Duality is the spice of life. Well, it’s the spice of my life.
There are a lot of dualities in my life. I’m this, but I’m also that.
But ya know one thing I’ve never really doubted, at least within the deepest, most honest part of myself? That I’m a femme.
I am a femme. Hi, I’m Schlomo, and I’m a femme.
Other people, however, have not been so quick to catch on.
Like, even when I tell them.
In college, someone (very important and influential) told me I wasn’t really trans if I liked my facial hair.
To do their bid for king and cissexism, other people told me my trans identity just reenforced the gender binary.
[If talking to cis people were a drinking game, saying that transitioning was reenforcing the gender binary would be the point at which you give up and chug the whole damn bottle.]
And so I sat there, not doing anything. And I kept not doing anything. Except maybe growin’ that beard out.
You’re not going to find this in any butch/femme anthology, and you’re not going to see any femme theorists hop to cop to this, but that beard is your one-way ticket to alienating yourself from the femme community.
What they will instead try to tell you – and, I believe to a great extent that they believe it, or at least want to believe it – is that femme is a feeling, an essence, a way of being, and that a femme is as much a femme naked, without any makeup, jewels or hair.
This is my bullshit card, and I am playing it.
I have been told straight (ha!) to my face that I was not invited to femme things because “other people” might not perceive me as femme.
Well Jane Dandy for other people.
Ya know what? It’s true. You can’t see other people’s “feelings,” their “essences,” their “ways of being,” or even their vigantic goddess cores.
But if the relative degree of hair on my face disqualifies me from having a vigantic goddess core, then please stop lying about femme being a “feeling.”
What can I say? I was raised by a butch-femme lesbian couple. Isn’t that handy?
There was something so interesting, so compelling to me about my butch mom’s transgressive masculinity. She was high butch, if such a thing exists. She routinely got sir’ed, wore only men’s clothing and men’s cologne, had a mighty mid-Michigan mullet and drove a Jeep. There was something wildly alluring about this genderfuck going on right before my eyes.
And I think the thing is that I knew, as a femme, that when I imitated her, it was almost like I was performing masculinity from that perspective. I adopted a lot of her mannerisms of dress and scent, but I identified more with being transgressively masculine, even when this got lost in the reading for other people.
And it spent a lot of the next fifteen years getting lost in the reading by other people.
In my anorexic depressed fucked-up teens, I did try to throw myself a lifeline by wearing big, brash jewelry. In-your-face, wild, obviously women’s jewelry, sometimes ten pieces at a time.
But the beard stuck around, which is something that I feel like I have to atone or account for.
Ok, first, I had spent all this time as a child fantasizing about the time when I could grow a beard, which I figured would be the moment I would turn into a real boy, and all these thoughts and feelings about being a girlyman would just go away. I ached to walk into class and say, “sorry, I didn’t have time to shave this morning!”
But the reality was that when my beard came in, it came in hard. It really didn’t take long to figure out that I could either have a beard or spend most of every day shaving. I mean, seriously, I develop shadow while I’m shaving.
So I think I took a page out of my butch mom’s handbook and said let nature take her course. This v-neck satin women’s tee and twelve pounds of second-hand gold jewelry will carry the message for me.
Nope. Really, not even kind of. And by the time I got to college, had some really serious beard growth and no longer felt like putting on a truckload of jewelry every morning when I had spent most of the previous night learning Russian verbs of motion, there weren’t any breadcrumbs left for other people to follow the trail to my vigantic goddess core.
I got shut down wicked hard. I didn’t move ahead with my transition, I let that beard roam wild, and I fucked a lot of guys who thought they were fucking some Jewish lumberjack.
I realized way too late on my mission to sleep with all the consenting adult males in Washtenaw County that I was tired of fucking misogynists. You can use fucking as a gerund or an intensifier in that sentence, but I’m looking more at its gerundive qualities.
I wasn’t the only one having this awakening. A lot of my friends who slept with men were looking at their love lives and saying, “do we really have to put up with this shit just because we fuck men?”
No. No we don’t.
Ain’t no misogynists gonna get my candy, ‘cos if you hate women, you hate me. All my fierce femmeness came bubbling back to the surface, and I decided I needed a more enlightened class of man in my life.
I was single and wrapped up in radical queer theory around the time I graduated from college (ok, technically I got dumped three days before I graduated from college ON THE SAME DAMN DAY BEA ARTHUR DIED!), and it gave me the perfect opportunity to sit around, brood, and cogitate on my genda.
In my experience, trying to figure out your gender is about crawling down all the little rabbit holes that call out to you. My first pair of Giorgio Brutinis. Realizing how desperately I needed that sparkly orange scarf back from a friend. Laying in bed at night thinking about nail polish. Actively thinking to myself: how can I make it so that other femmes can read me!?
When I was, oh, probably 23 I did myself a favor I should have done for myself years earlier: I got me a copy of Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook.
It’s funny, ya know, she interacts with the narratives she can see other people having in their own minds surrounding even reading or possessing this book. Does this make me trans? Will I become trans if I keep reading? What will other people think if they see me reading this book?
Over and over, Kate points out that you’re not the person you were five minutes ago – the implication being, at least from my point of view – why bother trying to be something you thought you were ten years ago, or something other people have always wanted you to be?
I got a little surprise when I took the “Gender Aptitude” test, the first big questionnaire in the book. I got a 33, which puts me very squarely in the “gender freak” category:
Whoa! This stuff must seem like kid’s play for you. Either that or water in the desert, huh? (Bornstein, p 17)
According to my score, Kate and I should already have been having a queer ol’ time together – and, queer as I was, I wasn’t sure how I could square not knowing what to do with all my gender biznass with the notion of already being a “gender freak.”
But what I ultimately got from the book is to say: fuck it. Who cares if no one else sees me as a femme? So what if my beard means I can’t go to your party? Your party is probably stupid and boring, anyway, especially if me and my vigantic goddess core aren’t invited. I’m a futch bemme queeny faggot, and you. can’t. touch this.
Right? Awesome little year of self-actualization I had. (I eventually got down to a 26 on that gender aptitude test.)
Then I became a drag queen.
Who’da thunk it?
I was so gender-actualized when I started getting into drag that I ironically didn’t really realize what was going on at first. But there it was, or should have been, staring me right in the face: YOU’RE A FEMME NOW! Wanna come to our party?
I can’t say when it finally hit me, but I eventually realized that barrier was gone – I was beard-free and could be all the femme I wanted.
After all…I shave everything that shows or has tape on it (ouch!). My caboodle is overflowing, and I have my own vanity setup. I’ve got wig heads and hair spray, and tinted moisturizer and two different grades of exfoliating mask. My eyebrows come out of a NYX palette, and my heels go to the sky.
But now I’m in this weird place – do I even want femme acceptance anymore?
What does it mean to have an ironclad “defense” for my femme identity?
What does it mean to have exterior proof of an interior truth?
If they didn’t want my credentials then, why do I even want to give them my new ones? And why did I give other people so much power to decide what I was and was not?
I can’t tell you how much it would have meant if just one person had just seen me and believe me. Eventually I found those people. But it was only when I decided to stop asking permission to be who I am, whether I’m in combat boots or a sheer orange sequined top.
Oh, maybe it’s all a joke. And I’m big enough and old enough and strong enough and queer enough to laugh it off.
But maybe, just maybe we can make some room for other people’s vigantic goddess cores on down the line, huh?
Maybe so the little ones won’t have to go through the years of head-pounding and identity denial and questioning and fear. Maybe the little ones can say “Hi, I’m a femme!” and have other people take that at face value, whether or not that face is painted for filth.
Big Mama Schlomo