Notes on Femme and Fiction

I’m 15 and my girlfriend, my first girlfriend, is sitting before me on the floor wearing a tie. She can’t wear the tie at home. Her father is fanatically religious. We couldn’t do any of this at home, what we do here in this abandoned house that was built almost all the way to completion and then left raw on the inside. We’ve never seen anyone come in or out. The grass is as tall as a child. We slide in through an unlatched window around back. Inside, it’s all unfinished wood and dangling wires. Some disconnected appliances sit in the center of the kitchen, veiled in plastic sheets. We’ve been escaping here for months. Sometimes I just walk around the place, running my fingers along all the dusty surfaces, and imagine that it belongs to us. It does, I think, belong to us in some small way. When we dance or kiss or fuck or fight here, where does it go? The energy from our bodies, our voices, the showers of sparks that erupt when our skin touches, I can’t believe it all simply evaporates. I’m standing before my girlfriend in what would be the living room of this house. We should be at school but it’s too beautiful of a day. Sun pours in through the windows, falls in gentle beams across my bare thighs and chest. I have on black lace underwear that make me feel 25, blonde hair that hangs down my back. My clothes are on the floor somewhere. My legs are a mile long. She’s looking up at me with this expression I’ve never seen before, a kind of recognition met with vicious desire. I understand there’s nothing in the world she wouldn’t do for me in this moment. It’s the recognition that catches my breath, though. Before now, it seemed that wanting a girl so openly was the exclusive territory of men. When they looked at me that way I saw something base and primal, like meeting the eyes of a crocodile. Men didn’t really see me. Even though I may have been the object of their gaze, I was not truly part of the equation. But now here’s this girl in front of me who binds her chest and never wears makeup and knows about fixing cars, and she sees me as gay, as a femme, as something she is not simply entitled to grab, as much as she might want to. In what other moment have I felt so much power?

Cover of the book Stone Butch Blues by Leslie FeinbergA few days before this, my girlfriend gave me a book. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. I don’t know the words for the way my heart exploded when I took it home with me and read it for the first time, devoured it really, staying up the whole night, my mouth open in disbelief. I’d never seen myself or the kind of people I knew I loved on a page before. Feinberg wrote women characters who were strong and complete because of, not in spite of, their high heels and lipstick. And they were dykes. That was the whole point. And of course, here was a protagonist I felt like I already knew, one who reminded me of every person that had ever made my knees weak. After finishing it, I found myself wondering how many people had never known a life without this experience of seeing themselves in the books they loved. If I were straight, how much more would I know about my own history? Would I feel happier, more self-assured, if I could look to the works of authors that mattered to me, that mattered to the world, and find my own people reflected back? Or would I simply be so accustomed to seeing my story played out everywhere that I wouldn’t notice how valuable it was? Before reading Feinberg’s work I had the feeling of having to figure out, with no roadmap whatsoever, who I could be and what my life could look like. Of course I don’t pretend anyone gets a guidebook to life that makes self-realization easy, but I believe that young queer people must navigate their own becoming with a unique lack of examples and ideals to look toward. So often we are forced to choose our own families, find one another in the dark through subtle cues and signals. Not only were there no adults in my actual life I could identify with, I had never seen a movie or a sitcom or read a book with any relationships that looked like one I had. Yes, there were lots of examples of feminine women in media and literature, but their boyfriends were given names like John at birth and didn’t wear their dick strapped on beneath their clothes all the time. How’s a baby femme supposed to relate? Then, like a miracle, here was this book. A real book you could simply walk into any chain store and buy, and it showed me that all the pain and joy and complexities of who I was and who I loved had existed for generations and generations before me. Here was our history. For as long as there’d been people, there’d been my girlfriend and I trying ourselves on in an abandoned house somewhere. It also provided a kind of external validation for the way we presented ourselves to the world. Any femme who’s dated butches will know what I’m describing here, people see who you’re out with and they say things like, why not just be with a man, then, if you like that? Sometimes within earshot to each other, sometimes right to your face. Sometimes, even, it’s someone you know and they pose it as a genuine question. And sometimes it is a genuine question, as rude and shortsighted as it may be. They truly feel confused about why, if I’m always with such masculine people, I couldn’t just be straight? Wouldn’t that be easier? Somewhere in that question, too, is the belief that femme presentation lies close to straightness, or at least the potential for it, and in that lies a deeper belief that feminine sexuality is up for emendation by others. At that age, I’d been led to think that it was something men would try, and eventually succeed, at taking from me. I was supposed to try to protect it, fend them off for as long as possible and then, at some point, let them have it, after which time my value would diminish almost completely. Girls were urged to avoid sex and pregnancy at absolutely any cost until, of course, the time we were married when we would be expected to give it up all the time and be happy to pop out like, fifteen babies. We were supposed to make sure men felt strong and in charge by letting them believe they were our protectors, pretending all the while that we weren’t already doing that for ourselves. Of course we’d always been the ones looking out for one another, how could they not see that?

We weren’t to dress in a way that invited danger or made us look cheap, but there was a fine line between that and looking too prudish. If something happened to us, a list of all we could have done to prevent it would shortly follow. It didn’t take long to learn that even queer relationships were not immune to these messages, so deeply enmeshed as they were in the collective conscious of my culture. I can recall being out on a date one time as a teenager; a middle-aged man approached me outside the restaurant, I ignored his advances, he became irate and called me a fucking slut. When I complained about this, visibly upset, to my date, she said, Well, why are you wearing such a low-cut top?

