Identifying Your Own Story

I can’t sleep, so I picked up my copy of Persistence: All Ways Femme and Butch (ed. by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman), which I’ve had on my shelf waiting patiently for me to finish an endless to-do list.

Personal stories aren’t on the top of my favourite-kinds-of-writing list. I don’t know why I’ve never been incredibly drawn to this kind of storytelling (and, consequently, I don’t really understand why you’re reading this post). Biographies were never my thing, and memoirs can sometimes be good (although my favourites always turn out to be allegedly fabricated: Augusten Burroughs, James Frey… so much for venturing into the non-fiction world).

Personal stories and speaking about or listening to a person’s experiences is crucial to the feminist movement, and I feel like I should give listening a better try.

When I came across a book review of Persistence in Bitch magazine, I ordered a copy the next day. As a writer, I’m supposed to have a way with words, yet I find it difficult to articulate the femme/butch relationship in a way that conveys what I really think or feel. I figured this book might give me some insight.

I was worried that the book would be full of stories of older individuals – not that their stories wouldn’t be good, but I wanted something I could connect to.

While I have found that some of the chapters are a little old for me (I am definitely not looking to become a parent any time soon, thankyouverymuch), the chapter I read tonight struck a chord.

One of the chapters, by Jewelle Gomez, called “Femme Butch Feminist” made me think a lot about identities, about the politics of being femme or butch, their relationship with each other, and the risks of limiting your self-description to a handful of words with rigid meanings.

I think this chapter came at just the right time.

‎”For centuries, girls have been relentlessly and brutally channelled into the servitude of vanity (does anyone think those beauty pageants for five-year-old girls isn’t obscene brainwashing?) in order to maintain a focus on: 1) embracing the market; 2) pleasing men; and 3) stopping us from changing the world. If some nations in the East historically or currently contained their women in burkas or bound feet, the West made manacles out of lipstick, pantyhose, mini-skirts, and magazine covers. A natural backlash against those advertising-agency constrictions sent many lesbian feminists running for the plaid shirts, coveralls, and Birkenstock sandals that everyone loves to make fun of today. What this disdain tells me, however, is just how powerful a uniform can be, as well as how scared people are when women refuse to look (and act) like Barbie dolls…

…One thing we have learned now in the twenty-first century is that changing the world doesn’t happen overnight; it requires a life of commitment and examination and recommitment…

What do we see when we look at ourselves? That all depends on how one defines identity. If identity is a box meant to contain all that you are, then any identity… is anxiety-provoking at best and soul-killing at worst. That box can lead to one of two paths: on one path, you totally embrace and enshrine the identity – a position that often leads to absolutisms…

Conversely, insistence on a box can lead to a total rejection of received identities, which is often the case with contemporary women and men living on the fruits of feminism, who understandably chafe at the idea of containment. With that rejection, however, we often get a personal life devoid of context or history; that, in turn, erodes any political power-base that could demolish existing oppressive cultural behaviours or institutions… The assumption is that each individual has the opportunity to overcome such incidents on his/her own…

… Dynamic political activism (i.e. feminism) to improve the condition of all women (and ultimately all people) can’t yet regain a foothold in the twenty-first century without women and men willing to acknowledge and open the identity ‘box’.

If, however, identity is seen as a door, not a box, then you’ve got a very different and an extraordinary adventure…

Our acknowledgement and exploration of those identities, and the past that comes with them, are what makes us whole…

When we dismiss the poison of discrimination in our waters we die from it; or worse we adapt and don’t know when we’ve become toxic to ourselves…

Until we have better language to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ our conversations about identities will be fraught with misunderstanding and frustration and keep us from adequately exploring the differences in desire and gender.”

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