I’m thinking these days about what it takes for us to be comfortable in our skin, to be comfortable in our selves. There have been years when I felt like I would never be ok, in the world, just as I am, that I’d always be performing some version of myself in order just to engage with other human beings. Does that make sense? But I just came from the 2012 Femme Conference, where I had a very different experience of girlness/femaleness, community, and ease.
I’ve been to, I think, all but one of the Femme Conferences held in the last eight or so years, in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, and now Baltimore (missed the one in Chicago). The Seattle conference was held in 2005, about a year after I came out to myself as femme, about a year into my mourning that I had failed as a queer, failed as a butch, and now I had to be a part of the ladies auxiliary, had to reneter the awful girl-game of competition, scarcity, cattiness, and never-doing-it-right-ness. I was terrified to have to be a girl.
This weekend I realized, remembered, that a part of the reason I “decided” to be butch was that I was tired of the girl-game, was done with never really doing girl right enough: never the right clothes or tone of voice or style of hair or makeup or any of it. I’d spent my adolescence under the abuse and control of my stepfather, so most of my energies were laced up in presenting a clean front, presenting a girlchild who was smart and ok, no one anyone would ever have to check or follow up with. The world of girlness was a complete morass to me, and as a tomboy who also loved to dress up now and again, I had some female friends, but ended up being the girl who mostly associated with boys. (You know those girls.) I didn’t trust most other girls, and was in a constant competition/game of one-ups-woman-ship with all of them — I just didn’t get as exhausted hanging out with boys, ’cause I wasn’t navigating our internalized social hierarchy all the time. I got a lot more comfortable building community with women after I transitioned to butch, and walked off the girl-competition playing field: we could hang out together without my always wondering whether my clothes or shoes or face were better than hers, or which of us passers by would like better, or which of us in this conversation would win as a girl — obviously, since I wasn’t playing, she won, and we could move on.
You can see from all this, perhaps, my massive amounts of internalized misogyny, and how I had no connection to a positive girl-centric community or identity when I was in jr high or high school; some of us do, I think–I’ll maybe always have small twinges of envy for those folks. I was being actively trained by my stepfather by that time into a womanhood that was always dressed, always available to men, better than other women but controllable — a fierce and pretty pit bull on a chain.
So, yeah, girlness/femaleness didn’t have many positive associations for me. I was devastated, as I mentioned before, when I began to realize that my inside self skewed more towards the girl than the boi/butch, that I’d been wearing butch as armor over a femme/female self that had really, I think, just needed a decade or so to cocoon, disassemble, find a new way to be in the world.
So I began to try on femme, try on girl. I wore big shoes, tight clothes, little skirts — In my early & mid-thirties, I was the teenage girl I never actually got to be back in the day. For the first three Femme cons I attended, I was aware of myself as performing femme — not in the Judith-Butler-performativity-all-of-us-are-performing-our-gender-all-of-the-time sort of way, I mean more in the Glenn-Close-Tilda-Swinton sort of way, actively altering who I felt I was when I was alone in order to achieve successful girlness out in community. I did the tight dresses, tall shoes, big face, big fascinators in my hair — this was how we were doingfemme in my local SF community, and I wanted to do it right. I wanted to be seen. I wasn’t comfortable in my girlskin yet, and was taking on another form of armor — the high femme.
Some of us in this community breathe high/big/performative femme “naturally”/more comfortably. I happen not to — but for years there’s been a part of me afraid that if I wasn’t doing femme as a glitterbomb extravaganza all the time, I wouldn’t be recognizable/visible as queer femme. I had a goal, though: I remembered watching Becca Cooper on the spoken word stage at the Queering Femininity conference in Seattle, in her tshirt and jeans and every goddamn inch of her a powerful femme. Something inside recognized how she did femme/girl/woman: Yes, that, it said to me. That’s us.
It’s been a slow process, figuring out what kind of femme/woman I want to be in the world, what feels most “natural” in a system that’s wholly unnatural, and how to accept that my femme wears sneakers and jeans a lot more often than she wears skirts, or even wants to — didn’t I do some of this wrangling about just being a woman? Do we really have to do it again in queer community?
So, anyway, I want to tell you about one of the many amazing things that happened at the Femme Conference in Baltimore this past weekend. My beloved friend Alex and I got up one morning and decided to just run down to the lobby for breakfast without showering or doing our hair or even (well, for me!) brushing our teeth! It was meant to be a quick trip, which was going to be powerful for both of us, that we were brave enough to walk through the gauntlet of done-up girl (even first thing in the morning — we at the femme cons like to get dressed for one another!), of fierce hair and high heels and fancy dress, in our undone morning selves. We wandered out to the 32nd St farmer’s market and hung out talking for so long that, by the time we got back to the hotel, there wasn’t going to be time to shower and get all “girled up” for the afternoon sessions that I’d wanted to attend.
As I sat in the lobby with Alex and my Kathleen and Maggie and other femme sisters, I noticed something astonishing: I was comfortable. Here I was, hair all sleep-mussy and caught in a headband, torn jeans, tshirt, sneakers, a little bit of glitter left over from the previous night’s performance but nothing under my eyes to hide those lack-of-sleep blue smudges — and I felt ok, even good. How could this be?
I admired the dressed up girlness all around me, the faggy fabulousness, the queer punk ferocity, and all the excellent footwear — and I felt my own place in the constellation of our gathering. I understood that I was ok in my skin, however it was dressed up and packaged. How about that?
You understand how this is a revelation that I am still assimilating? You understand the layers and layers of gratitude still sinking through into these girlselves inside, the ones who tried hard to find safety in a girlness or ungirlness that didn’t quite fit? It’s still unfurling, this place of comfort in who I actually am, and I get to notice each petal opening, and rest there awhile.
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What about for you? Are there parts of your identity or your character’s identity that don’t fit into the mold that’s been set forth for you or for them? What in you chafes against the community-set constraints of your gender (or other) identity? What did or would it look like for you to just get to be ok exactly as you are, whether or not that’s acceptable to the communities you’re a part of? Want to take ten or fifteen minutes and write that story this morning? Just notice what comes up as you read the questions, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.
I’m grateful for all of us today, all of our tenacious possibility, for our tremendous belief in connection, for the many ways we constellate into community. Thank you for your tenderness with others today, and for your good words.