Queer, Femmes, and Feminism

Last August, award-winning filmmaker Pratibha Parmar delivered a keynote address at FEMME Conference 2012: Pulling the Pieces Together, in Baltimore, Maryland. This is an excerpt from her talk.

Every day, I read and witness how many of us who fall outside the white, hetero-normative, sexist, homophobic, ableist, racist culture pull the multiple pieces of our lives together with Olympian efforts so that we can remain sane in the face of insane hatred and disregard.
Despite constant attempts to make us homeless and jobless, to deny us education, to make us sick with GM food and poisonous air and polluted water, everyday I read and witness how many of us pull our creative, activist selves together in the most imaginative and tender and compassionate of ways.
But there is much that still divides our communities.
Yet now more than ever, we need to be pulling together…
to defend our planet, which is under constant threat
to be outraged en masse about the continuing violence against women worldwide
to protest the ongoing discrimination and hatred of LGBTQ people everywhere in the world
But taking on these challenges has to be a collective effort. And we can only be effective in any collective actions if we feel safe. Safety is essential for our daily survival.  Safe spaces allow us to flourish, celebrate, and work together to make a difference.  But recently, I have not felt entirely safe.
I can no longer assume that I will be safe within our loosely constituted queer communities. Why don’t I feel safe? I don’t feel safe because I am a femme.
I grew up in a fairly traditional immigrant Indian family where my mother nurtured my long hair lovingly from a very young age. I remember sitting between the folds of her beautifully patterned sari while she oiled my hair. It is one of my most treasured childhood memories.
It was not until I was older that I understood that having long black shiny hair was a sign of acceptable femininity within my culture– a femininity that made me a valued commodity with ‘good’ prospects for marriage, a femininity which was passive, demure, and controlled. It took until my early twenties to gather up my courage and cut my hair very short – a sacrilegious act.
And while it was an act of liberation, it also caused me immense sadness and loss. I was murdering the woman that I was supposed to be and it was a painful rupture, an agonizing rite of passage into an unknown future. This happened around the time that I came to feminism. And it was this encounter with feminism that led me to cut my hair, in a violent act of renunciation.
1980s second-wave feminism gave me a language to claim my agency as a self-defining woman. It helped me to understand capitalist/sexist/patriarchal power dynamics.  It was also a feminism that devalued femininity because of its association with repressive heterosexual sex roles.
My long painted nails and red lipstick were seen to be false ‘consciousness,’ a frivolous and unnecessary accessory, something that I was doing to please men.
Yes, we, all of us, are well aware of the multi-million dollar cosmetic industry which imposes its tyranny of what constitutes a beautiful woman on young girls and women psyches.
But while this immersion in feminism helped me to deconstruct oppressive, harmful corporate femininity, I never felt quite myself.  I always felt something was missing. Especially as a woman of color with a very different culture and history, I felt like an outsider.
Nor did the feminism I had embraced account for what gave me pleasure and what made me feel desirable nor who I desired. There was also no acknowledgment of my specific cultural or racial or class context except in the most patronizing of ways.
The disapproval of my outward signs of femininity was so evident that literally overnight I stopped my love affair with red lipstick and painted nails, with lacey, frilly tops. Instead, I donned the proverbial dungarees and Doc Marten boots.  I tried to become androgynous in order to fit in with what was seemingly acceptable to white, middle-class feminists while my own reality as a lesbian of color was buried deep.  Needless to say, I wasn’t particularly successful at performing a soft butch androgyny. On me it was bland and boring.  Androgyny and butch was what I desired, not what I wanted to be.
In coming to my queer femme identity, I felt an immense sense of coming home to myself. No, it wasn’t just the superficial red color on my lips.  It was about feeling safe to play with my gender expression in ways that gave me pleasure. It was about being able to name my femme identity without excluding my queer and feminist selves.  And it was also about understanding that my femininity could be transgressive and have the power to subvert oppressive patriarchal dynamics and undermine traditional gender expectations.
Femme is a wide-open umbrella embracing endless incarnations of gender expression and identity.  And over the years I have seen the incredible ways in which femme is a radical expression of our queerness.  But that one orgasmic moment of empowering realization was built on a journey of many years.
Feminist Mentors
From the day we landed in the UK as refugees we experienced racism daily. As a child of immigrant parents I grew up knowing what racism was. My politicization began early and fast. It had to. It was crucial to my survival.
I have been part of many different movements for social justice as a feminist and as an anti-racist queer activist.  It has not always been easy to cross social and political borders into unwelcoming and/or hostile terrains. Often, I felt pulled in opposing and different directions. I felt fragmented.
The turning point for me came with the arrival and presence of mentors in my life. As a femme-feminist, I learned how to love and cherish the whole of me from my encounters with significant women writers and activists – namely Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Alice Walker.
These women helped shape my feminist consciousness as a lesbian woman of color. They gave me strength and enabled me to pull together the many conflicting, confused pieces of myself. I met them through their words before I met them in person.
I have been fortunate to meet and engage in memorable conversations with each one of these feminist godmothers. Their writings, and the examples of their lives, inspired and empowered my thinking and affirmed my emotional landscape at difficult critical times in my political formation. They reached deeply and profoundly into me. And their legacies remain alive in me, as they do in so many others.
I hope that sharing with you what I learned from them will in turn extend their reach to all of you.
What they had to say in the 1970s and 1980s is as important today as it was then.
Because all of their words and lives were and are…
about revolution and change,
about how we learn from each other by working with each other even when its’ uncomfortable and shakes our very foundations,
about the fluidity of identity
about the difficulties of talking about differences, yet the necessity to do so
about the emotional vulnerability of our shifting selves, and how we can creatively embrace our lives.
