I was so excited this week when one of my most dear femme friends Ms. Lola Sunshine got in touch with me with this fantastic piece of writing that I knew right away needed to be posted here on Femmes Guide. Lola is one of my dearest high femme friends and I was so excited that she so graciously agreed to let me post her writing here. Give a grand Femmes Guide welcome to Lola!
Spectacular Glitter Explosions: On Femme as a Gender Problem
by: Miss Lola Sunshine
So here’s the thing about my gender identity: It’s simultaneously subversive and also really radical (in the true sense of the word). It is historical and traditional. It is constructed yet innate. It is both true and false, performance and person, art and self. This would seem like a paradox to some, but this is who I am everyday— this is marked on my body; etched into my brain. It comes out of my mouth in soft-structured sentences, high-pitched angry tones, low growls, and gasps of pleasure. At times I really wish I could be something else, other than, either look more queer or be more straight… or maybe I wish that I were born 50 years ago, when high femme was understood and accepted as a valid lesbian gender identity and came with a clear set of rules and boundaries, but for a myriad of reasons these fantasies are simply not a possibility (and not even actually desired, really they are just the product of exhausted escapism) and so I am to remain stuck in the liminal, possibly forever.
This is not how I meant to start off a description of my gender identity. I meant to say that high femme is fun and playful and colorful and fabulous… but honestly I’m just not there today. There are some days where I’m just not feeling grounded enough for the willful shallow cheerfulness that is needed to reduce myself to shopping, make-up, and shoes. For if gender is indeed a complex spectrum that cannot be easily explained or reduced, then I am so far over on the “feminine” side that I am about to fall right over the edge into uncharted waters. There are simply no maps for where I am going, so clearly this is dangerous territory. As James Baldwin once said, “Here there be dragons.” There is nothing but uncertainty ahead, the sort of thing that second and even third guessing yourself will not solve, so there is nothing to do but press on. Sometimes, I am very afraid.
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading gender theory, I love questioning things… but the more I question myself, admit that my gender is heavily performative, constructed around a societal idea, etc. the more I also feel that my high femme gender presentation is absolutely, in this and each moment, innate. By “innate” here, I do not mean that it is in any way connected to my birth sex, which is female. “Innate”, in this case, means that it is inextricably linked to my person and, beyond being inescapable, is something I have no desire to ever escape. “Innate” means that the closest thing to a “self” that I know is high femme at all times. I am high femme from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, and even in my subconscious while dreaming. It is not a costume, it is not drag, it is not a game that I’m playing, and I do not always make up all the rules.
For example, on a snowy night in Chicago several years ago, I had to borrow a pair of Doc Martens boots from a butch friend of mine to walk several blocks from her house to a party in icy weather. Obviously it was dangerously impractical to do anything other than accept the boots and carry my strappy black heels, but I was really quite upset about having to wear them—and not on a “these don’t match my outfit!” level, but on a deeply terrifying internal level that I really didn’t feel I could express without sounding somewhat insane. As often I’ve told several of my friends and lovers, the only time I ever encounter any of the sorts of body and gender dysphoria that some of my transgender friends describe feeling so deeply is when I am in drag. Having to wear those boots was a form of drag to me, and it was drag I didn’t choose or prepare myself to encounter and therefore I could not remove them quickly enough.
This seems to go against every theoretical example I’ve read by authors and academics like Borenstein, Butler, and Halberstam that gender and all its trappings is something that is fun to put on and take off—it goes against decades of feminist teachings that women are not meant to wear shoes that pinch their feet and clothes that truss them up to uncomfortable levels, so where does this leave me? It creates me as a wrench in the queer and feminist gears. It makes me into an overly-educated Barbie-girl that cannot be explained away and refuses to let herself be covered up, dismissed, and ignored. Do you want to know why so many femmes are so incredibly strong? It’s because we have to be. Nobody has our backs. Not straight people, not queer people, nobody. Half the time, due to femme-competition, we don’t even have each other. You want to know how we all learned to fight in those shoes? Go out to a lesbian bar in heels someday and then take the public transit alone at two o’clock in the morning to get yourself back home.
