I found that in our darkest rooms, there were things which had been left for a long, long time. They became mountains which we were afraid to move for what might lie beneath them. They became forgotten. They became places which we needed hands to hold to enter into, and we could not reach each other.
To speak, to write, to tell my stories. And there have been times when this has not felt like enough. But we have learnt, through feminism, through queer theory, through all of our ongoing fights for liberations of our peoples, that the personal is political. Because we cannot be what we cannot see. The place where you wonder if you are ok, if there are any others like you; this is a quiet place. And the silence is a numbed limb.
One of my monikers has been Scheherezade. She’s the woman from The Arabian Nights, who kept herself alive by telling stories, always finishing right before dawn, so that her murderous potential husband was compelled to keep her alive for one more night, to hear the end of the story. It’s a story with a lot of control, manipulation, like most of our fairy tales. But for me, it’s important, because it is stories which have kept me alive. Jeannette Winterson writes in The Passion, “Trust me, I’m telling you stories”. We get given the wrong stories sometimes, too narrow, too small. Sometimes the stories don’t have anyone we recognise in them. Sometimes they’re just not brave enough.
I want to make the world bigger, not smaller. I want to make more things possible, to open and open.
The world we live in is all narratives, and it’s the dominant ones which keep us quiet, tell us our stories are odd, marginal, unimportant. But they are all we have. And they belong to us. And they are all true. And how do we take care of our stories? Stories love to be told, and they love to be listened to. And sometimes, when they’re finding their feet, their language, they need to be listened to by people who just want to hear them, however ragged they are. And sometimes, often, our stories take time, because they need entirely new languages to be able to speak. Because the dominant language didn’t invent words yet for our sexuality, our genders, our dreams. This means that sometimes they are hard to understand, because they don’t walk in a straight line. How could a queer story walk in a straight line?
And sometimes they take time, because they are hard to tell. I’m learning Te reo Maori right now, and it’s hard. He said to me “Keep going, there are many in us, and they don’t all want us to learn, they are not all with us. Keep going, it’s yours if you love it”
And often, our stories take enormous courage. Because we are ashamed, afraid, unused to hearing our own voices. I am already ashamed of everything I have not said, of the struggles I have had to ‘just be myself’, of the time it has taken me to know who I am and speak that out. I berate myself – how can it have taken me 36 years? How did I not know better, faster? And sometimes, I remember; because I had to invent a whole new language. Because I had to try out story after story. Because I had to find a tribe, an identity, a whakapapa. Because I had to learn to make myself visible.
This is the only way I know how to be revolutionary. To tell my stories, in all their ragged, open, glittery, difficult glory. To place them on shaky legs and say darling, I believe in you, you can walk. To write them in secret and begin to tell them in public, and trust that you will want to listen. That there is someone there who is just hoping that these words might open the world a little wider, so they get to breathe themselves, walk themselves home.
And when you tell me with shining eyes, when I see through you your little child who got told today yes there is nothing wrong with you, when you give me glass stoppers and say these are for you, to remind you to never hold in your words, I know, this is the right story. This is the revolution.
I was asked to be a part of a panel called ‘Femme Velocity’ at CIty Gallery, Wellington, on Saturday 6th April 2013. I was so excited, because I thought I was being asked to speak on a queer panel exploring femme identity. I quickly realised this was not the case, that ‘femme’ was being used in another way. Below is my speech… queer revolution with love and compassion
I am Sian Torrington, a proud, out queer femme artist pirate. I usually love talking about my art, but today, I need to talk about Femme. Femme is a gender identity, and a sexual identity, and it’s my identity. It’s not just a cool word. Words are important. We live in a colonised country, and we know the importance of words. We know about what it means to take something from another culture without asking what it means or finding out its whakapapa. It’s called appropriation.
I am proud to be standing under the term Femme today.
Aych, a femme, boi identified fag, wrote;
“Femme is a word fought for.
Femme is a politic.”
It’s not just a cool word. It’s contested, fought for territory, and this is my fight for its visibility. Because if there’s one thing femme is really over, it’s being invisible.
This is a femme slam.
Disinterested in- easy answers / ordinary language.
Passionate about – abstract, visceral, embodied, brave, vulnerable attempts to describe being here. Femme pride and visibility, unapologetic queer revolution, with love and compassion
Acknowledge – everything I do comes from my own experience
Hope – if I do my very bravest best, then it also makes space for yours.
Note – All identities in this talk are self identified
Femme is process, Femme is there’s no way over, only through. Femme is ask, don’t tell. And, ask nicely.
This is my love poem to femme, which has set me free.
And it’s my love poem to Butch, boi, trans, genderqueer wonderful beings, who found me.
But first, some others words, because this isn’t just about me…
“FEMME SHARKS WILL RECLAIM THE POWER AND DIGNITY OF FEMALENESS BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. WE’RE GIRLS BLOWN UP, TURNED INSIDE OUT, AND REMIXED……
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, from “FEMME SHARK MANIFESTO” pp287-288
“Me, Simone, and Dot” Chandra Mayor, pp 161-162
“Femme is costume and play…Femme is deeply loving those delicious butches… Femme is a political stance against the patriarchal strictures of society, a reclamation of “slut” and “whore” and “bitch,” and a you-can’t-shut-me-up fuck-you attitude….. Femme is the deepest part of me, the softest and the fiercest, all at once…..We’re not supposed to flaunt our vulnerabilities as fully self-possessed tools or weapons, without shame. …But I do have a name, a history, a community….Like it or not, I was born a femme. With every fuck-up, I figure it out a little more.”
