?
I don't know where they are but I read about them in books, see old pictures of them on the internet, occasionally run into one at a supermarket or clothing store. My heart goes a-flutter each and every time. I memorize their curves, the lines of their faces, and if I'm ever so lucky to see a butch and femme together - I can't help but stare longingly at a capsule of intimacy that I would have died for years ago growing up in the South.
People have spoken and written a lot about butch flight and opportunities for butches to now transition in a society that has more resources and knowledge on transgender issues. Whether this is true or not isn't really the point. What about the femmes? Are there less of us today than 50 years ago? Or are we just really that invisible? Are we only marked when we are seen with a butch or gender non-conforming person?
I wish I had the answers. I just know that in a LGBTQ culture that is moving more and more towards gender-queerness and further and further from seemingly gender-normative, masculine and feminine gender presentation, I am craving my foremothers with a passion and urgency that stings.
I want my foremothers to be visible. I want to hear their cool voices, so I forever have their whispers of triumph and trial tickling across my skin. I want the hundreds of thousands of other young femmes and butches out there to never have the need to pack away boxes of clothing. Never stare at the mirror in confusion and denial. I want mentors to show us the heartache and joy of a life lived seemingly inside a gender binary paradigm that, in fact, busts it wide open.
Like Sassafras, I want these faces to be real and not staring lifeless at me from black and white photographs.
If we had these voices and this knowledge, what might our LGBTQ movement look like today? I must say I can't hide my devilish grin at the thought of an army of fierce, unafraid femmes and butches marching in the streets. I am also filled with joy at the thought of how this would bring more open discussion in LGBTQ circles about gender stereotyping and non-conformance. An army of young and old empowered femmes and butches equipped with the knowledge of their foremothers and the activist tools of yesterday and today could really be a beautiful thing.
So this longing is a sad one, but not one devoid of hope. I am still grateful for my experiences, else I might not be the sassy spitfire of a Southern woman that I am today. But I will forever yearn for the knowledge of those who came before me. Those who I read and dream about... never to be tucked away in a box again.