Sublimefemme Tells All, No. 2

There’s no such thing as heels that are too high. They’re called “sit-and-look-pretty-shoes.”

Is Sarah Palin Ready for Her Close-Up?

“Former Beauty Queen, Future VP?”

That’s the title of today’s article at The Huffington Post about the former city councilwoman, small-town mayor, and current Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin, who is McCain’s pick as VP. A wide range of people seem to be surprised and fascinated by the fact that, back in the day, Palin was a beauty queen and a runner-up for the title of Miss Alaska in 1984.

Let me make my position clear. I most assuredly do not think that Governor Palin is ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, and I’m no fan of her policies and positions on major issues including reproductive choice (she’s a “pro-life” feminist), conservation of the environment and wildlife, gay rights, and the war in Iraq. Clearly, on these issues and others, her positions align her with the conservativism of President Bush and her running mate, Senator John McCain. Even if I were not an Obama supporter (which I am), I wouldn’t even dream of going near that ticket on election day! [Wondering what pro-life feminism is? Check out Ruth Rosen’s excellent article on AlterNet.]

Despite my objections to Palin, the reaction to her from some quarters strikes me as unfair and/or inappropriate. Some bloggers are writing about how “hot” or “smoking” Palin is–objectifying her sexually in shockingly disrespectul ways. Others–including some femininsts–are making snarky comments about the fact that she was a beauty queen, as though this fact in and of itself illustrates why she could not possibly be a good running mate or possible Commander-in-Chief.

Which brings me to main point of this post, which is much bigger than this debate about Palin. As a feminist and a self-identified femme, I’m tired of the ancient cultural stereotype that brains and beauty are mutually exclusive catagories in women. It creates double binds for women which I would like to see femininsts interrogate, not reinforce.

Sublimefemme Tells All, No. 1

No matter how late you are, always take time to put on your lipstick.

girl applying lipstick

Love Letter to a Femme in Need

Just a minute ago, my partner sat down on the couch and–seeing my ubiquitous laptop–asked, “Working on your blog?” “No,” I said, “I’m responding to a femme in need.”

I want to offer love and comfort to a femme in tears who’s afraid she’s “doing femme all wrong.” I don’t know her, but I feel like I do, because I understand her pain and confusion. I’m so deeply moved by her story, because her struggle is not only about how difficult it can be to feel at home in one’s gender, but also about the pressure all of us feel to live up to some ideal of what “femme” is. (Of course, this is true for other genders too.)

Am I really a femme if I don’t know how to send the secret femme signals? If I don’t know how to walk, or act, or flirt like a femme, even when I’m dolled up? If I don’t act “classically femme” with a butch? No matter who we are, I think we’ve all had that moment in life when we’ve felt like we were not “the real deal.” You see a world of dykes, butches, femmes or ______ (fill in the blank) who seem to know instinctively how to make all the “right” moves, and you’re heartbroken because you have no idea how to become one of those people.

Arriving at my own femme identity has taken me many, many years. In fact, it’s only been fairly recently that I have given myself permission to claim “high femme” for myself. I remember the first time someone called me high femme; she was a student of mine (a very adorable butch who went on to become a cop–so sexy!). I was flattered, but shocked. I thought, sure I’m feminine, nails, heels, makeup, whatever, but I’m not really femme enough to be “high femme.” It’s funny because that was my first year as a professor and I lectured in a black leather miniskirt and high-heeled leather boots, I kid you not! But back then I imagined “high femme” as some Promised Land of uber femininity where my nails would never chip and, if someone rang the doorbell unannounced, I’d always answer the door looking flawless. (A note to all who wish to befriend this particular femme–call first!)

So let me say this to you, Femme in Need. I could not send femme signals on the train going to work in men’s shorts and Birkenstocks, either! Like trans or genderqueer people, we femmes often cannot communicate the complexity of our gender identities to strangers passing by or in brief everyday interactions. (I’m not saying that femmes’ experiences are the same as those of transgendered people–I’m just highlighting this point of intersection.)