Elizabeth Marston, a self identified ‘permaqueer trannydyke’, writes
“Let’s say that femme is 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….cis-female lesbians….in the fifties…..contemporary femme dykes…..queens and trannies… femme gay men….
What these groups share, …is the illegitimacy of their femininity. That’s how I understand femme: badass, rogue, illegitimate femininity. … Femme is a move from dispossession to self-possession. We’re not allowed to be real, so we’ve figured out something else to be, something new – and that something is femme.”
Elizabeth Marston, “Rogue Femininity” P205 – 7
And this, from me
You say noone can read you and I think I AM TRYING
my hip says I don’t trust you
you say YOU WANT TOO MUCH and I say I AM TIRED OF PRETENDING I DON’T WANT ANYTHING
I thought, I can’t possibly be a lesbian, cos the beings I relate to are those divine drag queens.
Peacock, queen, proud, hard headed, tutu, goddess, darling, sugar blossom, princess, baby, witch, bitch, slut, loveliness, the girl who shines with smarts, hards, softs, pirate, proud glitter crazed hot haired high homo
I submit. I admit. I say please, Dance with me
Butch Boi . “ya all the women I’ve had encounters with have been pretty damn femme..they’ve all had struggles with expressing their femininity, because the world shames women about every fuckin thing, being prude is bad, being a slut is bad, being proud is bad, being overly modest is frumpy and unsexy like nerdy, not slutty nerdy which is better but its still slutty so its bad, and being uncool is bad just like being too smart is bad and dangerous, and dangerous is only good when its sexy and yep then its slutty so its still bad, but not as bad as fully owning it dangerous demanding respect because then you’re a bitch… and its just like FUCKINGODDAMNEVERYTHING – when you’re up against all that since birth, a violent society, a systematic asphyxiation, how’s a girl still wanna show her nice side, her compassion, her let you in, her show it off?”
Soft is stronger than hard
I can’t be reasonable. It’s just too limited.
My washing lines my room while I grasp for words and bravery to reach
to be fearless
I invited you because I didn’t want anyone to be alone. However it is, we should be able to be close to one another. When it is awkward, when we hold, when it is hard, when there is not light, when the glitter has run down the drain, when your body remembers, when my body remembers and dreams the shame you poured me let it be different. Let us be brave, let us be here.
“You have so much swagger”
I have been called many things in my life. And then lately someone called me a peacock. They made me screech and perform on a street corner, dancing on kerbs and feeling my spin stretch and lift sky proud, shimmering feathers, showing off.
Their butch found my femme, and there was joy and terror in it. Terrified of revealing, showing, wearing skirts which have always felt absolutely like sex to me. Of not being queer enough, political enough. If I care so much about expression and beauty and process and art and I don’t know the right words for anything, but I want to, is that enough? And if I can’t walk in high heels or write as well as I want, is that enough?
And if what I want to do when they tell you ugly things in your ear and threaten you and block my path is smother them with colour is this enough? And if when they make me fear to walk my own town without a big black coat if all I want to do is make an army of glittery dripping soldiers who flood bigness and love and wash the streets with shiny paths is this resistance enough?
We are in this together
Your one abandoned movement has opened a new room in me.
It is filled with treasure.
I got lost in Galerie Lafayette. I was at the perfume counter and everything was gold and sweet and pink. My ancestors sailed and fought and fell out for generations over gold. I waited there, waited for my ‘real parents’ to come pick me up. The ones who are millionaires. The ones who will buy me all of these gold things.
She says, sitting here, on this sofa, beside my daughter, I have to tell you, you have no idea what it is like to be a woman in this world.
I will always use everything I have to defend you. I have your back and I will put my body before them.
Write to him / Butch Femme
What have I not told you? I have not told you this.
That I would fight bare knuckle to be loved my whole life by bois like you
to find these places which are always being found, and always being lost and trying to speak
I would blood my elbows to get into here, to get the hands like yours all the way until I catch my breath and
I have not told you that this trying lusting experiment this reaching for more this balancing on faith is all there is
and all I want there to be and for all I look for nets when my head swims and loses its ground those nets are also made by us, by our kind, by all of our kind. There is kindness in queer.
I have not told you because the tide moves so fast and I am searching for words and moved before I can say hey
that was important.
I have not told you that yes we love in different ways and we love different things, but when we love each other, it is the right thing.
I have not told you that every sequin every shine that reflects us both every fierce every high heel every telling every showing every caring it is for me, and it is for you, because YOU SEE ME.
And that I defend this kingdom of mine tooth and nail and fight and beg and kneel before it and water it knead it rise it raise it hide it shelter it because I know what home is worth. Because I know the last ten years have recovered the former through digging in fits and starts what has been covered with a slow accretion of body saying YOU ARE NOT LISTENING.
What have I not told you? And what I cannot tell you in words I make in charcoal I slide against the wall with black in both my hands it is still and flat then soft and curved I can’t hold and fall with one long pencil line to the floor my knees raise me not because I want to but because I have to reach I feel your hands. This is where the pink goes later, flooding down one side and cracking open the black hood I hid in with eyes closed and forearms flat against the wall allowing, remembering.
All quotes are from essays in ‘Persistence, All ways Butch and Femme’, Pub Arsenel Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2011
With grateful thanks to all who made it possible for me to speak with honesty, bravery and integrity. You know who you are… big glittery femme love to you X
Also huge thanks to Mareika from http://this-is-hard-femme.tumblr.com/ and Lexi from http://femmeasfuck.tumblr.com/ and Phlossy Roxx http://www.missphloss.com for giving me permission to show your wonderful, inspiring femme blogs.
A special thanks to Kabel Manga, for being up there with me.
And to that Butch Boi, for all the adventures X