Archive for November, 2009

On Serving As a Role Model

On Facebook today, I send a friend request to a young woman I believed was my almost-cousin. We had played together as children and I thought it would be nice to reconnect. As it turns out, I did not friend the girl I remembered, but instead, I friended her little sister. [I’ m using “friended” as a verb. Deal.]

Now, I have never met the little sister. I was only vaguely aware that there was a younger sibling out there somewhere. As it turns out, the little sister is a freshman in high school. She still has her braces. By the time she starts college, I may well be working on my dissertation.

As it also turns out, she knows a little about me. When I checked my Facebook inbox this evening, I had an unread message that said, “I don’t want to be too forward but I heard through the grapevine that you just came out of the closet. I just recently came out as well and I was wondering if you had any tips for relationships and whatnot.” [I took the liberty of correcting her grammar and spelling.]

Of course, I am wondering what she was told and by which member of the family. I did not just come out, as I have been out to some people for as long as eight years now, and to my parents for three and half years or so. Still, I have a little baby dyke turning to me for advice.

This isn’t new. During middle school, I attended a school that was kindergarten through eighth grade. When I entered highschool, some of my former schoolmates kept in touch with me and used me for guidance as they entered their teenage years. As part of my job, I work with young women every day. While I am not “out” at work for a variety of reasons, I do my fair share of mentoring- and occasionally, lecturing- in addition to my required coaching . I even co-facilitate a youth group for LGBTQ teenagers. Mostly the participants just want free food, but sometimes we have important conversations. Despite all this, when someone comes to me for advice and my experiences, I can’t help but wonder, “Why me?” Now don’t get me wrong, I’m honored that people look up to me. Still, it always forces me to step back and ask, “How did I get here?”  To be horribly cliche, it seems like just yesterday that I was that lost freshman in high school.

So what do I do? Mostly I listen. When asked, I share my experiences, while reinforcing that I’m just one person with one story.  I often suggest community resources, as well as website or films. I tend to loan out too many books. Then, I listen some more.

What about you? Do you see yourself as a role model? For who? What responsibilities do you feel with this position? Did you want to be a role model or was it thrust upon you? [Added 12/2: How do you reconcile being percieved as an expert, when you know that you are still figuring it all out?] While the above example focuses on being a role model in the queer community, the conversation need not be limited. I want to hear everybody’s thoughts.

Sharing: TMatesFTM

At the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, I met all sorts of interesting people. One young lady participates in a You-Tube channel called TMatesFTM, in which the partners (“mates”) of FTM individuals post weekly videos on a variety of subjects. It’s a cool resource for those partnered to transguys and feeling alone, or just for those who just want to better understand relationships involving a transgendered partner. The production quality isn’t anything special, but the videos are all real people talking about their real experiences.

Observations on the 2009 NWSA Conference

I spent November 12 through 15 at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Atlanta. It was a delightful weekend full of way too many thoughts on gender, sexuality, and equality. It’s taken me a while to write about the experience because I wanted to let some of my powerful reactions to simmer for a while. Now that I’m almost two weeks removed, I have a few comments to make:

1) Feminists do have style. I know the reputation: Feminists are ugly. They are dowdy. They have hairy legs and saggy breasts. They don’t show any skin. It’s all lies. There were beautiful women abound in all shapes, sizes, and colors, of all ages, wearing some of the cutest ensembles I have ever seen.

2) The sex wars continue. When studying feminism, I’ve encountered lots about the so-called “sex wars” of the late 1970s and the 1980s. In my idealistic worldview, I like to pretend that these are over. We now recognize that sexuality is often an important part of human existence, and that as long as sex occurs between consenting adults, it is just a (often fun) part of life. Yet, the topics of BDSM and female submission kept popping up. Even in sessions on entirely unrelated topics, participants would suggest that womenfolk’s lower place in society is because of the inherent degrading nature of heterosexual sex, the “female torture” that occurs within BDSM, or the “pornification” of American culture. Inevitably, someone else would counter that sexual freedom and expression is a valuable component in society. Really, it’s been thirty years and the great sex wars still continue?

If you’d ask me, I’d say it’s time to get over it. Sex is fun. Sex is good. Sex is an expression of desire and attraction, as well as the more animalistic nature within us all. Sex can be loving and vanilla, sex can be rough and kinky. I can be sexually dominant, I can be sexually submissive. I can have sex within long-term relationships or I can have sex with my friends. I can be aware and responsible for my own actions, while also assuring that my partner(s) are fully consenting. The sex wars have been going on for a decade longer than I’ve been alive, and even I’ve got this figure out. Isn’t it time to move on and focus on some more pressing issues upon which we can all agree?

