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CULTURE Femmes, Stand and Be Counted
by C.C. Carter
2004-04-01

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Lately, I've been questioning about where I fit in this world and what part I play in the fight and struggles of the Lesbigay movement. 'You see, I'm a femme—a lipstick lesbian—a real girlie girl, so I can pass—smelling like a straight girl in my Victoria Secret satin panties…' from StaceyAnn Chin's Passing poem.

I recognize that my existence in this movement is almost nonexistent because often we—femmes—are silent; loving our butch women and letting them be the forerunners as well as the forebrunters of everything wonderful about lesbian life, and everything hateful that induces homophobia. We sit by passively watching and listening, but not speaking—making others in the straight world and even in our own mislabel us as submissive. Yet, lately I have been consciously taking notes, on myself that is. I have tuned into my body language, my thoughts, and my actions when my lover and I walk down the street passing by men watching us as we go. I grab her arm, I smile in her face, I kiss her cheek, she moves me to the inside and sticks out her chest. I've done my job well, I think to myself. I can't be silent anymore while my lover is on constant dyke watch lists.

I know that it is me next to her, that outs her to the world. She, when alone or with her other friends like her, is a cute home girl that appears tomboyish. She is still considered attractive to men who refuse to see beyond the size 38C breasts she wears like armour. But me with her reaffirms their suspicion that she's a dyke, and I'm just her bisexual girlfriend that he could still have if I ever get tired of dealing with plastic, the fake stuff, and want the real thing. ' ... my friend is in trouble—somebody takes the time to notice that the young boy is really a young girl, and the oversized red, white, and blue jacket is not enough to cover the tattoo on her belly—two naked women wrapped around each other like pretzels ... . It takes two minutes for them to break two ribs, she knows that butch bodies are too strong too strange too dark like the bronze bodies that smell too thickly of rebellions and revolutions ... .' (Passing). He can't stand knowing that she does to me what he wants to do to me and I like it. I can no longer let her fight this war alone, when I am part of the cause.

I have begun to realize that there is power in my femmeness, that which I claim, that which I own, that which I am. My appearance is a sneak attack, making people drop their guards when they're next to me—leaving them targets for my words to put them in deep check when they slip and think that I am one of them. My definition of Femme is the appearance and mannerisms that one visibly associates with the actions and look of 'ladylike' demeanors. The definition does not transcend into the bedroom analysis, because even in being Femme there are levels—Femme tops, strictly bottoms, Femme—butches, ultra Femmes, and the list goes on.

Which brings me to how I see it. In late February, I went to the Outwrite Writer's Conference in Boston. Among the many workshops and panel discussions that I attended, I found the 'Femme' panel most interesting. First of all, that there was a need to even have a Femme panel sparked my initial curiosity. Second, that there were many people in the audience who really thought that Femme women had little effect on the lesbigay movements of the past and present. What did people think? That all those butch women in the public eye all slept with women like themselves? Which really made me think, what have I done lately to contribute to the movement? What have I done to increase visibility for women such as myself? Maybe our silence is the reason that it usually takes women like us more years, more divorced marriages, more domestic violence cases, before we acknowledge that we are lesbian. This may also be why more women resist the term Femme, because in the media, in the schools, in the job, in the neighborhood, where we usually are passing in silence, Femme means weak and frail. I knew at 11 that I liked women, but there were no visible role models who looked like me, acted like me, dressed like me whom I could talk to. Fifteen very volatile years later there I was bruised and scarred trying to start over, yet still never being visible, just being the prize, the pedestal, the trophy.

I never realized how important it is for Black lesbians to be seen and heard, especially Black Femmes until I went to Whitney Young's Pride Day event last year. As I walked into the room, and waited for the class to settle down, a young femme-looking girl in the audience asked her teacher, 'So where's our guest speaker, everyone else has one.' I replied that I was the guest speaker, and she said, 'You sure don't look like one.' I had made a conscious effort to wear a dress and pumps, with hair laid and face beat, because I knew that had I known at 15 what I found out at 25, my life and agonies would have been different.

For butch women it seems that their coming-out experiences are a lot different. Usually through sports, or very similar interests/noninterests in males, they find each other early in life. There are more visible role models in the media for them, even if most of them are white. For femmes that never played sports, would never be caught climbing trees or getting in dirt, yet know intrinsically from that first boy kiss, that 'something ain't right,' what options do we have, and who do we turn to, except to put the blame on ourselves and try to assimilate as straight as possible. She (the young lady), came up to me afterwards and asked if she could be on my mailing list. Many other young ladies such as herself, also became very inquisitive after the group sessions. Two of the teachers said that their classes specifically asked for me to come back. It was then that I knew that my silence was something that the future generations could not afford.

Yet, I constantly run into Femme women who when they speak in public, say, 'Well I'm just a femme but ....' There is no such thing as being 'just' anything, especially Femme. We have just as much to say, and offer, and have many role models as those who aren't us. I don't condemn those who resist 'labels,' yet to deny that there is a privilege in the way Femme women experience the world because of the way we present ourselves to the world, is denying that there aren't certain ethnicities that enjoy privilege over others. And if you can't deny the latter, you can't deny that Butch and Femme co-existence is prevalent in seven out of 10 lesbian relationships.

All over the country there is a rise in a new movement stirring—the Femme Movement. Conferences are addressing issues that pertain to Femme women and many self-help sister groups are adding Femme components to their agenda. I am ambivalent about all of this. I can't believe there are that many Femme women who don't know how powerful they are. That Self-Empowering The Femme workshops and panels are becoming necessary. Yet, I recently submitted my Dear Femme poem to an all-Butch anthology; it was accepted. That is until at the Outwrite Conference in the Femme panel (no doubt), the editor of the anthology met me for the first time and told me that Femmes could not be contributors to the book. This was after she had e-mailed me, when she thought I was Butch, for more poetry to include in the book. I never told her that I wasn't Butch, but her submission call never specified that you had to be Butch either. She told me that I could be in the anthology if I interviewed my partner and phrased it in her words. So, yeah, I do see the need for a Femme movement in this case. Many times it is Butches who help silence the voices of Femmes. 'Sit and be pretty.' But often times we silence ourselves, never in the limelight, never speaking unless spoken to, and always blending in with crowds—unnoticeable. So this is an all call, to those that are women, and femme, and ready to be visible. Come to the front line ladies, show your face. You've got to be present and noticed to be counted. Some little cheerleader's life depends on it.

Now I could be wrong, but that's how I see it.

(Originally published in 2000)


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