An apology to femmes

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Dear Femmes,

I’m sorry.

Not because I’m politically significant like Urvashi Vaid or famous like Tig Notaro or a figurehead like Ellen DeGeneres. Not because my personal choices are fair game for a stranger’s analysis, nor because my responsibilities extend beyond living my life according to my truth as it reveals itself, but because I know what it’s like to be you.

For 15 years I dated women. Feminine, never slept with a man, I was the girl who evokes straight porn when she sucks your silicone cock, but you can trust she’s not secretly pining for the “real thing” because she doesn’t even know what she’s missing. Not every lesbian wants a femme, but after struggling to conform with my asymmetrically coiffed sisters, I thrilled to find women who greeted me with awe (albeit suspicion-tinged.) I was the plush, hot pink bear in the truck stop claw machine, the ultimate, impossible prize.

But what’s the Voltaire quote? “With great Tom Ford Beauty Lip Color in Cherry Lush comes great responsibility?” Something like that. “Living into your butchness with a femme puts part of your identity in her hands,” says an ex of mine. “You know that as well as I do,” she adds.

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She means that once her identity was in mine. This particular ex isn’t my most recent, but she’s someone I trust to craft into words those truths you sense but can never seem to codify. When it comes to butchness, on a scale of say, Beyonce to a monolithic Easter Island Head, she’s a labrys bedecked with delicate Celtic carvings. What I mean is, her hair is long but the set of her mouth makes you want to obey. All and all, she’s a trustworthy emissary from across the butch/femme divide.

You may notice neither of us is characterizing me as "bisexual." When she and I were together, I was the sum of my experiences–consecutive, longterm relationships with women. You can only be what you think you are, right? I was a femme and I understand the dynamic she describes. It’s real, but it’s also performative. You understand too. And you’re careful, aren’t you? To blossom in the warmth of her masculinity, reassure her it’s the contrast you covet; that seductive merger; female body, masculine air. To caress her strap-on like its part of her, without ever implying it’s a stand-in for something she lacks. To attend to where she’s coming from sexually, know instinctively whether drawing attention to her female anatomy will pull her out of the moment, or whether right then, that’s exactly what she needs.

These are responsibilities femmes gladly shoulder. But a femme identity carries with it other less gratifying byproducts. For minor example, the constant, offhand search for celebrity representation. Inevitably it uncovers only Portia de Rossi and women touting their bisexuality while safely married to men. Nothing personal, Portia, I just want more than one famous femme to point to. No disrespect, bisexual married celebrities. I’m pleased you own the full scope of your sexuality, but on the surface you look like just another bisexual who "ended up" with a man. Which is fine, but it’s also part of why I’m sorry. See, when you’re a femme you’re often understood as an off-duty bisexual or worse, a heterosexual chick lying in wait. In relationships, you’re held accountable for the actions of coy straight women—that roommate who cuddled between boyfriends, the co-worker who flirted until things went too far. Your femininity renders you suspect. Who knows what you might do?

The combined weight of how I look, the deficit of feminine, lesbian public figures, the actions of experimenting straight gals, never overwhelmed or dissuaded me. Still, I spent years telling my partners “just because everything I own is hot pink and I brake for unicorns, it doesn't mean I’m less sexually attracted to women than you are.” Offering assurances that my femininity didn’t automatically render them a pitstop on the highway to MEN. Certainly, I’m only speaking from my personal background, but for as many of you who are readying your typin’ fingers to tell me my experiences are the exception, not the rule, there are just as many others nodding, relieved to have your observations validated. Because like me, sometimes you feel alienated from your more masculine cohort, from girlfriends who’ve internalized the idea that masculine women are somehow lesser than men and rather than confront their own fear of inadequacy, they’ve transformed their insecurity into suspicion, and grounded its source in you. It’s exhausting to be forever presumed guilty of possible future transgressions. Especially given that they’ll be no opportunity for exoneration, because the future, by definition, never arrives.

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Except sometimes it does. Not the ultimate future, the one involving a pink casket and cake. (Yes, I’m serving cake at my funeral because if there’s anything the last year has taught me it’s that tears and cake taste great together. It’s that salty sweet thing.) No, I’m talking about the moment my girlfriends worried about: I became the stereotype I spent nearly two decades of my life railing against. What’s more, I wrote about it. In my small way, I’ve made it harder for femmes.

And also for butches, of course, but I’ll let Labrys Ex speak to that:

“There’s a total acceptance that can only be found in a butch/femme relationship.Being left for a man somehow calls into question that unconditional acceptance. It's othering, and it's highly uncomfortable in more than just a ‘getting left’ kind of way. When you’ve built part of your identity with a femme and there is a breaking of that, it's hard to get it back for yourself, because it wasn't created by yourself.”

“But I didn’t leave her for a man,” I told Labrys Ex. (Yes, I still seek advice from my exes. You can take the lesbian out of the…nevermind.)

“I’m not sure it matters,” she said. “Not to your fans.”

“I don’t have fans,” I said. “Unless you mean ceiling fans in which case I’ve got two and they’re covered with dust because another thing I suck at is homemaking.”

“People have formed opinions of you based on your writing. They may feel let down.”

“But why?” I asked, not because I disagreed.

“You’re living into the stereotype,” she told me. “And it’s going to affect them.”

“Fuck them,” is what I said, but I didn’t mean it. What I meant was, I can’t bear the idea of betraying a community simply because I write about myself and who I am has changed.

Hyperbolic, sure. Self-involved, maybe. Guilty Jew, people pleaser-thoughts, certainly. But maybe my personal choices actually are fair game for a stranger’s analysis. Like the reader who recently exhibited admirable attention to detail by slogging through my essays to argue that my past references to male celebrities meant I’d been bisexual all along. (Does anyone have her phone number, because that might be the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me? Seriously; fuck running through the streets of New York on New Year’s or brandishing a boombox outside a window. If my last girlfriend had shown even half that much interest in anything I’ve ever said, I’d still be on the couch next to her watching her smoke a bowl.)

To that reader, I was a bisexual bomb waiting years to detonate, someone in denial about her true self. Maybe she’s right. She and all the exs who didn’t trust me, the women at bars who questioned my authenticity; perhaps they instinctively knew more than I did about how I might fluctuate, who I might become. Or maybe she’s wrong and my recent leave-taking is merely a detour. Years from now we’ll all look back and chuckle wryly at my brief, heterosexual swerve.

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Still, I’m sorry. Because you don’t need me reinforcing a stereotype when you’re already busy assuaging her mistrust, backwards and in heels. “Don’t you worry baby,” you’re telling her, “I’ll never, ever leave you for a man.” You’re lying, of course, but only because the truth is, each of us is always leaving, in tiny, sometimes invisible ways. We’re leaving our lovers and our jobs and our families. Every day, we’re abandoning different versions of ourselves. Because we’re all just momentary explosions of experience, strung-together perceptions, fleeting images, and any essay, or relationship, however earnest which claims to capture our eternal self and offer it to another is essentially a lie.

Yours in salty cake and solidarity,

Sarah Terez Rosenblum

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