3) Some people never change. Related to the previous observation, I was surprised at how unwilling certain participants were to consider new viewpoints. For example, on a presentation about transgendered individuals as part of the feminist movement, I had to listen to the two older ladies sitting behind me trading snide remarks for the duration of the hour. “The one on the left, that’s a he/she,” one of them said. The other added, “He can’t be part of the feminist movement, he’ll never be a real woman.” I think it can be valuable to admit what you don’t understand or are not comfortable with, but some of the comments I heard were downright disrespectful.

4) Race divides. For a conference entitled “Difficult Dialogues” that focused on issue of intersectionality, there were surprisingly few intersections happening. While I will admit that there were some truly inspiring presentations delivered to diverse crowds, there also seemed to be some strong racial divides. Even during Angela Davis’s keynote speech, the audience was largely split by skin color.  In my life, I try to break down barriers and have difficult dialogues. On the institutional level, however, it was difficult to observe.

5) Women’s centers can be powerful community resources. I am probably going to get in trouble with my friends for saying this, but the women’s center at my university does very little. In the past, it was a valuable community resource, and I’ve heard great things about the events they sponsored. Even last year, Inga Muscio, author of Cunt, spoke on campus. I don’t want to place blame on the women’s center leadership, as I think the problems lies more in the structure of the center and its position under student government than in a lack of passionate leaders. Anyways, women’s centers at other colleges and in other communities are doing so many things. They are financially independent! They have full time, professional employees! They attend conferences and discuss the challenges and successes they experience. They organize not only social events, but cultural and political events. They are resource centers and activist gathering places. We need more.

Don’t get me wrong. The conference was amazing. Next year in Denver, anyone?

On Femme Invisibility

Sinclair Sexsmith posted a fantastic article today entitled “On Femme Invisibility.” As I have both a personal relationship and an increasingly undeniable academic interest in this subject, I simply had to share.

While I am often called “femme” within the queer community, I still haven’t decided how I feel about the label. On the one hand, I think it could be both empowering and subversive. On the other hand, it’s yet another box. (This could be, and eventually may become, another post in itself.)

That said, one of the things that Sinclair said was, “One of the bottom-line issues about femme in/visibility, for me, is that it is a form of gender discrimination. When someone refuses to recognize a femme as queer, that person is saying, straight women are feminine, dykes are not, therefore your gender presentation trumps anything that might come out of your mouth about how you identify or who you are, and I am more right than you are about your identity. The sex-gender assumption is too strong and too fundamental for many people to be allowed to be overridden.”

I couldn’t agree more. While on an average day I would consider my dress fairly innocuous- jeans and a tee-shirt with a pair of sneakers- I still read “femme.” Even after cutting my hair the shortest it’s ever been, I still look “girly.” I’ve thought about cutting it even shorter, but as a curly headed gal, I’d end up with a ‘fro. I don’t usually wear make-up, or at least not more than chapstick and a little concealer. My nails are kept short and unpainted. Half of the time I am wearing my work clothes of gym pants, a “staff” shirt, and running shoes, with my hair in a pony tail. Despite the fact that I’m pretty darn gay, I am constantly assumed to be straight.

This is where the subversive possibilities unfold. As there is this culture-wide unspoken societal rule that says “femininity is for the attraction of men and feminine women are straight,” I am breaking the rules. I can surprise people with my queerness. I can be an undercover agent.

I am aware of this interplay and sometimes I use it to my advantage. When I go out, I often “dyke-it-up” in hopes of being read as queer (more likely than not, I’ll still read as “femme” and therefore “straight”). However, on occasion, I consciously play up my femininity. I’ll wear a dress or skirt and blouse, and heels. I’ll actually put some effort into my hair and paint on some makeup. Generally, this happens when I want to feel pretty, or when I am dating a woman who is either quite femme herself or on the more “butch” side.

When I’m “femme”ing it up purely for my own enjoyment or self-confidence, I tend to be approached by men. This, of course, is no surprise, but it can also be discouraging. Here I am, wanting to feel good about myself and my ability to attract attention, and yet I only get attention from those who I do not desire. In fact, I have been blatantly asked at gay clubs and in other queer spaces, by both acquaintances and strangers, “Are you sure you’re a lesbian? Should you really be here?” Yes, I’m sure. Yes, I’m a lesbian. Do I have to proof it by sleeping with you? Do you need to see my official gold star?

When I am with another femme woman, it’s as though we are saying, “We’re hot, we’re pretty, and no, you can’t have us.” We’re fucking with soceital assumptions. I have found, however, that men don’t let that phase them. Two attractive, feminine women can’t possibly be lesbians. At the very most, we’re doing it for male attention. What we really want, obviously, is to have a threesome with every desperate guy at the pool hall.

