Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme

Coyote, Ivan E. & Sharman, Zena (Editors). (2011). Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.

This remarkable anthology brings together diverse voices from the butch/femme landscape.  Although each essay unquestionably stands up on its own as a powerful piece, together the collection becomes a discussion, an exploration of identity.  Gender expression interpolates political identity which interrogates sexual propensities, in a fascinating dialogue between equally fascinating contributors.

Reading from front to back I found myself alternately delighted, fired up, turned on, intrigued, and giddy with a feeling of empowered personal identity.  As a femme-identified genderqueer person, I have been disappointed by the stereotypes that sometimes get applied to me, but the voices in this book defy rigid or reductive categorization.  Butch/femme is not a power dynamic, except when it is.  Butch/femme is not a fashion choice, except when it is.  Butch/femme does not correspond to sexual behavior, except when it does.  Butch/femme can apply to any gender identity, personality type, genital configuration, and relationship style.  Butch/femme is complex, not easily defined, and certainly leaves room for any number of other identities.

One of my favorite pieces was “Rogue Femininity” by Elizabeth Marston.  Marston defines femme as dispossessed femininity: “It’s the femininity of those who aren’t allowed to be real women and who have to roll their own feminine gender” (p. 205).  In our patriarchal society, anybody performing femininity who is not a heterosexual cisgender woman is seen as illegitimate.  Marston suggests that femme queer and trans* folks are rogues, radically contesting the patriarchal norms of conventional femininity.  I really connected with this piece, particularly with the discussion of passing and femme invisibility.

In terms of structure, Persistence is intuitively organized and easy to browse.  The table of contents lists the essay titles and the authors, which should be a given but isn’t always so.  Each essay is followed by a brief bio of the contributor, which is helpful when you encounter a really striking piece and want to know more about the person who wrote it without having to put the book down.  The forward, by femme luminary Joan Nestle, delves into the politics of gender discourse and her own experience as both a femme and as a femme writer and editor.  It’s worthwhile to read in order to better understand the title choice and discursive authority of naming and identifying.

I highly recommend this book to anybody interested in queer identity and gender expression.  This text is intended for an adult audience but is appropriate for most young adult readers (note: there is frank discussion of sex and sexuality, if it wasn’t obvious).  I could see the entire book or selected essays being used in a Women & Gender Studies or similar course.  I think non-femme/butch identified folks could potentially get a lot out of this collection, in terms of appreciating and better understanding various identities—but femme/butch folks will probably engage with it in a deeper and more satisfying way.

About Charlie McNabb

Archivist, Folklorist, and Legend Tripper
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