What they say about the importance and need for community is hugely relevant to all of us involved in femme, feminist, queer activism today.
One woman who knew about creating profound change was the visionary poet, essayist, novelist, and lesbian warrior Audre Lorde.  Audre knew how to pull the different pieces of herself together in a way that was truly powerful and visionary.
It was as a result of my work at Sheba, a women of color led feminist publishing collective, that I first met Audre.  She was a crucial part of a movement of women of color who changed the meaning of feminism and helped us to make it our own. Audre’s very body carried the battles of women of color inside her.
Audre continually named herself – Black, lesbian, mother, female, cancer survivor, poet.  She showed us that by naming ourselves we were not fragmenting our communities but instead enlarging them.
She said:  “When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining”.
Audre gave many of us the confidence to dream ourselves into self-defined identities.  She inhabited her lesbianism as a natural state of being with much joy and laughter, and this in turn moved and inspired me in owning my own sexuality – despite the threat of isolation from my family, my culture, my community.
From Audre we learn that to name ourselves is to empower ourselves.
From Audre we learn that the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.  That we have to find our own tools to free ourselves, and she showed us how “infinitely complex any movement for liberation must be.”
Audre pulled her multiple identities together with pride by celebrating and owning herself as a whole person, an integrated person. Audre threw light on a different kind of “community,” understanding that if we don’t have a valued relationship with ourselves, we won’t have meaningful relationships with others. Audre was not afraid to “name and accept differences.” She showed us that understanding, accepting, and embracing difference and using it to change the world was the only way forward.
In a crisis-ridden world that continues to re-create itself through the lens of pale, hetero-sexist males, we need to shift the dominant paradigm by working with each other as femmes across our differences, mindful of what each of us can do to shift the axis of privilege we may inhabit.
And this is why this conference is important.
I think Audre would have been excited by this conference. Just like I am. When I looked at the conference schedule, I was blown away to see the incredible ways in which we as a femme community are at the forefront of using our identities to explore art, poetry, radical performance, and above all how we are not afraid of having difficult dialogues that lead us towards clarity and strength: Towards building a nurturing, supportive, more inclusive movement.
Poets are shamans who have inspired my activism.  Crafting seemingly simple lines of resistance, they give nuanced and critical responses to the intersections of race, class, sex/gender, sexuality, and cultures.
Sometimes all we can feel is rage. Too often many of us suppress our rage and feel helpless and overwhelmed with what we see happening around us. I think we need to bring rage back into our political discourse and into our practice.
How do we as femmes use rage as a creative force for change, to empower ourselves and others?  June Jordan, a people’s poet/activist, can teach us plenty about rage and its power to propel change.  She took as her starting point her personal experience of being a black, bi-sexual woman in a society that looked on women of color with indifference, if not with outright hostility.
I am honored to have been her friend for the last twelve years of her life. June was a self-avowed anarchist activist whose poems and essays were deeply personal yet always global, sharply political yet full of love and tenderness.
From June we can also learn much about self love and self respect.
June insisted that survivors of sexual violence must resist the temptation to internalize the blame for the violent act; instead, they must put it squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators.  Seeing and hearing June Jordan is crucial to appreciating and understanding the power of her life-changing, life-enhancing poetry.
So I am thrilled to bring the gift of June’s voice. [Here, Pratibha Parmar screened her four-minute video of June Jordan performing “A Poem About My Rights.”)
The footage of June performing the poem was shot when I made a documentary film with her and Angela Davis called “A Place of Rage” back in the early 1990s. I think there is much here for us to learn from June Jordan’s rage that rings through her pain and sears our minds and emotions. Her insistence on the equal status of all oppressions forces us to make the necessary links between our own specific subjective experiences to questions of power, freedom, justice, and responsibility.
It also makes me think about safety, our physical and emotional safety as femmes. If we are to be effective activists and change agents, we need to feel safe especially inside our loosely formed queer communities.
Lately, I have been deeply disturbed.
I am disturbed by my own as well as other femme’s increasingly negative experiences in queer spaces. I am disturbed at the privileging of masculinities and the marginalizing of femmes.
I am disturbed to see an emergence of hierarchy of who is more queer than who, who is more deviant and outside of the ‘norm’ and therefore more radical or subversive.
And I am deeply disturbed by misogyny.  Yes, we all know about the rampant hetero-sexist misogyny that continues to impact our lives and the lives of women the world over.
It’s the kind of misogyny that makes women in Beverly Hills pay massive amounts of money to have incredibly painful surgeries for designer vaginas
It’s the kind of misogyny that is responsible for thousands of 8-year old girls being trafficked in South East Asia
Or four month old baby girls genitally mutilated in the back streets of London
Or thousands of women being raped in Congo
Or the endless Republican attacks on a woman’s right to choose here in the U.S.
As much as I continue to be enraged by this pervasive, never-ending misogyny, I am actually far more disturbed by strains of misogyny that are creeping into our queer communities, a misogyny that is insidious, unquestioning, and degrading of femmes.
Hetero-patriarchy sees femininity as subordinate and subservient.  We know that because when we are out there in the streets, we are constantly negotiating our safety.  Sometimes ‘passing’ as straight we come under the scrutiny and harassment of hetero males.  And so we consciously engage in challenging heterosexist assumptions by queering our femme in many combative and imaginative ways.
All of us who have travelled great distances to be here with each other know what it is to vehemently confound and challenge patriarchal expectations of femmes, often at a danger to our selves.
After all, we are queer femme/resistance fighters and categorically not femme-traitors.

—Pratibha Parmar

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