And please believe me, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to be femme. Embracing an identity like femme can be extremely empowering, but identities are invariably a form of constraint as well. I think we have to recognize and negotiate those constraints, to carve out our own definitions of femme that are fluid enough to accommodate our differences and complexities.

The truth is, we’re all femmes in need.

Much love to you.

No, I’m not a lipstick lesbian (I just look like one)

Yes, I adore lipstick and never met a MAC lipglass I didn’t like, but please, don’t call me a lipstick lesbian! I’m a femme.

What’s the difference, my pretty? Is there one? Clearly, it depends who you ask.

Here are my definitions of these terms, which are based on my own experience and how I have observed others using them. Obviously, much more could be (and has been) written about these categories–their subtleties, changes over time, regional differences, etc. What I’ve written is not intended as the last word! Please share your own thoughts on what these terms mean to you and how you use them (or don’t use them). Feel free to add/suggest other words you think should be on this list.

A Very Short Glossary of Queer Femininities

Lipstick lesbian—Media term used to describe feminine lesbians during the heyday of “lesbian chic” in the 90s. Some lesbian/bi/queer women have adopted the term, making it a part of gay/lesbian culture. Usually refers to stylish, feminine lesbians who are attracted to others who look like them. Separate from butch/femme dynamics. Sometimes emphasizes more naturalized notions of gender (e.g. “I like women to be women.”)

Femme—Lesbian gender marked by feminine gender expression or identity. Not dependent on dress or other external signifiers (E.g. you can wear a tuxedo and still be a femme.) May or may not be a “bottom” or a “top” in a sexual situation; may or may not partner with butches. For some, a form of queer gender performance. Spans from “high femme” to more androgynous forms of gender expression, such as tomboy/sporty femmes.

High Femme*— Typically, a highly stylized form of femme identification (e.g. ultra femininity) performed in the context of butch/femme cultures and dynamics. May or may or may not wear dresses, heels, and/or makeup. No particular personality traits. May be passive and demure or confident, independent, strong, etc. Not necessarily a “pillow queen,” and not equivalent to lipstick lesbian.

*Note:  For my revision of this definition, see “Rethinking High Femme, Part 1.”  Still dying for more discussion of high femme?  Check out “Rethinking High Femme, Part 2” and “When Femme Fails (and Other Questions).” 

Femme Conference PSA

Please Forward and Repost-

Hello friends, partners, and allies of femmes and the queer community,

Over the weekend of August 15th, a portion of the national femme community met in Chicago, IL for the Femme2008 conference: The Architecture of Femme. This is the 2nd conference produced by The Femme Collective, a national collective committed to creating accessible and inclusive conferences by, about, and for femmes.

This year’s theme, The Architecture of Femme, sought to articulate femme and examine the cross sections of femme identities. In a moving address, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (activist and author of Consensual Genocide with work appearing in anthologies such as Colonize This! and We Don’t Need Another Wave), put forth that “being a femme is about making a new way of girlness that doesn’t hurt.” While keynote Julia Serano (spoken word artist, activist, and Author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity) called the crowd to action, claiming that “what we as feminists need to be challenging is compulsory femininity, not femininity itself.”

These conferences are a necessary part of building community and creating social change for the femme community, the larger LGBTQI community, and for women. This year was blessed with four keynote speakers (Dorothy Allison, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinhi, Julia Serano, and Veronica Combs) and three days of workshops, discussions, and presentations. This life-changing conference was the result of two years of work on behalf of the Femme Collective and countless other volunteers, as well as generous donations of both money and resources.

Unfortunately, by the end of this year’s conference the collective was still in debt $3,900. These costs are left to be covered by the conference organizers, who have personally invested their money into the conference. This debt is the result of unexpected costs in the host city, as well as an increase in travel costs. The collective maintains complete transparency around all of their organizing and you can view their financial records at

As community members and allies, it’s important that we support these conferences on a regular basis, and particularly at critical moments like these. I ask that you join me in donating $15 or more now to help reduce the debt from this year’s conference.

Additionally, I’m seeking allies and friends to join me in committing to a $10 a month donation toward the next conference in 2010.