Feinberg’s writing sent an unmistakable message that a femme’s sexuality was her own. It illustrated High Femme as all the things I already knew it to be; as ritual, armor, a mode of self-preservation and survival, as an elemental and magical part of queer identity that could look a lot of different ways but was most certainly not, never had been, an imitation of anything straight women were doing. Stone Butch Blues didn’t shy away from depicting the misogyny internalized within the queer world, particularly the ways it can present so insidiously within a butch/femme dynamic, and how exhausting and painful it is to be invisible not only in the greater world but to your own people, too. Still, today, I draw strength from that first experience of seeing my gender and the genders of those I love marked so truthfully, and so beautifully, in literary history.

Eleven years later and I’m the only queer in this writing group. It’s something I occasionally feel aware of and other times not. I mean, we’re just here to talk about our work. We’re all writing novels, we all live in the same city, have similar taste in book and authors. A lot in common. But then someone uses the word homosexual in earnest and I’m like, oh. A lot of the pieces I share with the group have a woman narrator who’s in a relationship of some kind with a masculine, secondary character. Sometimes, this relationship is the crux of the story. Sometimes not. Writing these, I never thought of the relationships as being straight. I didn’t imagine all these fictional boyfriends or husbands or intriguing strangers as cisgender guys. Why would I? I was drawing from what I know, like many writers do. What I know are butches, bulldykes, transmasculine people, countless dinners where the server calls my date sir and then apologizes, mortified, and says ma’am and we’re like LOL no, you were right the first time. But it dawns on me that everyone in the group interprets these stories as being about straight people. One time, I correct them. Just to see. Oh, they say, we never would have guessed. Really, never? Walking home that night I ask myself, if identity isn’t explicitly the point of the story, then does it matter if readers get that it’s queer? As long as the other themes and ideas are still coming through? I understand that people naturally overlay their own lives and experiences onto the fiction they consume. Your context is your context. I’m just saying, why does one context in particular always get to be the standard?

As I work on my own novel, I ask myself how important it is to make the identity of the gay narrator a part of the story. Is there any responsibility for a marginalized writer to bring that experience to the forefronts of their work? Or is it so much a part of us, impossible to extricate from the self, that it will naturally float to the top, visible to those who need to see it? But what if it passes right over the heads of people who aren’t looking for it, who don’t get it? Does it matter if those people see it or not? It can feel like a bit of a tightrope. Sometimes I drift toward focusing on it less, giving more air to the other elements of the voice. I wonder a lot about all the different ways to tell it, which one is most true, most important. Then I remember the way it felt, years ago, to not know any books that spoke, unabashedly, to me.

I think of the teacher who asked me at thirteen what authors I was into, and squinted her eyes at my response before saying, Why don’t you read anything by men? Or the dean of my school who pulled me aside in an empty hallway one afternoon and told me that no one needed to know whether I was gay and that coming out was an unnecessary embarrassment. I think of the time a male writer in my community asked me, would you want to be known as a lesbian writer? And I paused, considering the question, feeling like they asked if I would like to be known as a human who has a central nervous system. I mean, I guess. How could I separate the two? Sure, I answered, Why not. The question asker scoffed, rolled their eyes, informed me that lesbian is such an outdated term. What about the times in workshops where I observed queer sex scenes being simultaneously gawked at, fetishized, and edited down for gratuitousness while similar scenes about straight people were barely discussed? Or once, at a restaurant with some writers, my twink friends referring to one another as “she”, and that one woman at the table who was getting so confused by it, who kept on asking throughout the meal “but why do you have to say she?”, a genuinely bewildered look on her face. Like, why is this such a big deal to you? Just eat your fucking rigatoni. All the weak, tired jokes about there being too many syllables in LGBTQ to keep track of when there are more syllables in the word heterosexual but there seems to be no confusion over that. Or all the selfless bastions of the English language who say that they’ll ‘respect someone’s pronouns but won’t say they, because it’s not grammatically correct.’ Thanks for being so vigilant, I’d love to follow these people around all day and blow an air horn in their ear every time they say or write something that goes against the rules of grammar. You know, since they care so much about following those. I think of all the times I’ve submitted a story to workshop where a woman character has obvious romantic tension with another woman and people say, I thought they were sisters! Or friends. Gal pals, as they say. Yet stories with a man and woman were met with suggestions like I think there’s something to flesh out there, what’s really going on between these two? All the times I’ve read a book and been excited to see a gay character but was disappointed to find that they serve no function in the work other than as a token and probably meet some end that is vague and uneventful at best but is more likely just tragic. All the bizarrely inaccurate lesbian sex in fiction, the exasperation of encountering more prose where women’s body parts are described through fruit analogies, all that cascading hair.

And then I remember what it meant to me to finally find a book that turned all of that on its head.

I return to Leslie Feinberg’s first novel once a year, usually in November around the time of their death. Still, after going back to the story so many times, I feel like I am discovering something. The thrill of connecting so deeply to a piece of writing. Getting to sink into a world that feels like home. I also get a feeling of profound sadness over the violence and fear depicted in those pages. It’s too familiar, and just like the joy of discovery never leaves me no matter how many times I read it, the pain never quite dulls, either. Mostly, though, I feel happy. Happy for the freedom to write, to fill my shelves with the books that I love, and the knowing that ones like this cannot be unwritten. These stories will always exist, we’ll always pass them on. Every year more are brought into the world for young people to find themselves in. And for that, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.


Author photo of Justine Champine, a woman with a blonde updo wearing a black sweater.Justine Champine is a New York City based writer and illustrator. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a founding staff member of No Tokens Journal. Her first series of illustrations, Some Girls, is forthcoming from Awst Press in 2018. She is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories, and is represented by Georges Borchardt, Inc.