April 2011

Gili Warsett

nonfiction

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman

Queer anthologies often concern themselves with being all-inclusive; Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme co-edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman, is no exception. If there is any unifying thread, the contributors to Persistence seem to be answering two unasked questions: Does my community embrace my gender identity? And do I feel comfortable being myself? There is no discussion by the editors about the selection process or the ordering of pieces within the anthology.

The editors’ decision to compile personal essays, academic papers, poetry, fiction, an interview, and even a manifesto into an anthology stems from wanting to pay an homage to Joan Nestle’s The Persistent Desire, originally published in 1987, and Coyote and Sharman hope to continue the discourse surrounding butch and femme identities. There have been other anthologies that cover similar ground to Coyote and Sharman’s Persistence: Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins published GenderQueer in 2002; Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore published Nobody Passes in 2006; and last year Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman published their second edition of Gender Outlaws. Unlike these other anthologies, Persistence strives to be a comprehensive anthology, and because of this insistence on inclusion, Persistence can be exhaustingly uneven in the quality and tone of the writing.

Coyote and Sharman assert the mission of the book in their introduction: “This book is a testament to the many beautiful ways butch and femme can be lived and embodied. It is our homage to the bodies that lived it before us, and it is our gift to those just discovering themselves.”

Ten years ago, at 22, I found myself a young, freshly graduated dyke, working in a women-owned sex toy store in the Bay Area. I vividly remember the summer afternoon when my coworkers began an open debate about my gender identity. Was I femme or butch? The discussion was headed in a deterministic direction and I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of isolation as I realized I wasn’t meeting anyone’s expectations. It was time to choose a gender. It would take leaving San Francisco and my queer community to understand that what was missing from my support system was my own self-acceptance. The essays that resonated with me were those that addressed the social and internal pressures that come from navigating a community where much of one’s identity is expressed through outward appearance and external acceptance.

Jewelle Gomez’s insightful essay, “Femme Butch Feminist,” reminded me of my own experience. “The urge to homogeneity is a deadening disease; even queers catch it,” she notes. Later, she suggests a reframing of butch/femme roles, which struck me as revolutionary in its positivity and simplicity. “If identity is seen as a door, not a box, then you’ve got a very different and an extraordinary adventure.”

Zena Sharman raises the issue of passing -- which interests me because most people see me as straight, while I identify as queer -- in a standout piece, “Looking Straight at You.” She asserts, “Sometimes being queer while looking straight is about blending in, which has the potential to be a powerful and subversive act.”

One of the strongest pieces in the anthology is Laiwan’s “Embodying Hunger and Desire with a Fistful of Bliss.” Here is a road map for self-acceptance -- required reading for those who look outward to find what can only come from the self. Laiwan successfully weaves a personal and political narrative. “I am compelled by a vision of empowerment to overcome what is oppressive, internalized, hateful, and phobic.” She rejects the notion that labels such as butch and femme matter. Her concern is with self-actualization and this philosophy serves not only as a strength of the piece, but also as a truly fresh voice in this anthology.

Thea Hillman writes about a similar claustrophobia in San Francisco’s queer communities to the feeling I experienced. Like Laiwan, Hillman realizes it’s inner acceptance and not social approval that she needs. She considers these roles, which have caused inner struggle in “Butch-Femme as Spiritual Practice.”

Another essay that balances the personal and political is “Me, Simone, and Dot” by Chandra Mayor. She complicates the meaning of femme: “Femme is more than being a lesbian who looks like she might not be a lesbian” and identifies with this word: “Femme is the gender identity I was born into, as well as my learned birthright from the terrifying women that I am created out of.” Mayor infuses some much-needed humor into her essay, never detracting from the reverence she feels toward her foremothers.

Sinclair Sexsmith and Belinda Carroll examine the policing of gender identity within queer spaces. “There is a huge 3-D gender galaxy out there for us to pick and choose from,” Sexsmith reminds us in “With Both Fists: Conscious Gender Building Through the Butch and Femme Identities.” “Everyone could benefit from more fluidity, less rigidity, and more choice when it comes to gender.” Carroll continues Sexsmith’s line of thought in the humorous essay, “A Guide to Getting Laid by a Girl in Lipstick and High Heels.” “We queers have a visual ‘Is she or isn’t she?’ that rivals the U.S. Army’s.”

Elizabeth Marston, a self-identified trannydyke, expands the definition of femme in “Rogue Femininity.” Marston calls femme “badass, rogue, illegitimate femininity. It’s the femininity of those who aren’t supposed to be feminine, who aren’t allowed to be, but are anyway.” And later, “Femme is a move from dispossession to self-possession.” These are fighting words, and Marston is in for the long haul.

Just when things begin to get bogged down in the land of the serious and the academic, Elaine Miller’s accessible “Futch: Thoughts from the Borderlands” rejuvenates Persistence. Miller defines futch: “A lesbian, dyke, or other variety of queer woman who possesses or displays qualities and social identifiers of both butch and femme.” As I read Miller’s essay, I wished my younger self had learned about the “futch” option when I allowed my identity to be on the table among my fellow queer San Francisco friends. I might have stolen Miller’s words and explained that my gender identity is “about exploring all the ground I can cover, and embodying every point on the line that feels good to me.” So had I chosen a gender identity, maybe it would have been futch. (But the truth is, if a term had suited me, even one as liberating as futch, I would have found a way to resist it, to fight the locked box that comes with a label. No label for me, please.)

Prince Jei and Misster Raju Rage interview each other in “Female Masculinity, Male Femininity, Feminine Masculinity, Masculine Femininity...?” which is simultaneously self-aware and shrouded in academic speak. Some of the most powerfully honest moments in this interview could have been pursued to give the reader a broader understanding of the two authors’ experiences. An example of this is when Prince Jei begins to close the piece by saying, “The major reason I transitioned is that I felt claustrophobic and stifled by the existing scripts, including butch-femme, heterosexuality, and even queerness.” Prince Jei and Mister Raju Rage could have filled a separate book with their stories.

There are some strong pieces in Persistence, perhaps even a line or two that will speak directly to you. This is a long book and its insistence on inclusiveness means slogging through unrelatable and sometimes disorienting pieces. I imagined the co-editors sending very different submission guidelines to the authors. There are dead ends here, but if you are patient, there are also some surprising points of entry, especially for those just beginning to find comfort in one’s gender expression. If there is any unity in this anthology, Persistence seems to be a celebration of possibilities.

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman
Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN: 1551523973
256 Pages