I am not in any way claiming that gender is innate for everyone, or even the majority of people. In fact, most femmes would probably not agree with all the “I” statements I just made. However, also I don’t feel like I should sit here and write a theoretically rich and masterfully dishonest piece about my gender identity as wholly constructed when this is now how I feel. It is constructed, of course, by myself, by society, by how I was raised, etc., and it is also chosen—but it isn’t at the same time. I don’t really care how others select, construct, and perform or present their gender, but when it comes down to me, I feel bound, quite literally. But the thing I’m trying to get at, what I’m trying to articulate with all these words, is that I enjoy being bound. You can take that statement literally if you wish, as it would still be true in my case, but metaphysically it is absolutely the most correct word for describing how I feel. My version of high femme is restrained and full of fancy knots that are often uncomfortable or outright painful. I find myself struggling against it sometimes, but I don’t know if it is because I want to be released or because I just enjoy the friction—I suspect it’s the latter. I’ve always been a big fan of friction.
In fact, I deliberately readjust my bindings every day, make sure the knots are still tight, change the color of the ropes, play with the tensions. I do this through hair, make-up, fashion, accessories, and, yes, shoes. I create an aesthetic that I feel matches who I am inside. It is intentional and I leave very little to chance. As a line in the film American Beauty says, “See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident.” I am relentless. These character traits that some call unstable, neurotic, or high maintenance are actually valuable tools for which I have great respect and find absolutely necessary.
While I often appear to be caricature of a heterosexual American female, I do not consider myself as such. A wide chasm of difference is created by awareness and intent. My style of being is not meant to perpetuate classism, racism, or heteronormativity although it often does. It is not meant attract attention from straight men. In fact, unless I deliberately consent to step into a specific gaze, it’s not actually meant to attract queer individuals, either. These are all just side effects of my high femme presentation. Some are unfortunate or unpleasant, and some can occasionally be enjoyed in a shot-reverse-shot sort of fashion, but none are directly intentional on my part. So, once again, where does this leave me? When I am seen at all, I am perceived as a female object of desire regardless of whether or not I have consented and without necessarily being fully understood. What does one do with this knowledge? I feel that I subvert gender and sexuality every day by merely existing in the form in which I am most comfortable and refusing to conform to its expectations.
It is my experience that high femmes are dually invisible in both queer and heterosexual spaces. We are like spies in worlds that never expect us, never see us coming, and don’t notice us when we’re already there. While hiding in plain sight, we have brilliant opportunities for subversion, disruption, sabotage, and general queer mayhem. I believe that if we are invisible, then we should have no expectations and cannot be held accountable for our actions. Conversely, if we are visible and yet constantly mystified or misinterpreted, then, again, all bets are off. We can and should do whatever we please and thus force the communities around us to adjust and adapt to a new reality that sees us in it.
Years ago, when I first heard the popular feminist axiom quoted from Audre Lorde, “The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house,” I felt immediately uncomfortable. It took a long cycle of self-reflection to fully discover why. The truth is, I actually do believe that you can take up the master’s tools if you are first and always aware that you are using them. I feel that if you use the master’s tools to completely subvert, and in many ways thoroughly pervert, his original intentions, then his house will come crashing down in a spectacular, glittery explosion. It is also possible that the house itself doesn’t need to be destroyed. Maybe it would be just as exciting to repaint it hot pink with lavender edge-work. This would also clearly upset the balance of power. Perhaps it’s that I actually somewhat like living in the house—however I will only reside there under my terms and I would prefer it be filled with my friends, family, lovers, and allies. So, in essence, as a high femme I have stolen the master’s house. Maybe I’m squatting, maybe I’ve outright purchased it, or maybe the master is in pieces under the floorboards. The point is, I plan to reside in my refurbished hot pink house, which is full of silk chaise lounges, full length mirrors, walk-in closets, full sets of vintage glassware and, hopefully, some really sexy radical queers—and I’m going to blast girlie pop music out of all the bay windows for as long as I so choose. I invite all of you to come over and join me. There will be cookies. Come on. You know you love cookies.