Go to right now, and click on the “Donate” button (at the bottom of the page). Please join me in supporting this important part of our community.

Introducing Sublimefemme Unbound

A belated introduction to Sublimefemme Unbound, dear readers…

If you’re not interested in having your world rocked by a high femme queer theorist, who critiques politics and culture wearing a sheer black peignor and pink marabou stilettos, then this probably isn’t your kind of site.  If you do not worship at the feet of disarmingly smart and exuberantly sensual femmes, what can I say?  Your loss! 

I am shameless in my love for debonair butches, unconventional thinking, pleasure, serendipitous discoveries, contradictions, beauty, and extravagance of all kinds.  I take as my inspiration  Oscar Wilde’s ebullient dictum that “we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things with sincere and studied triviality.”  I have little patience for self-righteous moral and political correctness, so if that’s your thing, be prepared to loose your innocence. 

Sublimefemme is too busy being amazing (or doing her nails) to expend energy on the impolite or the unappreciative.

A lesbian looks like…Lindsay Lohan?

Is she or isn’t she?  That’s what The Advocate and everyone else is asking about Lindsay Lohan.  “Celeb mags are all agog,” Nicholas Fonseca writes in the Sept 9 issue.  “Lindsay is either lesbian, bisexual, or just another straight girl engaged in an elaborate–albeit genuis–publicity stunt.  But, really, what difference does it make?”

Genuis?  Really? Even Fonseca himself doesn’t really believe this, judging from his own comments on the restrained (even ho-hum) reaction of most major media to Lohan’s very public relationship with DJ Samantha Ronson.   The world-weary tone of the article belies its investment in categorizing Lindsay and, even more, pathologizing her for refusing to confirm or deny that she and Sam are lovers.  On its cover, The Advocate disses Lohan with the teaser “Lindsay Lohan’s Identity Crisis.”  So much for the fluidity of sexuality.

Personally, I live my life by coming out promiscuously, so–despite the limitations of identity politics–I think coming out does make a difference. But the point I want to emphasize is what the buzz about Lohan tells us about the invisibility of queer femininity, and how we use stereotypes to decide what a lesbian looks like.  Tabloids write about “Lohan and her lesbian lover,” implying that the two are lovers but there’s only one “real” lesbian in the relationship and we know it’s Sam.

The article in The Advocate is a case in point.  It offers a plethora of evidence that there’s a romance between Lohan and Ronson, but then concludes by asking breathlessly, “could it be that Lindsay Lohan is a lesbian?”  Meaning, could this beautiful 22-year-old woman–who is considered by many to be one of the sexiest women in the world–actually be queer?!

Yes, as a matter of fact, it could be.

What does a lesbian look like?

I’ve always loved discovering that beautiful, glamorous women are queer because it’s such a delightful surprise.  I certainly think that femmes are “real” lesbians, but even I find that my gaydar is based on stereotypes most of the time.  In an effort to challenge these stereotypes, I offer up this iconic image of Greta Garbo, which asks (but does not answer) the question, “what does a lesbian look like?”  

In this photograph, Garbo’s face might be described as “a pool to swim in” (to borrow from the critic David Thompson).  Although part of me just wants to swoon over this sculptural face, what especially interests me is how it highlights some of the embodied contradictions of femme identity.  There is certainly something overly precious about this image–if we are to appreciate its aesthetic we must surrender to Garbo’s cool and androgynous eroticism, which is dependent upon being idealized, deified and mystified.   And yet, although she was called the Divine Garbo, her beauty is distinctly human in its fragility.  Her persona is so seductive and haunting because it is both fragile and strong, veiled and expressive, distant and intimate, masculine and feminine. 

These contradictions are what I love about Garbo.  Parker Tyler famously reminds us that “Garbo ‘got into drag’ whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck…bear the weight of her thrown back head…   How resplendent seems the art of acting!  It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not.” In short, Garbo performs queer femininity as drag, and in so doing calls into question what we thought we knew about the look (and act) of lesbian gender.