Reading My Way Into Femme

In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Jonathan Tait

First person plural pronouns herein are optionally inclusive; i.e. “we” only includes an individual “I” if that particular person says it does. The use of the t-word in the fourth and eighth paragraphs is context specific, referring solely to MTF transvestite culture in the UK.

810C78zAYuLZena Sharman’s ‘Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme’.

In her introduction (the title of which I’ve stolen) to the anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, Zena Sharman writes:

I’ve read my way into everything that’s ever mattered to me – feminism, social justice, queerness, femme. (…) I started going to the gay bar, took up go-go dancing for a queer punk band, and read everything I could get my hands on. It was in books like ‘The Persistent Desire and Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity’ that I found words for who I was, and through these a lineage, a community, my heroes. Nearly ten years later, femme is more than just a word on a page. It’s who I am.

Well, I don’t go to gay bars and I don’t go go-go dancing, but I did read my way into femme…

My cross-dressing goes back to my earliest memories and for a very long time it was just something I did, with little care or thought for why. The label “transvestite” (when I even bothered with one) was sufficient. In my early 30s, that all changed – perhaps I was just at that stage in what Vicky Lee called “The Tranny Journey” – and I started reading and thinking seriously about cross-dressing, sex and gender. Although I didn’t formulate them so precisely back then, there were two important issues I needed to resolve:

1) The conflict between sex (in the erotic sense) and gender (in the male/female sense) so that cross-dressing shouldn’t be reduced discretely (in the mathematical sense) to sex (to be dismissed as male sexual deviance) or to gender (to some notion of femaleness), but acknowledge both sexuality and gender as integral.

2) The conflict between male cross-dressing and the usual feminist critique thereof: that male CDs are, for whatever reason, merely acting out patriarchal stereotypes of womanhood – so that our own form of “femininity” might be justified theoretically and politically without reneging on a general feminist understanding of gender.

Trawling the bookshops – Mushroom, Silver Moon, Gay’s The Word (of these only the last is still going) – and later the internet, I, too, “read everything I could get my hands on”. Books such as: Gender Outlaw, Pomosexuals, Public Sex, Read My Lips, Sex Changes, S/he (my copy has a different cover), Skin, Stone Butch Blues, and Transgender Warriors.

Reading all this literature – which was written with such fierce honesty, intelligence, playfulness, poetry, pride – opened me up to new ideas, new feelings, new ways of thinking about gender; and about transgender and transsexuality; about lesbian, gay, bi and queer sexuality; sex-positivity, radical sex, sexual politics, feminism, queer theory. The list of books above comprises some of my favourites, but there were plenty more: Vicky Lee’s Tranny Guides; numerous trans and drag autobiographies; texts on sexology, sociology, anthropology, the law – whatever I could get my hands on.

And I’d not yet gotten to femme. Although the authors I’d read included two feminist femmes in Dorothy Allison and Minnie Bruce Pratt, their femme was specifically lesbian and didn’t speak to me directly. It was another book which resonated more: Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. This is primarily a lesbian book too, but it’s also about transgender and cross-dressing – and significantly, cross-dressing as part of a gendered and sexual identity (issue one resolved), and which did not feature straight male CDs at all (issue two circumvented). Relating immediately to the main character, Jess (who is fictional but based, I think, on Feinberg’s own life), I naturally compared our differing identities and then began to consider whether my own cross-dressing might be conceived as a mirrored counterpart to hers. I started investigating lesbian butch in earnest, and as there wasn’t much uniquely butch theory available at the time, this mostly meant reading more generally about the terms: butch and femme.

Eventually it struck me: there was no need to figure out an upside-down male version (so to speak) of female butch and all the confusing geometry of reflections. Butch already had a reflective counterpart – femme. And if butch could be female, why couldn’t femme be male? (Perhaps if I’d read more about gay male femme I’d have gotten there sooner, but never mind.) From that realization everything fell into place:

Why is there a sexual component to our cross-dressing? Because femme is both a gendered and an erotic identity. Why are we drawn to overtly feminine clothing, of a type most women never wear? (The type straight men buy for their wives at Christmas and is returned to the stores by the truckload in the New Year.) Because our real need is to express our femme natures – and femmes do wear such clothes. Why do male CDs (as Helen Boyd asked) “so rarely have any interest in the actual lives of women?” Because we’re not women, we’re femmes – and men. (Though this answer doesn’t negate the question; in my opinion, the study of feminism should be compulsory for all male cross-dressers.) And as regards the supposed conflict with feminism – lesbian femmes had already staked out that territory.

Nearly ten years later (going back to Zena Sharman), femme is more than just a word on a page. It’s who I am.

And now I’ve read a lot of books on femme as well: Brazen Femme, Femme: Feminists, Lesbians & Bad Girls, Femmes of Power, The Femme’s Guide to the Universe, The Femme Mystique, Visible: A Femmethology (and Vol.2) – and books by femmes, and more by butches, and there’s always more to read online and offline.

Jonathan Tait

Jonathan Tait is a middle-aged, middle-class, white, Kinsey 1½, genderqueer, femme, cis male cross-dresser, who blogs about transvestism, (trans)gender and femme, and paradoxically believes that the idea of discretely gendered clothing is nonsense.

An earlier version of ‘Reading My Way Into Femme’ was published on Jonathan’s blog: male femme.

It is also a part of Season V of PTL which is run in association with All About Trans.

We encourage all of our readers to donate to this season’s organisation: Gendered Intelligence.

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