One Halloween, I went to a gay bar dressed as a pirate. I will admit that it was a bit of a slutty pirate costume, but, I really wanted to wear the red pleated mini skirt, the fishnets, and the black boots, with the white tattered top and the brown bustier. I looked hot, I knew it, and I was ready for a fun night out. Despite the fact that I was clearly there with someone, my femininity made me a target for male harassment. So here I was, at a gay club, holding hands with and kissing the girl I was seeing, and a male acquaintance decides he must buy me a drink and put his had up my skirt. If I wasn’t underage and driving home, I might have accepted the drink, but the fact that I read “femme” should never have made me a target for unwanted gropes and grabs. He sure as hell wasn’t approaching any of my more “masculine” female friends.

The final thing I have noticed is that I often “femme” it up when involved with more butch women. Part of it is wanting to satisfy my partner. If I know she likes it when I wear matching lacy lingerie, I just might do it. Of course, I have to like it too. In these cases, in public, I am often read as “queer” by association or as “the straight girl” that a dyke is dating. Either way, as soon as I am alone, my queerness is once again questioned.

I don’t mean to sound whiny. All I want, really, is for my own self-identity to be respected. You are not the expert on me, and my gender presentation does not dictate my sexual orientation. While I honestly believe in a certain degree of fluidity, I would appreciate not constantly having my queerness questioned. Sinclair Sexsmith summed this up fantastically, but I had to add my two cents.

Somali Woman Stoned For Adultery

According to a November 18, 2009 report (that’s today!), a Somali women was stoned for adultery.

And I quote: According to reports from a small village near the town of Wajid… the woman was taken to the public grounds where she was buried up to her waist. She was then stoned to death in front of the crowds on Tuesday afternoon.”

While both she and her boyfriend were found guilty, she, as a married woman was stoned to death. He, as an unmarried man, received 100 lashes. Under al-Shabab’s interpretation of Sharia law, as stated in the article, “anyone who has ever been married – even a divorcee – who has an affair is liable to be found guilty of adultery, punishable by stoning to death,” while “an unmarried person who has sex before marriage is liable to be given 100 lashes.”

I’m not sure if these laws are fairly applied to both men and women, so I can’t automatically call “double standard!” However, it certainly shows the cultural value of marriage within Somalian society. As an outsider, I can’t step in and call for a reevaluation of cultural expectations. However, I think it can be agreed that this article shows the downside of strict religious factions as de facto political leaders.

Girl House Art Project- Girls as Feminists

From the website: “The ten-month Girl House Art Project, developed and led by Kesa Kivel, was conducted at the YWCA Santa Monica/Westside in Santa Monica, California from September 2005 to June 2006. During the Girl House project, which was inspired by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s 1972 “Womanhouse” art installation, middle school girls learned about the gender wage gap, women’s history, self-defense, media literacy, and other related topics. Art was used throughout. The concluding piece was an art installation in which participating girls artistically described the effects of sexual harassment using a small on-site house on the YWCA property. The Girl House Art Project public exhibition was held in June 2006.”

In My Words: A recent example of feminist art in action and feminism reaching out to the next generation. I only wish my “Women in Western Culture” class had included this along with the extremely brief overview of “Womanhouse.” Check out the 16 minute documentary. It’s a little sentimental, but well worth a watch.

A Queer Aesthetic?

Whoever says that feminists are ugly and prudish have never seen the fashion at the National Women Studies Association. When discussing the remarkable style of some of the participants, my former professor (let’s call her Dr.P) asked me, “Do you think those with the great style are lesbians?”

Given my remarkable gaydar, I answered that some seem heterosexual while others do not. The women we were admiring at the moment- a younger Angela Davis in tight jeans, printed tights, a black blazer, chunky heeled boots, topped off with a wild Afro; and her partner, dressed in an understated pinstripe blazer, baggy but tailored jeans, and simple black shoes, complimented by a Monroe piercing- were undoubtedly lesbians. They were kissing.

More generally, however, Dr.P raised a question that has been puzzling me since. Is there a uniquely queer aesthetic? If we focus on women, which we could call my specialty, what is it that sets queer women apart from their ”normative” counterparts? It’s more than a masculinization of femininity, because there seems to be something that also distinguishes queer femme women from their hetero counterparts. What is this aesthetic? Is it just thumb rings and pinstriped vests? Is there something deeper, a certain idea of beauty, art, and attractiveness?

I’m thinking the answer is “yes.” I’m also thinking that “yes” is hardly an answer.

Your thoughts, please.