This weekend I was honored to premiere a section of “Starting from Fem”, a work-in-progress exploring the construction of femme identity US working class bars of the 40s-50s. The piece will eventually become a full length solo performance. I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me on the 2+ year journey to this piece.
In the introduction to the landmark butch-fem anthology The Persistent Desire, fem* author and activist Joan Nestle dedicates the book to Jeanie Meurer, a fem friend who passed away in 1991 before ever sitting down to record an oral history for Joan’s Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Joan laments “I realized that I had spent many long hours listening to butch women tell their stories, but I had put off listening to Jeanie. My own femme self-hatred had made me a careless listener.”
If even Fem Superstar Joan Nestle admits to overlooking fem history and stories, imagine all the many ways in which misogyny and self-hatred affect the stories we know and tell. I love studying history to help my understand my queer community. But I suspect we are not getting the full story of fems in this community, just as I know we are often not hearing the full story when it comes to the stories of people of color, enslaved people, transgender people and Native people.
Much of my research for this piece relies on The Buffalo Women’s Oral History project and Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, a history of butch-fem community from the 1930s-1960s in Buffalo, New York. Despite the efforts of authors Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis to interview fems, the narrative is skewed decidedly towards the butch side. Fems are referred to as “not around any more” or as having “gone off and gotten married.”
I’ve spent over a decade in the queer community talking, writing, and performing about fem. I believe that some of the roots of fem-phobia in the queer community can be traced back to the beginning of modern LGBT history.
This section of “Starting from Fem” is a coming-out and coming-of-age story about a fictional young woman finding a lesbian community in the 1940’s. Because the voices of fems are so obscured by history, I have created a story based on facts while using fiction to explore the emotional landscape of a fem’s journey. I know there are anachronisms, that my character might be articulating thoughts and feelings that would be foreign to someone at the time. But I’m not trying to create a perfectly accurate portrait.
I invite you to imagine with me a fem-friendlier world, one where fems were able and welcome to articulate their feelings, needs and desires, where they valued themselves as a central part of their communities.
A note on music – All three songs with lyrics I chose for this piece were popular songs prized by gay women at the time for their double meanings. The word “gay” had long been used to mean same-gender loving. “Secret Love” comes from Calamity Jane, a movie with a very butchy-seeming main character and some decidedly Sapphic overtones.
*I’ve recently decided to reclaim the older spelling of fem after seeing use of “femme” by straight cisgendered people explode in the past year. I am all about an expansive definition of femme/fem across all kinds of people and bodies, but I am not here for straight women appropriating a term with very specific queer meanings.